Mr. Anthony yanked off Ma's coat and stomped on it. Fire trucks rounded the corner, sirens blaring. Neighbors hurried out of their houses to cluster and stare.
Ma stank. The fire had sizzled her eyebrows and given her a sooty face. When she reached out to pull Thomas and me to her body, several loose photographs spilled to the ground. That's when I realized why she'd gone back into the house: to rescue her photo album from its keeping place in the bottom drawer of the china closet.
"It's all right now," she kept saying. "It's all right, it's all right." And, for Ma, it was all right. The house her father had built would be saved. Her twins were within arm's reach. Her picture album had been rescued. Just last week, I dreamt my mother--dead from breast cancer since 1987--was standing at the picture window at Joy's and my condominium, looking in at me and mouthing that long-ago promise. "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right."
Sometime during Ma's endless opening and closing of that overstuffed photo album she loved so much, the two brass pins that attached the front and back covers first bent, then broke, causing most of the book's black construction paper pages to loosen and detach. The book had been broken for years when, in October of 1986, Ma herself was opened and closed on a surgical table at Yale-New Haven Hospital. After several months' worth of feeling tired and run down and contending with a cold that never quite went away, she had fingered a lump in her left breast. "No bigger than a pencil eraser," she told me over the phone. "But Lena Anthony thinks I should go to the doctor, so I'm going."
My mother's breast was removed. A week later, she was told that the cancer had metastasized--spread to her bone and lymph nodes. With luck and aggressive treatment, the oncologist told her, she could probably live another six to nine months.
My stepfather, my brother, and I struggled independently with our feelings about Ma's illness and pain--her death sentence. Each of us fumbled, in our own way, to make things up to her. Thomas set to work in the arts and crafts room down at the state hospital's Settle Building. While Ma lay in the hospital being scanned and probed and plied with cancer-killing poisons, he spent hours assembling and gluing and shellacking something called a "hodgepodge collage"--a busy arrangement of nuts, washers, buttons, macaroni, and dried peas that declared: god = love! Between hospital stays, Ma hung it on the kitchen wall where its hundreds of glued doodads seemed to pulsate like something alive--an organism under a microscope, molecules bouncing around in a science movie. It unnerved me to look at that thing.
My stepfather decided he would fix, once and for all, Ma's broken scrapbook. He took the album from the china closet and brought it out to the garage. There he jerry-rigged a solution, reinforcing the broken binding with strips of custom-cut aluminum sheeting and small metal bolts. "She's all set now," Ray told me when he showed me the rebound book. He held it at arm's length and opened it face down to the floor, flapping the covers back and forth as if they were the wings of a captured duck.
My own project for my dying mother was the most costly and ambitious. I would remodel her pink 1950s-era kitchen, Sheetrocking the cracked plaster walls, replacing the creaky cabinets with modern units, and installing a center island with built-in oven and cooktop. I conceived the idea, I think, to show Ma that I loved her best of all. Or that I was the most grateful of the three of us for all she'd endured on our behalf. Or that I was the sorriest that fate had given her first a volatile husband and then a schizophrenic son and then tapped her on the shoulder and handed her the "big C." What I proved, instead, was that I was the deepest in denial. If I was going to go to the trouble and expense of giving her a new kitchen, then she'd better live long enough to appreciate it.
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