As a child, our son Timothy told his teachers he was adopted. During adolescence, he wailed in misery, certain that his best friends had moved away. By age twenty, Timothy’s grief sank into glum desolation, and he would lie on the bed all day, bemoaning an imaginary poverty. None of his therapists could free him from his flawed perception of loss.
Saying, “sign up or move out,” my husband Bill and I finally pushed him into enrolling at the community college, where he takes literature courses. Now in his early twenties, Timothy sits at home reading novels or staring into the tropical fish tanks.
One Friday afternoon when I came home from work, I found him eating a bowl of ramen noodles at the breakfast counter.
“How’s your day been?” I asked.
He pushed a paper toward me across the counter. The letter “A” and the word “Incredible!” were scrawled in red across the top.
“You won’t want to read it,” he said in a monotone. “It’s the same stuff about my family and friends who disappeared.”
I had stopped arguing with him years ago — stopped telling him in hysterical terms how we were his natural parents, that his memories were false, that he had not been robbed of a fortune and no one had abandoned him.
“Writing is a healthy outlet for you, Tim,” I said.
He gently cleared his throat. “I suppose.”
“I’d like to read it.”
He just shrugged his shoulders, slid off the stool, and put his empty bowl into the dishwasher.
“Your dad and I plan to see Grandma Ostenson tomorrow at the hospice center,” I said. “She won’t be around much longer. Will you come with us?”
“Grandma Ostenson? Why? I never visit her.”
“You won’t have another chance.”
“I mean, I don’t even know her.”
“My mother was troubled,” I said.
Tim blinked like he usually did before an emotional episode. “She’s barely aware. She’s going to die when we get there, anyway.”
“You’d be keeping us company.”
He looked at me with something like pity for a needy stranger. “Yeah, I would be.”
“Do you have plans for the weekend?”
He whisped air from his nose at my absurd question.
“Well,” I said, “I’m putting my feet up for a few minutes before I start supper. What would you like?”
“Nothing. But thanks.”
I took Timothy’s paper upstairs, thinking that I’d fall asleep during the second paragraph, but I didn’t. Instead, I moved to the window for better light. Ever since he was little, Tim had communicated his delusions, but never with such realism, and never with any rational perspective.
The prompt had been, “Your fountain of joy.” Tim had written about a wife and children, a career as a novelist, acclaim from intelligent readers, pleasure in research and storytelling, satisfaction in hard physical work, and purpose from sharing life with others.
But the ending of the essay… The last paragraph said, “Only recently have I realized that the memories exist merely in my head, fixed there forever, as if a malicious scientist planted them to torture me, which means they will never give joy, but will always burden me with the pain of separation. My hope is that someday the pain will subside.”
When we arrived at the hospice after an hour drive, Mom was propped up on pillows; her eyes were open and her breathing was labored. After a while, she said, “It’s nice to see you.”
I babbled on as if she understood every word. Between her cat-naps she appeared to enjoy our company, especially Timothy, who sat next to her. When I mentioned his paper, she said, “Read it to me, please. Read it all.”
“Sorry Mom, we didn’t — ” Bill said, but Timothy was pulling a copy from his pocket.
As Tim read, her mind seemed to open like an evening primrose and when he reached the end, she said, “I remember that story… I’ve seen it before.”
“What do you see, Grandma?” Tim said.
She fumbled and took his hand. “Timmy?”
“Dear child, it’s a gift. Those people and experiences you feel are gone — they’ve not come to you yet. Your memories aren’t memories. They’re visions of your future. I had the same condition.”
She nodded faintly. “Until I resigned myself to loss, real or not, I couldn’t be thankful for the present… for the people in my life. I prevented my joyful future. Accept your losses, baby, even self-inflicted ones. Give and receive love.”
She drifted into unconsciousness again and then stirred enough to say, “I wish I’d known you, I could have told you before. But, I’m glad… you came to visit.”
Timothy looked at his grandmother and blinked rapidly, her words working in him, maybe re-forming his life as we watched. He then gathered his father and me into his arms and cried unashamedly. We wept with him. At last when all this new grief was purged, we saw that my mom was gone, her breath stilled, her face serene.
We watched in silence until Bill said, “Tim, go tell them at the desk, okay?”
After Tim rinsed his face and left, I asked Bill, “What do you think about the family gift?”
He touched Mom’s hand and sighed. “I’m not sure. You don’t have it.”
I walked to the door. Down the hallway, Tim was leaning against the counter at the nurses’ station.
A minute later he returned, his face wearing an allusion to a smile. “They’ll be here soon,” he said. “No hurry.” Another silent moment passed until Timothy said, “What’s the name of the duty nurse? The young one. Brunette.”
“Margaret,” I said. “She’s vivacious, isn’t she?”
“She looks familiar.”
“She likes good literature, Tim,” my husband said.
Timothy blinked and said, his voice caught between a sob and a laugh, “Yeah, I know.”
Mickey Hunt says: “Some of what gives me joy: Memories of fishing with my dad during childhood, walking in Alaska wilderness, strawberries grown on our North Carolina land, wind, playing with grandchildren, Thanksgiving dinner with family all around, clouds, my wife and mother of our children, riding a bicycle in winter down the Blue Ridge Parkway , copperhead snakes, the smell of a beehive, sourwood honey and butter soaking into a homemade biscuit, The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams, mild earthquakes, meteor storms, contemplating the brilliant stars, a good story well told.”