Thirty minutes past his mother’s scheduled appointment time, Milovan looks to the clock, pleads with it, says a prayer. He sees that it tilts to the left so that the “1” sits where the “12” should be. Or maybe his perception is skewed — yet another side-effect. Legs twitchy, backside numb, he resists the urge to climb onto the floor-bolted chair below the clock and adjust it himself. Not that he has the energy. Plus, he can’t leave Mama; he’d confuse her. She’d cry out, make a scene, and the agency would deny her application. He replaces the straying edge of her shawl like the good son he’s become and takes her hand in his. Ne brini, Mama, he says, telling her not to worry, knowing she has no clue where they are, or why.
He continues scrutinizing the clock, holds his Seiko up to his left eye, the better eye, for comparison, and suspects that the second hand of the clock moves too slowly. That would explain why everything’s running behind, why the whole process seems off, why the immigration officers, clipboards in hand, vault from their quarantined cubicles, barking names, mangling pronunciations, irritated by the huddled masses claiming their American dream. Or maybe he should’ve hired a lawyer — the people with lawyers don’t seem to be waiting as long.
He breathes in, breathes out, reassures himself that the delay is not because he failed to complete Mama’s application. He included the letter, signed by the inappropriately gleeful doctor who, after barely examining Mama, verified that, indeed, multiple strokes had rendered her unable to remain oriented or hold a single, solitary thought in her mind for any discernable period. The agency granted his request for a medical waiver, so Mama won’t be required to take the English or civics exams. And he will vouch for her desire to become a citizen, for her willingness to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic”; though the notion of Mama, senile and wheelchair-bound, defending anything both amuses and alarms him.
He recites the oath of citizenship to himself like a mantra. He remembers sitting in this very room fifteen years ago, crammed between fellow foreigners, desperate to expel any doubt that what he would gain from this new life could redeem the past. His journey from Gospic to Zagreb to Vienna to Baltimore was interminable, the mundane details of it fading. He doesn’t know whether to be relieved or sad for what little remains of his former life — images snatched from washed-out photos marking the pages of unfinished books, littering the bottom of desk drawers. He doesn’t know whether to be relieved or sad that Mama remembers nothing. Not that they’d slipped past the telescopic eyes of tanks and cowered under raining mortar fragments, or that she’d kept him from joining their country’s war against itself. Not that he seized the opportunity to leave while she insisted on staying. Not that he could’ve sent for her a decade sooner but didn’t. Estrangement, misunderstanding, apathy — the reasons no longer matter.
The officers bark and mangle more names but not Mama’s. The second hand of the clock toils over every number, taunting him. It’s taken years to get Mama this far. An additional five minutes, ten minutes, twenty — that’s nothing. In America, time stretches in an indissoluble band, yet other Americans (the kind he admits he’s never been) think it can’t reach far enough.
But, now, time is dismissing him. He releases a cough he’s been stifling and runs his hand over the withered patches of his hair. It wasn’t supposed to happen in this order. He’d never smoked, not even once. Nadia, his occasional girlfriend, had convinced him to see a doctor after waking up next to his blood-soaked pillow. He’d clung to Nadia for a while and to the treatments longer until his muscles and organs were brittle replicas of themselves, no longer durable enough to sustain him or anyone else.
So, he has a plan.
He crosses and re-crosses his legs, breathes, sighs. Mama doesn’t react. Her face seldom registers anything but bemused contentment, if such an emotion exists. He considers asking how she’s doing, telling her, skoro vrijeme, Mama, not much longer, but she’s fixed her attention on a brochure she swiped from the rack near security. “Welcome to the United States,” it says, which she can’t read, but her fingers trace the letters and the shiny, smiley faces pictured, and she nods as if recognizing something worth celebrating.
He recites the plan to himself like a mantra. With citizenship, Mama will receive social security. The money he would’ve spent on more doctors and chemo will secure her a room at Cedar Haven, where the manager assures him she’ll be well-attended.
He wonders how long she has left, how long she will miss him, how long before she forgets him entirely.
He closes his eyes and pictures the two plots he’s reserved at the cemetery adjacent to the middle school where he taught history shortly after arriving in the United States. He sees the sloping landscape of headstones bearing mostly English and Irish surnames, some German, a few Polish, and takes childish pride in the fact that he’ll be the first Tadic to rest among the scattered oaks and azaleas. He’s comforted knowing his body will relax into the earth of his adopted homeland, commingle with the soil, minerals, and organisms, and be recomposed.
It wasn’t supposed to happen in this order, but it could’ve been worse. At least, that’s what he tells himself when Mama’s name is called, finally, and he rises from his seat, readjusts her shawl, and wheels her past the tilting clock and into the final stage of their migration.
Rachel Browning is an attorney, writer, and musician originally from Houston, Texas, and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and the University of Houston Law Center. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her wife and twin daughters.