Hours of Day­light

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - MAR­ION AGNEW

THIS IS THE STORY OF MY MOTHER’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

It’s Jan­uary of 1924, half­way be­tween my mother’s sixth and seventh birth­days. My grand­mother has been teach­ing both my mother and my un­cle at their home in Port Arthur, On­tario. She thinks Mom is ready for Grade 2, but the Grade 1 teacher re­quires con­vinc­ing.

The teacher says to Mom, “The Earth is round like an orange, slightly flat­tened at both ends. Can you say that back to me?” My mother replies, “The Earth is an oblate spher­oid.”

She is put into Grade 2. By the end of that year, she is in Grade 3 with her older brother.

This is a story of nights that are bro­ken in hard-to-un­der­stand ways.

More than sev­enty years later, in the fam­ily home in Ok­la­homa, I’m sound asleep when foot­steps and the creak of hard­wood floors pull me to­ward wake­ful­ness. I rec­og­nize the spe­cial squeak of the door to the hall­way bathroom, near my par­ents’ bed­room across the land­ing. Wa­ter mur­murs.

But I’m far away and drift­ing far­ther, drows­ing.

Then I hear Dad’s voice say­ing some­thing like “What?” and sud­denly I’m alert. I hold my watch in the orange shaft of light slant­ing in from the street­light. It’s 2:15. I strug­gle to ori­ent my­self. Right. I’m at my par­ents’ home, vis­it­ing.

Mom must be up. Why is she in the hall­way bathroom in­stead of the small bathroom off the mas­ter bed­room? Yes, the hall­way bathroom has a tub, and she prefers baths to show­ers, but it’s the mid­dle of the night. She can’t be tak­ing a bath…can she?

Dad’s voice is loud but I can’t dis­tin­guish his words through my closed bed­room door. Should I get up? To do what, ex­actly? I shiver.

The bathroom door opens, and now Dad’s words are bul­let-hard. “Come on. No, you are go­ing back to bed.”

Mom’s voice, muf­fled, rises in pitch.

Dad an­swers, “No. It’s night. Come. To. Bed.”

Mom mur­murs and I hear wa­ter drain­ing. Then shuf­fling—Mom’s slip­pered feet on the hard­wood of the hall­way—and Dad’s even, mea­sured steps. Si­lence when they en­ter their car­peted bed­room.

I lie back down, eyes wide. I should have ex­pected this. I’ve read about it—sun­down­ing, the ag­i­ta­tion and sleep prob­lems com­mon at Mom’s stage of Alzheimer’s. I just didn’t think it would be like this, though I don’t know what I’d en­vi­sioned. I feel as if I’m al­ways of­fk­il­ter. I can’t imag­ine how it feels to Mom.

Ear­lier that day, we’d met with my par­ents’ lawyer to as­sign pow­ers of at­tor­ney. I knew, and I sus­pect their at­tor­ney also knew, that Mom didn’t un­der­stand what she signed, but none of us ac­knowl­edged it. There wasn’t any­thing to say.

Mom had al­ways been so sure of her­self, an in­sti­ga­tor of struc­ture, rules and sched­ules. Al­though she com­plained of feel­ing awk­ward at par­ties, she en­joyed host­ing meet­ings re­lated to math­e­mat­ics and teach­ing, her great loves. Around our din­ing room ta­ble, she gath­ered her younger math depart­ment col­leagues to brain­storm ideas for grants. Each semester, she hosted a din­ner at which her un­der­grad­u­ate ap­plied math stu­dents met with math­e­ma­ti­cians who had jobs in in­dus­tries out­side academe, where they solved real-world prob­lems.

And Mom made peace with so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions. Ev­ery De­cem­ber, the United Methodist Women’s Christ­mas party was at our house. The din­ing room ta­ble, fully ex­tended, was also fully loaded. A punch­bowl stood at one end, a sil­ver tea and cof­fee ser­vice at the other, and the sur­face be­tween was paved with home­made sweets—mint brown­ies, tof­fee, choco­late-cov­ered cher­ries, divin­ity, fudge, orange/co­conut cook­ies, candy-cane cook­ies, spiced and sug­ared pecans.

But dur­ing that March visit, the days of Mom’s teach­ing and hostess­ing are years in the past. Pa­per has sifted into the house, and now the din­ing room ta­ble is piled with mail and mag­a­zines and cat­a­logues and pro­grams and church bul­letins. Dad gives me a long side­long glance when I move a few stacks to make room for my place at meal­time.

I’m the youngest of their five chil­dren, and only the three of us— Mom, Dad and me—were home to­gether dur­ing my high school years.

As a teenager, I was sullen, more with­drawn than overtly re­bel­lious. Af­ter I went away to col­lege, I be­came again their obe­di­ent daugh­ter. A pe­riod of soul-search­ing in my late twen­ties wor­ried them, but when I fin­ished grad­u­ate school and found work I en­joyed 800 miles away, we be­came com­fort­able to­gether again.

Still, in this house where I grew up, whose ev­ery shift and groan is fa­mil­iar to me, where my swim­ming tro­phies and mu­sic awards perch on the shelves, I can’t find my thirty-some­thing adult self. In the face of Mom’s ill­ness, I’m afraid. As my vi­brant mother dis­ap­pears, I strug­gle to find a way to help her. What can I do? What if I only make her dis­ease worse?

And how do I sup­port my fa­ther? He’s a book­ish his­to­rian and usu­ally a gen­tle man, but he’s al­ways had a tem­per. When we were young, he was im­pa­tient and cranky when asked to al­ter his rou­tines. But he and Mom never fought—in fact, they never dis­agreed in front of us. So, led by Mom, we all ad­justed to him.

When Mom’s ill­ness first ap­peared, she re­peated sto­ries and lost words. Now she’s also ag­i­tated and afraid in the late af­ter­noon, and she wakes up at night. Un­der­stand­ably, Dad’s show­ing the strain of car­ing for her. I’ve seen him an­gry more of­ten dur­ing this visit than I ever have be­fore.

“Help­ing Mom and Dad” feels pos­si­ble in the ab­stract, un­til I’m ac­tu­ally with them.

This is the story of length­en­ing days.

March in­cludes the equinox, the balanc­ing point when day and night are the same length. In Ok­la­homa that year, March 16th has eleven hours and fifty-nine min­utes of day­light; March 17th has twelve hours and two min­utes.

Day by day, the amount of day­light changes only grad­u­ally. Nev­er­the­less, these changes ac­cu­mu­late. Even­tu­ally, min­utes be­come hours.

On that visit to my par­ents, cro­cus and hy­acinth have awak­ened from win­ter and pushed through the soil to bloom. Jon­quils and the forsythia bush are bud­ding.

It feels par­tic­u­larly cruel to watch my mother’s life di­min­ish dur­ing the spring, when ev­ery­thing around us speaks to a prom­ise of new life.

When ev­ery­thing she is to me, ev­ery­thing and every­one she ever has been—they’re all slip­ping through my fin­gers.

I think, too, of all the ver­sions of me that she’ll never live to see.

This is a story of un­met ex­pec­ta­tions.

In the bed­room I used to share with my sis­ter, I find a manila file folder la­belled “Hours of Day­light.” The words, pen­cilled in my mother’s strong hand­writ­ing, are from a pre­vi­ous era. The folder, now empty, once held notes for one of the ap­plied math­e­mat­ics prob­lems she and her col­leagues col­lected.

But I don’t know what the math­e­mat­ics prob­lem ac­tu­ally was— which com­pany in which in­dus­try it came from, what they needed to know and why, what level of math­e­mat­ics the stu­dents used to de­fine and solve the prob­lem. I don’t re­mem­ber ask­ing. My par­ents’ lives were so of­ten simply wall­pa­per to mine.

Per­haps, out of po­lite­ness, I did ask, and Mom told me. I didn’t re­tain it. She wanted me to be a math­e­ma­ti­cian—as her youngest child, I was her last hope, she used to say—but she also thought the el­e­gance of math­e­mat­ics, its dif­fer­ent lan­guage that gives a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the world, would en­thrall me the way it had her.

But like my his­to­rian fa­ther, I’m a dreamer and reader. I liked math­e­mat­ics fine, but I didn’t in­herit my mother’s tenac­ity, her abil­ity to work at a knotty prob­lem past the point of ex­haus­tion to ar­rive at un­der­stand­ing. I never imag­ined a ca­reer in math­e­mat­ics—only in some field that let me read and write.

This is a story of fury and fu­ries.

The next night, Mom gets up three times to go the hall­way bathroom. Each time I hear her, I hold my breath un­til she shuf­fles back to the mas­ter bed­room. I won­der whether Dad wakes up, too.

At break­fast, we sit bleary-eyed over the stan­dard morn­ing meal—ce­real, toast and cof­fee, fol­lowed by a de­vo­tional read­ing. My fa­ther and I are never cheer­ful in the morn­ing, and my mother, who once loved morn­ing, seems un­usu­ally sub­dued. I de­cide to take Mom for a walk this af­ter­noon, af­ter church and lunch. Maybe that will help us all get some sleep.

Mom pushes her chair back from the ta­ble and stands up. She smooths her skirt and heads to­ward the stairs.

“Here, where are you go­ing?” Dad snaps. “We haven’t read the Up­per Room yet. Get back here.”

I cringe in my chair, croak­ing out, “Hey.”

He yells over me. “Get over here and sit down.”

In one mo­tion, he pushes his chair back and is at Mom’s side. I

half-stand. He places his hands lightly on her shoul­ders and steers her back to her chair.

Mom and I sit down at the same time. She stares at her plate, her mouth drawn, and picks up her knife to sweep toast crumbs into small piles.

Mean­while, Dad marks the de­vo­tion book­let with a ball­point pen from the stash in his shirt pocket. Then he reads aloud.

Ten­sion buzzes in my ears, drown­ing out his words. I flinch when he thrusts the book at Mom.

“Here.” His voice is sharp. He points to the spot where she should be­gin read­ing.

She reads with­out in­flec­tion, stum­bling over “ap­pre­ci­ate” and “Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans.” She doesn’t seem to un­der­stand what she reads, but she’s far more flu­ent read­ing than speak­ing.

She hands the book to me. I say “Prayer,” and “Amen,” and “Thought for the Day,” and in be­tween, a host of other words I hardly hear. When I reach the bot­tom of the page, I close the book­let and hand it across the ta­ble to Dad.

Mom stands up again. This time, I go up­stairs with her. At the top, I say softly, “Mom, can I ask you some­thing?”

She pauses in the door­way of the mas­ter bed­room. “Yes, sure.” I swal­low but say it. “When Dad yells at you like that, do you mind?”

She half-laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t...so, so tott.”

I rest a hand on her shoul­der so she’ll look me in the face. “Re­ally, Mom. Does it up­set you?”

She sighs. “Not so much. He’s stot­ting things, you know, and he, he wants me to—well—sarft some­thing, in a good way. He does a good job.”

“Well, if you get up­set, let me know, okay?”

“Okay.” She smiles and the pucker in her fore­head smooths. I re­joice, silently, to see her re­lax.

But my glow fades as I dress for church. Even if she un­der­stood what I was talk­ing about in that mo­ment, she won’t re­mem­ber when she gets up­set.

Still, I said some­thing. I tried to help.

That Sun­day af­ter­noon, my walk with Mom starts slowly. On our side­walk, she stops to lament the over­grown front gar­den. If I’m go­ing to tire her out, we need to me­an­der less and walk more.

“Okay, Mom, let’s go!” I slip my hand through her arm. She smiles at me, and as we walk, I can’t help but cheer up. The sunny

day feels more like May than March. Re­mark­ing on the neigh­bours’ gar­dens, we fol­low the street around the curve and down­hill, then turn right. At the stop­light, we could turn up­hill to­ward home or con­tinue for an­other short block be­fore tak­ing a dif­fer­ent street up to the house. With­out ask­ing, I de­cide we’re go­ing on.

“But, no,” Mom says. “We want to go here.” She walks in front of me so I’ll turn.

“We’re just start­ing. How about we go an­other block.” I still have her arm, so I gen­tly lead her across the street.

Once across, she tries to turn up the hill again.

I try to sound pa­tient. “Mom, this way. Come on.” She pulls away from me, and I grab her hand.

“Oh, all right.” She walks with me. “But Mother won’t like it.” Mother? But…Grandma died thirty years ago. Cold with fear, I look at her. “You mean Dad?” I hes­i­tate to re­fer to my fa­ther by his first name. “Ted?”

“No, Mother.” She shakes her head, im­pa­tient. “She’ll won­der where we are.”

“Well, Dad knows we’re on a walk.”

She says, slowly and distinctly, “Mother. Doesn’t.”

We con­tinue walk­ing. That is, I walk, and I have her arm, so she comes along. As we pass an­other gar­den, she moans, “Oh, Mother won’t like this. We need to go home.”

I turn to face her, my words cruel. “Mom, your mother is dead.” I take a breath and go on. “Dad, your hus­band, Ted, knows we’re on a walk. It’s okay.” I walk on, still hold­ing her arm.

Be­side me, her voice is small but de­fi­ant. “No. It’s not okay. Mother will be an­gry.”

At the next cor­ner, she says, “Here, now. This way.” She turns to­ward home, yank­ing her arm from my grasp, her step pur­pose­ful—I can’t tell what force is pulling her up the hill, but it’s pow­er­ful. I have to speed up.

We face the af­ter­noon sun, still high in the sky. A sad­ness rises in my chest. I had thought that my pres­ence, if noth­ing else, would be of some com­fort my mother. But I don’t know how or where she feels at home and safe—or, self­ishly, where I do, ei­ther.

When we’re within sight of our drive­way, she stops again to point out an­other gar­den. What­ever in­ter­nal Fate or Fury that has driven her to “go home to Mother” has fallen silent. Once again, she speaks pleas­antly, if vaguely, about blooms and stems and leaves.

This is a story of los­ing sto­ries.

My mother has writ­ten two univer­sity-level math­e­mat­ics text­books. She’s writ­ten at least a dozen sets of cur­ricu­lum for ap­plied math­e­mat­ics prob­lems for univer­sity stu­dents, many re­search pa­pers about neu­tron trans­port equa­tions, and a bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say for an an­thol­ogy cel­e­brat­ing a woman’s schol­ar­ship at Queen’s Univer­sity, where she earned her BA and MA in math­e­mat­ics.

She wrote fam­ily sto­ries of her child­hood and youth in Port Arthur, On­tario, in the years be­tween the World Wars. She col­lated these sto­ries, search­ing out and copy­ing old fam­ily pho­to­graphs, and gave them to my sib­lings and me.

But I can’t find any pub­li­ca­tion or man­u­script where she wrote the story of her first day at school.

We know it, of course. The fam­ily—my fa­ther, my sib­lings and I, and other peo­ple she knows well—we all know that story. It has been left to me to write it down.

This is a story of hopes and hor­rors.

The night af­ter our walk, the sound of run­ning wa­ter wakes me. So much for the walk help­ing her sleep.

Pulling on sweat­pants and sweat­shirt, I creep to my half-open bed­room door. The light is on at the top of the stairs. I hide be­hind my door, lis­ten­ing to Dad’s raised voice.

“Now. This in­stant. You are com­ing to bed.”

“Get out of here.” My mother’s voice is low and rough, a bear’s growl. I gasp. I’ve never heard her like this, not even when I mis­be­haved as a child. I’ve cer­tainly never heard her speak this way to my fa­ther.

Dad sounds like he’s stran­gling. “You will—get—come here.” I hear scuf­fling.

At the same time, Mom’s bear-voice says, “It’s ter­ri­ble, it’s aw­ful.” I burst onto the land­ing. Near the door to the girls’ bathroom, Dad stands be­hind Mom, again hold­ing both of her up­per arms. She twists, try­ing to free her­self from his grasp.

I say, shak­ily, “Hey, what’s the mat­ter?”

Mom looks at me and quits strug­gling. She is near tears. “He—I was—and then he—comes right in, and it’s, it’s not, not right.”

Dad’s voice is loud but calm. “Come to bed.” He drops his hands from her arms and holds out a hand. “Come on.” She doesn’t move,

so he picks up her hand from her side and leads her into the bed­room. She fol­lows him with­out protest.

I stand on the land­ing, look­ing af­ter them. The light in their bed­room is off, and the land­ing light shines only a few feet into the room.

I can’t go in. What­ever my age, or theirs, they’re my par­ents, and I can’t in­trude.

I turn off the land­ing light.

Back in my room, I crawl into bed, sweats and all. I curl up in a ball, still shiv­er­ing, then check my watch: 3:30. Not that it mat­ters. Mom doesn’t even know what year it is. She doesn’t rec­og­nize her hus­band. She wouldn’t be­lieve I’m her child.

I shut my eyes against the beam from the street­light. Ex­hausted, I drift off.

Just a few hours af­ter Mom’s harsh-voiced en­counter with Dad, we’re meet­ing with a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, Dr. What­ley.

Mom’s neu­rol­o­gist sug­gested in­di­vid­ual neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal ap­point­ments for both Mom and Dad, but Dad hasn’t made an ap­point­ment for him­self. As he ex­plained to me on the phone a few weeks ear­lier, Dr. What­ley is “only” a PhD, not an MD, so he couldn’t of­fer Dad any med­i­cal ad­vice.

I kept my eye-roll out of my voice. “Maybe he could give you ad­vice about cop­ing.”

“Mmmm,” said Dad, mean­ing Hmph.

Mom has dis­ap­peared with a nurse while Dad and I sit in the wait­ing room. I’m frus­trated. We’ll never know what Dr. What­ley is say­ing to her. Mom can’t carry a mes­sage or de­scribe what hap­pened. I should have gone with her. I should have in­sisted.

Mis­ery balls in my stom­ach as I brood. I still haven’t done any­thing con­crete to help my par­ents, and I’m fly­ing home im­me­di­ately af­ter this ap­point­ment.

Next to me, Dad mut­ters, “Was that Wednesday? Yes, I think it was.” He’s fill­ing out a form on a clip­board. He adds, “Be­fore last night, the last time she had one of those episodes of, what’s-it-called, sun­down­ing, was last week.”

“How about Fri­day? And on Satur­day night, she was up a lot.” “She did go back to bed, both nights.”

I try not to stare at him. “She was up three times. And Fri­day, she ran bath wa­ter.” The fact that he talked her out of get­ting into the tub is a tech­ni­cal­ity. He can’t play fast and loose with the truth.

“Oh, all right,” he says, as if I am be­ing com­pletely un­rea­son­able. I feel my ir­ri­ta­tion ris­ing in re­sponse to his. I stay silent and breathe.

“But the last time she stayed up was be­fore you came, which would make it, let’s see, Wednesday night.” He heaves a sigh. “You know, my me­mory isn’t what it used to be.”

His me­mory? Sweet Je­sus, I could kill him. In the neu­rol­o­gist’s of­fice where his bril­liant wife is be­ing treated for her Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, he com­plains about his me­mory?

At that mo­ment, I hate him as I never have be­fore, not even when I was a sulky teenager. Then, the very fact of his ex­is­tence—his in­dex cards, his dif­fer­ent colours of ball­point pens, his rou­tines, the fact that he and Mom were the age of my friends’ grand­par­ents—made my life a night­mare of ado­les­cent, im­ma­ture em­bar­rass­ment. Even so, never has he been as loath­some to me as he is at this mo­ment.

I bite my lips to keep from voic­ing the poi­son I feel. I fan my hot face with a mag­a­zine. While I seethe, Dad hap­pily mut­ters his way through the rest of the form.

In­hale, ex­hale. At least he didn’t com­plain about his me­mory in front of Mom; that’s all I can find to be grate­ful for.

This is a story of hold­ing on to grace as night falls.

Sun­set doesn’t cre­ate in­stant dark­ness. It cre­ates twi­light, a grace pe­riod. Af­ter sun­set, the up­per at­mos­phere still pro­vides light— enough light to do some things, but not oth­ers.

Twi­light is di­vided into three phases. In civil twi­light, you can still see ob­jects clearly, with­out ar­ti­fi­cial light. Dur­ing nau­ti­cal twi­light, the hori­zon is vis­i­ble even on moon­less nights, and mariners nav­i­gate by the stars. Through­out astro­nom­i­cal twi­light, the last phase, the sun’s scat­tered light fades un­til it’s less vis­i­ble than starlight.

That March, I try to cal­cu­late where the sun is in the im­mense sky that has been Mom’s in­tel­lect, her spirit, her life. Can she still see the hori­zon? Does she even look? I won­der whether wak­ing at night fright­ens her. I hope the stars give her enough light that she can find some form of com­fort.

Her hand­writ­ing on a file folder la­bel, in a note­book, on an en­ve­lope (es­pe­cially on an en­ve­lope, where she’s writ­ten my name, firm and clear)—when I find these scraps of who she once was, I grasp them tightly.

This is a story of lis­ten­ing, of speak­ing.

Dr. What­ley fi­nally calls us back to his in­ner of­fice. He sits on a rolling stool and mo­tions us into chairs lined up against the wall. I set­tle be­tween my par­ents.

He says, “I’ve been col­lect­ing data on Mrs. Agnew for a re­port I’ll put in her file.”

I try not to wince; Mom was al­ways known as “Dr. Agnew” un­til her ill­ness. It seems point­less to bring it up.

He looks at me. “Do you live here in town?”

I feel guilty. “No, I’m just vis­it­ing.” I clear my throat. “I do try to come reg­u­larly.”

“Ah,” he says, turn­ing to Dad. “Then I’ll need to see you to fol­low up on some things. Did you fill out—oh, good.” Dad hands him the clip­board. He sets it aside. “I’ll read that over later. I may have some fol­low-up ques­tions when you come in.”

Mom says, as if she’s re­mind­ing Dr. What­ley of some­thing, “And tott’s a...serf one, too.”

He turns to­ward her and looks her in the eye. In spite of call­ing her “Mrs.,” he’s the only physi­cian who seems to see a per­son—if not the gifted pro­fes­sor and math­e­ma­ti­cian, per­haps still the teacher who brooked no non­sense and ac­cepted noth­ing sloppy, or the par­ent who never passed up an op­por­tu­nity to urge us to harder work and greater am­bi­tion.

He an­swers her, “Yes, that’s right.”

To Dad and me, he adds, “I’m afraid I wore her out ear­lier. I was ask­ing ques­tions and she let me know she was done an­swer­ing. She has very def­i­nite opin­ions to share, don’t you?” He shoots her a smile. She chuck­les. “Yes, I spot ... spatt so.”

He turns back to us, with an air of dust­ing his hands. “So, that’s it for this time. Do you have ques­tions?”

Dad shakes his head. I look at Dr. What­ley, de­bat­ing. I like how he is with Mom. But can I talk to him about Dad?

We get up, and I fall back to let Mom and Dad leave be­fore me.

I have to. I turn to the doc­tor. “Could I just—for a sec­ond—ask—” “Sure,” he says. “Come sit down.”

We sit and I take a breath. “When you see Dad, could you talk about...” Tears fill my voice. I say, in­dis­tinctly, “Anger.” Then words rush out. “She’s sun­down­ing more than he ad­mits. And he’s an­gry all the time, just all the time. She tries not to get up­set. Lord knows I can’t blame Dad, she re­peats ev­ery­thing and gets anx­ious and an­noy­ing, but still, he yells and then she feels so bad.”

I stop for breath and will my­self into co­her­ence. “I’m sorry; it’s just hard to...to be here.”

Dr. What­ley rocks a lit­tle on his stool. “I un­der­stand. It’s tough.” I gulp, be­trayal and fear bit­ter in my mouth, but I go on. “It’s like he’s blam­ing her. But she’s not try­ing to an­noy him. She’s sick. He doesn’t seem to get that.” The tears spill out of my eyes again. I blink and take the tis­sue he hands me. I blow my nose.

“Thank you for let­ting me know,” Dr. What­ley says. “I’ll talk about cop­ing mech­a­nisms at his ap­point­ment. Is he get­ting any sup­port?”

“Like what?” Af­ter the tears, I can hardly think. Ev­ery­thing feels hope­less.

“Like care­giver sup­port meet­ings, or tak­ing your mother to the new adult day cen­tre.”

“Oh. He’s men­tioned them, but he hasn’t done any­thing.”

“The day cen­tre is re­ally im­por­tant. She’ll get stim­u­la­tion and one-on-one at­ten­tion, and he’ll get a break from deal­ing with her all the time.”

I nod. “You’ll have to be the one to tell him, though. He won’t hear it from me.” And maybe not from you ei­ther, I don’t add. I pull my­self to­gether and thank him.

Back in the lobby, I pass Dad, who’s stand­ing at the desk. “Mak­ing your own ap­point­ment with Dr. What­ley?” I say loudly, hop­ing the re­cep­tion­ist will take my hint.

Mom sits in a chair in the wait­ing area, knees to­gether, hands folded on top of her hand­bag in her lap. She stares down at her hands, her lower lip trem­bling.

I sit down be­side her and rub her back. “How are you do­ing, Mom?” I wipe my cheek with the wadded up tis­sue I’m still hold­ing. “So-so,” she says. Her voice is sad and small.

“Yeah.” I put my arm around her. “Me too.”

She speaks so softly I al­most miss it. “They think I’m in a bad way.”

I don’t know what to say—it would feel dis­re­spect­ful to con­tra­dict the truth—so I rub her back, mur­mur­ing, “It’s okay, you’re okay,” while wish­ing it were true.

This is a story of res­ig­na­tion.

Later that af­ter­noon, as I drive to the air­port, fight­ing drowsi­ness, I ad­mit that Mom and Dad may not have been the only ones af­fected

by in­ter­rupted sleep and worry. I too might have be­come crabby and un­rea­son­able that week­end.

But I haven’t ex­ag­ger­ated Mom’s ill­ness, nor Dad’s ir­ri­tated re­sponse—his fa­tigue, his tem­per.

Al­though the hours of day­light in Ok­la­homa will con­tinue to in­crease un­til late in June, Mom will never re­gain any of the abil­i­ties she’s los­ing. Her sun­down­ing phase is fol­lowed by more de­clines and more loss, my fa­ther’s heart break­ing a lit­tle ev­ery day as she fades away.

Af­ter she dies, I miss her—all of her—again. And I know that Dad misses her more, and more of her, than I can com­pre­hend. Our sad­ness draws us to­gether. I de­velop a new re­spect for Dad’s rou­tines—even his in­dex cards and ball­point pens—as I watch them help him be­friend grief and carry on for the seven years un­til his last ill­ness.

This is the story of an oblate spher­oid spin­ning on its axis and or­bit­ing the sun.

My par­ents have both been gone for years. I know that only be­cause I re­mind my­self. Some­times it seems as if they could still be liv­ing in the house in Ok­la­homa. But some­one else sleeps in those up­stairs bed­rooms now—a lovely young fam­ily, the mother a for­mer math­e­mat­ics grad­u­ate stu­dent and the fa­ther an en­gi­neer; in Daddy’s study, they and their chil­dren film science and art videos and post them to YouTube.

One April, my sib­lings and I ren­dezvous in Ok­la­homa for the first time in the decade since my fa­ther’s death. My sis­ter sug­gested we crash the Ok­la­homa State Math­e­mat­ics Depart­ment awards cer­e­mony, where ev­ery year, two stu­dents re­ceive awards named for my mother. We weren’t sure we would know any­one—Mom’s for­mer young col­leagues are now past re­tire­ment age.

But my sis­ter and I rec­og­nize Dr. Jim Choike, who once dreamed up projects and grant ap­pli­ca­tions with Mom around our din­ing room ta­ble. We ask him to ex­plain the Hours of Day­light prob­lem.

Dr. Choike says the prob­lem was sup­plied by McDon­nell Dou­glas. For their Mars rover pro­ject, they needed to know whether it’s pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late the hours of day­light at any lo­ca­tion on Earth know­ing only its lat­i­tude and longitude and the day of the year.

Years ago, Mom’s ap­plied math stu­dents demon­strated that yes, it is pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late the hours of day­light with only that

in­for­ma­tion. But to come up with their so­lu­tion, they had to make one sim­pli­fi­ca­tion in their as­sump­tions—that the Earth is a per­fect sphere.

“And,” Dr. Choike says, “as you know—”

The three of us say it to­gether.

“The Earth is an oblate spher­oid.”

We laugh.

And blink back tears. Be­cause now, only the story re­mains.

Still, the story re­mains.

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