My mother always seemed to call at the worst moment. I would be on an important call at work, or compromised by a bathroom break, and the phone would ring.
Mother would immediately apologize, and I would reply that it was no problem, and ask what was going on. Today was no different. Like clockwork, Mom had called. And for once, I was sitting at home, poring over my latest writing project, with the television giving its distant distraction in the background.
“Hi!” she said. “How are things going?”
I sighed instantly. It wasn’t that her call was an imposition, I had just been focused on what I was doing. It was like your alarm going off in the middle of a pleasant dream. It wasn’t a bad thing; you just wished you had five more minutes.
My mother deserved my attention. All mothers deserve the attention of their children, despite the daily chaos of their lives, despite the distance between them. My father had passed on, two years ago, and her loneliness was subtle but ever present in my mind.
My mother and I would chat, and the chat became a great, long conversation. It always did. Everything was on the table, from the latest events of the children, to politics (gently touched on), along with the latest neighbourhood rumours but always with a warmth, as though we were standing together in the backyard.
Tonight we talked about the grandchildren.
“Do you think you’ll bring them out next month for the Labour Day weekend?” she asked, her voice sounding a little bit older to my ears.
“Of course,” I replied. “It’s fun for them.”
“Yes. They always seem to have lots of fun,” she said.
I took a sip of my beer as I surveyed the backyard, pleased with how the gardens were doing. I made a mental note to water everything when we hung up.
As we wrapped up, my mother gave me the usual ‘it was good to talk’ followed by, ‘Say Hello to Pam for me.’
I went to get the hose, and began watering the gardens, along with the containers that housed our modest collection of vegetables. I put my thumb over the end of the hose, jetting water all over the flower beds.
My thoughts ran over the conversation I had just finished. It had been at least a month since I had actually seen my mother. She must have been getting lonely out there in the countryside, her hobbies not withstanding. But she refused to move, not wanting to leave the small condominium that she and father owned in town, or God forbid, go into a retirement home. She had said many times that she would rather die first.
I couldn’t say I blamed her, and her health had seemed fine enough, her mobility as well. The lawn mowing and snow clearing in the winter had been taken care of by contractors for years now, and my mother’s trips into town consisted of small ventures to the grocery store these days. I came out to the house if there was anything needing maintenance, or some sort of emergency, like a power outage.
Lately, it had just been talking on the phone, comparing our gardening for the year.
My wife finally urged me that we should do something out at the house, bring the kids and have a get-together. The Labour Day idea came to the front of my thoughts. It had been an annual event up until a few years ago.
Like old times, I would get hold of my brother, and we would have an epic day out in the countryside home of our youth. My mother would be enthralled with her grandchildren, and happy to have the company. Games would be played outside as dusk approached, the symphony of crickets, birdsong, and laughter filling the evening air.
The next day I awoke, the idea of a family event swirling in my mind. The first thing that I would have to do is call mother and ask innocently if she wanted such a thing to go on out there. I knew exactly what her reaction would be. She would be thrilled at the idea, not having seen the entire family together for several years.
I poured a fresh mug of coffee and sat down at the breakfast counter with my phone in hand.
I dialed her number, which had never changed since I was a child. My parents hadn’t given up the landline, as we had done with our new cellular plans in place. It made no sense to keep paying what we viewed as an unnecessary bill.
It rang. And rang. Finally the voicemail interrupted, and my mother’s cheery voice announced that she was away from the phone. Leave a message.
I did. Simple and direct: Call me back when you get this.
The coffee was good, the morning cool, and I set about a few simple tasks around the house. But before long I was back to the phone. Maybe she was out in the garden. No answer.
It was unusual. She hadn’t mentioned any trips out during our last conversation.
I washed up the pots and pans left in the sink from last night’s dinner as my wife entered the kitchen, her hair still askew from slumber, looking for a mug of tea.
“Good morning,” she said, reaching into the cupboard beside the sink.
“Good morning.” I told her about trying to get my mother on the phone about the get-together.
“Maybe you should just go out there and tell her about it. Go for a visit,” she said.
I nodded. “Yes. It’s been at least a month since I was out there,” I replied.
It was as good a day to do it as any.
The clouds had gathered as I got in our ageing SUV, drawing a lead-grey curtain overhead. The raindrops began to appear on the windshield as I backed the car out, heading off down the street. The asphalt on the city streets darkened and became wet as I made my way out to the countryside, buildings and shopping centres giving way to fields and forest.
Rain beat down in heavy sheets, and the wipers made their rhythmic movement across my view, slashing water away.
My phone rang. ‘Mom’ was on the display.
“Hi. I’m on my way out to visit. You busy?” I asked.
“That’s great! No, I’m just floating around here,” she replied.
We hung up after another couple of exchanges, and I drove along, my thoughts briefly hanging on her use of words. ‘Floating?’
I shook the thought away and turned the car onto the side road that led out to the house.
As I arrived in the driveway, I briefly acknowledged the low maintenance brick exterior, and my eyes drifted over the gardens. Although I could see many of the flowers in bloom, the lawn and the gardens looked as though no one had touched them in a month. My mother’s rock garden along the front side of the house was overgrown with weeds, and the grass out front was at least six inches tall. I had never seen it this unkempt before, and confusion began in the back of my mind like an itch.
I waited another moment, hoping the rain would ease up, so that I wouldn’t be soaked over the short distance between the gravel driveway and the front door. It didn’t, and I made the decision to go for it.
The rain pelted me with large, fat drops as I ran to the door, only to find it locked. I fumbled for the keys in my pocket, cursing at the barrage of water seeping quickly through my shirt.
‘Why was it locked? She knew I was coming.’
The door opened as I twisted the key, and I quickly entered.
A horrible smell hit me in the dark. A sweet, sick smell like garbage. It was heavy, and hung in the still air of the entryway.
There was not a light on anywhere, and the house was strangely silent, except for the sound of the rain spattering against the picture window in the living room next to the entry where I stood.
I stepped forward into the living room, my eyes adjusting to the gloom.
“Hello?” I called.
There was no answer.
I took a few steps forward, into the hallway. The doorway to the kitchen was on my right. There was no sound, the only light coming from the red glow of the time display on the microwave.
“Hello?” I called again, my pulse beginning to quicken.
We had spoken on the phone mere minutes ago, but I could feel a strange panic rising. Where was she? What was going on here?
I fumbled my way through the kitchen, reaching absently into my pocket for my cellphone. I turned it on, its cold, white light shining a narrow beam ahead of me.
A noise behind me made me spin around. A man was there, his grey hair and eyes standing out in the pale light of my phone. He was wearing a uniform, a uniform that looked tactical in nature, with a bright metal badge on it. A police officer.
“You scared the shit out of me!” I said.
He shrugged apologetically.
There was a click in the darkness, and he raised a large, heavy-looking flashlight. It was much more powerful than my pathetic little phone light, and lit up the entire kitchen. He looked awkward.
“Your Mom. I’m so sorry,” he said.
My eyes widened in disbelief. What did he mean?
“I was just across the road, talking to the neighbours,” he continued. “I saw you pull in, and thought I should come over. They had concerns. Hadn’t seen your mother, called about the smell.”
"I--I was just talking to her."
The cop looked at me, his eyes silently extending sympathy. “The ambulance and the coroner are on their way. The paramedics will transport your mother’s body.”
“I don't understand,” I said, barely able to comprehend the situation. “Where?”
The officer shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
“Most likely to the morgue for the moment.”
His words seemed to echo in the empty kitchen. The shock unloaded on me.
“I was just talking to her,” I repeated.
His eyes softened. “I can’t believe that no one contacted you about this,” he said calmly.
I sat down on a stool in the kitchen, all of the energy in my legs leaving suddenly. I turned to my right, looking up through the gloom into the dining room.
She was there.
I could only see the outline of her, sitting in her chair at the dining room table, her head thrown back, her mouth open in some sort of hollow, horrific yawn.
I felt a shudder rack my body, turning every sensation icy. I stared for a moment, the wandering flashlight beam exposing more of the terrible scene than I felt I could take in.
The smell hit again, and I lurched forward from the stool, groping my way out of the room, wanting only to get fresh air into my lungs instead of the stench of death and decay.
Bursting through the front door, I fell down on the patio stones of the walkway, scraping my palms as I sucked in cool, clean air.
There were lights now, flickering blue and red amongst the fat, swollen raindrops. The ambulance.
The next hour or so was a blur, fogging my mind with images that I did not want to behold. My mother’s body being wheeled out, a black bag where she should have been. None of it made sense.
It didn’t explain how I had just been conversing with her before turning onto our road. Or how I had been talking with her weekly.
“Sorry,” the officer said again. “Would you like me to call someone to come and get you?”
I looked up at him. “I have to make arrangements,” I said vaguely.
He smiled politely. “Take your time. These things are not settled overnight.”
All I could do was shake my head, struggling to my feet on rubbery legs. I looked at him absently, as if he were a character in a dream, and shook my head again.
He left, and I was alone in front of the house, attempting to put the whole scenario together in my brain.
All I could do was stumble toward the car. I needed to get out of there. I simply needed some rest, perhaps. This all had to be some kind of dream, some kind of strange psychological episode.
The rain still pounded down, but I ignored it, carefully locking the door, and walking slowly toward the car, my steps deliberate and careful.
I slid behind the wheel of the car, closing the driver’s door.
This couldn’t be. I had been talking to her for weeks, had been talking to her within the hour. There was no way she could be gone.
I placed my phone in its holder on the dashboard and reached into my pocket to retrieve the keys with ice-cold fingers.
I started the car, and the headlights illuminated the overgrown gardens and the dark, silent house in front of me. The wipers began their job, cleaning away the sheets of rain.
The ring of my phone shattered the silence, making me jump.
I glanced at the screen, and my breath froze in my throat. Panic consumed my mind as I forced myself to read the letters on the call display.