The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce



Pushing her wheelchair through the mall toward the department store, I look down at the thin, blond hair swaying gently as her head drops down and up, down and up. We move into the store. I see her in approaching mirrors smiling, nodding, mouthing hello to the young and innocent. Her hand rises and she turns it at the wrist, the queen’s greeting, waving to those before her.

I watch others walk toward us. When my eyes meet those passing by, I pray, plead, challenge them to accept or not to look—not to look at my mamma, the shrunken woman with one eye almost closed on her tiny pinched face blotted with sun freckles, showing her chemo-broken teeth in a monstrous smile. And her head keeps nodding, her hand waving—twist, twist—up and down all the aisles. The queen is shopping. She wants new shoes.

Now, she who was of the frown, she of the tight-jawed anger, she who thought children too loud, too active, too present, she is the one who eye-seeks every child passing by. She has become the Queen of Hearts. Reaching out to touch those encased in strollers and carriages she sighs, “Well, hello there,” and “Aren’t you the pretty one,” and “My, look at those eyes.” Mothers stare at the bone-thin, blue-veined, splotched hand reaching toward their child. And I stop breathing and stare, glare, dare them to react before I can push my mamma away in her stroller as she chats with lilted, smoky voice about this child’s colorful hat, or that one’s shoes, or the tiny hand reaching for hers.

Her right eye searches through the heights above her, grasping for all that the blind left eye misses. Right eye, left brain. Now reversed, a mirror image, a kinder view. She embraces the world she slides through. Seeing the color and the fun, and the life she didn’t see when both eyes worked. Reaching into the present, waving to the pleasant past, and nodding at the promising future.

When she was taller and heavier, she was my fear. Her voice framed my name in black bordered sounds that froze my lungs and sealed my guilt. “Your children are afraid of you,” our Aunt Alice said to her. “Nonsense,” my regal mamma roared, and striking her staff upon the floor called us, her daughters, to confess. “Are you afraid of me?” Quaking, we professed our lack of fear.

As we, her children grew taller and stronger, she began to diminish, losing things, we joked—her weight, her breast, her hearing, her sight. But her reign continued until the last time she had surgery, when, in the hospital, she became afraid. They had opened her chest and touched her heart, and she became afraid. There were creatures in her room, she confessed to Daddy and my sisters. The doctors advised them to ignore what she said, not to encourage her fantasies.

She told me years later, on one of our frequent drives to the dentist, the internist, the oncologist, that she knew she had been hallucinating, having out-loud nightmares. But there was something in Daddy’s voice that had scared her more—anger, impatience, fear. She just wanted someone to hold her hand and say that everything was all right. That’s all she needed, she, the untouchable, said.

She announced to my sisters that she wanted me to take care of her if she ever needed care. They were relieved, and agreed, laughing. My face wouldn’t soften for a smile, so I nodded OK to my mamma.

Now, I push her through the crowds of those whom she accepts as having come for her blessing, who turn away from the brilliance of her radiance, who step back to avoid offending her with their touch. She continues to wave. I continue to push and watch and wish for the fear. I miss the fear that might ease this profound ache.

Liz Keiley-Roark is retired and living in Albany.

Click here to go back to the main feature page.

Faces of the East Bay