Monday, February 17, 2014

The Monday Story: Chocolate Sky

My mother drinks coffee. I don't.  Never have, never will. I don't know how people manage to acquire a taste for it, but I sure didn't. Can they really like it? It's the caffeine I would guess, but then, some folks do drink decaf coffee. Still, I would guess it's the caffeine that gets most people to consume the stuff.  A need to wake up in the morning, a need to find the minimal energy to force oneself to face another dreary day at work. The caffeine must make it seem much easier than it is. Perhaps the godawful taste is even a virtue, another element of coffee's eye-opening character.

Though I have no statistics or official sounding sources to prove it, I would guess that the largest quantities of the dark liquid are ingested during the morning hours. That's when my mom drinks hers, always in the morning, only in the morning.  

My mother is in her late seventies now, and she hardly resembles the strong-looking, handsomely beautiful woman whose silvery back and white images of youth take up so much space on the walls of her lonely room. I wonder why she continues with the habit of coffee drinking. She has no where she has to go anymore, at least not anywhere she has to be early, except perhaps for an occasional doctor's appointment, and certainly no reason to get up at the crack of dawn. She could, if she wanted to, sleep in quite late.That's the way I would do it if it were me. I'd get up around noon, or possibly later on some days, and eat a nice lunch. the I'd shower or bathe and prepare for the rest of the day, which would mostly be a day of rest. I'd eat dinner at the normal hour (which would feel like a late lunch) and then, around midnight or so, in the midst of one of the late night talk shows, I'd make myself a sandwich and a tall glass of Ovaltine as a midnight snack.

Mother doesn't see it that way, however. Getting up late for her would only symbolize the fast approach of the unspeakable. Mom does not like to think or talk about death. In fact, I don't think she's made any kind of preparation for it at all.

I ask her about this but she refuses to answer.

"I need some rain boots," she says instead.

"For God's sake, why do you need rain boots?" I demand.

"For when it rains," she replies, her voice soft but full of purposeful jocularity.

"Be serious, Mom," I say.

"Oh, I am serious," she says, and of course she means it.

We go shopping for rain boots. 

The rain boot expedition takes up the entire day. I'm very tired at the end of it, as I pull the car into the driveway of the communal home where Mom lives. I look over at her and she seems quite happy. She even appears kind of exhilarated.

"Is there anything wrong, Mom?" I ask.

She clutches the box that contains her newly purchased footwear, tightly.

"Exactly the contrary," she says. "I'm preparing to avoid the fate of Mr. Josephson over there." She points to a slumped figure in a rocker on the porch of the house.  

"What do you mean? I say, a little concerned that she might be going slightly loopy.

"He's going to die someday," she replies, "and probably very soon."

"How old is he?"

"Oh, nearly 100 by now, says Mom as she exits the car and waves goodbye. 

"Why is that such a terrible fate?" I ask as she walks around to my side of the car.

The lines on her face maneuver into an expression of incredulous horror. 

"You don't think death is a bad thing? she says. I start to respond but she continues. "It's a horrible thought, having your body all drained of blood and filled up with embalming fluid by a stranger, and then enclosed in a box and put six feet under. I just don't intend to die!" She hurries away with her package and waves one more time at me. I wave back and drive off, more worried about her than I've been in a long time. And I wonder what rain boots have to do with achieving immortality.

My mother, in earlier decades, had had a different, though related, obsession. She had been constantly preoccupied with avoiding the visible signs of aging. "I just don't intend to get all wrinkled and old-looking," she would often say. I start to think, now, that this current idea of hers, the bizarre and wild notion that she can somehow escape the inevitable embrace of the grim reaper, is only an extension of her earlier cosmetic narcissism. Unable to hold back the forces that have slowly but surely untightened  her once smooth skin, covering her body with wrinkles and crinkles, creases and sags, she has retreated into a new and even more ridiculous fantasy.  

I ask myself whether or not I should contact a psychiatrist  on her behalf. But I leave that plan on the back burner and decide instead to simply wait, hoping she hasn't actually suffered some serious form of mental deterioration.

My phone rings at 5am. It's Mom.

"Hello, dear, aren't you up yet?"

I am extremely groggy, of course, since my usual wake-up time doesn't arrive for another two and a half hours.  

"No, Mom, I am not up," I answer, my voice betraying my irritation.

"Well," she says quietly, "you should be." She is slightly hurt, I think, by my harsh tone.

 "So what do you want at this hour?" I ask in a much friendlier manner as I glance with dismay at the digital read-out on my alarm clock.

"Just thought you'd enjoy seeing the sun rise for once," she says.

"Is anybody else up over there?"

"They all like to sleep in," she replies with disgust.

I decide at that moment that I will (in spite of my pre-dawn, semi-comatose condition)  attempt to persuade her that if she truly desires to imitate the ways of the young, she should stay up late and sleep past noon.

She'll have none of it, naturally. She changes the subject again and starts talking about the color of the sky.

"Have you ever noticed," she asks me, (though actually I wonder how aware she even is  of my presense at the other end of the phone) "the way the sky sometimes takes on the hue of something it's not supposed to? I mean, things the weatherman never tells you about? For instance, late at night the sky often resembles a cup of cocoa, and the clouds are like those little marshmallows that  float on the surface."

"I've never noticed that," I reply, not knowing what else to say and keeping to myself my curiosity as to the last time she saw an ophthalmologist.

"Well, it does," she continues, 'but you've got to look just at the moment you begin drinking your cocoa, or you'll miss it."

She pauses for a moment and I notice her quite breathing. i imagine her, in the few seconds we are both silent, sitting with the phone in her hand, absentmindedly concentrating on private thoughts that have nothing whatsoever to do with me.

"Why did you really buy those rain boots?" I ask suddenly, not really knowing the purpose of my inquiry.

She is startled out of her reverie and answers slowly. "For when it rains, obviously."

"It doesn't rain all that much here," I reply. "And when it does, you never like to go out in it anyway."

"Because I never had rain boots," she says.

It's a good answer, and an obvious one, but it somehow doesn't ring true. Mother never could stand a rainy day. She has always been a sunshine person, both literally and metaphorically.  In all things she has sought the light over the dark; the pleasurable over the painful. Even when she had to choose illusion over reality to spare herself any unpleasantness, she did so willingly and at the drop of a hat.

No, even with the world's most fantastically water-proofed boots snug on her feet, she would never venture forth from her abode on a day cursed with inclement weather.  

I refuse to accept her feeble explanation.

"No really, Mom," I say, quite insistently, "what's the real reason for the rain boots." I expect to receive the same response as before, but she surprises me. 

"I've been doing a lot of studying," she begins. I think it a funny thing for her to say. She has never in my memory expressed any fondness for books.

"Lots of religious books," she continues, "and some stuff on prophecy and the end of the world."

Oh no! It is worse than I thought. She's fallen off the deep end and become some kind of crazy, apocalyptic fundamentalist.

"And do you know that Jesus said it would be just like the days of Noah at the second coming?" Coming  from my mother's mouth the question - or was it a statement - sounds more incomprehensible than the most blatantly ridiculous non sequitur. I have never in my entire life heard her express anything resembling a religious opinion.

My frustration rises rapidly to the surface and I blurt out the first words that pop into my head.

"What has that to do with anything?" I am yelling and I tell her I'm sorry for rasing my voice.

"That's okay, dear," says Mom. "As for the rain boots, if it's going to be like Noah and the ark, I'm going to need the proper gear."

This statement is the straw that breaks the camel's back. But I'm too tired at the moment to continue the conversation. I say goodbye and go back to sleep.

I don't hear from my mother again for the next 24 hours. During that period I have once again seriously contemplated arranging psychological counseling for her. She may, of course,object to the idea and refuse the help, but I figure it's my obligation as her only child to at least make the attempt.

I am awakened at 5:47am (or at least so says my digital clock) and once again dear old loony Mom has disturbed my sweet, untroubled dreams.  

"Hello, honey," she greets me, her voice pouring out copious amounts of unnecessary cheer.

"Good morning," I barely manage to say.

"I don't have much time to talk," she says. "It's a chocolate sky today and it's my time to go."

"Yeah, sure," I reply, not paying much attention to her words.

"Take care of yourself and remember I do love you." With that she hangs up. I'm left wondering exactly what her mystifying words mean, and if I recall correctly, I thought she had said cocoa skys occurred at night, unless chocolate was a morning variation,  but before I have a chance to dwell on it I roll over and return to the domain of the sandman.

Less than two hours later it's the phone again and I consider just letting it go and not answering.

I pick up the receiver.

"Mom, please, not again."

"Is your mother Mrs. Stone?" It is a strange voice asking this question.

"Who is this?"

"My name is Mary. I come in to prepare the meals at the house where your mother lives," says the voice. It belongs to a sweet sounding, fairly young female.


"So," says the young woman, "I think you should come over right away."

There are several police cars and a fire truck in front of the house when I arrive. i naturally assume the worst and my heart begins pounding out of control.

As I enter through the front door I see a police officer talking to a young woman and then someone being carried out on a stretcher by two paramedics. My racing heart leaps into my throat for a nano-second until I realize it's not my mother on the stretcher but an old man. He looks like that Mr. Josephson Mom had said was about a hundred years old. I make my way through the house and follw the sound of confused and cacophonous voices out to the backyard.

It's total chaos when I finally make it out there, pushing my way through a strange  throng of old and young. I see more police officers and a circle of people with their heads tilted upward toward the sky. I look where they're looking and - And the shock almost gives me a heart attack.

Mom is floating about 30 feet off the ground, apparently suspended on nothing but air. This is not possible of course, and I begin searching with my eyes for the invisible wire that holds her up.      

"Mom!" I shout up to her. People turn their heads in my direction. I pay no attention to their staring because the surrealness  of the situation removes any embarrassment I might otherwise feel.

"Hello!" Mom yells down to me, waving both her arms.

"What's happening?" I shout back. "What the heck are you doing up there and how did you get up there in the first place?"

"Mind power!" Mom explains enthusiastically, as eyes drift away from me and back to her curiously levitating body. "I concentrated and concentrated just like the book said and it worked." Her face now takes on a severe expression of discouragement as she continues. "But then that busybody Mr. Josephson had to spot me and scream and keel over and I've been stuck ever since."

"Well," I say, taking this all as if it is not the dream it seems to be, "can't you come back down?"

"I'm ascending into Heaven," she responds, "just like Jesus and the Virgin Mary and Elijah. At least I think it was Elijah. You know, the Old Testament."

I decide I'm going to try and use some logic on her, though arguments of reason have never worked on her in the past.

"Perhaps," I say, using my best calm and coaxing voice, "ascension into Heaven is only for saints. After all, Jesus and the others weren't average Joes."

"Oh no," Mom replies, "that's positively not true. Bodily ascension is for everyone who wants it enough."   

I now notice the rain boots. She is wearing them and their presence on her feet makes an odd sight even odder. I begin to think that she has absorbed a weird amalgam of unrelated mystical and supernatural beliefs from whatever fringe literature she's been perusing. The rain boots are a symbol, I guess, of the Second Coming, and as that thought enters my consciousness I'm reminded of a preacher on the radio I once heard her listening to. He had made a comment about those who ridicule the idea that we're living in the last days. "But each of us lives in our own 'last days'," he'd said. "And when death strikes us, it's as if it were the second coming for us personally, for at death we are in the presence of the Lord."

Of course, my mom has made clear she wishes not to die. Therefore the bodily ascension business. But none of it makes much sense. The chocolate sky, for example, that she mentioned on the phone. How does that fit in? Nevertheless, here she is, suspended far above me, hanging on the wind. And here I am, an unwilling partner in her public display of religious confusion run amok. There must be some reality to our dreams after all.  

But I realize it's my duty to bring her down, back to earth, to the solidness of the ground, where she safely belongs. I decide I will take a different route and try a scientific argument.

"It will do you no good," I tell my mother as she floats over my head, "to keep on going higher into the sky. Eventually you'll reach outer space and there is no oxygen out there, so how will you breathe?" I notice she seems to be thinking about this, puzzling over it , which I take as a good sign. Maybe I can get through to her. This optimism on my part leads me to press my line of reasoning further and embellish my case against shooting into orbit.

"And suppose you did reach space," I say, "where would you be? Orbiting the moon? Dodging communications satellites and space debris?  Watching over your shoulder for meteoroids?" I pause for a response, don't get one, and continue. "Not to mention the fact that Heaven isn't even 'up there'."

This last statement of mine elicits a negative reaction from a few in the crowd, as if I have just uttered a blasphemy. They have the completely wrong impression, since I'm simply trying to point out to my mother that "heaven" must be in another dimension and therefore unreachable in so direct a physical fashion as she is attempting.

"What exists in space?" I ask rhetorically. "Stars, dust, planets, asteroids. Heaven,  wherever it is, just ain't out there, Mom."

I think I can detect just a tiny snicker above me. Then Mom says: "You had asteroids, once, remember how you complained? Did you ever go to that doctor I told you about?"

Now there are snickers from the crowd.

"Mom, no jokes, please!"

"Maybe Heaven is on one of the other planets," she says, her voice now a mixture of hope and uncertainty.

"No, Mom," I say the two short words slowly, wearily. I beg, in silent prayer, for help from whatever higher powers exist. Bring my mom down. 

"I still wonder," Mom answers. "I mean, it has been done before. Maybe a miracle takes place and you're beamed direct to heaven just before you get to space."

I shake (and nearly rattle and roll, as well) my head. One of the police officers is motioning to someone and I watch as several firefighters in full regalia carry one of those big round "jump nets" they sometimes use to rescue people at fire scenes and various other high situations. I had been told by my friend Gus the retired fireman that they no longer used those things, but I guess this fire department does. They are probably volunteers or something.  In any event, its presence is much less strange than my floating parent.They bring over the net and hold it right under Mom.

"What's that for?" she yells down to them.

"To keep you from gettin' killed! one of them screams back.

"Fiddlesticks," says Mom, clearly irritated at the explanation and the implied aspersions being cast on her paranormal abilities. "I can float down very slowly and land as softly as a feather." And she demonstartes.

Back on the ground there is a great deal of commotion as the mob gathered in the small backyard encircles my mother. Some are asking her for autographs and she demands a pen. She is enjoying the attention. But the police begin shooing people away and Mom is pulled off into a corner and questioned.

"So," I ask her later in her room, "what did the cops say?"

"They wanted to know how I did it and I told them and they didn't believe me."  

"I'm not so sure I believe you either," I say as I rummage through a precariously balanced stack of books, magazines and pamphlets that sit by her bedside. 

"That's all very important reading material," she tell me. "Not everyday stuff like you find at the local bookstore. I had to order nearly all of it by mail."

"Kook literature," I reply dismissively.

"It got me into the air, didn't it?" she answers indignantly.

I look up at her and smile.  

"You've got a point there, Mom" Then she smiles back at me.

"'Bout time you started listening to me," she says.

She gets up and walks over to the mirror on her wall. She is looking intently at her image reflected back at her.

"You know, if I can't go straight to Heaven without bypassing death, maybe at least I can hold it off for a while, and do something about this old skin of mine at the same time. Now, make yourself useful and get busy and see if you can find anything in that stack about Ponce de Leon and the fountain of youth."

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