An Other Mother

I’m at the local social services office meeting with my caseworker to renew my health insurance benefits. After my paperwork is complete, I ask him if there is any way I might be able to get a bus pass. I paid for my bus fare here today in pennies. I have just handed him a list of the items I’ve sold recently on Craigslist. I’ve shown him an IOU I wrote to Neighbor Jim back in April, and explained that I’m four months overdue with my HOA dues. I wonder if he thinks I’m as pathetic as I feel. “Sorry,” he says. “You could apply for general assistance though. If you qualify, they give you a bit of cash each month, and they can give you a bus pass.”

I thank him and get back in line. If I can just get help for a month or two, I think, till I can find a new tenant who’s trustworthy. Just until I can get the regular rental income again that I need to get back on the road. The receptionist gives me papers to complete, I turn them in, and wait for someone to see me. There are two ways to do this, they tell me. You can apply under the condition that you are looking for a job, or you can apply under the condition that you are not able to work at this time due to a physical, mental, or psychological disability. “Do you have a disability?” the woman asks me. “Grief,” I say, and then correct myself, using the word everyone is familiar with, the word that is recognized by the medical community when it comes to paying a therapist or psychologist. Grief is not. “Depression,” I say. She makes a note, then asks, “Do you remember the last time you worked?” 

I work every day, I think. I’ve never worked harder in my life. But she doesn’t want to hear about my emotional toil, and besides, that’s not what she’s talking about. She’s talking about working for a paycheck.

“Yes,” I say. “June 18th, 2014.” My eyes well with tears. She pretends not to notice. She is a trained professional. She asks me several more questions, culminating with, “Do you have any of the following?” in which “retirement account” figures into the responses. “Yes,” I say, thinking of the woefully small sum of money that, without regular contributions, never seems to grow beyond several thousand dollars no matter how well the economy is doing. It takes money to make money floats across the screen of my mind like a banner in a tv ad. “Can you access it?” she asks. “I’m too young to withdraw it yet,” I explain. She persists. “Are you allowed to withdraw any of it?” “A portion of it,” I say, “But if I do there’s a penalty.” She puts her pen down and folds her hands. “I’m sorry,” she says. “If you have access to it, penalty or no, then you don’t qualify for general assistance.” When I don’t say anything, she begins writing again. She hands me a form to sign, acknowledging that I’ve been denied benefits. “Pay the penalty,” she urges. Her voice is softer now as tears spill unchecked down my face. “When the money is gone, you can come back and try again.” I nod, thank her, and leave.

Outside on the street I call Neighbor Jim, who has offered to pick me up on his way home from Santa Maria today. I’m fairly composed by the time he gets there, but as soon as I get into his car and he asks how I am I start crying again. “I’m giving you money,” he insists. “It’s not a problem, and I don’t want you to worry. I don’t care when you pay me back, if ever.” I know he means it. Jim is one of the most generous people I’ve ever come across.

Back at his condo he hands me some cash. “Take it,” he says. His voice is emphatic; he is chastising me. Several times in the past weeks he’s tried to give me money, and each time I’ve refused. This time I don’t refuse. I can’t. I hug him. “You’re so good to me,” I whisper. “You’re good to me,” he responds. “When you stayed here you cooked, you cleaned, you washed the dishes. And now, you invite me over for dinner. You bake me cookies. You make me laugh!” His voice rises to a crescendo. “I owe you!!” I smile and roll my eyes at him.

When I get home I sit down at my computer and do the same job search on Craigslist I do every day, using keywords like “casual” and “temporary,” anything for which I won’t need to turn in a resume, partake of an interview, or commit. Then I look under “Gigs.” but find nothing I’m capable of doing that doesn’t require a car either to get there or perform. I’m afraid I’m going to have to follow the social worker’s advice and withdraw funds from my already paltry retirement account.

The next day on my way to the cemetery I walk by a memorial garden, filled with sweet peas, snapdragons and gladiolas. It sits in front of a tall hedge, behind which is a large vegetable garden, a farmhouse, and small shed with fruits, vegetables, and eggs for sale. I make a note of the name on the sign out front and google it when I get home. It turns out the farm belongs to a woman who runs a florist business there, and the memorial garden is in honor of her 24-year old daughter who died four months after Jackson, hit by a car while riding her bicycle home one autumn evening. I vaguely remember the story on the news, but at the time I was so caught up in my own misery that I could do little more than briefly acknowledge anyone else’s. 

I send her, the mother, an email. I tell her about this thing we have in common, and say that I’d like to meet her. I have nothing in particular to say to her, I just want to be near her, to feel from her that understanding unspoken, the acceptance of the unacceptable.

She responds with an invitation to visit so on the weekend I walk the mile and a half down the road to her farmhouse. She opens the door of her flower shop and despite the customers who have turned up unexpectedly, walks out the door and embraces me in a tight hug. “Walk around the garden,” she suggests. “I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

When they leave she waves me into the shop. We sit at a table for a few minutes, then she gets up to prepare a delivery for a funeral. How does she do it? I wonder. Make decorations for death after death. While she works, she talks about Anna. She shows me a picture of her, taken days before she died. She was two weeks away from her wedding. Her fiancé was with her at the scene of the accident. Poor him, I think. How fucked up he must be. But no, she says, he moved away, and just last year he got married. “It’s to be expected”, she says. “Of course”, I concur. “It’s what should happen.” For the gazillionth time I think of Leilani, Jackson’s girlfriend, and hope she is that lucky.

“How have you managed?” I ask. Her work, it would seem. Her bus-i-ness. To an extent anyway. After about three years of keeping busy, she broke down. “I lost it,” she says. “I fell apart.” She went away, for a month, to “one of those places.” I assume she means a mental hospital, though these days I imagine they go by a different name. 

“What about you?” she asks. I tell her of my experience. How I began traveling as an alternative to suicide. How it brought me a measure of relief, so I kept at it. How when I come back here I want to stay, but find it impossible. How I struggle to breathe. “And books,” I add. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Eventually she asks about finances and when I tell her how broke I am she says, “You’re hired.” Just like that. “I need help in the garden,” she says. “Digging, weeding, pruning, that kind of thing. Can you do that?” I think so. I nod. “Thank you.” 

She waves a hand in the air dismissively. “Not at all. I need the help. Whenever you want.” she says. “You can start on Monday.”

Before I leave she hands me a plastic bag and instructs me to pick as many berries as I want to take home. I go out into the garden and pick handfuls of blackberries and raspberries. When I’m done I step back inside the shop, show her the fruit I accumulated, and smile. She thrusts a handful of sweet pea blossoms at me, and pulls me into another embrace. I hug her back. Finally we separate. “See you soon,” she says. 

Back home I put the bouquet in water on the mantel piece. I bake a berry crumble. Tomorrow, I dig.

Recommended reading: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman.

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