by Katie Martin
September, 2014. My father had been dead for almost nineteen months when I bought two tickets to a jazz concert at the Phoenix Symphony—one for my mother and one for me. She was closing in on sixty, me on twenty-five. She was too young to be a widow and I was too young to feel like an orphan. I had intended the concert to be a distraction for my mom on a damp weekend—a chance to get dressed up again, to see the glimmer of downtown at nightfall. Maybe just to do one familiar thing that wasn’t completely changed now that my dad was gone. Often he had taken my mother and me to the symphony when I was growing up, the three of us in a row on our fold-down neoprene seats, my pre-dementia father between his two brown-eyed girls. At twenty-five, I was still trying to make myself believe living was an equation. Going to the same places plus doing the same things would equal life staying the same. Yet, the math never seemed to work.
Inside the concert hall, we found our places in the mezzanine, poking our sogging umbrellas beneath the seats and sweeping flecks of rain from our shoulders. The air was soaked with the smell of strong coffee and wine from the concession stand. Blown glass sconces sent amber shadows flickering across the playbill in my hands, the paper slick and cool. On the program’s cover, the puffed-cheeked silhouette of a trumpeter blew the concert’s title out of the instrument’s bell—Satchmo’s Back! Sounds of New Orleans. From the orchestra pit below, a pianist limbered his fingers over the keys from one end to the other. The cello section groaned. All around my mother and me, couples with tickets in their hands hunched over the seats, struggling in the dim light to match up row letters and aisle numbers with their assigned slips of paper. The acoustics in the room amplified their whispers, hundreds of mini-conversations dissolving into an indecipherable murmur around us.
Nineteen months had seemed such a long time, but it was clear to me suddenly that it wasn’t long enough. I watched my mother watching the couples and knew I never should have brought her here. Maybe it was too soon to listen to music that reminded her of that life she used to have with my dad. Maybe these notes would be painful, not nostalgic. But how could I be sure of what she felt? I thought then that I knew what she needed, but it seemed more obvious every day that I didn’t. I didn’t know what either of us needed. Why had I assumed that it was the experience of the music she had always loved, not the company she enjoyed it with? I fussed with the sweater around my shoulders, bumping my mother’s elbow off the arm rest between us.
Louis Armstrong had been my parents’ favorite musician—the jazz they swayed to in the living room before I was born, rocked me to when I was colicky, bounced me to as sharp teeth skewered through soft pink gums. The music was embedded in my memory like a soundtrack to a film, always in the background. The advert in the Sunday paper had stood out to me like a beacon of light in the fog. NORMALCY, it flashed. Tickets available at the box office.
But we were both single now. My mother single “again” and me “still.” Nothing normal about it.
These were easy, these dates with my mother. We expected so little of each other, both too tired to explain what life had been like before Dad died. See, that’s the best thing about family. No backstory necessary. They already know.
We were cheap dates, too. Dinner before the show at a twenty-four hour diner, grilled cheese sandwiches and vegetable soup, a mini juke box on the table with a piece of tape over the coin slot. I had told her she looked lovely in her teal cardigan and the same trousers she had purchased for the funeral and hadn’t worn since. She had zipped my dress and checked the back of my head for curling iron dents. I had driven us downtown with the burning sunset sharp in my rearview mirror, cracking the windows and letting the wind stir through the car, the sound of my wheels over pavement cracks like a rolling drum cadence. We’d listened to the beat, beat, beat without speaking—alone together too long now to be awkward in silence.
“We will not stop doing things,” my mother had said as the numbness of grief settled in a terrifying permanence around her face. She had held my hands the morning after the funeral and we’d looked into each other’s eyes and promised. “We will not stop living.” And I had said, yes, wondering when I would start.
A young man and woman found their seats in the row in front of us, moving in a waft of vanilla scented lotion and musky cologne. The girl whispered in the boy’s ear, her tear-drop pearl earring glinting against his shoulder. He turned to kiss her on the cheek, stretching his arm across the back of the seat and around her bare shoulders. I watched her fit perfectly into the nook, as if he was molded to her. She turned to balance a purse strap around the seat and I studied my playbill to avoid catching her eyes. Sure, it was intrusive and voyeuristic for watching them, for rubbernecking, for soaking up the shared softness and easiness between them. But I couldn’t look away from this duo, every movement between them entrancing and exotic. I closed my eyes and imagined nestling into the cleft of a shoulder, a warm hand on my knee. One day when Mom is settled—the bargain I had made with myself the first time I turned down a coffee date with a young man to stay home—nearly a year ago. The time would come. I convinced myself I would know when it was time.
The lights in the hall faded into black, leaving my mother and me and three hundred strangers alone in the dark except for one spotlight on a microphone center stage. The trumpeter emerged from the wings and into the light, the brass horn in his hand flashing under the pink hot bulbs. Behind him, the orchestra shifted in their black metal chairs, violins tucked into the scoops of collarbones, lips licked and wrapped around the damp reeds of clarinets.
The boy in front of me slid his hand into the nape of the girl’s neck beneath her sleek hair. She dropped her head onto his shoulder and kissed his jaw. I touched the back of my own neck, the cold fingers somehow managing to startle me.
I thought of my mother in the dark space beside me. Thought of her missing something I had still yet to experience. Something I missed without ever having known. She without my father and me without the person I imagined still existed somewhere in an alternate universe, he and I bumping around in our parallel lives, waiting for the crescendo moment we would collide. I couldn’t listen to this music and remember. Only listen and dream. Were we the same in our loneliness?
Did it make it easier to share this yearning with her? Can you miss something that doesn’t belong to you?
The trumpeter’s weight shifted in his patent leather shoes from side to side, swaying with the notes that engulfed the crowd and lapped at my feet like a wave. His fingers played across the buttons and stroked up and down the slide valve. When he sang, his mouth was wide, revealing long lines of teeth like a double strand of pearls. He crooned in that garbled Armstrong voice and I reached for my mother’s hand, maybe not because I understood, but because I was there.
In a few months from now, there would be another date with my mother, a trip to Disney World in the spring, like the last twenty-four springs of my life. My mother and I would share a room with two queen beds, placing an alarm clock on the nightstand between us. We would get in each other’s way in the square tile bathroom, and I would have to stand in the empty bathtub to finish fixing my hair. We’d take pictures in the same places we always had—in front of the castle, amidst a clump of rose bushes, between two long-gloved princesses in hoop skirts of cheap tulle. I would hold my camera in front of us so the lens could absorb our bright faces, close-ups of too many teeth and slitted eyes trying to escape the blinding flashbulb. Each of those snapshots trying to capture something in her face or in mine that would make the picture seem whole. I had be sure for so long that families are like jenga boards, toppling with the removal of one piece. How much time would have to pass before I felt we were whole as we were? That I was complete?
We’ll go to the symphony again over the years, my mother and I, both of us aging at disparate paces. There will be more dates, I know, more chances for me to experience articles of life with another heart beat close to mine. We’ll watch An Affair to Remember and You’ve Got Mail on Sunday afternoons, hugging pillows to our chests on opposite ends of the couch, sniffling up tears and making fun of each other’s sappiness. We’ll buy each other boxes of heart shaped candies on Valentine’s Day. We’ll spend these days together until one or both of us find another to share them with. We’ll make good on our pact to not stop living, not stop remembering or dreaming. She can’t stop and I can’t wait. We are not a couple, but a pair, and in that moment, we could be alone together. Less alone. Each listening to the music, each hoping the other hears the same song.
Katie Martin is a Phoenix based writer and recent MFA graduate from Pacific University, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the university’s journal, Silk Road and The Green Briar Review, and a portion of her in-progress memoir has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on a memoir of her father’s struggle through dementia and her own journey of acceptance.