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Blessed Mother

Before: August 2021

I find Marian in her hospital bed, lying flat, eyes closed. I inhale the scent of fresh roses I carry; I place the vase on the windowsill near the petals dropping from last Thursday’s bouquet.


She wakes, and my nerve endings light up as I near her bed: the suck of the oxygen tank, the cloying assault of industrial cleaning agents, the television blaring The Price is Right, and the background of muffled directives in the hallway to check on Joan, Marshall, Bill.


Beneath it all calls the whisper of death: Marian’s blotched and bruised arms, medicated bedsores, the giveaway squeak of plastic as I adjust her to a sitting position.


I drop into a metal folding chair bumped against her bed, the back of the chair against the window, my knees jammed into the bedframe. I survey the litter on the bedside table: half-drunk protein drinks and juice cups, used straws, tissues, lotions, lip balms, and her rosary.


“It’s so good to see you, Patty.” Marian fixes the palest of blue eyes on me and smiles. The serene face reminds me of a picture of the Blessed Mother on one of my childhood holy cards. At ninety-eight, Marian’s face, barely lined, belies her age and her impending death.


This is the face that’s greeted me each Thursday for the past two months. The face that’s greeted me for a lifetime, but until now, I didn’t read her eyes: this woman loves me.


At this realization, I drop quiet tears, then descend to hopeless sobs.


“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I say.


My words, meant to halt my tears, accelerate my grief. I weep for the woman in the bed. I weep for my parents. Through jagged sobs, I continue to apologize, not really knowing why.


Marian trains her eyes on me, saying nothing.


“It’s just. It’s just.” I fish for words. “It’s about you. And my parents. You’re my link to them.”


Still, she says nothing, slightly tilting her head to the right with a tiny nod of understanding.


“You were such a good friend to my mom,” I say, seeking sympathy for sobs I can’t explain. I sound like I’m barking as I keen anew. Still, she remains silent.


I’m ashamed. Ashamed of my congratulations to this dying woman for being such a good friend to my mother. Ashamed when I wonder what it would have been like if Marian were my mother: a woman who listens, who lets me cry.


As I breathe deeply, I picture my parents: my coal-eyed, dreamy mother and my magnetic father adrift in a fairy tale of my mother’s making. She, playing princess to my father’s flawed prince, he, grappling with a lifetime of expected heroics that exceed his capacity.


My eyes clear and I return to Marian’s serene countenance, the demeanor my mother described as pragmatic. Her matter-of-fact friend with a temperament like a soothing breeze was a marvel to my mother who spun pinwheels of excitement that left me mesmerized.


She and Marian wove a knotted bond through six decades. My mother birthed eight children in one marriage, and Marian birthed one child outside marriage. They smothered their secrets behind stories told so often they may have believed them.


“Sometimes I feel like a fallen woman,” Marian says with a half-smile, but her eyes tell the truth: she’s burdened by the adulterous years with the father of her daughter. I’m relieved we’ve moved on from my shame to hers.


“We’ve been over this,” I remind her. “That was sixty years ago. God’s forgiven you.”


“I know, Patty.” She says the words, but she’s unconvinced. She stares at the roses on the windowsill, the sun spilling across them like shards of glass. “Last night I woke up, and I was in flames—on fire,” she says calmly with her eyes fixed on the vase. “I thought I’d died and was in hell.” Later, the hospice nurse tells me night sweats and hallucinations are common effects of Marian’s pain medications.


“God did forgive you, Marian. You did the best you could,” I tell her. “You both did.”


She looks doubtful.


“I don’t think he could help himself,” I say with authority.


She picks at her sheet, tucks it under her chin, and falls silent. I sit quietly, two wordless women unsure of what to say next. “Patty?” She looks at me with pleading eyes.


“Yes?”


“I don’t think I could help myself, either.”


And there it is. Finally. I nod, and she nods in response. She doesn’t mention this again.


“Sit on the bed, Patty,” she says, running her hand on the sliver of mattress left on the edge of the linens and pillows. She scoots further into the middle of the bed. I wedge myself into the space she’s made, my legs dangling to the floor. She draws me closer, entwines both arms around my waist, and pulls me snug against her. We don’t speak. I rub her arms gently, and she leans into me.


My mother never held me like this—letting me bask in her body. If I cried, she told me I was mistaken, I had the wrong idea about things. I was happy she said, her happiest child. No need to cry. Responding to emotional pain was not in my mother’s wheelhouse. But she did the best she could. There are no Blessed Mothers in fairy tales.


Ten minutes later, Marian dozes, and I slide from her arms. I clear the dead flowers and the bedside-table debris. As I tiptoe from the room, I turn to look at her and take comfort in her soft snore. Despite her diminishing body, I think she’s beautiful.


Marian, my mother’s best friend. My sister’s mother. My father’s mistress.


I love this woman, this interloper.


After: August 2022

Marian died August 9, 2021, in a blessed fog of morphine. I’d visited her on August 5, two days before I left for a week-long vacation on the coast of Florida. It was in my final visit that Marian related her burning-in-hell dream—and much more. That day, I learned the full scope of Marian’s affair with my father. Though I was intrigued, even titillated, I must admit, I couldn’t write about it. Until now.


People say we don’t control our feelings. I’ve declared we can control our actions. I’ve said that with righteous certainty, voice stern, the air of Mother Superior who knows no gray areas, only the black and white of her habit. Now I wonder.


Of course, we all make choices. But I wonder about the price some of those choices carry. I don’t know if Marian and my father could walk away from each other. From what they needed, which must have felt like salvation for them. Marian cradling my father’s grief in her maternal instinct, my father assuring Marian of her beauty and her purpose: caring for someone in a way no one else could.


I don’t know if my mother could walk away from what she needed. From the inflexible foundation of her fairy tale. From her imagined life, one that never aligned with the man who planted his feet deeply in the sands of uncertainty.


Watching Marian die, I declared they did the best they could. I don’t know where those words had lain hidden, breaking free from a corner of my crusted memory, surprising me. That day in August 2021, I deposited a great deal of questionable behavior under the category of doing the best they could.


While Marian lay in her hospice cocoon, I discovered she’d lied to me repeatedly about her relationship with my father. In 2009 when I first learned of the affair, she told me she’d been with my father for “several years” and that things ended abruptly with her pregnancy; she said my father suggested an abortion and Marian couldn’t abide this course. She claimed they never spoke again. However, she continued to be my mother’s best friend and often was in my father’s—and our family’s—company.


Marian couldn’t have known she revealed the truth as she mused about her past in the final days of her life. She spoke dreamily, often pausing to smile about how my father wrote her regularly while she was out of state, living in shame as she awaited the delivery of my sister—whom she turned over to the Catholic Charities’ adoption agency within hours of her birth. I knew Marian told the truth that day. I was certain he wrote her. I could imagine those letters, written two or three days apart. My father was a faithful correspondent with those he loved. I cherish letters he sent me while I was away at college.


“I had to leave Kansas City the day after I had the baby,” Marian said.


“That had to be awful,” I said. I couldn’t imagine her pain—the physical and emotional.


“Yes, it was hard. It was during a snowstorm, and I didn’t have chains on my tires. It was really hard to drive.”


I was silent, trying to picture this horror show when she jolted me from my thoughts.


“And then your dad met me in Booneville to drive me back to St. Louis.”


“What? He met you in Booneville?” This was a town halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.


“Yes, it was a long drive back, but he got me home.”


I was too greedy for information to mention the dissonance between the original story of the dead-end affair and what I was learning that day. I assumed Neil, my dad’s best friend and confidante, drove him to Booneville. I didn’t ask Marian lest I snap her back from her train of thought. My husband complains that I


“won’t let go” when I’m trying to figure something out. He’s right.


“When you got back in town, is that when you went to work in the doctors’ office?” This is a job my mom and Marian shared, working with an obstetrician and a surgeon.


“Oh, no, Patty. I didn’t go back there. I went to work at St. John’s Hospital.”


I tried to hang onto my matter-of-fact demeanor as I digested this news. Marian had told me the affair started when she worked with my father as an industrial nurse at his manufacturing plant. She’d led me to believe she got pregnant during those years. Thus, I assumed her stint with the physicians occurred after the pregnancy.


“So, you worked with the doctors after you worked at my dad’s company?’

Yes.”


“So, you got pregnant while you worked for the doctors.”


“Yes.”


“Remind me: how long did you work for them?”


“It was six or seven years.”


“I see.” That’s all I could say. Now the “several years” of the affair stretched to a decade—or possibly more. I’m certain my father must have made a pitch to Marian to resume their relationship after the birth of their baby. He didn’t drive through a snowstorm for nothing. And I know my father. He was more than a little in love with Marian. He recklessly risked the life he lived to seek comfort with her.


Possibly most jarring was the realization that Marian wasn’t working with my father when she became pregnant. She was working with my mother.


“Dr. M was great.” Marian was on a roll, reflecting on the physician practice while I calculated dates, children my mother bore during my father’s affair, and the depth of the betrayal—many years—a betrayal she must have suspected. She knew my father had girlfriends starting in the early days of their marriage. She knew he had a close relationship with Marian when they worked together; there were many tells that lead me to understand she knew about this consequential, long affair. But just as I know my father, I know my mother, too. She never would have said aloud what she suspected. She may have known the storybook tale of her marriage had molded but didn’t want to smell the rot.


“He arranged for one of his obstetrician friends in Kansas City to do my prenatal and delivery,” Marian continued with her ode to Dr. M.


“Oh, that must have been a relief,” I said.


Faced with impossible choices, we explain, justify, beg forgiveness—to ease our torn hearts—but we carry on no matter our decisions. Like my parents, like Marian, I’m a living contradiction, ping-ponging between what I think is right and what I want. Sometimes I’m not able to tell the difference.


I’ve always felt sympathy for the three of them. Some days I feel righteous indignation that Marian and my dad could betray my mother. Other days, I grieve for them. They were in love and risked much to find comfort with each other. And I grieve for my mother, for the dreams she had as a young woman, the dreams she nurtured long after she knew they’d evaporated. On those days, I feel guilty for understanding my dad and Marian.


And with only a touch of shame, I revel in digging out the weeds of this trio’s misery. Sometimes I wish I could stay clear of the buried secrets that lay beneath others’ well-pruned gardens. But most of the time I take a machete and shovel to what others avoid. On a righteous day, I congratulate myself because I “won’t let go.” Today, I paused to think otherwise. Then I landed back on my auto-reset. I’ll always dig.


And I’ll always write about what I find.


And in the end, I’ll always love the three of them. I’ll always wish they could have had the lives they deserved. They’re all gone now. I like to think they’re together and at peace, maybe even with joy.


Maybe I have a touch of my mother in me, the woman who holds to a happy ending. Maybe I have some of my father, the man who persisted in seeking what he needed. And maybe I have a touch of Marian, the woman who loved both my parents and could justify the unthinkable.


BIO

Patricia Feeney lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and three family pets. Her work has appeared in The Lindenwood Review, Bayou Magazine (Pushcart nominee), Windmill Journal of Literature and Art, Inscape, Adelaide Literary Journal, biostories, Grub Street Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.



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1 Comment


Unknown member
Aug 01, 2023

Beautiful piece of writing about longing, needs, desire, love and betrayal. A poignant peek at the human condition.

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