Bonfire of the Remedies



630 Ninth Avenue, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Clinton

My mother’s narrow little medicine chest is a joke to her. It’s quaint. It’s for amateurs. She keeps her medicine in the kitchen cabinet and the kitchen drawers and the candy dishes. Her canisters for coffee and flour and sugar are filled with Lipitor and Propranalol and Prozac. She could collapse from overmedication at any moment, anywhere in her condo, and still be within reach of at least five little brown bottles.

But mention cutting back on the meds—especially the expired stuff she gets from the lady upstairs—and she screams, “I NEED my medicine. I KNOW MY OWN BODY!” And she does. She stays on top of it. She’s taken over all of her body’s involuntary functions because she thinks she knows how to do it better. She wears her blood pressure cuff all day long and checks it on the hour, like a big rubber watch.

One day, the phone rings five minutes after I get to work and I know it’s my mother, because she’s the only one who calls five minutes after I get to work. I also know it’s her because even from my office on 9th Avenue in Manhattan, I can see her 84-year-old voice coiling up the phone cord all the way from Florida, like a spark on a fuse, until it hits and the receiver and goes off like a fire alarm. Which reminds me to put out my cigarette before I pick up. If I don’t, she’ll hear me inhaling smoke instead of air and say, “You know, cigarettes killed your father.” And then she’ll be ahead, points-wise.

She’s already talking when I get the phone to my ear. She wants to make sure I renewed the insurance policy that covers her prescriptions—her dozens of prescriptions. Without the coverage, she could never afford her medicine. Without the coverage, she’ll go broke in a month. Then she’ll run out of pills, which she thinks she needs to keep her heart pumping. Then she’ll die. Then she’ll blame it on me.

Which is why my heart stops when she asks me about it, because I don’t even know where the renewal application is. She mailed me the forms and her financial statements two months ago, but when I opened the envelope and it wasn’t a birthday card with money, I put it aside to fill out later. I do remember it was an irreplaceable-looking official document with account numbers and financial questions and my mother’s signature, which she signed before mailing it. And a line of red type: TO AVOID CANCELLATION OF THIS POLICY, RETURN PROMPTLY BY_____. A date that was now two days away. She could have called earlier to remind me, but as usual, she waited until the last possible minute, after she was sure I screwed up. Because I have to learn. And she believes that panic is the best teacher. (She lived though the War in Europe.)

I can’t tell her I already mailed in the application because she’ll hear me lying, the same way she can hear me smoking, from 2,000 miles away. So I tell her I’ll do it tonight. It’s at home. Which may be the truth, for all I know—I have no idea where it is.

“You lost it!” she says.

“No!” I say, “It’s at home…It’s probably at home.”

My mother takes care of herself. She vacuums. She does her own laundry. She pays the maintenance on her one-bedroom condo in Florida. She survives hurricanes. She calls the phone company if she sees something funny on her bill. She understands her phone bill. The only thing she leaves to me is this one life-and-death detail. I think she wants to see exactly how much I want her to live.

“Andreas,” she says (she refuses to call me Andy like everybody else. She named me Andreas. It’s my slave name), “I need my medicine. How could you be so sloppy? Is that how you run your business?” As a matter of fact it is. I have nothing but 22-cent stamps and dried-out Bics.

Now I need my cigarettes. I’m staring at them the whole time she’s telling me what’ll happen if she loses her insurance. She goes through the classic stages of dying—denial, anger, depression, but she’s strong enough to slam down the phone before she gets to “acceptance.”

Then I light up a Merit and start tearing apart my1,000 square foot office looking for her 11-inch envelope. I’m digging though piles of unopened mail that look important, IRS stuff mainly, but I keep going. If my mother’s envelope isn’t here, I’ll have to run home and tear up my apartment, too. I’ve got to get this thing in the mail now. I can’t believe I let this happen—again.

I’m losing hope, thinking she’s got me this time, when suddenly there it is, under a pile of junk mail. Right where I left it. I pull out the renewal application and the bank statements and I immediately fill in the blanks.

Then I pick up the phone and call my mother. I’m back on top, so I don’t even put out the cigarette. Besides, I can always spin the receiver away from my mouth so she won’t hear me when I take a puff. But when she answers, I chicken out and lay the cigarette in the ashtray and I say, “Okay, it’s done. You worry too much.”

I can hear her breathing. I can tell she’s trying to regroup. She’s looking for an angle but she can’t find one. I’m in total control.

So I reach for my cigarette.

But it’s not in the ashtray.

It rolled off, and is now smoldering on top of the insurance forms. It’s in the middle of an expanding brown hole with glowing edges. It’s burning right through the account numbers, the social security number, the pre-paid return envelope—everything that means anything.

I tell my mother I better get it in the mail right away, hang up, and frantically swat out the flames. I was THIS CLOSE, and now everything is literally up in smoke. The only readable thing left in the pile of ash is the insurance company’s logo and a 1-800 phone number. I call and—miraculously—a human answers. The woman on the line laughs when I confess what’s going on—I’m way too rattled to think up any lies. She tells me not to panic. I’ve still got two days until the deadline. She’ll just overnight me a new application with all the important info. I have plenty of time to fill it out and overnight it right back to her. I tell her to make sure she sends it to me, not my mother. Then just to be sure, I tell her again: “Send it to me, not my mother.”

Thankfully, it arrives the next morning at nine. As I fill out the forms, I am suddenly, eerily reminded of forging my mother’s signature on my report cards as a boy. I lick the envelope closed and I’m at FedEx by eleven, waiting in line and wondering why my mother keeps asking me to handle this stuff when it just pisses us both off.

As the line snakes forward, I realize why she keeps trying. She could easily handle it herself, but she wants to give me a chance to get it right. And that makes me less annoyed. Stepping up to the counter, I swear to myself that I’ll get better at this kind of thing.

Because Mom won’t be around forever. And when she passes on—well, funerals are complicated. Who knows what kind of paperwork I’ll have to deal with.

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