Road rage coursed through Stephanie’s veins. The truck ahead cut her off as she took the last exit off the highway to Mamaw’s house. She didn’t dare give the beat-up Dodge Ram the middle finger – she knew what people like that guy kept in their backseat around here.
Her audiobook, the latest addition to her never-ending self-help collection, had run out hours ago, leaving Stephanie to her own thoughts. She picked her faux leather steering wheel cover raw. She felt her pulse quicken at the last few turns. At the last stoplight, before the rural highway began, Stephanie pulled out her phone. She texted a quick almost there, no signal, love you. :) to Manny. Then she texted her mom: See you in 15 minutes.
Thirty minutes later, Stephanie was settled in the guest bedroom of her Mamaw’s white farmhouse. Perfunctory “how are yous” and “how’s Chicago” out of the way, she took a break from her family to change clothes and catch a breather. She tried to quiet her mind with a mindfulness meditation technique from her latest book but gave herself a headache instead.
Stephanie itched to tell Manny all the gory details of the drive and give a small update on Mamaw’s health before they visited tomorrow. She was warned several times that “this visit may be her last chance.”
So all she had to do was coast in the background for a day so she could see Mamaw, and she might just make it out with her sanity.
A cackle of laughs from the living room split the air, her mom and aunts must be catching up, the Coors Lite flowing freely. Stephanie laid back on the bed and shut her eyes for a moment.
Footsteps, a knock, a pause.
It was Mom. She poked her head through the door. Her candy floss blonde hair was still teased to high heaven, even though she had taken off her face for the evening. She entered the room fully, pink leopard PJs and all.
Mom opened a Coors in one hand, producing a second one and offering it to Stephanie. Stephanie shook her head no in response to the beer.
Stephanie noticed that the frown lines between her mother’s eyes had deepened since she had seen her two years ago. She offered her mom a small, quick approximation of a smile by means of greeting.
“I’m really tired, Mom. I think I want to crash after that drive.”
A hurt look, which her Mom quickly covered with a smile in return.
“Of course, honey.” She said as she exited the room with her beers. “I love you.”
Stephanie nodded and said, “Goodnight.”
Her mom waited a moment, then exited the room.
9 a.m. rolled around, and after fights over the shower and one toilet, they were all loaded up in Aunt Linda’s white SUV. The Weakley County Memorial Hospital was a 45-minute car ride away. Her mom and aunts appeared to be fighting hangovers, so they let their Whatever Conservative Shock-Jock radio host do the talking for them.
Three blocks away from the hospital, the topic switched to “liberal safe spaces.” Aunt Deana turned to her.
“Don’t they have those safe spaces at your university, Stephanie?” Aunt Deana snickered and winked at Mom.
Stephanie’s stomach sank. She needed Aunt Linda to accelerate.
“Oh look, we’re here,” said Mom, though they were still a block away from the hospital. Aunt Deana seemed to get the hint – or at least she stayed quiet for the last few minutes of the ride.
They all clambered out of the vehicle in the parking lot. The two aunts and one mom went for the double doors, with Stephanie lingering by the car.
“You guys go ahead, I’m going to make a phone call.”
Both Aunts looked at each other. Her mom nodded her head and said, “Just ask for Winifred Lee at the front desk.”
Stephanie gave a thumbs up to her family as she pulled out her phone. She didn’t give any of the notifications the second thought as she swiped to call Manny.
One ring and it was picked up at once.
“Hey, baby,” said the soft voice on the other line. “I was getting worried, but I figured you’d call as soon as you got a signal.”
“Yeah,” said Stephanie, as she made her way near a concrete ashtray an appropriate distance away from the automatic doors.
“Nothing … yet. It’s not been too bad so far – but I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Hesitation punctuated the silence.
“Did they mention me?”
“Luckily, no, babe,” Stephanie said, rubbing her wedding band. “And mom just put the brakes on a lecture on safe spaces.”
“That’s fairly good for them, Steph. Maybe they’re trying?”
“Uh, maybe.” Stephanie sighed and noticed the approach of a smoker with a Red dangling between his lips. “Hey, I’m going to let you go before I bum a cigarette off some guy in Weakley County, Tennessee.”
“Good choice. I prefer you cancer-free.”
Stephanie smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you too, babe.” Stephanie hung up. The phone’s screen lingered on the contact photo of her wife as the call ended and she never felt so far away from home.
Stephanie put her phone back in her pocket and walked through the automatic doors. She waved to the receptionist and said: “Here for Winifred Lee.”
The older nurse helped her sign in, pointed her to the correct elevator and told her how to get to her room on the 4th floor. Stephanie crossed to the elevator, punched the up button and ascended.
The door was cracked a little bit to Mamaw’s room and Stephanie pushed it open. Aunt Linda, Aunt Deana, and her mom stood in a semi-circle around Mamaw’s bed. They stopped talking as she entered, but Stephanie tried to not read into it.
“Hi, Mamaw,” said Stephanie at a louder-than-usual volume. “Glad to see they’re treatin’ you alright.”
Mamaw was propped up in bed, looking a bit paler and frailer than Stephanie remembered under her shock of freshly dyed strawberry blonde hair.
“We were just telling Mamaw about your new job at the University,” said her mom.
“Yeah, I really enjoy it,” Stephanie said, directing the reply at Mamaw.
“Well ... good …” said Mamaw in her southern drawl.
Aunt Linda, Aunt Deana and her mom continued to chatter about local friends, family and former high school teachers. Stephanie couldn’t tell if Mamaw was actually understood what was happening or if she was just being polite.
Stephanie crossed the room and picked up Mamaw’s paper-white hand. The frailty of her petite palm, like a small bird, nestled in Stephanie’s. Her mom and aunts lead the conversation for another three hours, pulling chairs up to better gossip closer with Mamaw, and Stephanie didn’t let go.
They rode home in actual silence this time. Stephanie felt a note of finality about the visit she couldn’t shake. The trip back took even less time and, after picking up some KFC for lunch, they were back at Mamaw’s house.
The Aunts and her mom were starting to chat again as they exited the car. Stephanie followed the aunts inside, with one going for the remote and another for a pitcher of sangria. Stephanie went to go hide on the back porch, this time with her own Coors Light.
She watched some deer cross the pasture, hearing distant moos from the cows down at Billy Cruther’s dairy down the highway. The door opened and closed; her mother sat down next to her on the porch swing. She had just the one beer that she had started to nurse.
“Hey, I’m sorry if that was a shock to you this afternoon.”
Stephanie didn’t know what to say. It was a shock to her. She took a sip of beer and continued to watch the deer.
“If it’s any consolation,” her mother continued, “She hasn’t been like this for long. Just maybe a couple months. She’s had symptoms of dementia for a real long time, but now that she’s been hospitalized for her fall—”
“How was THAT supposed to be a consolation?”
Her mom looked taken aback.
Stephanie took a deep breath to settle her temper. She wiped her face on her shirt. “Nothing, never mind.”
“No, just say it. You’ve already started to speak your mind.”
Stephanie paused, but felt like a dam burst inside her and she spit out words in a torrent.
“It feels like you’re punishing me for not patching it up with you to visit Mamaw or something.” Stephanie’s voice increased in volume. “I mean, it was YOUR fault after Mann— Amanda and I had gotten engaged and you flipped out on me with all this God stuff that I didn’t know you still believed in.”
As soon as she yelled the last part, Stephanie regretted it. Instead of her mother snapping back with her trademark temper, she crumpled a bit where she sat on the porch swing.
“Stephanie … all I wanted was grandbabies.”
Without another word, Stephanie went back inside, grabbed her bag (which was still packed), and went out to her car.
The Aunts, followed by her mother, came outside.
“Stephanie,” asked Aunt Linda, “What are you doing?”
And her mother, face red and wet, let her go.
Two months later and she received the notice of Mamaw’s passing. Stephanie went to the memorial service, Manny’s hand never leaving her own. Extended family kept their distance, which was fine by Stephanie.
Manny stopped with Stephanie by the doors to the church. She started to offer to get the car, but her voice trailed away when Stephanie’s eyes locked with her mother’s. Not even Mom’s trademark racoon eyeliner could mask the tearful puffiness.
Manny leaned over, kissed Stephanie on the cheek, and said, “You should go talk to her.”
As her wife went to get the car, Stephanie walked over to her mother, who offered her a watery smile.
“She was very proud of you, you know,” her mom offered, as she dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue.
Stephanie was unsure of what to say.
“Just like how proud I am of you, honey.”
Stephanie was given a chance to collect her thoughts as Manny pulled the car up to the front door.
“You’ll always be my baby, Stephanie. Please remember that.”
Stephanie reached for her mom’s slightly frail hand to give it a squeeze.
She loaded up in the car, and she and Manny set off – following the turns of the familiar country roads until they turned into stretches of all-too similar interstate.