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October 29, 2019

In my Mother’s Kitchen: Back in Cleveland with LeBron. {Chapter 4}

*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you. Head to the author’s profile to continue reading, or start with Chapter One.

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The spring after my mother’s death, when I return to Cleveland, is also the first year LeBron James is back in Cleveland.

LeBron. LeBron James. I keep hearing that name and it means nothing to me.

Sports had never been my thing growing up, to watch or to play. I was the proverbial last kid picked for the kickball team. The klutz who dropped the ball. Unlike my brother and sister who thrived on team sports, I was happiest swimming, riding my bike, or taking a walk by the river. Michael was a tennis champ with trophies piled high in his old bedroom. My sister, Laurie, excelled in volleyball. I hadn’t watched an NBA game since high school. And, I’d lived without a TV for years.

“Everyone’s heard of LeBron,” Laurie informs me one night around the dinner table at her house. Bob, my brother-in-law, has made his delicious roasted potatoes, smothered in herbs. I heap a large spoonful onto my plate.

“Not me.”

“He’s a basketball superstar,” my nephew Sam explains. “He’s back in Cleveland playing for the Cavaliers. He was here before. He’s from Cleveland, but he left to go play for Miami.”

I remember the Cavaliers. I’d gone to a game once, when they played out at the old Coliseum. Now they have a new stadium downtown, Sam tells me. The Q. Hearing all this seems extraneous to my life, but at least I know who LeBron James is.

~

I settle into a rhythm being in Cleveland, in my dad’s house. He sleeps late on Sundays, I spend the morning reading his New York Times. After I finish each section, I fold it up neatly so it appears as-delivered on the kitchen table by the time he comes down for breakfast.

My dad’s routines are well established. First he reads the Cleveland Plain Dealer, while he drinks coffee and eats cereal. By about 1:00 he places the New York Times on his walker and makes his way to the den to watch whatever game is playing. I take the Arts and Leisure and Book Review to the living room and settle into the red chair with its wide ottoman, the perfect place for the generous Sunday paper.

My brother often comes by on Sundays. He works until two, then picks up a sandwich for my dad and himself, and together they watch the game.

One Sunday, Michael brings over a new, large flat screen TV. My dad’s old TV was about 24 inches wide and it was hard to see the players. I come in while my brother sets up the new TV and am dazzled by the clarity of the picture, but head back to the living room to read.

The new television is a hit. Laurie and Bob start coming over to watch the games. Sam comes when he can. Michael comes more often. The Cavs are headed for the playoffs. Cheering and clapping from the den makes its way to the living room. One night I put down my book and join my nephew and sister on the hospital bed which is now like the bleachers—three of us crammed into it, leaning against the wall, to watch the game.

To watch the game! I start to watch the game. And it’s magic. There’s LeBron, number 23, always at the center of the action. A towering figure of grace who never gives up and makes impossible shots look like poetry.

I don’t know anything about basketball. Have never heard of three point shots. But LeBron makes them. All the time.

My dad’s patient with my questions. “Where’s the place on the court where it becomes a three point shot instead of two? Why does he get two foul shots this time, and sometimes only one?”

He played basketball in high school. There’s a photo of him in gym shorts and a T-shirt in the den, and a story of how he won a game making a half court shot.

I have other questions too. When did basketball players become so much like dancers? They make jumps that defy gravity, exhibit team work that’s a joy to behold.

I hadn’t realized the level of collaboration that’s part of basketball. As a playwright, one of my favorite things is the collaboration involved in producing a play. I appreciate the nuances that go into making a team come together. I get hooked on the beauty of the game and the pleasure of watching Cleveland win.

Never before had I opened up the sports page, but now it’s the first thing I read in the morning. I want to learn the players’ names and numbers so I can follow them during the game. Kyrie Irving is number two. Kevin Love is number zero. They and LeBron are the Big Three on this team. The ones who are supposed to bring us to a championship.

That was LeBron’s promise when he came back. A championship. Cleveland had not won a championship in any professional sport in 52 years. Cleveland fans are loyal. They never give up cheering for their teams. But they’re hungry for a win.

Cleveland. The Mistake on the Lake. The city where the river caught on fire. Every late night talk show host loved to make fun of Cleveland. Not anymore. With LeBron back in town, this city starts to call itself “Believeland.” Believeland is something I can relate to.

I don’t know if every fan in Cleveland has a personal story that parallels that of the long-suffering Cavaliers, but I do. I witness the games and the Cavs’ rise to greatness, in the den, either sitting on my father’s recliner—he now sits on my Mom’s blue chair—or on the hospital bed-turned-couch, where she’d slept all those years.

The possibility of a championship in my hometown, which has been the perpetual underdog, not to mention the butt of so many jokes, means a lot to me the spring after my mother has died.

When I start reading the sports page, I see the phrase “long drought”—all those years without a championship. I know something about long droughts.

My mother’s aneurysm burst in her brain in 1983, the year after I graduated from college:

I’m living on Cape Cod, Laurie’s visiting me. We get back to the house after a walk on the beach to the sound of the phone ringing. It’s my father. Your mother’s had an aneurysm. You have to come home.”

What’s an aneurysm?”

He doesn’t answer, only repeats, “You have to come home.”

Mom’s always in the hospital,” Laurie says. “Why do we have to go home?”

We drive to New York City and get on a plane to Cleveland. My dad picks us up from the airport and we go right to the hospital, straight up to intensive care.

Over the next few decades, I stopped counting the number of times I took that trip: airport to intensive care. Ten years after my mom’s aneurysm, she fractured her skull. I got another call, made another plane trip, sat in vigil in the waiting room outside the ICU, and waited for her to wake up from a coma.

After six months she’s released from the hospital. She can no longer walk up the stairs. She sleeps in a hospital bed in the den. She has the concentration span of a two year old and asks incessant questions.

What’s the capital of Louisiana?”

A minute later.

What’s the capital of Louisiana?”

More damage in her already damaged brain.

A year passes. She reads, has the TV on constantly, needs help to stand up or sit on the toilet. Her questions are hard, but other things are harder. Awful words come out of her mouth.

Another year passes, she mostly doesn’t read. She’s in diapers, will say things she doesn’t want to say, things we don’t want to hear.

Another year passes, she’s in the ICU again, she can’t eat. A feeding tube gets inserted. I learn to open a can of Ensure and pour it into the plastic bag, and then pour a glass of water to flush the tube.

Her eyes grow wide with remorse after she spits out harsh words. The words sting, even if I know she has no control over them.

Another year goes by.

Another year goes by.

Another year.

Another year.

When she was sent home from the hospital after she fractured her skull, the doctors didn’t expect her to leave her bed. She lived another 25 years. My father cared for her at home. Visiting Cleveland meant seeing her lose what was left of her life, bit by bit.

She lived in the den and I avoided that room as much as I could. When she began to need diapers and a feeding tube, I couldn’t avoid it completely, but I never stayed long after my task was done.

My dad, when he retired, always read the paper and his books in the den. He encouraged me to sit with her when I came home to visit, but I never got used to the words she said.

“Ignore her, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” he’d tell me.

In the year 2012, my dad had knee surgery. I came to stay for two weeks and got more comfortable with all the tasks that were part of my mother’s daily care.

Getting her ready for bed wasn’t easy. She couldn’t pull her arm out of her sweater when it was time put on her nightgown. She couldn’t pick up her foot to help me slide her diaper off.

Her frustration at being so helpless, combined with a damaged frontal lobe, meant that at some point during the bedtime routine I was likely to hear, “I hate you.” She had lost the inhibitory function that prevents most of us from saying out loud the words that run through our heads. There were years when “I hate you” was the most common thing I heard her say.

“Don’t you think she means ‘I hate this situation?’” well-meaning cousins would ask. Of course, that made sense. “I hate you” was what she said. At the end of my mother’s life, she spoke in a barely audible whisper, but it was never hard to hear her when she said those words.

She’d been whispering for decades. A tracheotomy left her vocal chords damaged. No amount of speech therapy brought them back.

I had to listen hard, to figure out what she was saying. And most of the time I didn’t want to because what came out of her mouth reflected her damaged brain. I’d grown accustomed to her whisper and to ignoring it when the words got mean, or ugly, or annoying.

Hearing my mother say words that I didn’t want to hear was familiar. When I was young and the depression took over, she screamed things no child wants to hear her mother say. I learned to protect myself from her words. And so when they changed, I almost missed it.

I’m sitting beside her in the den. Same hospital bed where she’d been sleeping for years. Same blue chair next to the bed, where she sat during the day. Same feeding tube hanging on a pole with its clear plastic bag.

Same whisper. Raspy breath, voice so soft you could almost mistake it for the wind. She leans toward me in her nightgown, trying to make herself understood.

I keep my eyes glued to my book, until her persistence tugs at me and I turn toward her. Her voice is so hard to hear. I study the shape of her lips. “I love you” seems to be what she’s saying.

I’ve not heard her say those words since the aneurysm. Almost 30 years. So many other words, not these.

I love you.”

I heard it whispered over and over in the two years before she died. When I was out of town my dad would put her on the phone; it was what she said.

More than once, I’d be changing her diaper and she began to say “I hate…” and stopped, mid-sentence, to say “I love you.”

There’s no medical reason to explain what allowed her to say those words at the end of her life. The neurologists had long ago told us there was nothing they could do for her.

I love you.

Those words soothed. They became a balm. In the final year of my mother’s life, she whispered “I love you” over and over, as if she wanted to erase all the other words she’d spoken to us, when she wasn’t able to hold them back.

Her whisper followed me to New Mexico after her funeral. And it is one of the reasons I find myself living in that house, the spring after her death, when LeBron James is back in Cleveland, changing the story of this city that’s gotten used to losing but still hopes—badly—to win.

~

To the reader: Basketball was one of the sources of my joy and my transformation when I went back to Cleveland after my mother died. It was so unexpected, yet in retrospect, the timing seems perfect. What has come into your life in an unexpected way, taking you in new directions, opening up new doorways? Reflect on it and write about it, if you feel called to.

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