After doctors diagnosed my mother with breast cancer in September, I gambled with my chances of catching COVID-19 and flew to visit her and my dad in New Mexico. I risked infecting them with a deadly virus, but cancer was tangible and a known threat. Besides, I reasoned, I could wear a mask whenever we were together.
I wondered whether my trip would mark the evolution in our relationship as parent and child, where the roles flipped. But when I awoke the day after my arrival, I realized my error when I saw smoke pooling under the living room ceiling.
A freak snowstorm had blown through New Mexico, blanketing the pinyon pines that dot the landscape with a layer of lumpy slush. It can take hours to heat my parents’ drafty pueblo-style home, so my mother lit a fire. However, the logs were too close to the hearth and, now, smoke streamed out over the loveseat, the cowhide armchair and Navajo rugs.
With characteristic apathy, my mother sat at her computer checking email, even after the fire alarm started blaring. “All this stuff is trivial to me,” she said. “It’s interesting.”
I moved to snuff the fire, and she ordered me to stop. My mother plucked a jute doormat from the floor and folded it across a metal fire screen, plugging the opening of the kiva firebox.
“What are you doing?” I whined. “Mom, it’ll catch on fire.”
“Relax, I do this all the time.”
Of the three of us, I appeared to be the only one coughing. My father suggested I open the doors and turn on a fan.
As smoke continued to leach into the living room, I made another pass. Lifting the screen, which had warmed in front of the flames, I felt my fingertips sear. The storm also had knocked out the electricity, and because we lacked running water, I resorted to digging my blistering fingers into a mound of snow outside.
“Bennet, did you put more wood on the fire?” my mother asked.
As an adult child, I have yet to discard the belief that I can improve my parents, seeking to push them to become better versions of themselves. If anything, as they age into the mid-70s, they care less about the impact their actions have on those around them.
Whether it be the rotting banana peels and broccoli stalks, my mother leaves in the trashcan that attract a hoard of fruit flies or the classical music my father plays at all hours, their behavior suggests, “Well, we don’t have a whole lotta time left, so might as well do what we want.” They push, and I regress, firing off childhood grievances.
Over the telephone, I griped to my boyfriend. Meanwhile, my mother laid out a spread of ointments on the kitchen counter. I counted tubes of hydrocortisone, Neosporin and hemorrhoid cream.
“It doesn’t know what end it’s on,” she remarked from the other room.