My mother and I are working our way down to Moab, where I will be leaving her in the care of my brother. A road trip with her is a risky thing; in motion, she can become as unmoored as any poor creature in the universe, and as desperate. Thus, I have put Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in the tape deck, thinking it will sooth her and, if our luck holds, buy us a hundred or so miles of calm. It’s worked. For a long time we have been mostly silent, caught in a spell of organ and strings.
Suddenly she blurts, “What is this music? Don’t you have anything more lively?”
“Have a look,” I say, a bit annoyed that my ploy is failing.
She rummages through the box of tapes on the seat between us and selects the reggae radio mix that my best lost buddy Bruce taped in Albuquerque in 1980, and that he later willed to me.
“What exactly is reggae?” she asks. “Is it like foxtrot?”
“Well, not exactly. You’ll see.”
We put the tape in when we pull off the Interstate onto the river road that will eventually take us into town. Bob Marley lets loose an ungodly scream, and I expect her to recoil, but she is perched attentively on her seat. She asks, in fact, which is the volume dial, and turns it up a notch. She guesses at the instruments, tries to puzzle out the words.
At the Dewey Bridge river crossing, I recall, more for myself than for her, how Bruce and I, tripping down this very road fifteen years ago, pulled off here and went swimming.
“Naked, I suppose,” she says, and I say, simply, “Yes.” She asks me then about Bruce—remembers accurately his awkward, lonely aura. She remarks how hard it must have been to lose him.
“Yes, yes it was,” I say, surprised that she recalls his passing, that she recalls anything at all about him. And I am moved, suddenly, to be having such a coherent conversation with her, of a sort I had thought I would never have again.
I ask her if she’d mind if I drank a beer to his memory and she says, “No, not at all,” so I pull over and get one from the back. She leans her head back and exults in the red rock wonders, the great sheer cliffs, “as if God Himself were playing house.” Rounding a bend, we are met with the astonishing white backdrop of the La Sal Mountains, looming above this red world, and she exclaims, “My lord, I have never seen anything as beautiful as this in all of my born days!” — words that, at home, I would dismiss as the quaint hyperbole of a person without a memory, but that out here are the worthy and futile attempts to express an absolute truth.
Now the thoughts are roiling through me: today, she is not the burden we have let her become in the time that she has been a member of our house, she is not a responsibility that weighs on me, she is not—forgive me—the fretful soul whose continual repetitions I learned to ignore or divert or even, at my worst, rebuke. She is, on this afternoon of wondrous clarity, an old friend sharing a journey on the most beautiful road in the world. I am flooded with warmth for her of a kind that I do not remember ever feeling, and I think: Let me pay as close attention to this day as I can, let me imprint it forever.
Then, as stunning and as chilling as the white flank of that great peak, a contrast of a different sort assails me: for her, there will be no—there is no–imprint being made. No chance for us of the rare pleasure that connects two people forever: the shared memory of a day lived well together, a bond as unique as any in the universe. There will be only aloneness, hers and mine, and I feel then a flutter of the unrest that so often rises in her—this is not acceptable!
“Mom,” I tell her, “it may well be that you will forget this afternoon, but I don’t want you to worry because I am going to remember it for both of us.”
Her hand reaches over and clasps my sleeve, and her voice rings with relief. “Oh would you please? That would mean so much.”
“I promise,” I say, and it is a long time before she lets go of my sleeve.
We come upon a dirt road forking to the left and I veer onto it, and we advance more slowly into the next dimension, where the earth, the road, the very air is suffused with red. I roll down the window; she edges the music up a bit more. After a while I say, “Well, you know, it may be some time before I can turn this thing around,” and she says, “Well, I’m in no hurry for you to do so.”
Eventually, we find a place to pull over. I help her out of the car and, slowly, to the back bumper where we sit, taking pleasure in the tinkling of water in the tiny creek, inspecting a clot of earth and hay at our feet (“Horseshit,” I say, and she denies it, and bends down to pick it up, and we pass it back and forth), thrilling to the red whirlwind that sweeps from right to left in front of us (“dust devil is too mean a word,” she declares, and so we coin new ones, angel fire, wind rider), wondering aloud together why things grow where they do and not where they don’t, turning our attention time and again to the horizon-line, where three craggy shapes are etched against that piercing blue. She declares them to be St. Joseph leading two women, Mary and Martha, on a journey. The cathedral spires blazing behind them in the late sun are not mere metaphors; they are the place to which the saints are bound.
I look at her, perched on the bumper beside me, her white hair jutting out beneath the baseball cap, a black vest pulled up around her neck, her eyes gleaming behind those dark glasses. She takes a tiny sip of the beer that I pass to her, licks her lips, passes it back. She extends her arm and with her fingertip traces yet again the contours of that sacred height, and again recites the litany of the saints. I realize that I am as content as I have ever been. Come what may, there is nothing between us now but love, just as it was at the beginning.