Cleo was sitting at the kitchen table with her mother in her mom’s tiny single-wide mobile home, trying to stay patient as she explained, for the fifth time at least, what her visit schedule for the week was going to be.
“I’m working tomorrow night, so I won’t be here,” she said yet again. “But Mrs. Stevenson’s going to be over after Jo leaves.”
“She doesn’t have to,” her mom snapped, tearing her roll in half and setting it down on the plate.
Cleo took a breath. “She will,” she said. “And I’ll be back the day after. Jo’s going back to Maine the day after tomorrow, so she won’t be around anymore. And I’ll be spending a few nights.”
“You could all just leave me alone,” her mother said, picking up one of the pieces of bread and breaking it into smaller pieces, the crumbs falling on her plate. “Why don’t you just leave me alone? I don’t even know who you are.”
Cleo’s stomach dropped and what little appetite she’d had was gone now. As her mother scattered breadcrumbs on the kitchen table, she tried to remind herself that this was expected. Her mom had dementia and was being cared for. It wasn’t like it was last winter, when Cleo was worried and trying to figure out the extent of the issues without her mother’s cooperation. Now she knew the extent, and the struggle was accepting them.
Her mother had always been introverted to the point of being almost agoraphobic. She and Cleo’s father, who had been very similar, had divorced years ago on very friendly terms and Cleo was pretty sure they didn’t talk regularly. Then, after Cleo left, she and her mother had kept their relationship pretty much just to phone calls. The fact that Cleo knew her mother preferred it that way helped her not feel guilty about it. They had both been living their own lives in a way that benefited everyone.
But now her mother had someone at the house every single day. And if she wanted to stay here instead of going to an assisted living program like the doctors had mentioned, she was going to need to allow the others to be here, even when she didn’t want company. And the need for support was only going to increase as her dementia progressed.
Cleo had been turning assisted living over in her mind since the doctor mentioned it at the last appointment. Her mother had gone quiet at the mention of a home, but it hadn’t been an angry, stewing sort of quiet. She’d seemed almost afraid. The doctor hadn’t tried to push the conversation. Instead, she’d slipped Cleo a brochure and offered any help that they might need. Cleo had made sure to put the brochure straight into her glove compartment and not let her mother see it. But that night, she’d read it over and gone to their website to learn more, trying to ignore the feeling of hopelessness welling up inside her as she read about their memory care options and how much they cost.
If she could figure out how to pay for it, maybe an assisted living facility would be good for her mother. She could have her own apartment at a lot of these places, or a suite at least. There was privacy and independence. But for now, they didn’t have the money for any of these places anyway. So it didn’t matter how anyone felt about them.
“It’s me, Cleo,” she said instead of crying. “Your daughter.”
“I have a daughter named Cleo.”
“She lives in Boston. She’s a musician.”
Well, now she lived in Fitchburg. But she was still a musician. And she’d rather be a musician living in Boston, but that was a self-pitying thought for another time.
“Is Cleo going to come visit?” her mom asked.
The eager tinge to her voice was painful and soft at the same time. “I’m here now,” Cleo said gently.
The dinner roll was shredded now, so Cleo got up and picked up another from the counter. Mrs. Stevenson had brought over lunch from the general store. Roasted chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes. It was good, but her mother had only eaten a few bites, then snapped at Cleo for trying to get her to eat more.
Either way, she put the roll down on her mother’s plate.
Her phone rang, and she pulled it out of her pocket. Andrew was calling. “I’ll be right back,” she said as her mom began buttering the fresh roll.
She stepped out onto the back stairs and answered the call. “Hello?”
“Cleo! Are you in town today?”
Andrew sounded happier than he’d sounded in a while. But he was calling from inside New Winslow, so it couldn’t be that the curse was broken. “I am,” she said. “I’ll be at my mom’s a little while longer until Mrs. Stevenson comes back. Why?”
“Come over tonight. Olivia quit Keegan’s in possibly the most fantastic manner I’ve ever heard.”
She’d finally quit that horrible job. Cleo had been planning to have a quiet night at home by herself tonight, but even though this was in New Winslow, it sounded much better. “I’m leaving here at six,” she said. “What should I bring?”
“I’ll be ordering some pizzas. If you could get some soft drinks, whatever the general store has.”
“Sounds good,” she said. “I’ll text you when I’m leaving. How’s Liv?”
“Other than in shock? Good.”
His voice lowered. “Honestly, I’m really hoping this helps. I know it hasn’t been that long, but I’m worried about her.”
“Me too,” Cleo admitted. “But not working herself to death will help, I hope.”
Her mom’s voice came out the door into the cold afternoon air. “I gotta go,” Cleo said. “See you tonight.”
She hung up and took a deep breath, letting it out in a crystallized cloud. Then she turned and went back inside.