“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges
The house I was raised in had a room called the library and it was, as befitted its name, filled with books. The house needed repair and sat on a rutted dirt road close to the city limits. Neighbors, few and far between, were blue-collar Italian and Irish Catholics. They grew flowers or cut hair or worked for Southern Pacific Railroad or, these were the elite, served as firemen and policemen. In fact, the policeman who killed the city mayor and a supervisor in the 1970s — because one was liberal and one was gay or because the policeman had been eating too much sugar — grew up just down the hill.
Our neighbors watched early television, went to mass, had light wall-to-wall carpets that were always clean, kept large ornate dolls with perfect hair and skirts made of lace spreading evenly over bedroom pillows, and had families that sat around the table at supper time facing each other. No one lifted a fork until grace was said. Our house was small and ramshackle; there were no carpets, TV came late, and when supper was ready my mother and I went to get our books to read while we ate.
Some books were hidden at the height of the McCarthy hearings and I remember my mother’s fear when I found them and my fear when baby sitter said if I didn’t do what she said she would send my mother to prison and my mother saying yes, she could that. But the books survived.
When we moved to the Haight Ashbury — the Upper Haight it was called — on the cusp of the exuberant 60s, the library disappeared, but my mother kept reading. Books by her bed: Native American history, modern novels, science fiction, nature studies, random essays, politics, short stories, and anything anyone handed her and suggested a look. The books didn’t just sit, she read them cover to cover.
Recently, her reading became simpler: Carl Hiaasen, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency several times, and whatever I brought her from the free box at Green Apple Books.
Not any more.
Ten days ago, having successfully reached the top floor after the heroic, arduous, hand over hand climb, she fell. There were no injuries but no apparent cause. The emergency room doctor said they could do more tests or she could go home. Then he reached over and patted her hand, “I think you should go home.”
Her own doctor told us that perhaps it was time to have dessert before dinner if she wanted it or dessert instead of dinner if she wanted that, she could stay in bed all day if she so desired, but no stairs and maybe the hospice should pay us a visit.
At some point since, the reading stopped. My mother lies in the new bed in the sitting room eyes closed or staring in front of her. I’m not sure she understands what the doctors meant. I want her to understand — if she can, if she wants to — because I would want to if it were me.
I sit on the bed next to her and take her hand. Behind the bed is a wall of bookshelves, it has only the books on folk music.
I look at them. “What do you want to happen to them?” I ask.
It takes her a long time to say anything now. Finally. “I always thought I could take them with me.”