The After Party by Martha Polk

close-up shot of dyed  bright red hair, with a wisp of curl bobby-pinned

Mom’s boyfriend collapsed at the party.

Eyes closed, head slumped against his shoulder; his face was sallow, but that’s not what shocked me. It was Mom’s panic—“Rob?”—as she knelt beside his wilted, graying body in her sequined dress and carefully crafted up-do. She cradled his cheeks in her palms, and continued to say his name.

Her desperation was new to me. It drained her, revealing her cheekbones, but also jolted her, making her hands shake and voice tremble. I’d never seen that distress in her during my parents’ arduous marriage, not even during Dad’s decline.

It was Mom’s 70th birthday bonanza.

She’d started imagining the party three years before, amidst the big messes and small fires of Dad’s Alzheimer’s. Dad couldn’t remember why he kept forgetting everything; Mom bore the brunt of his outbursts, his breakdowns, his pleas to make sense of it all.

More than a year out, she started talking about inviting everyone she knew. She mentioned closing down the street for food trucks and bands, her ideas playing out over the many months she visited Dad in memory care. Then one day, he died, and suddenly the man with whom she’d spent half a century, the man who—despite his depression and alcoholism—she’d never divorced because, in her words, he was simply “her family”—now that man was gone.

In the months leading up to the party she sent out the invitations, ordered lights and a tent, and meticulously designed the menu, fueled in part by the giddiness of her escalating romance with Rob. After the decades she’d spent tending Dad’s anxiety—with all the “staying in” and “going home early” that entailed—Rob arrived on the scene in a liberatory gust. Not only did he match her energy for trying new things (mediocre theater troupes, unknown bands, overpriced cocktails—no matter), he was also well-suited to her ravenous social appetite. When Mom told him she was planning “Lucy’s 70th birthday blowout,” he proposed the perfect theme: “I Love Lucy.”

Early on the morning of, Mom could be heard tip-toeing around the house. She strung ribbons and lights, set up the “Lucy and Desi” photo-wall, and organized the rented tables and chairs. She set out the coordinated hand towels she had purchased for the bathrooms, complete with wicker discard bins, just like in the fancy restaurants. She lay out her dress, and readied herself for her hair, nails, and makeup appointments. My brother Sam, his girlfriend, our aunt, and I—all having flown in for the occasion—worked with Rob to execute Mom’s tablecloth and centerpiece vision. Hours later my brother Ben showed up with his DJ equipment. Caterers and bartenders poised, Mom re-emerged in her dazzling silver-sequined dress, her powerful little body gussied head-to-toe, hair dyed Lucille-red and intricately pinned. She beamed in her finery and also looked ready to dance. The first of the 117 guests arrived promptly at 6:30 p.m.

Two hours in, Rob collapsed. His head lolled and his lips paled, then blued, as Mom tried with trembling hands to loosen the knot of his Desi-costume tie. She pressed her face, somehow gone white beneath the makeup, against his cheek while whispering into his ear that he should please wake up now.

Sam tells me I took Rob’s hand in mine. Ben reports I said a few calming words as he called 911. I am relieved to hear this, because all I could think was:

 

Don’t you fucking die right now, man. You do not get to die in my Mom’s arms right now…but if it is that bad, go ahead and just do it. None of this stroke shit. Don’t make her feed you every meal with a spoon for the next decade. Because she will. And she can’t.

 

Dad used to bark at her with a rage that lifted him off the ground when he couldn’t remember why they’d taken away his car keys or how the coffeemaker worked. He’d call her at work three, four, ten times a day to ask her what was wrong with him or when she was coming home. When he started to wet himself, Mom cleaned up amidst his curses and helped him into bed. And when he took his last staggered breath, Mom held his hand tight, kneading it as he let go.

Rob woke up. The color returned to his face. The ambulance came. In her sparkly dress and the highest heels she’d ever worn, Mom climbed in next to the stretcher and went to the hospital.

The party was over.

While the rest of the family cleaned up, Ben and I went to the ER. We found Mom and Rob speaking in the exhausted levity of post-adrenaline relief, Mom’s Lucille-red lipstick and hair rendered garish under the hospital fluorescents. Rob was doing just fine, save for his embarrassment. He’d had a couple cocktails and not enough calories or water, none of which mixed well with a new blood-pressure medication. After some fluids, he was fit to go.

That night, when the guests had long gone home and everyone else was asleep, I again heard Mom’s footsteps above.

I ran up and into her bed, “Not sleepy yet, huh?”

“Nah, not really.” She lay down next to me.

There was a long beat before I could say, “I’m so miffed about your birthday, Mom, I’m just so sorry about it.”

“It’s okay,” she said, her tone conciliatory. “I had my party.” She lay on her side, facing me in her fleece robe.

“Yeah, but…” I exhaled.

“Though, you know,” she said, “I do wish…I was looking forward to…well, you know when, at the end of parties, when just the close friends and night owl people stay? And everyone’s laughing and probably a little tipsy?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“It’s true I was kind of looking forward to that part.” I nodded and we lay there in the house’s quiet for a minute, I looking at the ceiling, she at her toes, her hair still holding strong in its curly red up-do.

MARTHA POLKMartha Polk is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. Among other outlets, her nonfiction has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Bitch Magazine, Feministing.com, The Hairpin, The Auteurs Notebook / MUBI, and The Chattahoochee Review, where she was the 2017 runner-up for the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction.

 

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Raquel Simoes

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