Ned’s mother had always told him he would smoke himself to death one day. He used to come home on the weekends, back when he was in college, and sit out on the porch after lunch and read his school materials, all the while smoking his cigarettes and sipping on water with a few cubes of flavored ice in the glass. He would tell his mother about his friends, about college, about girls, and about the professors and their ideas and lectures. She would tell him that he was turning into a human ashtray.
He had quit smoking a few years ago when his first child was born, but he was smoking now as he drove to visit his mother at the care home. He always smoked before seeing her. He always went to visit her alone.
When his mother’s memory started to deteriorate and she moved into the care home, Ned went to visit her every Saturday after mowing the lawn. The forgotten details became more significant over time and it wasn’t long before Ned’s mother no longer recognized him. For a few weekends Ned and his mother would converse like strangers until Ned would say goodbye and that he would see her next Saturday. Same time. She would ask him why he would do a thing like that and turn to the television.
Ned began smoking just before his weekly visits after receiving a call from the care home during a particular week. They told him that his mother had begun speaking to a young orderly as if he were her son, telling him that his habit would kill him just as it had killed his father. The orderly had just returned from a smoking break and was convinced Ned’s mother believed him to be Ned. On his next visit, Ned sat in the care home parking lot, smoked a half dozen cigarettes, walked into the common room where his mother had been seated, sat down beside her and said hello.
And they talked to each other.
It wasn’t real conversation, of course, and it never would be. Ned’s mother only talked about how Ned shouldn’t smoke so much. She said it would eventually kill him. She warned that he’d never find a nice girl until he quit. To this, Ned always nodded his head in solemn agreement, passively looking for scuffmarks on the linoleum floor.
In the end, he knew it was nothing. He knew his mother was capable of living without him; that she might never again think of him were he to suddenly stop visiting her on these Saturdays. He often wondered if that wouldn’t be the best thing to do under the circumstances. He wondered if it wouldn’t be better for his mother’s mind to have complete rest from him. He reasoned that it would most certainly be better for his own health.
He smoked one more cigarette before walking into the care home. He looked at the bits of cut grass on his shoes as his mother told him that a girl would never marry a man with yellow teeth. It all made him feel like a new kind of son. Not the happy kind, but the kind that sits with his mother in a care home and is simply content.