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is the word your mother latched onto
during the months your father was dying.
Scrunched in the plaid armchair
by his hospital bed in the nursing home,
she would comment that the attitude
of the waitress who had served us lunch
was “disconcerting.” Or a news story
about catastrophic global climate change
coming through the flat screen TV
was “disconcerting.” Donald Trump’s
campaign was taking off, and that
was “very disconcerting,” as was,
in a different way, the resurgence of
your father’s cancer. Everything on a scale
from truly horrible to remotely unpleasant
was “disconcerting”: the latest mass shooting,
the way a driver cut us off on the freeway.
The word became the mantra of
her last few years, which were, in fact,
often disconcerting: her descent
into dementia, her cancer diagnosis,
her fall, her fractured hip. It felt as though
she were speaking unwittingly about
her own condition or using the word
to wall out things that threatened her.
By the time she started having trouble
finding words, we had all started saying it,
usually adding a tag of attribution
(something or other was “disconcerting,
as Mum–” or “as your mother would say”),
playfully at first, but then with more sadness.
She still smiled when we entered the room
and gasped in astonishment at the view
when we drove her around the Malibu hills…
until the last time, when she barely
looked out the window, which we all
found disconcerting. The word was now
completely ours, whether we liked it
or not, like one of the shirts or sweaters
she would give us that were never quite
to our taste but we sometimes wore anyway.
Copyright 2021 Jeffrey Harrison. First published in The Gettysburg Review. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Jeffrey Harrison’s many books include Between Lakes (Four Way, 2020).