Friday 5 January 2024

After the Fire by Priscilla Bettis, Redemption Road Coffee - rejoice in their light roast, but sip slowly so you don’t get burned.

‘Mom, please, I’m not trying to take away your autonomy,’ Daniel said.

His mother was propped up against the upholstered headboard in her efficiency apartment. The place smelled like her medicinal hand lotion, the extra slice of toast she had brought back from the community dining room after breakfast, and the disinfectant cleaner that the staff used.
On her nightstand, the forgotten toast lay next to unopened correspondence from her accountant and her real estate agent.

Daniel pulled aside the curtains to brighten the dim room then scooted the apartment’s only armchair close to his mother’s bed and sat. ‘You have me to drive you wherever you want. It’s time–’ He choked on his words. How many years had she driven him and his younger brother, Todd, to soccer practice, band competitions, and friends’ birthday parties? He cleared his throat and tried again. ‘It’s time for you to give up your driver’s license.’

She huffed and clutched her wallet tighter. Her blue eyes turned dark, and she pierced him with her gaze. ‘Hand me my readers, Todd.’

‘I’m Daniel,’ he said, passing her the reading glasses.

‘Of course you are. Todd would never take my license away. How am I supposed to get around? Where is Todd?’ She slipped on her glasses and opened her wallet. One by one, she pulled out her credit cards, years’ worth of insurance cards, and expired discount shopper cards.

Daniel leaned closer to help her spot her driver’s license, but she kept the wallet tilted away from him.
‘Todd had to go back to Arizona, Mom.’

No doubt his mother would prefer to deal with Todd, the good son, the acolyte, the college student, the robotics engineer. Not Daniel, the high school dropout, the son who had settled for a blue-collar job and never rose above shift manager in the four decades he had worked at the factory, the divorced son, the disappointment.

She replaced all the cards she had pulled out. ‘Why couldn’t I go with Todd? It’s hot in Texas,’ she said, snapping her wallet closed and tucking it in her purse. Her hands were surprisingly agile for an octogenarian.

Daniel suppressed a sigh. Honor thy father and thy mother. Not to say he was religious, despite his mother and his late father’s valiant efforts. It was a sore point between Daniel and his mother, like a wound that wouldn’t heal. At least she no longer picked at the scab. But even with all his scoffing and defiance, he knew the Bible was full of ancient wisdom, so each morning, he read a little from his leather-bound, gilt-edged book. Damned if he was going to tell anyone.

‘It’s just as hot in Arizona,’ he said. ‘Besides, Todd and Cassandra are still working. They’d never be able to see you if you lived out there. I can drop by anytime, everyday if you like. And we can visit Dad’s grave.’

She tossed her purse aside and crossed her arms. ‘Where am I supposed to live? I can’t live in this hotel forever.’

‘Hotel? No, it’s a…’ He cast his gaze around her new home in the assisted-living center where he and Todd had moved her after she burned down their childhood home. According to the fire inspector, she had tried to brew coffee on the gas stove with her electric coffee maker. Did she even realize she was having cognitive issues and that she couldn’t live on her own anymore? He wouldn’t press the issue. 

It’d be cruel.

Rising, Daniel said, ‘Let’s go to the garage.’ He wheeled her walker to where she could get ahold of it.
They left her apartment with him leading the way to the residents’ parking garage. He stepped slowly so she could keep up. One of the wheels on her walker was squeaking, and the sound echoed on the hard floor and blank walls. He’d have to oil the wheel, eventually. Right now he just needed her to understand how she couldn’t navigate the parking area like those residents who dwelled in the independent-living apartments could.

At first, he was ticked at Todd for even parking her pickup at the seniors’ facility. But the acreage where their family house had stood for more than half a century was already under contract, and there was nowhere else to park the truck. Daniel would have to sell it.

He pressed the palm-sized button to open the automatic door leading into the garage. His mother rolled her walker over the aluminum threshold, and the slight jounce threw her off balance. He caught her then set her upright.

Light from the overhead fluorescent fixtures failed to reach the corners of the garage. Each car was framed on both sides by charcoal shadows.

‘There’s your Tacoma, Mom.’ He pointed to a dingy, black pickup that had seen better days. For years she had used it to haul her garden supplies. Back when she had a garden. When she had a house.

Last month, while she was still living at the house and before he and Todd understood how far she had declined mentally, she drove her pickup into a fire hydrant trying to park near the home improvement store in Weatherford. The very next day, she backed into a telephone pole.

She rolled and shuffled her way across the parking garage to where the Tacoma was parked. ‘The garage still hasn’t fixed that dent,’ she said, frowning at the distorted bumper.

‘This isn’t that kind of garage, Mom.’ Both of the tires on the driver’s side were low. ‘When was the last time you put air in the tires?’

She sniffed. ‘The garage will handle that when they fix the dent.’ She looked around the parking garage. ‘What’s my truck doing here? Why isn’t it at home?’

‘The house burned down, Mom.’

She jabbed her finger toward him. ‘If those firemen had only gotten there sooner, they could have saved my home.’

‘I’m glad they saved you instead.’ Gesturing toward her walker, he said, ‘Now, to drive, you have to fold up your walker, pick it up, then put it in the truck bed. You’ll also need to enter the security code on the keypad before the garage door will open.’ A wave of guilt washed over him. He knew she didn’t have the code because the staff gave it to him, and he wasn’t about to give it to her.

‘Well, I know I have to put my walker in the truck, but you’re here, so we can take your car, and you can drive me to lunch.’ She smiled up at him. ‘My treat!’

He squinted in the dull light at his watch. There was no time to take her to lunch then make his dentist appointment. He ignored her request. ‘Mom, it’s obvious with the dents and your balance issues and the weight of your walker that you should not and cannot drive. I think–Todd and I both think–you shouldn’t try to drive anymore. You might get hurt.’ Or kill someone.

‘Not drive?’ She glared at him. ‘A foolish man despiseth his mother.’ With astounding speed, she spun her walker around and trudged back toward the residents’ hallway.

Daniel caught up with her. ‘Please don’t be like that, Mom.’ He opened the automatic door for her.
She pushed her walker through. Her head was down. Her lips tight. The same expression she’d used all those years ago when she’d caught him smoking behind the high school’s gym. ‘Yes, I’m old, Todd–Daniel–whoever you are. You just want to stuff me away somewhere to die, but I’m not ready to die yet.’

‘Die? No!’ He threw his arms wide as if to embrace the entire seniors’ facility, staff and himself included. ‘We’re all growing older.’ He searched his mind for a Bible verse to soothe her. The best he could do was a paraphrase. ‘Though our mortal bodies are fading, our inner selves are renewed day by day.’

She stopped and looked at him. One corner of her mouth raised. ‘Not fading, Daniel. The verse says our bodies are wasting away.’ She looked at him a moment longer then pushed her walker forward.
They entered her apartment. She retrieved her purse, pulled out her wallet, then laid it open on the little kitchenette table. The driver’s license slot with its plastic window was empty.

Lowering herself into one of the two dining chairs, she said, ‘I know I’m old, Daniel.’ Her voice was small. ‘Everyday, my soul feels a little more at peace with it, but…’ She shook her head. ‘I wobble when I walk, and I can’t even remember where I put my driver’s license.’ She shrugged. ‘If you find it, you can have it.’

He sat across the table from her and patted her hand. Her skin was cold, and her knuckles felt too big for her fingers, but she turned her hand over and squeezed his, firmly.

Her fingernails had always been a source of vanity, and she still kept her nails buffed. They caught the sunlight pouring through the window and gleamed so brilliantly it was as if they glowed from the inside. For a heartbeat he could almost believe… believe what, that there was life beyond this corporeal world? That there was a God?

He smirked. ‘Almost,’ he whispered.

‘Hm?’ She let go of his hand.

‘Nothing, Mom,’ he said, pulling out his phone. ‘Hang on a sec.’

He sent the dentist a text, canceling his appointment.

‘Now,’ he said, his gaze meeting his mother’s radiant blue eyes, ‘where would you like to go to lunch?’

About the author

 Priscilla Bettis is an avid reader and a joyful writer. She lives in small-town Texas with her two-legged and four-legged family members. She reviews books at The Well Read Fish. Priscilla is working on her first literary Christian novel. Find Priscilla online at 

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  1. Thank you, Cafe Lit, for publishing my story. It's based on difficult events in my own life, but I still had fun writing it!

    1. It’s a very well-written, touching story, Priscilla. Thank you for sharing it. đź©·

  2. Love this. ❤ Our family is walking through similar circumstances with my mother-in-law, so the subject is very near to my heart right now.

    1. Thank you, Shannon. May things go smoothly with your mother-in-law.

  3. This is a wonderful story, Priscilla. If we live a full life, we might have a similar conversation with one of our kids. What a thought! ❤️

  4. Oh I loved this! so human, so compassionate, and the story really resonated with me. More please!

  5. Wonderful story, Priscilla!

  6. A very touching story. It’s like a snapshot of a family saga.

  7. Very good read . Food for thought for those of us living these times in life. I look forward to more of your writings.

  8. Brilliant story, Priscilla. Brought back memories of my own mother. Look forward to reading more of your stories on Cafelit.

    1. Thanks, Paula. It is because of you that I discovered the richness that is CafeLit!

  9. Enjoyed this. You captured the feeling of caring for an aging parent well.

  10. Lovely story, beautiful written and very moving !

    1. Thank you, Valinora. That means a lot coming from you.🙂

  11. Hi Priscilla, my friend of many talents! This is your old running partner. Your short story is great! It is well written and from the heart. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, E! It's good to "see" you here!

  12. What a lovely story. I enjoyed it so much! 🙂