Candida Lawrence
(Unbridled Books)
People like Candida are disappearing. I don't mean kidnapped, or murdered, or run off. I mean those who make themselves disappear, often overnight, often with their own children.

Seems Lawrence had a problem with the ex, and the judges, and the social workers. To disappear yourself, you have to become, she tells us, "an actress."

    Remember the time so long ago when you naïvely believed the state could not take from you the children who had split your body and sucked milk from your breasts?

"Remember the office where you said this, your eyes wide and brimming with tears. What a ridiculous, pathetic, stupid, ignorant, whining, weak lump you were!" Now, no. You have become an actress, "ill with fear, demented."

If you plan to get out from under your present life with your children, "Vanishing: 1965" is probably your best guide:

    I keep three paper cartons on the top shelf of my bedroom closet. They were labeled in black magic market ink "Household," "Children," and "Self" and beneath each label I printed 'O. P.' No snoop could possibly guess that O. P. meant Operation Powder.

As in taking a powder. "You must assume your actions are being observed. If this sounds like paranoia, sometimes the tiger is a real tiger and in court I've heard my most innocent remarks relayed, with innuendo, into the ears of an impatient judge...

"Just begin lying," she says: "There will be a lot more lying in your future."

§     §     §

In the seventeen stories and essays that make up Vanishing, the most gripping are not the fiction pieces but the memoirs: the author running away from home, the fate of her sister, and --- most engrossing of them all --- the centerpiece, "We're All in This Together."

Candida's mother and father --- Molly and Harry --- are in their eighties. "After dinner, I collect two trays from two beds. Molly is asleep but looks dead. Her head has rolled into a cavern between two pillows, and her mouth (without teeth) is open."

    Harry has tucked himself around his tray and has spilled his salad onto his blanket. His mouth (without teeth) is open. I wash the dishes by hand. I don't know how to work the dishwasher and find I'm grateful for this.

Mother and father, aging, dying; becoming reflections of their children as their children care for, reflect on them. "They hope I am dying," Harry surmises. "They hope. They try to get me up but they don't want me up. I know I am dying and I don't care about that. Just going to take a long time doing it." And, thinking on his daughter,

    That Candida, she's not fooled. She observes and plans on writing it down. Her being here with us and how we look, all of it. But she'll never sell a damn thing. Stuff lacks significance. Doesn't know the language. I was a better writer at twenty than she is at ... I don't know how old she is. Selfish always.

Thus Candida Lawrence roots about in the head of her father, the writer Harry Gavin, as he is thinking about her. And he tells us she doesn't know how to write what we are reading now. Which is terrific.

The blend in Vanishing is dispassionate observation alternating with passionate distance alternating with high comedy blended with drama and dismay.

Molly is eighty-five years old, can barely get about, hurts, has lost her ability to care for her dear garden, care for the house, care for Harry. It takes an hour-and-a-half for Candida and Eula (the care attendant) to get her mother from the bed into the bathroom, onto the toilet, off the toilet, into the tub, sprayed, dried, and then (an hour later) back to bed.

Eula is a character (caretakers will always be key characters in our final days, more even than the various brothers, sisters, children and friends). Candida makes a sly remark about Eula's religion, and Eula says, "Oh, you like to make a joke, jes' like your father." Then: "Your mother, she don' make too many jokes, not now anyway."

What Eula does know is how to handle the two old people in her charge. "Your mama's jes' a little thing in her body, but she's huge with dignity. Jes' huge!" They get Molly off the toilet, standing, and "her robe falls to the floor without our help."

    "Throw that over in the corner so she don't trip on it." I am eager to obey Eula, who seems healthy and normal, is the right color, and knows what to do next.

But mother gets impatient with this living business, wants out. Candida's sister Anne finds her on Christmas day, a sad present for her daughters: "Molly must have taken sleeping pills last night." Anne says on the telephone to Candida. "She left a note and she is not dead. She's deeply asleep. Harry wants to know why she isn't awake yet and I haven't told him. What shall I do?

"I know she planned this and wants to die and I want to respect that wish."

    But she's not dead and I don't know whether to let her ... let her die, and whether to tell Harry, and dammit, legally I don't know what's best to do. I don't want anyone to try to save her.

Your mother, the one who brought you into life, is now trying to make an exit ... an undignified one. What to do?

§     §     §

Sixty years ago I read a story about the ultimate punishment. It told of people who are forced to live on and on (and on). They are in a hospital/prison where people --- 110, 125, 150 years old --- simply want to get out, be gone. But those who run the system bring in the best medical care, state-of-the-art to patch up the old folks after the usual multiple attempted suicides. It's the law of the land. You have to keep on going. No abandoning ship until you have served your time.

The ultimate twist in Vanishing lies in the very last essay, about sister Anne's own dementia and death. (She's the one who earlier on found Molly "deeply asleep.") At Anne's memorial service, people said,

    "Oh, you must miss her so much," and I said: "I do, I do..."

    I remember her phone number and sometimes I call her and her answering machine says: "Hello, this is Anne. Please leave your name and number. I'll call you back as soon as I can."

--- Lolita Lark
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