THE YOU-ME RICHARD GERE OF PRETENDING
Dear Mr. Richard Gere,
In Mom’s underwear drawer—as I was separating her “personal” clothes from the “lightly used” articles I could donate to the local thrift shop—I found a letter you wrote.
As you will recall, your letter was about the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing, China—you were advocating for a boycott because of the crimes and atrocities the Chinese government committed against Tibet.
I’m not one of those “crazy types.”
I immediately realized that this was a form letter you sent out to millions of people through your charitable organization, but Mom was a good enough pretender to believe you had personally signed the letter specifically to her, which is most likely why she saved it—believing you had touched the paper with your hands, licked the envelope with your tongue—imagining the paper represented a tangible link to you . . . that maybe a few of your cells, microscopic bits of your DNA, were with her whenever she held the letter and envelope.
Mom was your biggest fan, and a seasoned pretender.
“There’s his name written in cursive,” I remember her saying to me, poking the paper with her index finger. “From Richard Gere! Movie star RICHARD GERE!”
Mom liked to celebrate the little things. Like finding a forgotten wrinkled dollar in a lint-ridden coat pocket, or when there was no line at the post office and the stamp sellers were up for smiles and polite conversation, or when it was cool enough to sit out back during a hot summer—when the temperature dips dramatically at night even though the weatherman has predicted unbearable humidity and heat, and therefore the evening becomes an unexpected gift.
“Come enjoy the strange cool air, Bartholomew,” Mom would say, and we’d sit outside and smile at each other like we’d won the lottery.
Mom could make small things seem miraculous. That was her talent.
Richard Gere, perhaps you have already labeled Mom as weird, pixilated—most people did.
Before she got sick, she never gained or lost weight; she never purchased new clothes for herself, and therefore was perpetually stuck in mideighties fashions; she smelled like the mothballs she kept in her drawers and closet, and her hair was usually flattened on the side she rested against her pillow (almost always the left).
Mom didn’t know that computer printers could easily reproduce signatures, because she was too old to have ever employed modern technology. Toward the end, she used to say that “computers were condemned by the Book of Revelations,” but Father McNamee told me it’s not true, although we could let Mom believe it was.
I’d never seen her so happy as she was the day your letter arrived.
As you might have gathered, Mom wasn’t all there during the last few years of her life, and by the very end extreme dementia had set in, which made it hard to distinguish the pretending of her final days from the real world.
Everything blurred over time.
During her good moments—if you can believe it—she actually used to think (pretend?) that I was you, that Richard Gere was living with her, taking care of her, which must have been a welcome alternative to the truth: that her ordinary unaccomplished son was her primary caregiver.
“What will we be having for dinner tonight, Richard?” she’d say. “Such a pleasure to finally spend so much time with you, Richard.”
It was like when I was a boy and we’d pretend we were eating dinner with a famous guest—Ronald Reagan, Saint Francis, Mickey Mouse, Ed McMahon, Mary Lou Retton—occupying one of the two seats in the kitchen that were always empty, except when Father McNamee visited.
As I previously stated, Mom was quite a fan of yours—you probably visited our kitchen table before, but to be honest, I don’t remember a specific Richard Gere visit from childhood. Regardless, I indulged her and played my role, so you were manifested through me, even though I’m not as handsome, and therefore made a poor stand-in. I hope you don’t mind my having invoked you without your permission. It was a simple thing that gave Mom great pleasure. Her face lit up like the Wanamaker’s Christmas Light Show every time you came to visit. And after the failed chemo and brain surgery, and the awful sick, retching aftermath, it was hard to get her to smile or be happy about anything, which is why I went along with the game of you and me becoming we.
It started one night after we watched our well-worn VCR copy of Pretty Woman, one of Mom’s favorite movies.
As the end credits rolled, she patted my arm and said, “I’m going to bed now, Richard.”
I looked at her, and she smiled almost mischievously—like I’d seen the sexy fast girls do with their shiny painted lips back when I was in high school. That salacious smile made me feel nauseated, because I knew it meant trouble. It was so unlike Mom too. It was the beginning of living with a stranger.
I said, “Why did you call me Richard?”
She laid her hand gently on my thigh, and in this very flirtatious girlish voice, while batting her eyelids, she said, “Because that’s your name, silly.”
During the thirty-eight years we had known each other, Mom had never once before called me “silly.”
The tiny angry man in my stomach pounded my liver with his fists.
I knew we were in trouble.
“Mom, it’s me—Bartholomew. Your only son.”
When I looked into her eyes, she didn’t seem to see me. It was like she was having a vision—seeing what I could not.
It made me wonder if Mom had used some sort of womanly witchcraft and turned me into you somehow.