R. says that one of his happiest memories of time with his mother was when the two of them settled into a long Scrabble game on Sunday evenings throughout his last couple of years of high school. Both of them word lovers, they delighted each other with their wide vocabularies; then, as now, R. is driven to find a word that uses all seven letters and to place it across a triple word score. His mother kept a book at hand for the time that takes. So do I. R. often had a score that was a multiple of hers then, and mine now. They snacked on popcorn, cereal, hands taking turns in the bowl. Maybe there was some conversation, but it was mostly just quiet: time together at the table, time watching the other’s mind at work, time breathing each other’s air. The click of the tiles arranged and re-arranged on the tray; the hum of the fridge just a few steps away. (At the beginning of my relationship with R., my older mentor and friend Bernadette discovered she and R. had a mutual affinity for the game, and his ability to beat her soundly at it—an unusual occurrence for her—sealed her approval of him for me.)
When R. was in high school, his mother’s short hair was still dark as it bent over the board; then it washed to blond with a stylist’s help; then it became a shining halo of white against her pillow. Her hands and nails in her late 40s as she placed her tiles were nearly identical to her hands and nails last week at 83 as she drank from a sippy cup holding thickened water. All the burdens that she carried over a lifetime, and still her shoulders last week were those of a 25-year-old, the muscles firm, her skin smooth and unspotted. Decades ago, when my man was a teenager, she sat and played Scrabble with him, her sixth child of seven, her youngest son, her easy companion in an emptying house; she lay last week in a hospital bed taking up the living room, surrounded by all of us, all of us gathered to her side. She spoke sweet words, sassy words, rhyming words, encouraging words—when the seven of them were little; when they were grown; when she was nearly gone.
R. and I are going to sit down to the board tonight together, the night before his mother’s funeral, a week after an impromptu family memorial in her still-living presence. Maybe our game will be a proxy one, with his mother whispering suggestions into his ears and Bernadette whispering suggestions into mine. R. will probably win; I might—I’ve learned a lot about strategy from him in the past 31-1/2 years. But there are a few words that interest me the most right now and always, the singular and the plural of them, none of them able to generate impressive scores, all three of them meaning the world to me: Body. Family. Love.