By WENDY HODGE
It is Tuesday night, and my mother and I are watching reruns of Law and Order. I say we’re watching, but I’m the one watching. My mother is listening. She can’t see much anymore, making out mostly outlines and shapes. Lamps blaze from every corner, and the overhead light is beaming down on us, but she’ll declare this room is “just too dark to see.”
As has become our custom, after dinner on Tuesday we tune in to the Law and Order marathon. It turns out, there is always a Law and Order marathon playing at any given moment if you can only find the right channel.
This show has an impressive history on television, premiering in 1990 and running for 20 seasons, with multiple spin-offs and guest appearances by loads of big-name stars. But for me and my mother, it’s got a personal history. This was my sister’s favorite show. Being a fan of good literature and classic mysteries, she appreciated Law and Order because it was clever and usually had a plot twist that even she didn’t see coming.
She only lived to enjoy a couple of seasons. And for a while after she died, my mother and I avoided the show. It felt unfair somehow that all things, including her favorite TV program, continued along without her.
We eased back into it, slowly, my mother and I, just like we did everything else after my sister was gone. Normalcy returned, although it would be forever altered. Though we lived in different houses, and even different states, my mother and I both tuned in on Thursday nights and watched Briscoe and Curtis catch a criminal and DA Jack McCoy put them behind bars.
Played by Jerry Orbach, Briscoe was my mother’s favorite. His partners came and went, but Briscoe was a staple on the show for years. He usually had a sarcastically funny comment in the opening sequence, which my mother would find hysterical. His character was unsophisticated, down to earth, and flawed. And my mother had a crush.
Tonight we are watching an episode that doesn’t feature Briscoe as much as my mother would like. As she listens to the characters speak, she has asked every time a scene changes, “Who said that? Was that Briscoe?”
“No,” I answer. “That was a homeless man who might be the killer.”
“Well, where is Briscoe?”
“He’s back at the police station, I’m sure. He’ll be on in a minute.”
The scene changes, and she asks again, “Who said that? Briscoe?”
“No. That was a woman,” I answer. “A hooker, apparently.”
Finally, Briscoe shows up to put handcuffs on a suspect, and my mother says, “Now I know that’s Briscoe. I can tell by the way he got the bad guy.”
“That’s him,” I’m relieved to tell her.
“What does he look like these days?” she asks.
“Well, these are reruns. So he looks exactly the same on the TV.”
“Oh. Well what does he look like in real life? Has he aged a lot like me?”
Without thinking, I answer quickly. “He died several years ago.”
Immediately I realize my mistake. My mother’s face sags. She is grief-stricken, as if Jerry Orbach was a family member she has lost.
“No one told me,” she says quietly, crying.
I get up and sit next to her and take her hand. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No, I’m glad you did. I need to know these things.”
We sit there together for a minute or two before she says, “Your dad died too.”
“Yes.” It’s hard to speak, suddenly. “He did.”
Then she looks at me direct and clear-eyed and says, “I know exactly what I’ve lost.”
And that just does me in. I leave the room, telling her I will get her a piece of pie and we’ll finish our show. But I retreat to a corner of the kitchen and let myself cry, deep and silent, for a minute or two. Then I do what we all do so many times in our life — I dry my eyes and straighten my shoulders and find my footing again.
We sit and eat our pie and watch the drama unfold as the story delivers its plot twist and the true bad guy (or bad woman, in this case) is revealed. For the record, it was not the homeless man OR the hooker. It was the rich ex-wife.
“I knew she did it,” my mother says.
“I know you knew,” I smile as I answer. “How about another?”
“I’d love to. I’ve got nothing else on my schedule for tonight,” she chuckles. “Let’s find one with lots of Briscoe in it. He’s just so funny.”
Scrolling the news on my phone as I tried to sleep, I see exciting news — Law and Order is returning to television. The original show, with some of the original cast, will begin airing again. My mother will be so excited to know that there will be new stories. Of course, there won’t be a Briscoe. My sister won’t see any of these new episodes. And my dad won’t be here either. But my mother and I will be, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. The two of us, with all we’ve lost and all we still have to hold on to, will carry it on for ourselves and for all of them. Because that’s what love looks like.