It’s three AM and I’ve been writing. I’m tired and ready for bed, but before I lay down, I check. She lies awake.
She can’t sleep the night through. Awake, alone in the dark, I don’t know how long she’s lain like this. I give her water and kiss her head.
She sips a drink to wet her lips, not interested in swallowing. Her legs are crossed, her hand clutches the rail, and she is sideways in the bed. She’s been writhing. It’s another rough night.
I straighten her out, stretch her leg and feel the tightness. A Charlie-horse is in her thigh that never goes away. I try to imagine what that is like.
I put ice in her water and raise her head to let her drink through a straw. I know she likes the cold water. No one gives her ice anymore.
She drinks the whole glass, and whispers, “That’s good.” Then rests her head.
That’s all she’ll say, I don’t expect more. Her brain was split apart by stroke, half of it dead more than a decade now. The stroke shut her mouth.
She’ll have lucid times on a good day, if she’s stimulated. She rattled-off five short sentences one afternoon, totally coherent communication, but that happens less often. Most days, there isn’t much stimulation.
We get her up at nine for the bathroom. Then at noon for coffee and cookies – that’s her favorite. Oatmeal and banana for breakfast, sitting in the wheelchair. Mid-afternoon we move her to the Big Chair, where she naps until five. Then it’s coffee and cookies again before dinner and to bed about eight. That’s her day.
Except for the meals and the transfers, she sits like a piece of furniture, barely animated, barely awake, as we go about our business. The room is calm and quiet, with the TV usually on a station the health care worker watches.
The lovely woman who helps care for Mom will not be here today, so I’ll do these things, plus take her to the bathroom, clean her ass, wipe the piss off the floor, dress her in a clean gown and scrub my hands before serving her cookies.
If she can’t get back to sleep, I’ll have to get her up to the bathroom and then the Big Chair. This gets her leg bending so it eases the muscle and she can sleep. The Big Chair reclines.
The prospect of this at three in the morning angers me. I’m running on ass-dragging empty. I want to lie down and catch a few precious hours of sleep before this routine begins. Right now, I don’t want to lift sacks of potatoes and wipe piss off the floor.
She won’t sleep. She looks at me and pulls crab-like on the rail, pulling her body sideways in the bed. I slide her back in place. I’m not patient about it and she slaps my arm as I push – a strong backhand.
I toss covers off her leg and she says, “Covers!”
“In a minute Mom. I’m going to stretch your legs.” I do the right first, bending her knee and growl at her, “Push…push your leg out, Mom.” She makes an effort and I can feel the muscle begin to ease-up. It never fully relaxes anymore.
Her hand scratches for the sheets to pull them over her bare legs. This, believe it or not, is because she’s modest about her yoo-hoo. She shouldn’t worry. I ain’t lookin’.
I do the left. She doesn’t push with the left. That’s the dead one, where the muscles are drawn into rigor. My tone with her is harsh. “Is it easy now?” I want her to tell me it’s okay, so I can go to bed. She can respond when she’s alert, like now. I’m gruff because she won’t.
She looks at me, her eyes brighter than usual at this time. She’s fully alert. I pull the rocking chair close and sit by her. I raise the bed so she sits upright. That stretches her hip and legs and I get more ice water for her.
She’s happy I’m there. She doesn’t want to be alone. I want to go to bed.
“You know, we can’t do this forever, Mom.”
I am the youngest of five sons. When she had the stroke, it was our decision to keep her at home. My brothers, the best heeled of the bunch, took the financial burden on themselves for Mom’s care, and we all take turns on “Mom duty.” There was never a question of putting her in a home. She had a home.
“You’re like a cockroach, you know that?” I say. Her body won’t quit. She grew-up barefoot in Arkansas while World War One raged in Europe. She’ll be one hundred and one on her birthday. By cosmic coincidence, I was born on her birthday. We share that.
She learned to type and moved on her own to live and work in Dallas. That’s where my Dad met the pretty, sweet, but independent young woman.
They came west in the years of Depression, and raised chickens and five boys. Dad passed away. The boys retired, except for me. I’m just out of work.
The oldest son can’t come to see Mom anymore. Cancer has him. It may be Mom outlives him. I don’t want to see that.
Mom’s health is faltering. She can’t exercise anymore. But she slides down the slippery slope very slowly. Jim’s catching up fast. Not that I want the race to end, I just don’t want him to win.
I give her more water. “I’ll lay you back down,” I say. “See if you can sleep.” She closes her eyes as I lay the bed low. I leave to brush my teeth. Out of the room, I scream, “For fucks sake God, take her away! Why leave her hurting like this?”
I’m not expecting a response from him either. The worthless fuck.
I check one more time. Her eyes are closed. She’s pretending. I sit by her side. “You’re not sleeping,” I say. Her eyes open, still bright. She knows I want to leave.
I know she doesn’t want me to leave. She doesn’t like to lay by herself in the dark…hurting. She doesn’t want me to be mad though.
I lean close to her. She turns her head. She is embarrassed and does not want to breathe on me. She knows her breath is awful.
I don’t care. “Mom,” I say. “This is crazy. You need to let go. This isn’t good for anybody.”
Her eyes are bright and she reaches out to me. I feel her soft, warm hand on my ear. She sticks her finger in.
Tears well from somewhere I haven’t been in a very long time – a little boy with his mother pinching his ear.
I bow my head and cry. She pinches me again, still looking at me. Still caressing my ear.
I’m in a place I never want to leave.
I look at her. I don’t see her mouth hanging open. I don’t see her drooling. I see my Mother, who taught me to listen, to cook and to love. I remember now. I love her. I love her so much that it hurts.
I say, “Let’s get you up to the Big Chair, Mom.” She smiles her crooked smile and I know that’s the thing that she needs. As gently as I can, as patient as I can, with all the love I can, I do all the things that entails. I have no more anger. I’m with her. I want her as long as I live.
A.D. Hall 6.28.15
One thought on “Happy Birthday, Mom”
Your article moved me to tears. My youngest sister takes care of my elderly parents who are both disabled and require a lot of attention. She can no longer work and had to give up any chance of a social life ten years ago, because they depend on her for virtually everything. Thank you for reminding me that she is also suffering along with them. I’m going to book a flight and go visit her as soon as I finish writing this.
You’re a good man, your mother clearly loves you a great deal.