by Winnie Kay
A beautiful mother of six is disappearing a little each day.
I pushed my pig-tails back over my shoulders and gripped the bat like a pro.
Come on! Gimme one right down the middle, I secretly dared Danny, eighteen months my senior. I knew I could slam the ball clear across Denver Harbor Park. I glanced back at Tody, our catcher, or should I say chaser. The feisty four-year-old was determined to play with us, so we made sure he was well back and off to the side. I grinned thinking Danny’s pitches must seem like meteors coming at him.
The seven-year-old twins, Jack and Jerry, were in the outfield to shag flies. Little Jack was in left, punching the pocket of Danny's old glove, eager to catch one. Jerry, on the other hand, seemed bored beneath the hot sun out in right field, tugging at his coveted Houston Colt .45's cap while kicking at bees hovering over the clusters of clover.
Danny let go with a low, inside pitch that sent Tody scrambling after it.
“Is that all ya got?” I heckled.
“I’m just warmin’ up,” Danny said, then glared at the tiny catcher. “Can you get the ball sometime today, Tody?”
Before Danny could test my power, a familiar voice rang through the park. “Y'all come on in, now. Supper’s almost ready.”
We raced across the street and through our manicured yard. Daddy kept a razor sharp edge on the lawn’s boundaries and every blade of grass had to be cut at just the right height. He had been watching us from his chair on the porch, a cold Jax beer in his hand.
“What a motley crew,” he quipped as we climbed the steps. He was always saying stuff like that. I never knew what most of it meant, but we laughed with him anyway. I pushed Danny aside, determined to beat him through the screened door of the little wood-framed house.
“Don’t slam that door,” I heard from the kitchen. The door slammed, and we all stopped in the living room to see if Mama noticed. She came out of the kitchen with a dish towel draped over her shoulder and her hands on her hips. The smell of meat loaf and gravy filled the house. The hum of the attic fan competed with the local news on the TV. “What did I just say?”
“Danny did it,” I said as I pointed to my brother with the baseball bat still in my hand.
“I did not!”
The twins and Tody watched in silence, focusing back and forth between me and Danny, as if they were watching a tennis match. “Never mind.” Mama feigned a frown and raised one eyebrow. I always wondered how she could do that. “Winnie, would you change the baby and put her in the highchair for me?”
“Sure, Mama.” I put the bat in the corner and picked Kathy up off the floor. Holding her and her wet diaper away from me at arms’ length like a sack of rotten apples, I headed to the tiny bedroom we shared as sisters.
Mama shuffled the last of the dishes of mashed potatoes and corn and biscuits from the kitchen to the dining room and announced it was time to eat. Daddy came in and turned off the TV before taking his seat at the head of the table.
An important member of the family was stretched out under the table, wagging his poodle tail as he guarded the worn wooden floor, always on the lookout for any morsels which may fall his way. Click didn’t know he was a dog, and we let him hold onto his illusions of humanness.
Mama finally took her seat next to her baby daughter’s high-chair. She looked tired and hot from her kitchen duties, but seemed proud of the feast she placed before us. Daddy reverently recited the blessing for the family’s bounty. Forks were lifted, bread was passed, and the conversation was light and fun. Everyone was excited about the upcoming weekly visit to Grandma’s house Saturday, just across town.
We all started talking at once about our day, our dreams, our expectations. The fur-ball under the table began to bark. I could tell Mama was trying to say something over the noise, but I couldn’t hear her. All of a sudden, she stood and stepped up onto her chair. Daddy started to laugh.
“Rita Joyce, what the hell are you doing?”
“Trying to get a word in edgeways, Jack,” she said as she looked around the table. Her pretty green eyes sparkled with mischief and delight. We all waited, between giggles, for her to speak. Even Click peeked out at her from under the table.
“I got a job,” Mama proudly announced. Everyone gaped at her, forks poised in mid-air.
It was the summer of 1963. I was fifteen, and life was good.
Then, as if the passing years were no more than a few blinks of an old cat’s eye, it was the winter of 2005. The vivid colors depicted on a beautiful tapestry of a family’s life together slowly began to fade and unravel. Daddy was long gone, and I missed his funny sayings and his laughter. Cancer and old-age, accelerated by hard work and sacrifice to provide for his family, had taken him away. The twins and my baby brother and sister had families of their own, and my big brother had moved across town, busy with his teaching career. And Mama? Well, Mama was beginning to get a bit strange.
She retired from her career as a church secretary and gave up driving in the early 90s. We never did find out why she hung up her car keys, but something must have happened out on the road. Mama wasn’t talking. Since I lived nearby and didn’t have a family of my own, it was my job to take her shopping, to church, to family get-togethers, or wherever she wanted to go. I didn’t mind being her chauffeur. Many times, after our errands, we'd stop at Steak n' Ale or Bennigans for a happy-hour drink. Mama talked about how she and Daddy met after the war, and I'd laugh at her stories of what it was like growing up in the 20s and 30s.
But taking her to the grocery store was getting to be a real pain. Once a week, Mama wanted to go to Krogers. She would spend a whole hour in the meat department just looking at chickens. She had to look at every chicken in the poultry bin. By the time she moved on to the produce aisle, I was ready to scream. Back when we were growing up, Mama could run through Russo’s corner food store in fifteen minutes and come home with a week’s worth of groceries. Not anymore. After three hours, I’d bring Mama home with a car load of groceries, unpack the car, and put the stuff away while she rested in the den and smoked her cigarette.
“Ma, why did you buy this jar of mayonnaise? There are three jars just like it in the fridge,” I yelled from the kitchen. “And you now have five pounds of Velveeta Cheese.” I rummaged around in the pantry, making room for the five boxes of Betty Crocker cake mix she bought and found ten more already on the shelf. Mama hadn’t baked anything since last Thanksgiving.
“You planning on bringing in the homeless?” I went into the den with boxes of macaroni and cheese piled in my arms. She raised that one eyebrow, and I knew I was in trouble. But I noticed something else on her face besides motherly indignation. I saw fear and confusion.
“I know it seems like a lot, Winnie, but I don’t know when I’ll get out to the store again, and I don’t want to keep bothering you. Besides, they were having a buy-one-get-one-free sale.” She smiled at me and held her head high as if to let me know she was in control. I let it go. The following week, she bought more cake mix and cheese and mayonnaise.
Mama loved to read, and she belonged to several book clubs. She loaned me books, and we talked often about the characters and the plots. One day, I noticed she had three copies of the same book, and I asked her about it. She became defensive. “I know what I’m doing. I purposely bought three copies of Stephen King’s IT because they are going to be worth a lot of money someday.” I didn’t object to her reasoning; after all, she was... well... Mama.
As my work schedule allowed, I began to visit her more often, just to keep an eye on things. I noticed the little table she sat at—lived at—in front of the blaring TV was piling up with mail. With each visit, the piles seemed taller. One day, when she got up to go into the back of her house, I sneaked a peek at the mounds of envelopes. My heart was pounding for fear that she would come back and discover me snooping into her business. At fifty-eight years old, I still respected Mama’s authority and independence. What I discovered was more frightening than imminent confrontation. I approached the subject delicately.
“Ma, I've got some time on my hands. You want me to help you sort through these unpaid bills?”
Uh oh. I saw the fire in her eyes.
“I was a church secretary and bookkeeper for thirty-five years, and I sure don’t need help paying my bills, young lady.”
Okay, I thought. Point well taken. I backed off and returned to my own house a mile away. But the possibility that something wasn’t quite right with Mama kept gnawing at me.
Weeks went by and the unnecessary groceries, the piles of unpaid bills, and the overflowing shelves of purchased books were stacking up. I began to notice the untidy house and she obviously wasn’t taking regular showers. I knew it was time to act.
Doctor visits revealed Mama had vascular dementia, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Well, there it was. The diagnosis was heartbreaking to me and my siblings. There was no cure, and it would get progressively worse. The center of our family, our educator, adviser, companion, nurse, comedian, and friend—my mama—was losing her mind, the essence of her being.
In the summer of 2006, Danny and I sold our houses and helped Mama sell hers. We all moved into a big, two-story brick house in a northern suburb of the city. Mama was reluctant to move and refused to pack one single dish, but eventually she resigned to our badgering.
During the next two years things got worse. Nevertheless, my brother and I were determined to take care of Mama at home. She denied anything was wrong with her, but I could see the fear in her eyes.
She blamed mishaps on others. “I put my jewelry in that trash bag for safe keeping. You’re the one who threw it away!”—or—“I didn’t leave the water running in the sink. The man who lives in the basement did it.” Reminding her that we didn’t have a basement was irrelevant. When I took her check book away from her to straighten out the mess which had developed from months of accounting neglect, she cried and said I was stealing her money. That’s when my heart broke. I had made Mama cry.
Once, Mama awoke in the middle of the night and placed a frozen pot-roast on the stove and turned on the burners, so I had to take the knobs off the stove. The locks to the exterior doors had to be changed to dead-bolts, and we hid the keys so she couldn’t wander outside while we were sleeping. Eventually, my brother and I took turns sleeping on a cot located directly in front of her bedroom door. There were too many ways she could hurt herself roaming around the house. She had to be watched twenty-four hours a day.
She began to see things and people that weren’t there. She heard singing and became angry when I didn’t hear it too. She was combative, abusive, rude, and uncooperative—all traits uncharacteristic of the mama I knew and loved. We tried home-nurse care but Mama called the caregivers witches and told them to get out of her house.
After meeting with doctors and counselors, we knew it was time to let her go where she could be properly and professionally cared for. Mama’s six children (with the help of Texas Medicaid) were able to place her in a warm and caring nursing facility close to home.
She fought the move at first. She was angry at us—at me. “Why can’t I go home, Winnie? Have I done something wrong?”
“No, Mama, you haven’t done a thing wrong.” I hid my tears and explained that she was in a hospital for a while. “Just until you get better, Mama. You’ve been a little confused.”
Mama kept her clothes and belongings packed, and she had them waiting at the door of her room every time I came to visit. I’d have to unpack her things and reassure her that this was temporary. The repeated lie caught in my throat like hot coals. Eventually, she settled into her new environment and even made some friends in her wing of the facility. Newcomers would come in crying, and Mama would go up to them and comfort them. “It’ll be alright, honey—it’s just temporary,” she whispered to them as she stroked their head and showed them around. Everyone came to love and admire Ms. Rita’s funny, helpful attitude.
On days when Mama was agitated, the staff would let her sit at a desk in the nurses’ station and handle the books. They would give her paper and pen, and Mama would write columns of numbers and words which meant nothing to anyone but Mama. Many days I’d find her there at her desk, and she’d shoo me away. “I can’t take a break right now, Winnie. I’m busy.”
“Okay, Mama. I’ll be back later.” The nurses would wink at me, and I’d stand there and watch her struggle over her work.
We visited her often over the next two years and watched, helplessly, as the disease took more and more of her away from us. Then when Mama fell and broke her hip in January of 2010, the mental and physical deterioration accelerated. I tried to get inside her head—to see what it was like to be Mama. She didn’t seem to be afraid, but rather resigned to the world she now inhabited in the tangles of her mind. When she spoke at all, she spoke of a time and place far away from the present world around her. She didn’t shuffle down the halls with her walker anymore. Physical rehab was unsuccessful, and she was confined to a wheelchair or her bed.
Her once stunning, emerald-green eyes were now a milky shade of gray, her skin pale and thin. In another life, Mama was a beauty, once pictured in magazines of the 1940s. Now, dressed in a drool-stained sweater and faded jeans, cameras seldom snapped a demanding pose.
“Jack, take the biscuits out of the oven before they burn. I’ve got my hands full here with these kids,” she said to the empty room as some vision of long ago seemed to parade through the dusty corridors of her memory.
“Hi, Mama. Who are you talking to?” I cheerfully shouted as I entered the room. The smell of urine and disinfectant burned my nose. “How are you today? I brought you some roses, yellow roses, your favorite.” I set the vase down on the shabby dresser and forced a smile.
She looked at me through the thin, gray strands falling over her face. “Hey, lady,” she said to me. I hated it when she called me lady. I hated the disease. I hated this room, and I missed my mama.
Three months later, her lungs and heart were failing, and her other organs were shutting down. The nursing home had brought in Hospice personnel, and my brothers and sister were in and out of the tiny room as we waited for the inevitable.
Suddenly, for a brief moment, Mama came out of her dark world and looked straight at me from her bed. Her eyes were clear and focused. Her voice was strong and free of confusion. I was startled to see the recognition in her eyes.
“Winnie, I have to go away, now.”
“I know, Mama,” I said through uncontrollable tears. “I know. It’s okay, Mama. You go ahead.”
Mama died a few hours later. As I sat holding her hand, I thought about that day long ago when this strong Irish mother of six stood on a dining room chair and made us all laugh.
[Published in Shadows Express E-zine March 21, 2012]
[Published in The Writing.Com Anthology 2012]