A story of my mother and our struggles with her steadily declining health.
|"Quiet, please! Quiet down now!" My elementary school principal stood in the center of the packed gymnasium trying, without success, to settle down the restless students. He is a squat, round man with a few wisps of hair combed over the top of his shiny, bald, head. His clothes have thick deep wrinkles mixed together with opposing shallow wrinkles, which make them look like he had them purposely wrinkled. His suit jacket does not match the color of his pants nor is it in tasteful contrast. His tie is dirty, smeared with disgusting things, and styled with the worst pattern possible that clashed horribly with his wrinkled, striped shirt.
His face began to turn red in helpless exasperation as he jumped up and down. The way he jumped and shouted he looked like a clown trying to speak into the microphone that was set too high for his mouth. My friends and I snickered at him which soon turned into outright laughter keyed in the high pitch of young children. Soon, most of the children were laughing and pointing, adding to the cacophony.
Finally, in desperation, the principal's eyes sought out my third grade teacher standing in the corner at the far side of the bleachers. She stood speaking quietly with her fellow teachers discussing something of importance. Her eyes were ever watchful though and even deep in conversation she noted the silent plea from her boss. She excused herself from the other teachers and strode purposefully across the gym floor. The heels of her pumps struck the hardwood like a metronome, "tick, tock; tick, tock". The sound pierced the laughter and a hundred pairs of eyes watched her progress.
By the time she reached the middle of the floor, the gym had quieted by fifty percent and only small groups of children remained chattering; oblivious to her presence. She picked out the ringleaders of each group, and with a glare silenced them, if they did not see her she glared at the nearest child who did see her and jerked her head to the ringleader who was rewarded with a poke from their neighbor and a point at her glaring face. Within a minute and without her uttering a single word, a hushed silence filled the gym.
Satisfied, my mother, who was also my teacher, finally looked at the principal. "Thank you, Mrs. Johnson," he muttered; his cheeks still red with embarrassment and frustration. He spoke into the microphone and began the lyceum.
That's the woman I still see to this day: tall, (over six feet tall in her heels), proud, full of confidence and grace. Always impeccably dressed, proper and strict, yet loving and friendly at the same time. I returned her smile as we sat in her living room catching up on her grandchildren’s current adventures.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father head for the garage door, signaling time for the three of us to go to lunch. As I watched the vision of my youth fade to the reality of our present a lump formed in my throat. My mother's once strong hands now gnarled and bent with arthritis, reached for her walker. She struggled to bring her painful, swollen joints and crippled knees to their task. With the same strength of will she used to quiet that gym long ago, she forced her body to a wobbly, upright posture.
She gathered what remained of her strength around her like an invisible cloak and with a deep breath she began the long, agonizing trek to the car. It was only twenty feet and three stair steps away yet to her it must have seemed like a triathlon. I helped her to the door and we scaled down the stairs with the care and strain of a mountain climber. She gritted her teeth in pain with each movement. I opened the car door and like a policeman assisting a suspect in custody, guided her head away from the door frame. She fell into the leather seat of the car with a groan.
I quickly folded her walker and tossed it in as my father started the car. I leapt into the back seat and slammed my door just before he reversed out of the driveway with a huff of impatience. We raced off to my parents' favorite restaurant as I tried to reconcile the images of my mother in my mind's eye with the frail, hobbled figure in the front seat. It seemed impossible to connect the two women. I didn't feel my forty-eight years, but she looked all of her seventy-six and even more. "It was only yesterday," I tell myself as I remember how she used to protect me.
She had a gift for protecting me. I recall my first grade teacher, who had a reputation for cruelty. Corporal punishment was perfectly acceptable in my elementary school, and the lines defining acceptable punishment for naughty children were often blurred. Mrs. Lockhart blurred those lines with glee. She wielded a ruler like a swordsman and would strike a knuckle or a wrist for the slightest infraction. In her classroom, children were locked into the dark coat closet, made to kneel on pencils for punishment in the corner of the room or any of a dozen cruel punishments that are not worth repeating. But none of that ever happened to me.
On my first day of class, my mother took Mrs. Lockhart into the supply room. With her hands firmly gripping the teacher's blouse collar, Mom lifted her five-foot frame up off the ground and growled into her ear, "If you lay one hand on my son, you will wish you had never met him or me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mrs. Johnson," she replied meekly. Mom set her back down and turned without another word being spoken about the matter. Mrs. Lockhart never touched me.
The past flew from my mind as Dad wheeled into the parking spot right in front of their favorite eating place, The Pheasant Run. He screeched to a jerking halt that forced me to grab the seat in front of me to keep from banging my head. I jumped quickly out of my back seat spot and dragged Mom's walker along with me. I put it in place and carefully opened her door. I slid my hand in and held her shoulder in case she was leaning against the door then opened it all the way. Steeling herself against the pain, Mom took my hand and half pulled herself up and half fell out of the car. I guided her to a standing position and watched her use Lamaze breaths to ride out the pain of moving.
"Whew, whew, whew," she breathed as my father sighed yet again in exasperation. Her quick, sharp, breaths slowed down and she signaled she was ready for the arduous trek into the restaurant; the second leg of the triathlon for her.
I walked slowly with her as we entered. Each crack in the concrete and the ledge on the door frame caused her to struggle with the walker. Her strength was so faded that she could not pick up the light aluminum frame and move it over the slightest obstacle. At last, we made it into the door; two steps later her walker caught on the floor mat right inside the entrance. Mom pushed against it but only managed to roll the rug up under her. I dropped to my knees and straightened the mat then lifted her walker over it. She smiled a silent “thanks” to me.
Satisfied she was safe, I stood and helped her take another step. At the entrance from the foyer into the restaurant she stopped again. She shook the walker like she was pushing against the mat. I looked down to see the obstruction but there was none. Sadly, I put my arms around this fragile woman to steady her.
In a voice barely above a whisper, she said "I…think…I'm…having…a….a…stroke".
Filled with dread, I whispered back, "What do you want to do?"
"Go…ho…ho…hommmme…" She responded weakly wobbling back and forth on her walker. Her shaking began to draw concerned attention from the people she knew in the restaurant. I smiled at one of her friends who was standing up to help as if to tell her we were alright but clearly we were not.
Whipping around, I filled Dad in on what Mom had said. His temper rushed out of him like a balloon deflating, and his concern for his wife of nearly sixty years came charging forward. The two of us acted like secret service agents clearing the way for the president and quickly ushered her back into the car and rushed for home.
Mom refused to go to the hospital. She was convinced she felt better and was sure it was just a "spell". I helped her to bed and she quickly fell into a deep sleep. With nothing left to do and at my father's urging, I reluctantly began the long drive to my own home five hundred miles away. I was filled with fear and dread the entire drive.
My mom and I have always had a special connection, and I reflected on this connection for the length of the drive. I remember when I had a severe car accident many years before, I returned from the hospital to the phone ringing. “What happened?” she asked me without a greeting of any kind. I told her what had happened and the extent of my injuries but I always wondered how she knew.
Often I would call over the years to have her answer “How did you know I was thinking about you?”. I never knew the answer; I just did.
It was really no surprise then, when later that night, Dad called me from the hospital. "Your mother had a more severe, second stroke and I took her to the hospital. After she got to the hospital, she had a third one while she was hooked up to all the monitors. They did an MRI and the doctor said her brain looks like Swiss cheese from all the mini-strokes and full blown ones.”
Hanging up the phone, I brought my wife up to date on the latest turn of events. I resolved to go back next month. Each month for the last two years, I have made the trip across three state lines. The monthly visits bring something for my mother to anticipate eagerly; an artificial event for her to plan and then relive for days afterward. She says it brings her joy and I am glad of that. But for me they are the most difficult chores I have ever had.
Each month, my mother is less of the woman I see in my child-colored glasses. Like a slow motion version of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, each visit she fades a little more until only her smile remains. It is awful to watch her in such pain and her gradual, cruel passing weighs heavily on me. My father becomes more bitter and angrier each month. He lashes out at everything and everyone near him. It makes these difficult visits all the more burdensome. But I understand his frustration even if I disapprove of his method of handling it.
There are times I feel like an emotional garbage dump as first my mother complains about my father, then my father complains about my mother and finally my brother complains about both my mother and my father. That, too, has its purpose, I suppose and I realize the role my mother has served in our family all these years. She has been the garbage dump for everyone else. And now I must lift that burden from her.
I realize how vital these visits are to my mother; I have become her one link to a pleasant past, a compassionate present and a fearless passing. With me, she can talk of her fears of dying and how losing her mind slowly is as maddening to her as it is my father. At times, I am like her long gone father and she like a little frightened girl whom I hold as I stroke her hair and whisper “It’ll be alright”.
At other times she is a confused old woman unable to bear the pain of her existence any longer; I hold her hand and look into her eyes giving her the comfort of presence. I work to convince her that seeing her grandchildren grow is worth the struggle. I help her find happiness in the memories of the past and hope for the future.
Then at times she is the woman I remember in my memory. She is enthralled with the idea of me writing a book about her and is eager to fill in details of my childhood and her life as a young woman and life’s ups and downs. We talk about the book and what stories to add whenever she is able. I love those times the most.
We both have struggled with illness most of our lives. I had life-threatening asthma combined with allergies to wheat dust while living in Kansas. She had her thyroid removed and as a result was prone to faint at the most unexpected provocations. My struggles with asthma made me different from the other children and I would collapse after running a short distance. But Mom would help me up and distract me from watching the other children play like I could not.
We always helped one another. Some of my first words were "Dad, Mom needs a smelly." Dad would then get an ammonia capsule that he would break and hold under Mom's nose to wake her from unconsciousness. Looking back, I realize that it was unusual for a child of three or four to calmly get medical help when his mother collapsed to the floor. It was also unusual for my mother to hold my hand every day when my father gave me shots for my allergies or to look deeply in my eyes and know how to me calm down through an asthma attack.
Even now, I realize as I am helping her towards her final transition, she is helping me. Her memory of my childhood is different than my own. Her perspective is unclouded by immaturity and in spite of her dementia, or perhaps because of it, the past is much easier for us to visit than the present.
She is still teaching me, even now. She is teaching me how to be a man unlike any I have ever known: a man of sensitivity and compassion; a man filled with the wonder and passion of creativity and knowledge; a man accepting of the differences of others. And now I am teaching her. I teach her to accept change and to understand her gifts. I am teaching her to move calmly towards the next phase of her existence. I am holding her hand and comforting her in face of the fear of what happens next. She knows we will face this challenge together like all the times before. And I know she will always be my teacher.