The door to my mother’s apartment at the assisted-living facility is unlocked, so I enter. The Steinway, silent and black, takes up most of the living room. In the second bedroom — where she keeps her electric piano, painting supplies, and a daybed — the radio plays classical music. It’s nine in the morning, and the blinds have not yet been raised, but there’s light enough for me to see my mother lying on her side on the daybed in her ruby-colored robe. She seems to get smaller every day. My mother, I think, will not die. Rather, she will float away like an autumn leaf. Her eyes are shut, her face slack; her brown hair with its gray roots is wispy and disheveled. I touch her shoulder, and she wakes in confusion.
“It’s me,” I say.
Recognition seeps into her red-rimmed eyes. “Oh.”
I sit down at the end of her bed, by her feet, which are covered by a cashmere throw my brother gave her for Christmas.
“I hurt,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask, rubbing her calf.
She says the rent is on her mind. Will I write the check for it? I find the bills on the counter between the kitchen and the small dining table. She explains that I need to write one check to cover both the rent and the meals, which are on two separate bills.
“I understand,” I say as I write.
She wants to know the amount. When I tell her, she looks alarmed. “No, that’s not right. That’s not enough.”
“Yes, it is.”
My mother does not have Alzheimer’s. She is not senile. But it takes several minutes for me to convince her that I have indeed written the check for the right amount, and in the process my voice grows sharp.
“Oh, you’re right,” she says, defeated.
I take the check to the front desk — a thirty-to forty-minute round trip for her with her walker, which I manage in about seven minutes. When I get back, I ask if she wants me to help her put on her compression socks.
“Yes, but will you put some of that ointment on my toe first?”
I smear the antibiotic over her big toe, which is large and red. She winces when I touch the bottom of her foot, then apologizes for the tears that spring to her eyes. I cradle her head and tell her it’s OK to cry when you’re in pain.
I am not always so understanding of her tears, which sometimes seem designed to manipulate me. She becomes frantic over some nebulous concern, and my heart closes up. Maybe I’m just feeling guilty that there’s so little I can do for her. Or maybe I feel I could do more, be a better daughter. But I visit almost every day. I take her to myriad doctor appointments. I shop for her and bring her with me whenever I can. Still she is overwhelmed and depressed. After I’ve spent two evenings with her, she’ll want a third. No, I’ll tell her; my husband and daughter need me, too.
I think I know when to sympathize and when to be firm and say, “Suck it up, Mom.” One time when I came to see her, she had the awful look that I have come to know: lips drooping, eyes forlorn, pathetic.
“This is not my mother,” I said in an irritated voice. “My mother is strong.”
“Oh, don’t be angry with me,” she said, sounding even more pitiful. I took her for a walk, and she began to pull out of her gloom. By the time we returned to her apartment, she was almost her old self.
As weeks and months go by, however, her old self fades in and out. It is not only the fear of death that diminishes her, but also the pain of bones crumbling beneath the skin.
“I’m falling apart,” she says. “Can you imagine? . . . Of course, you can’t.”
“I can sort of imagine it, but not completely.” I am on the floor, placing a bin of warm, soapy water under the table so she can soak her feet while we play Scrabble. I once attended a workshop by a spiritual leader who said that it is good soul work to bow at another’s feet. I bow regularly at my mother’s feet. I wash them. I massage them. I scrape the fungus from under her nails.
“What would I do without you?” she says.
Truthfully, I don’t know. I have managed to bring her back to life for a while, like when you water a thirsty plant. She was never a hugger, but now when I bend down and hold her, she squeezes back and says, “I feel better when you do that, when you hug me.” My affection keeps her alive. Perhaps in some small way I have redeemed myself after all these years.
When I was nineteen years old, my mother walked into my bedroom and caught me trying to find a vein for a needle full of heroin. My boyfriend was holding my arm, which was bloody from the punctures in my skin. And there was my worried mother trying to stop me from committing slow suicide. Frustrated with my uncooperative veins and mad at my mother for intruding, I raised both of my fists, intending to bring them crashing down on her head. But my boyfriend grabbed my wrists.
“Don’t you hurt your momma,” he said.
He was right, and I knew it. I never did hurt her physically, but over the next three years I dragged her through hell. She paid for the lawyer when I was arrested for robbery. She suffered the indignity of being searched every time she visited me in prison. When I was transferred to the honors camp, she brought me my first free-world food: homemade shrimp salad. It was so rich I threw it up, but I loved that shrimp salad anyway.
“The other residents here all envy me,” Mom says now as I dry off her feet. “Because of you.”
I don’t respond.
“I’m so lucky,” she adds. “I’m the luckiest unlucky person I know.”
I am broken, and my mother’s old age is what’s breaking me, I think, standing naked in my bathroom, one foot propped up on the sink, clipping my toenails. The bathroom is dirty: hairs everywhere, beads of mold in the corners. Cleaning has become a luxury. Someday I will spend one afternoon a week scrubbing my bathroom, but for now I wipe the sink with a dry Noxzema pad, scrape some loose hair from a corner, and hurry out.
My next thought is: It is not a bad thing to be broken. When something’s broken you get to see what’s inside.
My mother’s demands provoke a barrage of arguments with myself: I have a family, and I have a right to spend time with them. Hell, I have a right to spend time alone. I should be able to crawl into bed with a book at 8 P.M. if I want. . . . No, I should be there with her. Imagine if I were in this much pain.
My mother puts on a false happy voice when she calls me. She is the child, frightened her caretaker will abandon her. I am the stern authority figure she’s afraid to cross. She tries to be a good girl, but she also makes sure I see the pain beneath her happy exterior.
When I was fourteen, I ran away from home with an eighteen-year-old draft dodger. We caught a ride out of town with two old men driving a truck full of watermelons down a two-lane road. My boyfriend and I sat in the back with the round green melons, the summer air swirling around us. I had never felt so free. I haven’t felt that free since.
My stepfather was an alcoholic who crept around the house with a glass full of vodka and a mouth full of insinuation, but when people asked me if I’d run away because my home life was bad, I said no. I just wanted freedom. Freedom from what, I never bothered to figure out. Looking back at my younger self with all the compassion I can muster, I wonder if I didn’t want freedom from my mother’s bottomless need for love — a love her mother had never given her, not in words nor in touch. With the Depression looming, my grandmother had little time for tenderness. No hugs or kisses for her oldest daughter. Connecticut Yankees are a hard, proud breed. My mother brought her pain to the piano the way I would later bring mine to the pen.
In autumn my mother is less able to move, and she sleeps in an armchair because she cannot get into bed. I call her in the morning after dropping my daughter off at school, and Mom screams in agony. I buy her a mechanical chair that raises up so she can get out of it. I spend two months wrangling with the insurance company to get her a motorized wheelchair. But I can’t stop the inevitable. Her legs swell so much they begin to weep foul-smelling yellow fluid. In late January she winds up in the hospital.
After a few days of hospital care, her legs are down to normal size. She actually has visible ankles again. We’re delighted — until the infection begins. Then there’s a fever, and suddenly my alert, Scrabble-playing, eighty-eight-year-old mother becomes disoriented and confused. She thinks she’s standing up when she’s lying down. She thinks the hospital workers are trying to torture her. She doesn’t want me to leave.
When I visit, my mother asks, “Are you part of the program?”
“The program here. Are you going to a meeting?”
“No,” I tell her. “I’m just visiting you. That’s all.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you worked here.”
“I practically do,” I answer. “I finally know how to operate all this goddamn equipment.” I have mastered the brakes on the hospital bed, learned where to clip the tubes on the IV stand, figured out how to hang the catheter bag.
Though it seems odd — OK, crazy — for my mother to ask whether I work at the hospital, I can understand her confusion. I arrive in the morning dressed in my teaching clothes and carrying my briefcase full of papers to grade, and the first thing I do is ask the nurse for an update. Then I’m on the phone, making official-sounding calls to the insurance company, the rehab provider, the primary physician. Her physical therapist and case manager both consult with me. I am fluent in terms like “CAT scan” and “Foley bag.” I come in for eight-hour shifts or longer. The woman at the coffee kiosk downstairs has tried to give me an employee discount.
On the one weekday I don’t have to teach, I try to get caught up on my freelance writing in the morning. When I show up at the hospital at eleven, my mother looks ghastly, her covers off, her gown hiked up to her thighs, gray hair matted on her skeleton head. The squares of tape from some test are tacked to her chest, IV needles strapped to her arms. I rush over and hold her and say, “It’s all right. I’m here.”
She gasps and asks, “Where . . . where were you?”
“I had to go to the bank, and I had an interview to do for a magazine, but now I’m here, and I don’t have to leave.”
“It’s not just for company,” she says with a rasp. “This is real.”
It takes her a moment to forgive me for not arriving sooner to pull her from this nightmare. It seems as though she may not make it through the day, as if she is thinking of giving up. I debate whether to call my brothers and tell them to get on airplanes. Something tells me to wait. There have been many times in the past two and a half years when it has seemed as if my mother were sitting on the precipice and contemplating the other side. Her eyes are closed, and she struggles to breathe. I adjust her head, rub her shoulders, massage her scalp. Finally the antibiotics kick in, and I catch a glimpse of my mother coming back to me. Nurses and technicians bustle in and out.
“Listen, Mom,” I say when we have a moment to ourselves. “You can either let go, or fight to get better.”
She ponders the alternatives, her hazel eyes wide and unblinking.
“Fight,” she says.
At six o’clock my daughter calls. “When are you coming home?” she wants to know.
“Soon,” I say.
Hearing this, my mother invents tasks for me, trying to delay my inevitable departure. But after another hour or so I leave her and head out through the maze of narrow halls cluttered with computer stations and carts, aiming like a bullet for the glass exit doors. I am both relieved and reluctant to go. From now until morning is a long time for my mother to be alone with only those brusque, underpaid, hardworking nurses. Some are gentle, but others aren’t, and my mother is quick to cast herself as the victim. A few days ago, she told me tearfully, “They keep saying this isn’t my room.” It took me a while to understand that she thought she was back in her apartment.
On Saturday the fever-inspired dementia has ceased, but the pain medications have my mother in a fog. I step outside her room, find a nurse pounding the keys of a computer, and ask her to ease up on Mom’s painkillers. I need my mother to be pain-free, but more than that, I need her to get her mind back.
When the physical therapist arrives, Mom starts to wimp out.
“I’m too tired,” she says.
“I want you to try, Mom,” I tell her, giving her a look to remind her of yesterday’s decision to fight.
“OK,” she says. Her hands clutch the walker, and the physical therapist and I help her onto wobbly legs. I hear a noise from her joints, as if her bones are scraping against each other. I cannot imagine her pain or fathom her courage.
“That’s good, Mom,” I tell her.
She takes a step forward.
Sunday morning I drag myself out of bed. The doctor has told me my mother will be released late today. Just as I am about to leave for the hospital, Mom calls.
“I’m doing all right,” she assures me.
She still wants me at her side, but more than that, she wants what she has always wanted: for me to be happy. And sometimes that desire is strong enough to override her need to have me with her — at least temporarily.
I never liked the children’s book The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, because it reminded me too much of my mother: the way she helped me whenever I needed money; the way she always took my side no matter how wrong I might have been; the way she forgave me, and continues to forgive me, for my sharp tongue. She never put anyone ahead of me. Whatever I needed or wanted, she got for me, if she could. Her generosity has been both a blessing and a source of guilty irritation.
The other day my mother told me that she has reached her life’s coda — a musical term for the last section of a composition — and I have made this time bearable for her, sometimes even enjoyable. I wonder if she isn’t hanging on for my sake, to give me the chance to ease my conscience for all the years she propped me up with love and money. I wonder, too, if my youthful “troubles,” as she calls them, weren’t my gift to her: a chance to save someone from self-ruin, as she hadn’t been able to do for her father or her husband.
I decide not to go to the hospital right away. Instead I take my dog for a walk before the rain comes. The weather is typical of Southern winters, blustery and pregnant with possibility. I feel as if I am seeing the material world in all its splendor after having huddled for weeks in a cave. Standing in the field at the top of my neighborhood, I gaze at the pine trees silhouetted against the cloudy sky. My dog scouts the brittle weeds for new scents. I take a breath.
The reprieve is short-lived. I feel a pull, an insistent tug, like the ocean undertow my mother always feared would sweep me out to sea. Soon I am heading back to my house, where I will grab my car keys and speed to the hospital to be at her side.