In the country of age, I toss slippers, shove aside my mother’s recliner, and ransack her tiny room, searching for her afghan, the blanket of my betrayal. Upper case, Afghan, is the term preferred by the people of Afghanistan, a country you can find on a map. The eponymous lower case afghan is the blanket gone missing from my mother’s room, part of this country that will not show up on any map except the map of being and not being. Still, this place claims its own culture, rules, laws, language. I skirt its boundaries, entering as often as I can, knowing it is my country too, but not my home. Not yet. For her it is both, country and now home, and never home. She doesn’t like it.
“I’m so cold.” Her voice, an anxious child.
Not under the bed, not under the pillow. I stop, step out into the hall to look for an aide; it is that imperative. How do we live without the afghan?
If you grew up with Country Living and Crochet World magazines stuffed every other week in your tin mailbox at the end of a gravel driveway, the mailbox that loses its running battle with the snowplow each winter, you know afghans. No matter how young or old you are, those soft-yarned, zig-zagged, old world, hand-knitted or crocheted blankets draped over your grandma’s chair offer not just warmth but an age-old security, connection, family. And no matter the blanket originated in a country the crocheters might not easily find on said map. Those crocheters will tell you, counting stitches as they go, those zigzags warm the cold nights.
Still, it’s a generationally dated term, perhaps no longer politically correct. Because when I enlist the aide to help me, a young woman with a degree so fresh, she can use her ID card for a mirror, she doesn’t know what I’m talking about as I rifle my mother’s closet. I mutter into Mom’s seasonal sweat shirts—snow flake, maple leaf, daisy print—, “The afghan was here yesterday.”
I turn, read her face. Translate. “Where’s her throw?”
A dawning. “Oh, that. Gotta be there somewhere.” Throw the young aide understands, but she strides out anyway. I stand in the closet, empty-handed. My mother will not know what I mean if I call her afghan a throw.
I’ll cover you with a throw.
Do you want your throw?
Throw me the throw.
What are we throwing over her or over throwing here? Her afghan is what she wants.
Another aide pops in, “Got a problem?”
I nod, ask, “Do you know where Mom’s throw went?”
“Throw? You mean her afghan? Check between the wall and the bed. They get lodged.”
In the country of aging and elder care, the language issue is only the beginning. Beyond the various vocabularies of pain, cognition, confusion, physical therapies, occupational therapies, eating habits, bowel movements, medication, and even political correctness, this is also about the land of beds, about the industry of beds where the throw may be lodged.
This bed? It’s all wrong. My mother would tell you: beds should be king or queen sized, taut with colorful linens, low enough to sit on but high enough to store shoeboxes under, and they should not be on wheels. They should be stationary and should hold two people, a couple, or a mother and a child so that one can hold the other as she cries. Her bed should be covered with an old fashioned white and blue cross-stitched bedspread with sky blue appliques and ruffled shams and… an afghan, a bright afghan with a zigzag pattern.
Are those zigzags the first signpost of age?
In this clean but austere room (bed, recliner, folding guest chair, small white board, dresser, TV), my mother’s bed is the dominant piece of furniture. It can be raised high as a nurse’s waist or lowered almost to the floor, lowered so far that a caretaker might sleep on a matt next to the bed and reach up and still touch the occupant. When the time comes, I and my sisters will lie on the matt, covered perhaps with a blanket my mother would call an afghan. We will hold her hand and the single bed will be lowered so we can do this while she rests. Or dies—though she doesn’t plan on this. I look at that bed now. I’ve pulled back the faded pink synthetic comforter that can be washed weekly and swapped out with the faded aqua one, two because the laundry service here—for which I’m thankful—has one setting, hot with bleach, so anything delicate or pretty is ruined within a wash or two. But it is clean. Stretchy grey flannel sheets, with only elastic fitting at the bottom, may be changed while a person still lies in the bed. Under that, the mattress is covered in plastic and filled with unique pockets of foam and air to support her back. I have learned that every bed in every room is both individualized and industrial. Despite the linens, what can be said for this bed is that it works, not pretty but efficient. It will hold a sleeping person or, and this is language I am forbidden to speak aloud, a dying one as comfortably as possible. No beauty in that bed, and not much anywhere in this practical facility. In fact, very little is even pretty: nursing homes are about service and safety, not aesthetics. Whatever the designers thought beauty was, they did not build it. They built clean and tidy efficiency, though they decorate it nicely for every holiday under the sun.
But here’s a small antidote—and there must be antidotes. In the country of my mother’s age, at least a dozen women well past their eighth decade roll their wheelchairs up to each other, slap on the brakes, grin and say to each other, Oh, you’re so pretty. And sometimes the other will return the compliment. And you have beautiful hair.
Such nice skin.
Isn’t she lovely?
They love this talk and embrace it as grace. They may be aware of irony, but they are not sarcastic. They laugh, shake their heads and beam. They seem at their best in these moments. You’re so pretty. It may be a behavior left over from their generation, but they seem to honor the shifting surfaces beyond age. A kind of beauty? Is it a way to be seen, to see each other? To defy the anonymity of age? To defy the years? To embrace the years?
When Gladys says this to my mother, who says it to Elizabeth, who says it to Ethel, is it to feel the warmth of a compliment that belies the map of their faces? If there is little beauty here, in the rooms or the beds, this small band of “old gals” as they call themselves, seem to claim it in each other. When I see it happen, I relish it. I try not to think of the others who, with broken, only half familiar language, shout insults or demands, or the ones who have no shout, no words at all, who struggle with aphasia or any of a multitude of dementias that rob them of anything resembling language, let alone the ability to compliment. Who tells them they are pretty? Can they still know beauty? When my mother finally loses speech, will she know if I tell her she has beautiful hair? And will Gladys tell her the same when I’m not there? Even as I delight in their example, the unanswered questions ache in me.
In the country of her age, in the biosphere of long-term care, in the place of old afghans and those beautiful fading elders, also roam many middle-aged daughters like myself, temporary wanderers, not pretty but often tired and uncertain, speaking too loudly, our grammar lapsed to childhood lexicons: I got the afghan, you got the sippy?
We sometimes use sippy cups here. Not pretty but they work.
In this place, a cadre of daughters who talk too loudly, losing our helping verbs, sometimes resorting to baby terms. Up and down the hallways, you can hear us try out this new/old language. Vroomvroom as we push the wheelchair. We are ghost children who speak simple sentences at full volume as we look for the blankets that will warm the legs that can no longer lift the torso of the human who once ran full stride across a hundred-acre farm, likely more than twice daily. We are not insulting our elders with our “baby” talk, but deciphering and translating remnants of lost or destroyed communication. Open wide, Mama, it’s your favorite pudding. (Though there’s a pill in it.) Subtlety and complexity may be gone, but brief recognition, small understanding, one-syllable response—there’s both richness and pain in that. Is the soup too hot—is that why you’re crying? Let me blow on it. So many prayers we thought we knew. Hail Mary, full of… space. We are in various stages of life, with individual stories, but what many share is the heart-breaking fact that we can’t care for our parent or the loved one who has come here. I’m so sorry Daddy, I don’t know where Grandpa’s watch is. We visit, we take them to lunch, to see the birds, to the day room to watch the light. We watch reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke” with them. We listen with gratitude to the ones who can speak of beauty.
Gladys, you have a nice smile.
Well, thank you Ruth. You got your nails done. The new pink?
I catch a glimpse of purple, soft wool crumpled at the foot of the bed, tangled under grey sheets and comforter, yank it free. Her afghan is pretty, all Mom’s favorite hues in those zigzags: soft purple, lavender, pale blue, pink and then a broad row of cream, and then the purple, lavender, pale blue, pink again in back and forth diagonals. I shake it out, tuck it over her lap and around her legs, making sure the afghan does not drag under her chair’s wheels. I kneel in front of her and begin our liturgy. “Who made this for you, mom?”
“Oh, Mama made it for me.” She perks up. She means her mother, dead of pneumonia in 1983 at ninety-three. My grandmother made afghans for every child, grandchild, niece, nephew, church group and fundraiser in the county. And not a few pets.
“And when did she have time to do that?”
“Last week. She can just crochet. After… we did peaches.” It’s August she knows, peach season.
“And how many quarts of peaches did you two put up?”
She looks at me. She knows I want a number. She starts, pauses, turns her hands in her lap, and I realize the numbers too are floating away.
“You usually get about 48 quarts, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure, but that seems right. Does it seem right to you?”
“Out of a bushel?”
“No, two.” The requisite number of bushels we canned each summer.
“But I thought…oh shoot.” She senses something, looks around. “Is this my room?”
Quick now, before she gets anxious. “Shall we blow this popstand?”
She studies me closely and repeats softly, “Blow the popstand?” She has lost most idiomatic metaphor, but still, like an old scent, she recognizes humor’s tone, and she knows it’s her turn to respond. “Blow this popstand,” she repeats with commitment.
I grin, and turn her wheelchair into the long hall, lean forward, and see us all stepping into the lunch formation. At doorways all down the hall, a mis en byme effect, surreal variation on “Village of Mermaids,” but instead of grey mermaids in chairs, women and men in wheelchairs line the hall in sequence. And we caretakers stand behind them, half hidden, leaning forward, smiling eagerly, making eye contact, searching for camaraderie. Except for the aides, not one of us is young. How many of us are grandmothers?
Many of the residents here in Oceana County Medical Care Facility in the small town of Hart, Michigan grew up no more than a few dozen miles from this sprawling facility where about one hundred ten people live and often die. This place where Mom lives was built in the sixties and has twice been added on to and fully remodeled. Still, it’s a recent regional pattern for our elders to come here. According to the social workers here, most of these elders lived their lives expecting to die in their homes. Or with one of their own. Many residents are surprised to arrive, to cross the boundary, to find themselves in the routine of a full-scale nursing home, and a good one at that. Here, they are safe, fed, and well-cared for. Many are grateful, but for some the shadow falls anyway. Why am I here? It falls from the time of their childhood when, if you couldn’t be cared for by family, you went to the predecessor to this place, the County Farm, a place of poverty and shame. For my mother, it is an imperative to avoid all shame.
Take me home now.
To complicate our story, back in that other world, back on the farm of my youth, my mother took her mother into our home, and Grandma lived with us, first in summers and then all year round, often sitting at the dining room window—light falling on her plump swift hands—crocheting: doilies and runners and hankies and pillowcases. And afghans. Mom took care of her on and off for ten years. She expected us to do the same for her when the time came—which she never believed would come, not really. She certainly could not have imagined this world where we don’t have the time or knowhow to give someone twenty-four-hour care, even were our homes revamped to accommodate wheelchairs and hospital beds—though that’s the least of the reasons. After long and difficult discussions, our biggest reason for placing Mom here is both terrible and practical: no woman in the family could afford to quit her job. None of the men even considered it. It was not about poverty but in a way it is: in the U.S., around sixty-six percent of us depend on two incomes to support a family. And in those households with only one parent working, it is more often the woman. Mom cannot imagine our dependency on the two-income household. She just knows she doesn’t belong in this place, though over time, her hostility has faded to a sense of misplacement. It’s makes a softer shame, I suppose.
As I merge into the line of wheelchairs streaming into the hall, all headed for the lunch room, I understand this experience we caretakers share is common as mud, fraught with worry, and is a cultural cliché replicated in nursing homes all over the country where boomers, mostly daughters, blunder into parental caretaking. Blundered finances—what percentage of us had any idea how much this would cost, and who among us saved with our parents in mind; blundered relationships—how come so many of us are single, or going this alone; blundered bureaucracy: Medicare and Medicaid and supplemental insurance plans. Still, an amazing number of us actually blunder through successfully, figuring out finances and care and responsibility—though often with enough stress to send our cortisol levels through the roof. And now, with families divided and realigned in a dozen different formations, the visiting daughters who take this on might be step daughters, step sisters, partners, long-time friends, neighbors, or in some case, though honestly it’s rare, sons. And not everyone has someone. Some are abandoned. Unless the resident is here because of mental illness, convalescence, or long-term disability (a small percentage), these folks are here because they are old, and if they can speak, they call an afghan an afghan, and that afghan is in their home, which is what they may really be searching for as they wander down the maze of halls in the country of age. Our family placed Mom here where she does not want to be, where we do not really want her to be, where she doesn’t know her own room, where the bed is single and lonely, and she isn’t sure if she’s canned peaches this season or not, because here she is safe, a small comfort to us and us alone.
This is not my first betrayal.
I roll her wheelchair down the hall to the day room where we peek in on the aviary to watch the birds. Several bright finches and tropical pairs, purple throated and bright green, trapped in a nice bright cage. It’s a beautiful aviary with three glass sides, all kinds of roosts, a back wall of wire and straw, and a row of small grass nests along the top. While she watches, I whistle to the birds and they rile, and she watches them fly around. They are lovely and trapped, in captivity until they die.
“So pretty” she murmurs as she watches them flutter.
We push on to the nurse’s station where I sign Mom out. Since she can no longer make the transfer from wheelchair to car, our options are limited for this lunch I have promised her off campus. Then down the hall, me swerving the chair a bit to make her laugh, the big automated lobby doors swinging open, and we’re in the parking lot, struck with August heat. Mom sighs in relief, “Oh that feels good,” she says—this with the afghan on her lap. I retrieve two hats from my car, my big beach hat for her. She looks like a great white gardenia on wheels.
I bumble her wheel chair along Hart’s crumbling sidewalks for five blocks to the Lakeside Café. We can usually find a place on the back patio where she can watch Hart Lake’s dark slow water, facing away from the other tables so no one will see what a mess she makes now as she hangs on to her last physical ability, feeding herself, left handed (she’s right-handed), with a spoon. Once I tried it myself. By the time I had to brush my lunch off my lap, I felt only admiration.
But after jolting her down walks that have buckled and cracked, we find the café unexpectedly closed. She goes into martyr speak: Oh it’s all right, I’m fine, we can go back. I adjust her hat, adjust mine. If I wheel her back, lunch at the facility will be over and she will be hungry, and they will be bothered in the kitchen, and give her a PB&J and milk. I wipe the sweat off my face.
The only option? Down the block, Kristi’s Pour House, a local dive that smells of spilled beer and fried food, and could qualify for the Antarctic research station, the air conditioning is so high. I remember a side room where we might sit and no one would trip over this lug of a wheelchair. I see Mom’s face taking on the distant look—she’s slipping back into her broken mind, and I can’t bear to let her go just yet. Quick now. I ease the wheelchair down the curb, rattle our way over cracked concrete, dodge a couple of cars, up the other curb, and through the boot-scuffed aluminum storm door into the dark space. The patrons, a few coveralled men and a couple of ciggy-scented women, seeing us struggle over the threshold, slide their heavy bodies off the stools, and become more than kind, shoving tables and chairs as we negotiate our way to the side room. Even the regulars, leaning out from the booths, scoot out of the way. Can ya make it? Sure ya ok? Once settled in the side room, the sweet waitress opens the side door to the street and the hot air rushes in, warming the space. At my look, she shrugs, Aw what the hell, in reference to the air conditioning. Mom can see the traffic, the comings and goings of the town and this will occupy her. We are fine.
I order soup for her, chicken noodle, and when it comes, thick old fashioned egg noodles crowd the broth. I break up the noodles so they won’t slide off her spoon.
“Ummm, good,” and she tucks right in. After a while, she lifts her head, straight white hair glowing in the gray light. She studies the room, then asks, “Is this a bar?”
I brace myself. It’s not that she minds bars, but for all the memory she has lost, certain proprieties remain indelible as tattoos. We are here in the middle of a week day, not Friday night fish fry for Catholics, which was the appropriate time she and Dad patronized our local bar. I don’t know if she will object, this woman who once walked out of a restaurant for being owned by people whose political views were so far left she thought they might be communists. That, and they served pork chops with garlic instead of apples.
“Yes, Mom, it’s a bar.”
“I thought so.” She nods like she’s figured out something. She inhales a long noodle, broth spilling from the spoon.
I brace myself and ask, “How do you feel about that?”
“Oh, real good.” She nods, slurps her soup.
I smile. “Well then, would you like a beer?’
“Oh no. I couldn’t.” She puts her spoon down like that’s final.
I decide right then I’ll have a beer. “You want some of mine?”
“Are you gonna?”
I know what that means. “I’m gonna have something Belgian.” This appeals to her national pride, her Belgian ancestry.
“Well, a little sip.” She raises her eyebrows: how daring.
I order a pint of Blue Moon and a highball glass on the side. When it comes, I pour off a third, tuck in a straw, and hold it up to her lips. She wraps her lips around it and sucks. And sucks, and it’s gone. I pour in the rest, and over the course of the lunch, she drinks it all. My mother has not had a drink in years, not by choice, but because alcohol exacerbates her incontinence. But now that she wears heavy-duty pullups every day, it’s a moot point, isn’t it? I don’t care: I’m thrilled she’s enjoying a beer. It’s the smallest of adventures, the simplest of forays into normalcy, a momentary reprieve. I know the aides will have to deal with the results, and I should be ashamed of myself, but to see her draw on that beer with such intensity makes my eyes smart.
Before we know it, lunch is over.
To go out means to come back.
To return to that other country.
She understands when I pay the check. We look out the open door to the street, and she stops talking.
During the trek back, she dozes, no doubt because of the beer. Even after pushing her wheelchair up the slow rise away from the lake, I’m not quite ready to let her succumb to the two-hour nap that will be in order if the aids have their way. And though she cries a little when we re-enter the building, she’s seems alert. So we roll out to the facility’s enclosed patio where the trees offer sweet shade, a little breeze. Bucket-grown cherry tomato plants are ripening in a row. I steal a couple tomatoes, hand them to her. She chews, and I am so glad that the tastes of certain foods have not faded for her.
“These are…” and she holds the question up in the tiny tomato.
“Cherry tomatoes,” I say.
“Cherries? Taste like tomatoes.”
“They are, but little, like cherries. So they’re called cherry tomatoes.”
She lets out a little giggle, “The joke’s on us,” she says.
These small survivals of the wrecked mind awe me. How did she know it was a small joke? What triggers her understanding? Here in this enclosed and utterly safe Eden, she may have lost metaphor, but she recognizes a play on words. Because it’s related to taste? I wish I understood how it worked, what would stay and what would go, and what would stay if exercised. I used to ask everyone, searching for a way to anticipate the sudden losses of mind, but no one knows, not the charge nurses or aides, not the doctor who sees her twice a month, not the occupational therapist or the physical therapist or the guy who does foot care or the woman who plays organ for hymn sings, not even her old friend, the volunteer who brings her Holy Communion. No one can tell me week to week what she will know. Sometimes she seems to be searching her own mind, her face reflective and intense, as though she recognizes something is gone but the tool to know what it is, is also gone, lost in the gray flannel zigzags of the mind. She has become progressively more silent, more unable to shape a sentence, though on some days, the search for a sentence, voluntary and complete, suddenly succeeds, and she can say a whole thing. I realize she’s having a very good day, that today she is as with me as she can be. I find myself suddenly laughing.
“Yea, some joke, right mom.”
We sit in the sun; her head drops forward. Here is another locale in the country of age: the shared silence, the drift of time between us. It is both thin and lush here, full of thought spinning its bright frayed edges, why and because at the very same moment they both disintegrate. We are together, often holding hands, and when she looks up, bleary eyed, she sees me like seeing me for the first time. Her eyes open wide in surprise and her mouth forms a silent Oh. And I see her. Oh. Because of all the terrible times we had in our youths, tearing each other apart, I cherish this sudden recognition. We still know each other. This is her criteria for living, one small requirement expressed years ago when we first tried to speak of death. Life was worth living as long as she knew us. She said it out loud, clearly. And then the subject was closed.
At the far end of the patio, the doors swing open from the Alzheimer’s unit, a wing of the facility designated for highly functioning Alzheimer’s residents, those who still know the world, but can no longer be alone. The slim woman entering the garden patio is accompanied by an aide—standard protocol—and pushes a walker. Her white hair glows in soft waves, and her pale skin is radiant. Even in the heat, she wears dress slacks and a cashmere sweater with delicate angora trim. I remember someone telling me that sometimes Alzheimer’s starts with people forgetting how to walk—even when the mind seems rational. She and the aide make their way around the garden, commenting on the marigolds, and then toward us under the trellis. It’s common practice to introduce ourselves to strangers, so we do, and the predictable chit chat about the weather plays out like birds twittering. Finally, the woman, in a voice as bright as sun, says “That’s a beautiful afghan.”
Mom, gone sleepy in the sun, rouses, “Thank you.” She looks down, fingering it as if for the first time. She looks at me.
“My mo….” The word mother abandons her.
“Her mother made it,” I volunteer. Mom smiles.
The white-haired woman studies her and asks with that bright-as-sun voice, “How old are you?” No filter on that one.
Mom wants to answer, but sun, quiet, and beer drowse overwhelm her. I remember that the last two times she has been asked that question, in meetings with facility supervisors, she has reversed the numbers, announcing she was fifty-nine when she is ninety-five. When I corrected her, she snapped, Don’t make things up. Then she went silent for hours. I vow that no matter what she says, today she will be right. But after a couple of attempts at speech, she looks at me, gives a little nod.
I shouldn’t have let her drink the beer. After a brief interior clash I settle on the truth. “She’s ninety-five.”
The white-haired woman smiles, a fully inhabited, warm smile, “Oh, ninety-five. That’s wonderful.” Mom makes eye contact, comprehending her warmth, but not the number. Then the radiant one gushes, “I’m eighty-five.” Nods all around. She bends toward mom, confiding a delicious secret in a full clear voice, “We’ll be in heaven soon.”
A shock passes through me. The woman looks around, not registering my silence or my mother’s, and says with genuine excitement, “I can’t wait to get there.” She searches mom’s face for confirmation, and with the smile of a salesman coming in for the clinch, bursts out as if they are sharing a prize, “It’s going to be so wonderful.”
I look at Mom to see if she’s followed this. She has, and as I also suspected, she is not sharing the prize, not falling for this, not a chance. The look on her face is one I know from sixty years of being the victim to it. She is hard eyed, jaw jutted, mouth-tight-as-an-old-apple pissed. She gives the woman a look that would have withered that woman’s brightness like heat on a fresh cut flower had she been perceptive enough to register it. Despite her frailty and loss, my mother’s gets this. Her subtext is defiant: What the hell is she talking about? Going to heaven? I’m not going anywhere but for a nap, so don’t talk to me about going to heaven, I’d have to die first. And I got too much work to do. The woman of course, lifts her head, confidently gazing over the garden, her radioactive smile searing the cherry tomatoes.
Here is my mother’s continued scold on a bullhorn only I can hear: Get that fancy sweater woman away from me. I’m only fifty-nine and heaven is a long ways down the line ‘cuz I don’t intend to die or go anywhere but to the laundry room to fold that last load. As heat rises off the patio stones, her hands start and stop, tremble and tangle in the zigzagged colors, unable to trace order. Her mouth moves, trying to rebuke me, the woman, all of us, but she’s on mute. I muster a polite thanks, watch the glow-in-the-dark woman wobble away on her walker. Won’t it be wonderful! she proclaims again to the marigolds.
In the country of age, the most dominant lexicon is deathspeak, the one my mother refuses, the one that is garbed by social workers, priests, and well-meaning strangers in normalcy and light when for her it is all shadow. Deathspeak, like beds and bedpans, wheelchairs and walkers, is the dark and shaky bedrock in the country of age, despite the sincere attempts of well-meaning daughters to desensitize it. I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to talk to my mother about dying, (For heaven’s sake, why?) I will meet a wall of iron. Because my mother knows death intimately, and she does not like it, and has no intention of going through that herself, though if you asked her for help, she would care for a dying person with the tenderness of an angel. My mother knows death better than any of us, better than most of the people who work here because she was a fearless and capable nurse who gave her services to a fault. How many times has my mother tended death? My father’s mother died of stomach cancer in our own farmhouse when I was four; her father of heart failure, her own mother of pneumonia; her brother of lung cancer; my uncle Butler of colon cancer; a neighbor of stroke. Her husband—my father. Present to all. And who knows how many before I was born, or before she married when she was a nurse caring for returning WWII soldiers. My mother knows death and figures the best way to avoid it is to deny its presence. She’s been only partially successful.
When my father died five years ago, I thought we might talk. In the country of age, when a spouse dies, often families anticipate and plan. But not only did she refuse the conversation, she (already bound to a walker and barely able to drive), decided to stay alone in their small house on the remote branch of the Pentwater River. She talked of going back to nursing, working again, buying a new car. When she inevitably fell, confused things, fired the people we hired to help, drove too fast and then braked suddenly in the middle of the road, we confronted her. She denied it all with such irritation that we were silenced. When it became clear that we would become negligent if we didn’t do something, I tried to confront her with the what if you fall scenarios (hip, head, heart). She said, “It’s my life to fall.”
Yes, but. This is the part where we, her children, take away her freedom.
I explained that it wasn’t just her life alone, but the lives of people who would have to take care of her, manage hospitalization, arrange rehabilitation, and transport her to therapy, and did she want that? She changed the subject.
Had I seen that cardinal coming to the feeder?
Only after weeks of soft-shoeing the subject did we ask her to sign an advanced directive and Powers of Attorney for my sister and me. Her response? I just need a new phone—help me pick one out. Just as we had mustered courage to broach a funeral contract, her eyes landed on some dust, and she insisted Get the Pledge and the dust cloth from under the sink, and launched a protracted conversation about how dust blows in off the bean fields during the summer months.
Another six months and how many trips to the emergency room?
I suspect most elders come to deathspeak uneasily—as I’m sure I will, but then do try to make it easier for their loved ones by accepting help and making arrangements. Or a family member leads the conversation and the elder resigns to it. My mother did make a list of items she wanted family members to have. The child’s rocking chair to the oldest granddaughter, the antler racks to the oldest son, the guns to the nephews. She changed the list regularly depending on how she felt about people, a not uncommon practice I have learned. She chose a couple of hymns for her funeral in that casual way she had of tossing off life-important information like throwing out trash: Oh play that one when I go. But through the practice of subject-changing, she avoided the deepest aspects of her death, like how she felt and what she wanted. She can’t remember the hymns or her age anymore, but avoidance has survived even in the valley of dementia. Maybe dementia is an ultimate but accidental avoidance? Zig. Or is it the ultimate understanding? Zag.
Then came the part where I lied to her. Come here to the facility just for a while, so you can get physical therapy twice a day for a while. A couple of weeks. You’ll feel better By then she’d lost both calendar and clock; two weeks became two months, then longer. When I speak with the other daughters here, I discover mine was a not uncommon ploy. How do we live with ourselves?
I roll her chair to the aviary to bird watch, to speak no more of heaven or its unspoken preliminary, but to sidle up to the aviary where the finches are whispering to each other, where she can nap, where I can sit next to her in the silence of age, maybe work on my computer, send quiet texts. Maybe hold her hand. She drops off almost immediately. After all the heaven talk, I don’t feel like doing my own work. I don’t want to plan a class or pay bills or organize community obligations. It seems no matter how positively I think, this country is all about loss. I think I should understand it better. Should understand her better.
An aide pushes in a rolling recliner, basically a lazy boy set high on wheels that operates like a wheelchair but with the comfort of a recliner. A grey-haired, fierce-looking black woman reclines on this chair. She is restless, talk-singing to herself, opening her hands and closing them in a gesture that seems familiar, like a conductor’s. I make eye contact and say hello, and she commences a proclamation, a string of nonsense in a commanding voice. She laughs, not manic but warm. Then sudden anger. She stares me down. I am someone she knows; I am a stranger.
What is she seeing?
Was she once a performer, now looking for her lost audience?
I take out my notebook and wave my pen in the air as if writing, asking her permission. She smiles in delight and nods, then shakes her head as if in argument, then nods again. Assent. As the warm afternoon wanes, while my mother doses, her afghan on her knees, I transcribe what this woman sings from her high recliner.
I want to be alive today, I do.
I want to be alive today so I can be alive tomorrow.
Tomorrow I have a…
Tomorrow I want to marry… tomorrow.
Here, she looks at me, and suddenly scolds me.
What are you talking about…
I don’t know who…
With great seriousness she sings:
Might be four, might be five, might be six, might be seven.
Might be eight. Might be ten.
I know more… no I don’t want to tell… tidy tidy tidy
Her tomorrows go two ways: like the tomorrows in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the sonorous tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech where the future creeps in its petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time… where Macbeth realizes the consequences of his actions. But then, an entirely different voice, the bright tomorrow song from the musical Annie. Tomorrow, tomorrow. I love you, tomorrow. Then numbers. Might be eight, might be ten. A jump rope game? The words bridge into metaphor, into days or years of tomorrows. To counting and losing count. They infer all our yesterdays. My pen stills, and I listen, my mother sleeping beside me, the woman’s chorus of tomorrows on continuous repeat.
Her song is the long-patterned afghan of this place. Safe body, weakened mind. Beauty and efficiency, compliments and silence, heaven and death. Counting and coming to the end of counting. Tomorrow and tomorrow. Mine and hers. Zigzag.
My mother rouses. I ask if she wants water, and she nods, and looks up, “I heard singing.”
“Yes, the lady was singing.” I nod to the woman, now drifting into almost inaudible murmurings.
“I wasn’t sure. I thought…” She drifts off.
She thought what? Was she someplace else, in the heaven she fears? She looks down, studies the afghan. Her face seems resigned and… what? Not to overstate, a little like the face of Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta, that eternal sadness in the tilt of her head, though Mary’s face is marble smooth and my mother’s crosshatches nine decades.
How long ago did I promise she would stay here only a little while, only a few tomorrows? Until she was feeling better. It’s been almost a year. It will be forever. We’ve rented out her house to help make ends meet.
She looks down, accepting, searching, accepting, searching. Her fingers cling to the yarn.
“Who made that for you, Mom,” I ask, touching the darkest purple, the color of betrayal.
She looks up, “Grandma did.” She still knows. Except she doesn’t. She does not remember when her mother, my Grandma Julia, fell in our mud room of the farmhouse, and Mom could no longer lift her. She does not remember that Grandma came here, to this facility, for her last three years before she died of a sudden pneumonia. My mother does not remember searching her own heart.
Do we all betray the ones we love?
Do we do the best we can inside this country of our own making?
Now, we both have our hands on the afghan, tracing the back and forth, the soft sky colors. Fingers on the diagonals.
If I could, would I take her home?
Here’s another betrayal. Her original afghan was so riddled with moth holes and stained with spilled coffee and scented with urine that my sister and I burned it when we cleared her house. The afghan she fingers now I found at Vintage Rose, the Christian resale shop in town. The day I found it, I wasn’t sure I could pull off the deception. Not even the same colors. But the afghan pattern is the same and that’s what she saw, what she embraced, what we could rely on to get her, us, through the move. That zigzag, those back and forth diagonals, first one way, then the other, an ancient design borrowed from the other side of the world. She tracks the zigzag with her long fingers, follows these tomorrows, the dark and the bright, death and heaven, drinking a beer and peeing her pants. She studies it closely, as if for the first time. Tomorrow or tomorrow. Hers and mine. Tender and terrible. And common. She recognizes the pattern and claims it as her own. Oh Mama. I reach in, take her hand, our fingers tangled in the colors, claim it with her.
Statistics about incomes from the following site:
Conversations are from notes taken shortly after leaving her. Italics are statements that I have overheard at the home, and keep track of in a notebook.