(MomStoriesare a collection of tales about my mom. Many have been posted before, on various old blogs I inhabited, and some are parts of old journal entries. Each MomStory is a memory — its as accurate as memory can ever be. Some tales may be funny, some sad, some shocking — but, they’re told with the greatest love and respect. Mom is ninety years old this year, so I know that our time together is getting shorter. MomStories are a way for me to capture the moments I want to remember — the good stories, and the not so good. Once she’s gone, stories are all I’ll have. And, while it’s nice to say things like “I only want to remember the good”, I’d much rather remember my mom in her entirety: good, bad, warts and all. My mom, like all the rest of us, is a complex human. And, I chose to remember her in all her complexity.)
I saw a headline today, something about The Affordable Health Care Act being President Obama’s “Katrina.” I’m still trying to figure out how a website not working is similar to a hurricane that killed more than 1,800 people, and am not having any luck. However, politics aside, mention of Katrina reminded me of this story from my mother.
As a bit of backstory: in the weeks after the hurricane, people who’d lost everything were relocated to various cities around the country.Denver was one of the cities where The Red Cross was providing temporary housing.
This story takes place during that time.
My mom and I picked up her friend Pat, who’s close to my mother’s age. We spent the morning taking Pat to a doctor’s appointment, then we made the journey to mom’s doctor for another appointment. We had lunch, took Pat grocery shopping, and we were bringing Pat home.
Driving to Pat’s house took us through a trendy little area of town where the large homes had even larger price tags.
As she was looking around, my mom suddenly remembered that many of the people dislocated by Hurricane Katrina were being sheltered in the surrounding area. She turned to her friend and said: ”I wonder what all the people in the ritzy houses around there think about the fact that all those black refugees are there?”
To which mom’s friend replied: “Well, I know I wouldn’t like it.”
“I wouldn’t like it very much either,” said mom, adding “at least we’re further from them than you are.”
I am sitting silently, driving, pretending not to hear any of this (wishing I wasn’t hearing any of this) suddenly envision my mom and her friend breaking out the white sheets and burning crosses.
I am horrified sometimes by my mom and her friends. I always feel so dirty when I hear these conversations. I’m ready to go home and shower, maybe fumigate the car.
We dropped Pat off, and as we were driving home mom said “You got awfully quiet.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I stopped listening. I was trying to think of nicer things.”
Her silence let me know that she understood what I was implying.
I don’t know why this story surprises me. It’s not the first, and won’t be the last story of its kind.
I come away from these stories wondering about life and people: how some children end up sharing their parent’s beliefs, and how some of us end up being nothing like our parents.
Today is the birthday of poet Anne Sexton. She’d have been 85 today.
My mother turned ninety this week, which makes her a contemporary of Ms Sexton. My mother and Anne were even born and raised in the same part of the country: New England; my mother in Rhode Island, Anne in Massachusetts.
I suspect the similarities end there.
Though, in a way, this poem, Woman With Girdle, reminds me of my mother. Maybe because my mother spent many years wearing a girdle. I remember as a child, watching her struggle to get into it, complaining about it the entire time, swearing that next time she wasn’t going to wear one. But, she always did, when she wore a dress. Then, all of a sudden, change swept the nation, and women could wear pantsuits, and my mom’s girdles were quickly tossed out.
Liberation! My mom wasn’t much of a feminist — at least vocally. But, in action, my mom was no frilly woman trying to conform to a man’s world. My mom joined the military during World War II, and, as a reservist, after the war, she became a certified marksman, and eventually earned her officer commission: Major Mary B. My mom wasn’t like many other 1970s and 1980s moms: she didn’t wear make-up, she didn’t bake cookies. She had a family and a career. She was married to the love of her life, but, she was never defined by my father. My mom was, and, even at age ninety, is still very much her own woman.
Sexton’s poem, Woman With Girdle, is very much a product of its time; yet it is also timeless. Published in her 1962 book, All My Pretty Ones, this poem is very much a product of the growing rebelliousness of American Women, who were fighting against the beliefs that women were simply meant to take care of a man and his home, provide him with offspring, and to always look good. Though, as I said, the poem is timeless: the fight against woman as sexual object is as old as humanity. Women have fought, and continue to fight even today, to be accepted for more than just their looks.
Sexton’s poem begins with the image of a woman rolling down her girdle, and by objectifying each part of her that society judges her on: the smallness of her waist, the fullness of her hips, the beauty of her thighs and legs. Yet, Sexton ends the poem with a twist: it is the ungirdled woman who is the most beautiful; her redemption is her natural, God-given beauty. It’s vintage Sexton — rich with images (few poets have as rich a trove of images as Sexton).
And, the poem reminds me of my mom, the woman who fought with her girdle, and who gladly threw hers away. I’m not claiming my mom is not without some vanity, for which of us is? But, my mom has grown comfortable with herself. Perhaps that’s part of the lesson of age — to appreciate ourselves as we are, and not as society says we should be (especially as societies ideals about beauty are as changing as time).
My mom has grown into her “redeeming skin.”
My reading of the poem can be heard here:
The internet is an amazing place. One can find gems like this groovy recording of Anne Sexton performing this poem with her band, “Her Kind”:
You may have noticed that my blog was silent yesterday.
Or, maybe you didn’t.
Either way: my blog took a day off, because the blogger (i.e. me), was otherwise engaged in feasting and revelry.
Well, ok, so I didn’t eat that much, but, I did talk a lot, and see a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in a very long time.
While it won’t be official until Thursday, the actual day of her birthday, yesterday we celebrated my mom’s 90th birthday.
It wasn’t a surprise birthday party — when people start asking, in your mother’s presence, what you’re planning for her ninetieth birthday, and your mother is looking at you, as expectantly as the person asking the question, one has to give an honest answer. And, the answer cannot be: nothing.
Actually, having her in the party planning loop was very exciting for her. She took care of the invitations being sent to those she knows from the Catholic Church she’s been going to since 1960. We took care of the rest, though mom had to keep asking “Did you invite…?”
She had fun as we shopped for the party supplies: plates, napkins, plasticware, snacks. She wanted to know what kind of food we were ordering, (sandwich trays, fruit and cheese trays, a shrimp tray), what I was making (meatballs), and was adamant that we needed to have black olives and sweet gherkins set out, to go with the sandwiches — both of which were bought, and ended up sitting in the refrigerator, forgotten. There had been instructions on the invitations, that she wished for no gifts, but, if the desire to bring something was overwhelming, bring food.
And, food there was. And cake.
You would think, and rightly so, that my interest in photography would mean that I took lots and lots of photos. You would be wrong thinking that. I had planned to take one or two photos of the food, one or two of mom, one of the nice “Happy 90th Birthday” cake. But, I never made it as far as my camera once people started arriving. (Also, I’m really not good at taking photos of people. I hate having my own photo taken at such events, and I vowed never to shove my camera in someone’s face.) One could argue that I’ll wish I had photos to look at later. And, that’s a valid argument, but, in all honesty, I rarely go back at look at photos of parties, of family. I may be interested in photography, but, at heart, I’m a man of words: telling the story means more to me than any photos of it. I’ll carry the story with me, always, while the photos sit gathering dust in albums unopened in years.
The majority of the guests were people who made up the years of my childhood: neighbors, who’ve lived next door since before I was born, and neighbors who became friends, but had moved away; there were familiar faces from church — people I knew when I still went; there were several women that my mom had worked with at the technical college (or, adult vocational center as it was known when mom worked there, after retiring from the high school she taught at for twenty years); there were sons, daughters, grandchildren of my mom’s best friends — some even drove in from out-of-state to help celebrate; there were a few more recent friends, people that Julian and I had worked with, who’ve so graciously included my mom in any gatherings we have.
Mom was in her element: the center of attention. My mom loves the spotlight with as much passion as I shun it.
It was also a melancholy day. Over the course of the day mom mentioned those who she wished had been able to come: her best friends, who have all died within the past decade; people that she taught with at the high school, most of whom are dead as well, or too ill to travel.
Afterwards, excited, and tired, mom had to tell me all about it, as if I’d not been there, a witness to most of it. I suspect her retelling of it was a way to help commit the details to memory, just as my writing about it is my way of storing the memory away.
Most of the people who were at the party don’t follow my blog, but, I’ll send out a great big “Thank You” to the forty or so of you who came. The gift of your presence touched my mother very deeply. She was glad to see you all.
At the end of the party, after all had left, and most of the cleaning was done, I did, finally manage to take a snapshot of my mom, all dressed up. She was too tired to stand, which is why, the skirt is fanned out, why the top is a little discombobulated, and “makes me look twice my size”. I assured her that no one would notice.
Happy Birthday mom. We’re glad you enjoyed your party.
(Cleaning Up The Old Blogs is a series of posts that are part of an effort to condense my collection of old blog posts, from three other separate blogs, into one place, keeping only my favorite posts. These are the original posts, with very few minor (mostly grammar, punctuation, clarity) changes. This is a post, from my old WordPress blog, Phases of the Noon. Original publication date: March 16, 2011.)
I walked into the living room. Mom was sitting in her chair.
Says I: “We are heading out for a bit.”
Says She: “Where are you going?”
I: “We are going to go get my new glasses, and then run to Kohl’s to return some things. We’ll be back in awhile. Maybe an hour-and-a-half?”
We have arrived at the optical store, which is about a 5 minute drive from the house.
I think we’d only been at the store less than 10 minutes when the phone rang. It was mom.
I: “Hi mom”
She: “Will you bring me a danish and some tea.”
I: “I can’t right now.”
She: “Why not?”
I: “Because I’m not home.”
She: “Where are you?”
I: “Did you forget that I told you we were going to get my glasses and then to Kohl’s?”
She: “Yeah. I guess I did forget.”
I: “I’ll be home soon, and get your tea and danish.”
She: “Ok. Bye.”
As I hang up the phone, I am annoyed with myself that I said “Did you forget?” Obviously she had. I didn’t really need to point it out. Seems rather mean of me to have said that.
Mostly, I think, it’s that thing we do when we get scared, like a parent yelling at a child for running out into the street, then giving them a big hug. My mentioning she forgot seems to be the same: an expression of fear, but not knowing how to express it in any other way. Does that make any sense? Maybe that’s a poor analogy.
I walked into the living room. Mom was sitting in her chair.
Says I: “We are heading out. I’m going to the grocery store to pick up a couple things for dinner.”
Says She: “Ok. You won’t be gone long?”
I: “Shouldn’t be. Just need to run in and out. We’ll be gone half hour, forty-five minutes maybe.”
We are at the grocery store, which is less than a ten minute drive from home.
We’ve been at the store no more than 15 minutes. Maybe only 10.I picked up some produce, onion rolls, pork chops, chips, soda and diet tonic water. So, it couldn’t have taken all that long. Then, we walked right up to the check-out; there was no line. We checked out, paid, and just as I was walking out to the car, the phone rang.
I: “Hi mom.”
She: “I have some mail for you to put out on the box before the postman comes.”
I: “Ok. I’ll put it out when I get home.”
She: (short pause) “Where are you.”
I: “The grocery store. Picking up the stuff I need to make for dinner.”
She: (long pause) “You’re not back yet?”
I: “No. We are just leaving the store now.”
I: “I’ll be home soon, ok?”
She: “I’ll go put it out. See you. Bye.”
So, I’m not annoyed with myself, as I didn’t mention that she forgot. What doesn’t translate in the story is that she did forget — the pause and her tone of voice, along with the hesitant way she said “You’re not back yet?” all gave me reason to believe she forgot. At least I didn’t point it out this time.
These calls happened today and yesterday. Though they aren’t the first calls of their kind, each one brings pain to my heart. She’s 87, so I know that there’s a certain amount of age-related memory-loss to expect. It doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve always thought of my mom as one of the smartest people I know. She was never one to forget things — even the most trivial of things were things to be remembered. And, forgetting doesn’t really have to do with her intelligence, I keep reminding myself. Memory and intelligence are not the same thing.
Yet, to see these trivial things forgotten just breaks my heart.
Though this post was written in 2011, and contains only two stories, it wouldn’t be hard to fill a blog with all the similar stories that have happened since then.
As one does with things that bring pain, it has sort of become a little joke — “where do you think we’ll be when she calls?” The joke is not mean to demean, or belittle in any way. It’s just one of those things we do to cope.
The bit of laughter keeps me from thinking about it too seriously. Watching someone age is truly one of the hardest things in life — especially when you are watching day to day, up close.
My mom always used to say, when she’d laugh at something that wasn’t necessarily funny, when she’d poke fun at something, “I can either laugh about it, or sit and cry. Crying won’t do me any good; and the laugh makes me feel a little better.” So, I take a lesson from mom, and laugh, rather than cry.
I was reading something the other day, about writers, writing about family — how should you do it? should you do it? do you only share the good stuff? It is a tough call. But, I need to write the stories so I remember them — the good stories, and the not so good. Once she’s gone, stories are all I’ll have. And, while it’s nice to say things like “I only want to remember the good”, I’d much rather remember my mom in her entirety: good, bad, warts and all. My mom, like all the rest of us, is a complex human. And, I chose to remember her in all her complexity.
Click the play button for the audio version of this post:
I’ve been blogging since 2004, at various places, under various banners. So, in a sense, this is not my 500th post. This is my 500th post on this particular blog, this particular version, this particular incarnation: John 5.0
Five hundred posts seems to be a milestone of sorts, and, it seems that a milestone needs to have a milestone story.
I looked at some things I’ve been writing, but, none of it really seemed milestone worthy. Though, truthfully, a milestone is often something subjective — my milestone and yours aren’t always weighted the same way.
I thought about the many milestones in my life, and decided that I’d share The Milestone of milestones, the few moments that have had the biggest impact on my life: the last hour of my father’s life. It seems to me that just as our world history is divided into two periods, B.C.E. and A.D., that my life has a demarcation line: life with dad, and life after.
I’ve been working on something since April, a telling of that last hour. It’s a story I’ve tried to write many times in the past thirty-odd years, and, always, it never seems to come together. In fact, some of my tellings of this tale have been too clinical, too boring to show anyone.
I know some of my struggle with the telling comes from my closeness to it — the most painful moments are the hardest to write about, or, at least, to write about in a way that people can relate to, even if they’ve not lost a parent.
I thought I’d try a new voice, a new form. Gone are the long, wordy sentences. Instead, its ended up looking rather like a poem, but, it isn’t. It’s meant to be, like the big, black clock in the story, a ticking away of moments, a telling of last moments. It’s not finalized, and it’s still pretty rough around the edges. But, I think the time is right to share, flaws and all. The words have sat in a notebook for several months, and have sat for years in my mind. It’s time to utter the words, to give them life outside of the notebook. Perhaps, then, I’ll be able to see it with new eyes, and be able to give it the glistening polish I can’t seem to find right now.
The Last Hour
It was just the two of us in the small room.
You and I.
Your bed was almost pushed into a corner,
to allow room for the monitors and IVs.
It was painfully fitting, your bed almost in the corner,
trying to keep the dying from being proudly displayed in the room’s center.
It was quiet, as all hospital room seem to be,
with just the muted noises from the corridor:
footsteps passing by
carts rolling down the hall
brief snippets of conversation.
Only the muted noises in the room:
the beep-beep-beep of your heart monitor (the beats having gotten slower over the past few hours)
the strangely hypnotic, rhythmic sound of the oxygen flowing through the tube and into your lungs
the tick-tick-tick of the big, black clock that hung on the wall, across from your bed.
God (I still believed in him then) I hated that clock:
its deranged placement, across from your bed, as if a dying person would want to count his last moments slipping away,
and those ticks — each tick a reminder to me that time was no longer being counted in months, weeks, days, or hours.
Your coma kept you from seeing, talking, actively being a part of your last moments.
But, did you hear the ticking clock?
Were you counting your last moments?
The room was bright.
It was the eighth day of February.
Winter. It should be cold, cloudy.
You are lying in a bed, comatose, dying, and the row of windows was letting in the brightest sunshine imaginable.
The eighth floor windows displayed only a joyously blue sky.
Why wasn’t the day as cold as the feeling that was spread across my chest, icy as the grip that held my heart?
I couldn’t seem to stay still.
One moment I was standing by your bed, holding your hand; the next moment, I was standing at the window
…watching the cars drive in and out of the parking lot, circling, looking for spaces.
The sight of all the people, going about their business, filled me with an indescribable sense of rage: how dare their lives be continuing without incident, while I was there, with you, knowing your death was imminent.
Life was going on around me, and my world was ending.
I didn’t know our time together was just about to be over, only that when the doctors came by earlier in the morning, they expected your death to occur in less than twenty four hours; more realistically: by the end of the day.
I was at the window when you made a noise: a gasping, gurgling sound.
I turned from the window and strode back to the bed.
I reached out to touch you, and, for the first time since you’d been in the coma, your fingers felt like icicles.
The reassuring warmth of your hands had vanished.
My heart began to race. I didn’t know what was happening, but, I also knew that It was happening: Death was beginning to suck the warmth from your heart and soul.
Then I noticed your breathing —
between the intake of breath……….and the outlet of breath.
All these years later, I still cannot say what made me lift the blanket off you and look at your legs.
At first, I thought there must be a reflection, coming from something, I didn’t know what.
The blue wasn’t a reflection: it was the color of your skin. Your legs were blue, bluer than the sky that was plastered across the windows.
Your legs looked like the blue ice packs we kept in the freezer at home.
A luminescent blue radiated from inside your legs, making them look shiny and smooth.
I reached out to touch them.
Icicles. Just like your hands.
And then I knew. It wasn’t just happening, it was nearly through happening.
I leaned towards your ears and said, “Hang on daddy. I need to call mom. Tell her to come back. Hang on. Please wait!”
I picked up the phone on the table next to the bed –
it was green, the same dark green that was everywhere in this hospital on the Army base.
I dialed the number of my mom’s friend, the one she’d brought my younger brother to, after the school day was over.
I’d begged to stay home from school, to be at the hospital that day. I had just turned fourteen, and my brother had just turned nine.
Fourteen was old enough to be at the hospital, to understand what was going on.
Nine seemed too young, so mom took him to school, then to her friend’s after school.
I knew mom would be there, having a cup of tea with her friend, taking a few minutes for herself, gathering her strength.
Though she’s long gone now, I remember the phone number of my mom’s friend, dialing it on the old, Army green rotary phone.
Like every other moment of that last hour, the details are thickly scarred across my soul.
My mom’s friend answered, then passed the phone to mom when she heard my voice say “Hi.”
“What is it, sweet?” Mom’s voice was calm, tense.
“Come back here. Hurry. I think he’s going. He’s turning blue.”
She didn’t reply — she just hung up the phone.
It would take her fifteen or twenty minutes at least, before she was back in the room — driving, parking, walking.
I hung up the phone, and turned to you,
“Hang on daddy. She’s on her way.”
I went out into the hall to find someone, and encountered some family friends exiting the elevator.
“I think he’s going”, I said, “Mom’s on her way back. I told him to wait for her.”
On my way to the nurse’s station, another family friend walked by,
And I repeated the words again.
I found a nurse, and we walked back to the room.
The nurse looked at your heart monitor, listened to your breathing,
felt your cold hands, and saw your blue legs.
As gently as she could, she confirmed what I already knew:
You were almost gone.
Your breathing grew more ragged, as if each breath were a titanic struggle–
Your nose wrinkled, and your brow grew deeply furrowed with each intake of breath, as if it took all of your remaining concentration to muster the strength to draw the breath.
I grabbed your hand –
and repeated my mantra:
“Hold on. She’s on her way. Just a few more minutes. Hang on.”
The family friends were all standing quietly around the room.
They’re the only thing in that hour I barely remember –
I remember meeting them out in the hall,
I remember them standing at various places in the room.
But, if they said anything to me, I don’t recall.
In my memory, they’re just silent sentinels standing watch.
I kept walking back and forth
from bed to window, with its clear view of the main street leading to the hospital, with the parking lots on each side.
I’d spent so much time in the hospital rooms over the months of your various hospitalizations:
triple heart bypass
the brain tumor surgery that has ultimately lead you to these last moments
I’d become an expert at picking out friends’ cars as they arrived, or were circling, looking for a spot to park, on their way to visit you.
Each trip to the window gave me a chance to quickly scan the area, looking for mom driving the green station wagon, with its peeling fake wood panelling.
After the quick look out of the window, I’d go back to you,
grab your hand
repeat my plea to hang on
repeat my assurance that mom was on her way.
Every breath seemed more difficult than the one before it:
the wrinkle in your nose more determined
the brow more deeply creased, more intent, more focused.
But, each time you finally managed to get the breath.
Again, I looked out the window, just in time to see the station wagon turning into the closest parking lot
and into a very close space that someone was just backing out of (Fate? God? Coincidence?)
I looked back at you, nearly shouting “She’s here!”
I was back at the bed, holding your hand.
hold on daddy.
just a few minutes more.
Perhaps it was my imagination, my wishful thinking, but your struggle to breath eased –
the breaths were still an effort, but they seemed less desperate.
And then mom was there.
I moved back a few steps so she could get to you.
She grabbed your hand, and I heard her say, in a tone of voice I’d never heard before, or since:
“I’m here love. It’s okay.”
She kissed your cheek, and I saw her grip tighten on your hand.
You took one more breath, easy, no struggle.
Within sixty seconds, the heart monitor stopped, blaring out its single, mournful, monotone note.
You were gone.
I know you know this story daddy
since it is your story,
since you were the one who hung on.
But you went too fast.
I know you waited for mom, to hear her voice tell you it was okay.
But you went too fast.
I never got to say goodbye.
I was so busy telling you to wait, to hold on
that I never got the chance to say “I love you” –
never got the chance to say “goodbye.”
Mostly, I wish I could have said “thank you for waiting”
I knew mom would have been forever heartbroken had you gone while she was gone.
I knew she had to be there in your last moments
and you knew it too, because you waited.
But you went to fast.
I can never say goodbye to you now
or I Love You
or Thank You.
You’re gone, thirty-three years now (the same number of years you and mom were married).
After all this time, I suspect that even within your tomb, you’re gone
ashes to ashes
from someone to nothing, such is the cycle.
For thirty-three years I’ve longed to say goodbye, I love you, it is okay for you to go.
Yet, more than that, more than anything,
I wish I could tell you thank you
for letting me witness, during the most horrible moment of my life, the most beautiful moment of my life:
a moment of incredible love and beauty.
Thank you, dad, for waiting
for teaching me, for showing me,
The ultimate definition of love.
(Cleaning Up The Old Blog is a series of posts that are part of an effort to condense my collection of old blog posts, from three other separate blogs, into one place. This is a post, from my old, WordPress blog, Phases of the Noon. Original publication date: August 15, 2010.)
Once upon a time, lying to my parents was one of those things I did to try to avoid getting into trouble: “No, I don’t know what happened.”; “No, it wasn’t my idea.”; “You must be mistaken, it must have just been someone who looked like me.” All those silly, transparent lies we tell as children, feeling so smart and devious, thinking our parents will believe every word, trying for some sort of self-preservation. Now, the lies I tell to my mom are for her self-preservation.
Like all good Catholic boys, I was raised believing that lying to my parents was a horrible sin, something that guaranteed me a place in hell. Although I long ago grew out of the belief in heaven and hell, childhood teachings are still tough to banish from my mind. I know it’s wrong to lie to my mom to protect myself, yet for my own sanity, I have to believe that lying to my mom to ensure that she remains living within her own reality, preserving her sense of self and her sense of dignity is not a horrible sin.
Maybe if I were the perfect son, I’d know all the right and proper things to do and say. A perfect son would know all the answers and not have to make it up as he goes along. A perfect son would Just Know. I am not the perfect son, so I don’t know the right words to say, or the proper things to do. It seems I’ve just resorted to lying.
It all started when I quit my job. I didn’t actually quit to stay home and take care of my mom; I quit because my boss put me in a situation where I was asked to do something unethical (I protested, and was then given the choice to doctor the numbers as instructed or be fired for insubordination. So, I quit.) Out of a bad situation came something good–I’m now able to be here to take care of my mom, and, to be honest, as frustrated as I get sometimes, it’s still much better than the frustration I felt while I was working.
The last year or so that I was working was particularly tough. My schedule was erratic and unpredictable. I didn’t know from day to day, or even moment to moment, how long my work day was going to be. For some, that would be the stressful part; for me, it was what made the job so fun. The stressful part was having to worry about mom, about the day after day discovery that she wasn’t eating with any sort of regularity. She’d be in bed when I left for work, so she wasn’t eating before I left. She’d call me when she was up and dressed so I’d know she was okay, and I’d remind her to eat. She would promise that she would get something. I’d call later, only to discover she still hadn’t eaten, “I lost track of time,” she would tell me, “but, I’ll go get something to eat when I finish what I’m doing.” Checking back later would result in a nearly identical conversation. There were days where I would work until 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes even 9 or 10 at night, and when I’d get home, she’d still not have eaten a thing. Not only was I worrying about the fact that she wasn’t eating and getting nourishment, I was worried about her being diabetic and going into a low-blood sugar. It became more and more obvious that she wasn’t just forgetting to eat, but that she was becoming more and more forgetful. I’d come home and find the loaf of cinnamon bread and the butter sitting next to the toaster, two slices of bread in the toaster (not yet toasted, mostly, though a time or two the bread was toast), along with a cup of cold tea (or a mug with a teabag in it, still awaiting the boiling water.) The first few times it happened I asked her about it, and, found out that someone called while she was making the toast, and by the time she finished talking on the phone, she simply forgot she was getting something to eat. If it were something that just happened once or twice, I don’t think I would have thought much about it. I’ve taken food out of the refrigerator to eat and then left it abandoned on the table or counter. It was the sad regularity of the incidents that made me worry. In retrospect, I think the two times I had come home late from work and found a burner on the stove still on made her a little afraid to try to cook anything while she was alone, though I did always try to have something around that didn’t require the use of the stove top.
There were more factors than just the not eating (though, in all honesty, I think that is the biggest factor.) There were more and more incidents that involved me having to leave work: keys locked in the car, locking herself out of the house, losing her purse or credit card and not knowing what to do. While I was lucky enough to work at a company where I could work from home if I had to leave early, it didn’t lessen the stress of worrying about what was going to happen to mom the next day. Quitting my job, and being fortunate enough to be able to stay home with her, have been some of the better things that have happened to me.
What does this have to do with lying to my mom? It has to do with never having said to her that I’m staying home to take care of her, to ensure that she eats, that she’s got someone here if her blood sugar goes low, to be here to take her to the places she needs to go. She thinks that I am home because I don’t want to work, because I’m just lazy, and I’m taking advantage of Julian by letting him support me (quick aside: I cannot even begin to say how much his support means to me, financially and otherwise!) My mom has even mentioned a time or two that I’m being selfish, making Julian go to work while I just stay home. Maybe she’s right that I’m selfish, though not for the reasons she thinks. I think that part of me is staying home and taking care of her for a selfish reason: so I don’t regret not doing it when she’s gone. That sounds like maybe I feel guilted into it — no. I just know that if I didn’t stay here I’d be sorry later. So, I suppose it’s a tad selfish. Mostly, though, it’s just something I want to do.
Recently I’ve been lying to mom about vacations. ”No mom, Julian and I aren’t going anywhere this summer, because we can’t afford to go anywhere right now.” (This is partially true, really.) ”No, we aren’t planning a vacation anywhere in the near future until we know if Julian’s contract job is going to turn into something permanent.” (Again, partially true.) The real reason though is that I can’t leave her alone for more than a few hours. She doesn’t always remember to take her pills when I’m here, I can’t imagine she’d remember if I were gone. There would be the eating issue, multiplied, because, unlike when I was working, I wouldn’t be home at night to make sure she ate at least once a day. There are two dogs and a cat. Would she remember to feed them and check to see if they had water? I know she’d let them out since they will let you know when they need to go. And, what if she had another mini-stroke? Or what if she fell? Yes, she can still have a mini-stroke or fall if I’m home, or if I’ve run to the store, but I never stay gone too long. If I were in another state, or another country, what would happen then? It’s not like I’ve got brothers or sisters to help. It’s just me. Maybe a nurse? But, who can afford that? I don’t think insurance would pay for the nurse just because I wanted to go on a Mediterranean cruise. I can’t let her think that I’m giving up my vacations to stay home with her. That would make her feel like a burden, and I’d never, ever want her to feel that way. Yes, it can be burdensome at times. So can work. So can life. So can having to remember to floss. Being burdensome at times, and being a burden are quite different from each other.
I also lie to my mom when she’s telling me things. I just listen and reply appropriately, rather than say “Yes, I know. This is the dozenth time you’ve told me.” I’ve certainly told my fair share of stories multiple times to the same people, so who am I to point that out? I nod and say things like “oh good” or “oh, you did?” when she tells me the things she bought at the grocery store, even though I was there, at the store, pushing the cart and grabbing the items from the shelf. Sometimes she’ll catch herself and remember that I was there. Other times, in her mind, she was there alone. So, I act very thankful when she tells me that she bought me a container of my favorite yogurt, or a block of my absolutely favorite cheese. If it makes her feel good to think that she bought me something I enjoy, who am I to point out that I was the one to put the item into the shopping cart? It’s a little lie, but it makes her feel good, and it doesn’t cost me anything but, perhaps, a little guilt for not being truthful.
Once upon a time, when I lied to my mom, I was trying to protect myself. Now I lie, regularly, to my mom, in order to protect her. Maybe somewhere in her mind she knows that she doesn’t remember things, or maybe she remembers later that I was at the store with her but is to embarrassed to tell me that she remembered — telling me would mean she had to admit aloud that she forgot. Somewhere in her mind, I like to think that she knows that I am staying home to take care of her, and that she doesn’t believe that I’m lazy. At least, I hope she knows. I’d hate to know that I did all this lying, only to discover that, at the end, she truly believed I was not wanting to work because I was lazy. I think that would weigh heavy on her, thinking that she had failed me as a parent. I would hate that. So, I struggle with the lie. Do I tell her, so she knows I’m not lazy and she didn’t fail me? Or do I keep lying, letting her think that I’m just letting Julian support me because I’m lazy, while letting her think that she’s able to take care of herself. I don’t know which one is wrong, and which is right, because I’m not the perfect son. I’m just the son who wings it each day.
I wrote a post the other day, about watching my mom grow older, how frustrating it can be to watch, and, how, sometimes I get a bit snippy. Then, yesterday I made a long, rambling video talking about the same thing. It got me thinking that I’d sort of written something similar, on my old blog, so I was brwosing around for it, and came across the post, and thought I’d share it — not so much for repeating some of the same theme, but, to share the bit about the armadillos.
The unspoken motto here at Johnbalaya is: entertain, and provide random trivia.
So, reprinted, with kindly permission from me (as copywright holder of the old blog, I had to ask permission for reprinting… you know how publishing is), is an old blog post from August, 2, 2011
The original title was: Mom, Armadillos And Being Snippy
I’ve not written much about my mother over the past few months. It’s certainly not because I’ve not got anything to write about.
Take, for example, mom’s rather touching concern about the extinction of the armadillo.
The setting: the dinner table.
Along with her pork chop sandwich, mom was drinking a Snapple, and, on the bottle top there was the usual trivia, this one informing us that the litter of an armadillo is always only one gender – all male, or all female. This piece of information caused mom to wonder what would happen if they only gave birth to males: if all the armadillos, everywhere, only gave birth to male armadillos, they’d become extinct. The statistical probability of this happening didn’t seem to occur to her. Just that if they all had male babies, they couldn’t reproduce, and would die out. There was a pause while she considered this further, and I waited for more, but, she turned to another topic, and I found myself strangely caught up in this armadillo extinction scenario. How long would it take for them to die off? Would there be a chance to save them? Would there be…what the hell was I thinking?!
No, I seem to always have something to write about my mother. The issue comes from wanting to be sure that I write about her (and me) in the right way: I don’t wish to tell stories about my mom in a way that makes her seem silly or foolish, nor do I wish to sound as if I’m making fun of her; and, on the other end of the spectrum, I wish to write about her with the respect she deserves, and I don’t wish to make myself sound like a whiny, complaining, ungrateful son. Frustration can make a person write without thinking, and that is not my intent. Writing can be a way of expressing feelings, of giving voice to those thoughts that run around our minds, and can be a way of venting those thoughts. I don’t want my writing to be like that. I would rather it be thoughtful, as a way to help me make sense of it all – and, maybe it will even help me to grow.
Of course, that all sounds as if I’m ranting and frustrated all the time. I’m not. Just sometimes.
Like this evening.
Mom called and asked me to come help her find something. For most people, this would be no big deal – we all lose things, right? For me, it’s an almost daily occurrence. Today’s item: an envelope, addressed to the bank, with a blank check inside. “I put it in the holder with all the other bills,” says she to me. A five-minute search found it tucked away in a desk drawer. Last week it was a blank check that had been torn from her checkbook for some reason or another, and vanished, only to be found in the recycle bin. Over the past year it’s been a wide variety of things that Julian and I have searched for, from pens, scissors and letter openers to checkbooks, keys, cash and credit cards. Each search is accompanied by the same commentary from mom, “It should be right there, I always put my (pens, scissors, credit cards, etc.) in the same place (holder, drawer, wallet, purse, etc.) when I’m done with them so I can find them again.”
The frustration comes not from the obvious, frantic searching for the missing checks, but, rather, it comes from a sense of helplessness as I watch my mom growing older and more forgetful. The frustration comes from having to stand here, watching, unable to do much of anything. Sometimes it makes me so angry that I get snippy, and the instant I get snippy, I get angry at myself for my tone. When I get snippy, she tells me I sound just like her mother (my grandmother – who died when I was 9 months old, so I have to way of knowing if my tone is like hers). Considering that my mother cared for her mom for most of her life, and didn’t really like her mom, being compared to my grandmother is not exactly the nicest thing I’ve been called. I can’t claim that the words don’t hurt, but, I can’t claim that I didn’t deserve them. I suspect that I am mothering my mother, and while mothering can be nice, mothers all have that certain tone that pushes our buttons. I seem to have learned how to push my mom’s buttons. This is both satisfying and horrifying. Horrifying is the larger of the two feelings, which doesn’t make me feel any better.
Sometimes it’s tough writing about life with my mom because it means I have to write about myself, in as honest a way as I can. It’s easy to write about my mom, mostly. It’s the delving deep into my own being that makes it tough.
Reading an old blog post has hidden dangers … like realizing that nearly two years ago I was writing about being snippy, and, two days ago, I was writing about having a tone in my voice… seemingly, in two years, I’ve not learned to get rid of The Tone.
Maybe I need to work harder on fixing this particular fact….
Instead, I am contrite. I apologize. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t realize I’d raised my voice.”
I want to say that I don’t yell, as in scream. It’s more of an excited raising of my voice.
At least I hope that’s what it is.
This is an exchange that mom and I seem to have on a regular basis. I can’t say I’m proud of the fact that I speak to my mom with That Tone. And, to add to my shame, I am aware of it the minute I start, yet I am unable to stop The Tone from leaving my mouth.
Perhaps if she were doing something that made me mad, it might be different, my shame might be less. But, typically, she’s not doing anything that makes me mad. Well, okay, there are some things like: ordering all kinds of flower bulbs to plant, without regard to the fact that she orders things that need full sun, and our yard is quite shady. We go through this every Spring — a large box of things arrives: trees, bulbs, seeds. They’re to be planted around the yard. The only garden areas are against the house. Here’s where it gets tricky, and where the “I get mad” part comes in. My parents bought this house in 1960, and once in the 1970s, and once in the 1990s, termites were discovered, and exterminated. Now, termites like damp soil. So, my mom has been a “Don’t water close to the house” advocate ever since.
Are you seeing where this is heading?
No water against the house. Plants that are to be planted in the garden areas that are against the wall of the house. So, the plants get planted, because I get yelled at if they sit around. Then they die, because they can’t be watered, and she’s angry and swears to never order anything from such and such a place because they sell crappy product. Then, the next Spring another box arrives, and the cycle repeats. It’s a waste of time and money.
So, yes, there are some things that she does that makes me mad.
Generally, though, I am more frustrated than mad; more frustrated at my own sense of helplessness.
I’m frustrated because it saddens me to watch my mother get old.
I’m really not mad when it takes her a long time to get dressed; I’m frustrated at seeing this once vital woman, who could be up, dressed and out of the house in less than 20 minutes taking 15 to 20 minutes just to get dressed. I’m not mad at her when she asks me to total up the numbers when she balances her check book, instead, I’m frustrated that the woman who always amazed me by being able to add lists of numbers in her head faster than most people could add them on a calculator now needs me to double check her numbers because she’s added them up four times and has come up with four different answers (this has happened to me, this coming up with multiple answers, so it should be no surprise to anyone when I get old).
My mother has lived an active life (not necessarily “active” in the physically athletic sense). She was in the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, working on the bombing range. She travelled all over with my father, every time he was stationed somewhere new. She taught high school for 30 years. She built all the cabinets in one of the bathrooms, and stained/antiqued them. She was constantly working on something at our mountain cabins when I was growing-up: painting, tearing down, building up. Mom took turns with Dad, mowing the lawn, until I was old enough to start doing it on my own. I think of these things, these images of my mom as a younger woman almost every day: mom with a paintbrush, a hammer, on a ladder, sledding down the hill, swimming in the ocean, going for long walks in the mountains. I don’t purposely think of them, but these images flash into my mind when I see her struggling to get her socks on, or trying to open a bag of chips with her arthritic hands, or having to stop and sit down to rest after walking from one room into the next.
Three-and-a-half ago, when she had her heart-valve repalcement surgery, her recovery was quite long and tough on us all. Yet, as tough as it was to see her that weak, there was not much sense of frustration, as there were things I could do to help: I sat up with her when she was suffering from anxiety attacks so bad she could barely sleep and was afraid to be left alone; I cleaned her when she went to the bathroom; I shouldered her weight as we made our way down the steps into her bedroom. It was a time where she needed specific help, needed me to perform specific actions, and I was able to be there and do all that needed to be done. Watching her age, watching her slow down, when all I can do is watch, helplessly–it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
There are moments when I am watching her, when my heart just breaks: watching her shuffle across the room, needing help putting her coat on, or having to struggle to get up out of a chair, or asking for the fourth time what I’m making for dinner. I look and I see traces of the vital woman I knew as a child, but she gets harder and harder to find with each passing year. No, don’t get me wrong — mom is still quite mobile and active for an 89 year old woman. I’ve known people in their 60s who were older in mind and body than my mom is at 89. She gets out, she drives to church and goes to breakfast with the other church ladies, she goes to visit her friend Pat, when Pat is in town, she goes around with Julian and I. So please forgive me if I’m making her sound older than she is. I don’t mean to. It seems that I just have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that she can’t do the things she once did, and that when she needs me to open the bag of chips, or carry her purse, it’s not the fact that she’s asked me to do something that I get mad at. I’m mad at the loss, at the years that have gone by, at the time that slowly breaks us down.
I’m mad at the fact that I stand next to her, powerless to stop her from getting any older.
When my mom says to me “Why are you taking that tone with me?” I want to say, it’s because I’m standing here seeing you grow old. It’s because I’m mad that I can’t slow down the time, and I’m mad at the fact that time will run its inevitable course, knowing that all I can do is hope that we still have years left, yet also knowing that hope alone can’t stop time.
I’d like to add the caveat I’ve added to the past few parts of this series: this is one story of adoption, my story. These are my thoughts, opinions, feelings about adoption, my adoption, based on my experience. I do not claim that my story is typical of all adoptions. We are a world full of unique and individual people, with unique and individual stories. This is my unique and individual story.
You’d think I’d remember the date my brother left home. It’s not every day that your adopted brother has his adoption reversed and is returning to live with his birth mother (see Part Four of this series for the entire story, if you’ve not been following along since the beginning).
I remember the date my father died: February 8, 1980. I remember that David boarded the plane to return to his birth mother later that year — September, October? It was either right before school was to start, or right before the second quarter of the school year was to start. The date had something to do with school. He was nine years old, and one did have to think about his schooling.
So, why can’t I remember the date?
I remember being at the airport. I remember the striped shirt he was wearing. I remember the flight attendant (stewardess, as they were called in those days) coming over to us, introducing herself to David, and walking him through the door, and down the jetway to the plane. I remember him turning around, about halfway down the jetway, to wave and smile at us, at mom and I. There’s a memory of a stuffed toy in his arms, but I won’t swear it.
I can remember standing there, next to my mom, and feeling dead inside. My father was gone — something that wasn’t supposed to happen in the natural order of things. I didn’t know of anyone my age, fourteen, who’d lost a father (at least, not then). My world was already upside-down. I was adopted into this family as a baby, and, five years later, my brother was adopted into the family as well. Suddenly, after a ten-month battle with brain cancer, my father was gone, our family was one-quarter gone. Now, here we were at the airport, and my family was now reduced by half — from four of us, to two of us. My brother, my adopted brother, was being sent back to where he came from.
I didn’t understand it at all.
That’s a lie. I understood that David had been a lot of trouble from the beginning, and that my mom, now locked in grief, anxiety, probably depression, had no idea how to deal with David on her own. Sending him to live with the woman who gave birth to him, who was married and who’d had other children since, seemed a good option — perhaps having a big family, with more siblings, with younger parents (his birth mother was twenty-five years younger than my mom’s fifty-six years). Maybe all those things would be good for David.
That was the hope. That is what I think my mother believed with all her heart in that moment at the airport as we watched David leave. I think she hoped for David what his birth mother had hoped for him when she’d sent him to live us when he was born: that he’d have a better home, that he’d be loved, that he’d be safe.
For me, it was the start of a lifetime of …. of what? Of fear. Of anxiety. Of isolation. Of more things than I can set down in words. In those moments, leading up to David’s departure, it dawned on me: I could be next. I could just as easily be sent away.
In a way, I was sent away — on my eighteenth birthday my mother threw me out of the house; I’d been late coming home from a job interview because the interview ran long. I missed the express bus, had to take the local bus, and was late. There were no cellphones in 1984. I couldn’t call. We were to go to dinner, to celebrate my birthday. My mom was convinced that I was having sex with a man, and that I thought having sex with a man was more important than celebrating my birthday with her, so, I should just go live with this man I was supposed to be having sex with.
There was no man.
I was gay. I’d told her — it was either a few weeks after dad died, or a few weeks after David left. I can’t remember that detail either. I can remember that she wouldn’t touch me, that she didn’t hug me again until after she found me on the streets, where I’d been wandering around for nearly twenty-four hours after she threw me out. She hugged me then, and brought me home.
I spent the years between David’s leaving, and my turning eighteen waiting for my turn to be unadopted. It seemed logical to my teenaged mind (because teenagers are known for their logic and astute insight into the workings of the world, right?) I didn’t take the time to mourn my losses — I cried the day my father died, standing there, next to his bed, watching him breathe his last, but I didn’t cry for him again until I was well into my twenties. I cried that day at the airport, watching David leave. But, I didn’t mourn for him until later, years later, when his life got even more troublesome. And, then I mourned him when he died five years ago. Mostly, I was too busy being afraid that my turn to leave was going to come.
I spent those four years, from fourteen to eighteen doing everything I could to push my mother’s limits. I can distinctly remember thinking that if she was going to send me away it was going to be for as many reasons as I could give her. I was angry. I was full of unexpressed grief. She was the one who was there to direct it at.
I started ditching school. I started having sex with men. She’d marched me into therapy the minute I told her I was gay, because it was just a phase, and she didn’t want anyone blaming her for my being gay — Mama’s boys, was the polite term for faggot back then, and my mother did not want anyone to think that she was the dominating mother who’d turned her son into a Mama’s Boy. The therapy didn’t work — the therapist never even tried to cure me.
She’d stopped hugging me, which, to me meant she’d stopped loving me. I couldn’t get her to talk about it. So, let her see me doing it, then she’d not be able to pretend it wasn’t true. I was good enough to not let her actually catch me having sex. She just caught me after it was done, and the man had to flee, out a window, to avoid her wrath.
She was my scapegoat. Every drop of grief, loss, fear, and confusionI had was directed at her. I ditched school more. I had more sex with men. I stopped going to school, dropped out, and just spent my days having sex with men.
When I was sixteen, I told her that I was no longer going to church. My mom, staunch Catholic, was devastated. First I was gay, then I’d dropped out of school (she was a teacher, and my decision stung), then I rejected religion. I would have left the church eventually, as I’d never felt any sort of feeling towards the whole thing — no matter how hard I tried, I never did find faith. But, I left the church early not just because it meant nothing to me, but because I knew it would wound her. As I write this paragraph, I realize that I spent my time rejecting everything she stood for. Maybe that was the point. If I reject all she believed in, then maybe it would be easier for her to reject me. There was a part of me that wanted to be sent away, because once I was sent away, I could stop worrying about when it was going to happen.
Do I blame her for throwing me out when I was eighteen? No. I’d been trying hard enough to provoke some sort of reaction, though I admit to being surprised when I got a reaction.
In many ways, my teenage rebellion is no different than many teenage rebellions, so I can’t, and don’t, blame it on being adopted. I don’t blame it on my mother — logically and rationally, at least. What she did, sending David away, was something she felt was the best decision for her and for David. I don’t think anyone thought about what it would do to me. It took away my sense of security, my sense of safety. I was already in a state of emotional turmoil, trying to come to terms with my father’s death, dealing with my own budding sexuality — something that was still Very Wrong back then; then the one unimaginable thing happened: my brother was unadopted. To use a well-worn metaphor, I went over the edge of the emotional cliff.
My mother and I were both locked in our own emotional vortex. We avoided each other when we could. We clashed when avoidance was impossible. She hated my being gay; I hated her for taking away my sense of safety and security. We were mean to each other during those years. I acted out, and she volleyed back with words like “fag” and “queer” and “whore”.
In those years I wished she’d never adopted me, and, I wonder if she didn’t feel the same. She’d questioned it before, years earlier. I was five or six, and was caught playing with a pair of my mom’s pantyhose (I had them on my head, holding them up, pretending they were a conical hat, imitating a picture I’d seen in a fable of some princess — the women of the court had on conical hats, with little veils at the top, one woman in the drawing had a hat that had two cones, almost horn-like, with a veil on each one — hence the pantyhose). My mother turned to my father and said “Oh my god! Do you think they sent us one of those kinds of boys? What if he is? Would we have to keep him?” I had no idea what kind of boy she was talking about, but, the part about keeping me I understood. I never touched the pantyhose again. So, she’d questioned the decision to adopt me once, I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t questioned it again in those years. I certainly gave her reason to question her decision.
Those years ripped our souls apart. They very nearly destroyed us. I think some parts of us were permanently destroyed. Something held us together though — perhaps it was a fear that without the other, we’d each be alone. None of my parents blood-relatives lived here, though there were family friends who filled part of the gap. But, when it came down to that concept of family — the micro-definition of family, the Mother and Son definition, not the definition of Family Can Be Made Up Of Whomever You Surround Yourself With — but, the simple, basic family law of mother and son, it was clear: together we were a family; apart we were each alone, orphans. So, maybe it was that fear of aloneness that kept us together.
Maybe, just maybe…. it was something more. It’s entirely possible that love played a role.
There was a period, back during the 1960s and 1970s when wigs were…fashionable doesn’t seem to be the right word, because back then, they were pretty obviously wigs, and rather unfashionable looking. Let’s say that there was a time when wigs were a convenience.
It was a time of change in America. Women were entering the workforce by the millions. But, they still had all the responsibilities of home life too: shopping, cooking, cleaning, child-rearing — after all, America was changing, but not all attitudes were — some things were still a woman’s job.
One day, I don’t really know when, someone in an office somewhere said “Let’s make fake-hairdos, call them wigs, and sell them to working women, so they don’t have to spend as much time on their hair, and can spend more time in the kitchen.” I suspect it was a man who said this. So, overnight, an industry was born. (Ok, so wigs weren’t a new invention, having been around for centuries; it was the concept of marketing them as a convenience, a time saver, that was new. One could say, if one really wanted to, and I really want to, because I’ve been thinking about this all day, and it’s about to burst out, so I have to say it: One could say that wigs were Hamburger Helper for coiffeurs.)
My mom, who was a woman ahead of her time in many ways, (like joining the Army during WWII), gave up dresses when pantsuits became acceptable work attire (she wore pants at home always), and, at some point, when I was too young to know why, she decided that wigs were the answer for her. She cut her hair short, and embraced the wig.
I cannot honestly answer the question, “did people know she was wearing a wig?”, because I always knew she was wearing a wig, and, it always looked like a wig to me. Whether people she worked with knew, I know not. I suspect so. I mean, back then, wigs really looked like a wig.
Us. April 1972.
When I was little, my mom went with wigs of black-colored hair. Then, sometime around the time I was five, and my brother was born, she switched to brown-colored hair. Finally, sometime around 1976, during summer break (my mom was a teacher), she went with silver-haired wigs — she was 53 then, and was turning silver already — so, during the few months school was out, she just went with a silver wig.
When she wore dresses to work, as soon as she came home, she changed — the dresses became pants, and the wig came off. Sometimes the wig wouldn’t come off right away, if she thought she was going somewhere. But, usually what happened was she’d get hot and take the wig off and set it down wherever she happened to be. Sometimes there would be a pile of hair on the back of a chair, on the seat of the chair, on the couch, on a counter in the kitchen. As many times as I was confronted by a wig-hair-pile on the chair, it always startled me. I was always a bit scared that I would reach out to pick it up in order to move it somewhere, like the coffee table, or bring it down to her room and put it on the styrofoam heads that were on her dresser, and, instead of touching a wig, it would be some fuzzy animal.
The styrofoam wig stands, shaped like a head, always intrigued me. I liked to draw eyes and mouths on them. And, there were these long pins that held the wig securely to the styrofoam head, though mom never used them. I liked to stick the needles into the heads, like some sort of voodoo ritual, though I never imagined the heads to be anyone. It was just fun to stab them with the pins.
The scariest moments would come when the wig ended up in the washing machine, and I’d be pulling clothes out, and would touch this wet, fuzzy thing and nearly screech in terror.
My mom and her wig did cause one small child to screech in terror. We had a cabin in the mountains, and, one winter day while we were there, some people that had a cabin down the road invited us to go tubing with them. There were three adults: mom, and the couple that invited us; and, I think, just three children: my brother and I, and the couple’s grandson Andy. After watching Andy, my brother and I tube down the big hill several times, my mom, never one to stand still, grabbed the tube from me, gave a little run, and jumped on the tube (yes, she was in her 50s then, and she was wearing the gray wig). About half-way down the hill — it was quite a hill, and she was going very fast — her wig flew off.
My brother and I, and the couple who invited us, all knew it was a wig, and we were all laughing about the flying wig. Andy, who was about four or five, didn’t know it was a wig. As soon as the wig landed, he let out this scream of pure horror, and started crying, and screaming at the top of his lungs: “Her head flew off! Her head flew off!”
By the time my mom got to the bottom of the hill, turned and walked back up the hill (remember, it was a big hill), picking her wig up along the way (and plopping it back on her head), Andy’s grandparents had managed to get him calmed. Once he saw her stand up, when she got to the bottom of the hill, he began to ease up on the screaming, though, he still had some tears going by the time mom reached the top. We repeated the story to her, and, laughingly, she pulled off the wig, to show Andy it was just hair, and that her head was ok. Andy, seeing the hair come off, started crying again. He wanted nothing to do with the wig.
Mom finally gave up the wig, but kept her hair quite short for a number of years. I think it wasn’t until she was in her mid or late 60s that she let it grow out, and started getting perms.
As an adult, somewhere along the way, I ended up being the owner of three cats (or, maybe I should say that I was owned by three cats?) Often, they’d curl up in a ball on a chair, or the couch, and, I’d be reminded of mom’s wigs. The cats have all departed this life, and the wigs are in a landfill somewhere. I miss the cats; the wigs — not so much.
My parents were in their early 40s when they decided to adopt me, back in 1966. Both of my parents lived through The Great Depression, and World War II. My dad was in the Navy (then the Army) during the war, and was on a medical frigate when they tested the Atomic Bomb, dropping it in the waters of Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. My mom, she was part of the Women’s Army Corps, and worked on the bombing range, using surveying equipment to help improve the accuracy of the bombs.
My aunts and uncles were of the same generation, most of my parents friends were too. So I grew up around them, hearing stories of war and depression first hand.
This song by Jamey Johnson, who is just about a decade younger than I, tells the story of him talking with his grandpa. For me, because my parents had been older, this song is a generation closer, it’s not me talking to grandparents, but parents.
The story of the song may be of Jamey Johnson’s grandpa, but, it’s also a story of a generation of people who are becoming fewer and fewer in number. The last of the World War I veterans died last year, aged 110. My mom, who was 21 when she enlisted, during the last year of World War II will be turning 90 this year. Soon, the generation who survived depression, war, Holocaust, will too be gone.
I’m thankful to have heard so many of the stories from my parents, my relatives, their friends. And, like all stories, they need to be told in order to be remembered.
This song resonates with me, and I thank Mr. Johnson for the gift of his song.
There’s a verse from that song that makes my eyes water every time:
This one is my favorite one
This is me and grandma in the summer sun
All dressed up, the day we said our vows
You can’t tell it here but it was hot that June
And that rose was red and her eyes were blue
And just look at that smile, I was so proud
I’m reminded of my dad saying that he was so proud to be standing next to my mother, while the Justice of the Peace performed their wedding.
Every day, I’m reminded of that day my dad said those words to me, because, hanging in the living room is a painting — made from their wedding photo. Their wedding may have been in January, not June, but the roses were red, and, though you can’t tell in the photo here, my mom’s eyes are a beautiful blue.
First… sorry for all the postings today. I’m still trying to catch up from several days of being sick, and several years of being too hungover to blog. I promise not to get too carried away… or, to at least space my posts out more.
That being said:
Yesterday I took mom to the doctor, for a follow-up visit. She’s on coumadin, a blood-thinner, and, she has to have regular blood tests, to make sure her blood is thin, but not too thin. We were outside, waiting for the car (valet is such a wonderful thing, when you’ve got a person in a wheelchair!), and, though it was a cool, February day, the sun was out, so mom wanted to get a bit of sun after being sick last week.
Her blood test was good, she’s feeling better, eating better, and her hair was better than the last photo, so she was pleased.
I’m supposed to mention she’s getting a perm tomorrow.
(And, for those who care about technical stuff, this wasn’t really taken on my iPhone, but on my pocket-sized Canon.)
It began on a Not So Long Ago Thursday night, with Julian saying “I think I ate too much. My stomach feels yucky.” By midnight, we realized that it wasn’t eating too much, but, rather, eating something that wasn’t good. Or so it seemed at the time. Several rounds of vomiting, and several days of diarrhea, and we thought it was over. Until mom got sick. Then we realized it wasn’t something Julian ate.
Mom’s bout with The Bug began the same way, with a few rounds of throwing up. Which wasn’t too bad. It was the diarrhea that was bad. When you’re almost 89, your control is not what it once was, and your speed isn’t all that speedy. So, the mad dash to the bathroom resulted in me, on my knees, cleaning up the trail of diarrhea mom left behind her. There was a time in my life where I believed that I would never be able to deal with someone else’s mess. It seems that we learn to do the things we have to do.
Not long ago, someone said of me: He’s just taking care of his mom for his own personal gain.
On the third day of mom’s illness, as I was on my knees, cleaning, again, the trail of shit that mom left on the floor, from her bed to the bathroom, those words, said in a Facebook post I wasn’t meant to see, came flooding back. And, as one does, when one is on one’s knees, cleaning, again, feces off the floor, recalling words said behind one’s back, one becomes angry and self-righteous, thinking of all kinds of pithily mean things to say to the person who uttered the insult in order to not have to think about the fact that one is, again, cleaning feces off the floor.
As I was scrubbing the floor, I thought “If I’m doing this for personal gain, I’d be wanting more gain than just a house in a not-so-great neighborhood. If I’m cleaning poop for personal gain, there’d better be a large sum of cash involved.” But, since I’m not caring for my mom for personal gain, I scrub the floor simply for the fact that it needs to be done. If I were caring for my mom for personal gain, I’d be thinking about the money in the bank (of which, in reality, there is none — mom has always spent her money, either on herself, or others), or I’d be thinking about the insurance money (of which, in reality, there is none: when one lives past a certain age, the insurance one owned is suddenly worthless; when you live past the average life expectancy for your gender, the insurance is no longer worth having, as the cost is through the roof, and the payoff is virtually nothing). As I cleaned the floor, my anger rising, I suddenly realized that I was glad to have been insulted, because I didn’t have to think about the mess on the floor.
The morning of the fourth day I called 911. Mom was getting dehydrated from the constant diarrhea, and, it seemed that her pills were going right through her, so her blood pressure was getting very high. Yes, ok. I will admit, that at this point, I did do something for personal gain: I called the ambulance to take her to the hospital. I knew, from past experience, that if mom arrived at the ER in an ambulance, she’d get seen right away, and I wouldn’t have to spend hours in the waiting room worrying about when she’d be seen, or having to rush her to a public restroom. And, yes, I also called the ambulance for more personal gain: because I’d cleaned up enough mess in the house, and I didn’t want to have to clean up a mess in the car. There. It must be true, then. I’m not above doing things for personal gain. I guess there’s more to personal gain than just financial gain.
Mom was in the hospital for 4 nights. They kept her in because her blood pressure was high, and they wanted to get it under control. The fact that she’d been without medication for several days seemed too obvious a reason for her blood pressure to be high. Instead, they’ve been trying to get her blood pressure back under control by changing her medication, rather than just letting her go back to the effective regiment that she had before she got sick. But, what do I know?
Once mom got home, and was feeling better, it seemed that it was my turn. I’d had a bout with anemia before Julian got sick, and I was laid up for a week or so, being too tired and weak to to much of anything. Then, after Julian and mom each got over The Bug, it seemed that it was my turn to deal with The Bug. I was lucky that my turn didn’t begin with vomiting. I went right for the shits. I was again laid up for several days.
It’s been a long September, and, attending to this little blog of mine was not much of a priority. Now that Good Health has returned to Chez Xanadu, you should notice a return to a more regular blog schedule.
So this happened:
The other day, mom’s doctors made some changes to her blood pressure medication. One of the medications now requires a three-times-a-day dosage. In order to to get all three doses in, and spaced at reasonable intervals, she needs to take her first dose of the day around 6-7 a.m. Her alarm always goes off at 7 a.m.; it goes off this early, even though she doesn’t get always get up that early, in order to allow her time to decide if she wants to go to mass, and breakfast with the church ladies. She usually wakes up somewhere around 5 a.m. to go to the bathroom. I figured, between the 5 a.m. bathroom call, and the 7 a..m alarm, she could take her first dose of the blood pressure pills. The first night, I set my alarm for 6 a.m., went and woke her up, and gave her the pills. I then recalled that when she first started taking this pill, earlier in the year, she was having to take an early dose, so I’d placed several pills in a small bowl, and left them in her bathroom, so she could take the pill when she woke up.
I decided to do this again, even though the dosage was different from the original dose: two-and-a-half pill, instead of one.
I put a handful of pills in the bowl, then cut several tabs in half, and added them to the bowl as well. I brought the bowl in to mom, told her what I was going to do, reminding her of how we’d done it earlier in the year, and repeated the new dosage to her several times. I then asked her to repeat it back to me. I put the small dish on her nightstand, as requested.
This morning, at 8 a.m. she called me: her heart was beating fast, and she had some chest pressure (symptoms she had during her recent hospital stay — more about this in another post). I took her pressure, and discovered that, like in the hospital when she had the chest pressure, her heart rate was very high, and that her pressure was fairly low. I decided since it was so low, I wouldn’t give her her other blood pressure pill, as 101/60 seemed low enough, and, that another dose of a pressure lowering medication might make her pressure too low. I did, however, give her a dose of a pill she has that slows her heart rate, which the doctors took her off of a few days ago, when they made the changes. Within a half-an-hour she was feeling much better.
Tonight, while I was helping her get ready for bed (she gets herself into her pajamas, I just make sure her phone is on the nightstand by the bed, that the TV is set to a station she likes, and that its timer is set for two hours), I reminded her to take her pills in the morning. I looked around for the small bowl that contained the pills I had brought down last night. I didn’t see it on the nightstand where I’d left it, and, I didn’t see it on the counter in her bathroom.
“Where’s the bowl of pills from last night?” I asked.
She: “I brought it up to the other room, and you took it out to the kitchen a while ago.”
“I didn’t take a bowl with pills in it to the kitchen.” I said.
She: “There weren’t any pills in it. It was empty.”
“Oh. Where did you put the pills then?” I asked.
She: “Nowhere. There weren’t any left. I took them all.”
As it was the end of the day, and she’d made it all day without being ill, and with her pressure being normal, I only panicked slightly. “What do you mean, you took them all?”
“I thought I was supposed to take the whole dish. You should have told me.”
“I did. I even had you repeat the instructions back to me.”
“No, you didn’t”, she said, angrily.
I had, but, arguing the point wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So, I just said “I’ll just put out what you need to take in the morning then, daily, instead of several days at a time.”
We’ll see what happens in the morning, whether she takes all the pills, as she’s supposed to, or, if she only remembers that she took too many, and decides to only take one pill.
Out of respect for my mother, I’ll refrain from detailed commentary about the visit from her relatives. Yes, you read that correctly: her relatives. Being an adopted child I can honestly refer to them as her relatives.
Any inferences you care to make from my designating the relatives as mom’s is entirely up to you. I will neither confirm or deny anything you might infer.
Well, maybe I’ll just confirm that I sincerely like Cousin Rose.
The only other things I’ll say about the visit are:
I didn’t exactly put my best foot forward.
I finally got to make the drive up Mt. Evans.
I spent several hours in the ER. Diagnosis: concussion and hairline linear skull fracture (it was an accident — someone was being helpful, and I wasn’t paying attention).
Guests, relative or not, who bring my mother to tears, are pretty much… I’ll leave that sentence unfinished.
It was over 100-degrees most of the days they were here, so I’m certain that wasn’t too fun for them. There were also lots of fires in the mountains, and the air in the city was quite smokey, so I’m sure that wasn’t fun for them either.
I tried (though, perhaps not hard enough), and failed (resoundingly), to be outwardly happy about the fact that my home was full of people I barely knew.
I could have tried harder to be less of a jerk. Until mom cried. (Then I had to try even harder to not be a bigger jerk).
Ever have a moment when The Voices in your head start telling you “You’re a grown-man, who’s winding down his fourth decade, so stop acting like a spoiled, petulant teenager.”? No?
Oh, alright! Yes, I have had that moment.
I can’t say I’m proud of the fact that I wasn’t a Martha-Stweart-Approved host, though I guess I should be pleased that I think I managed to not say anything mean, sarcastic, or offensive during The Visit. And, perhaps, I should be ashamed of the fact that I mentally cursed my mom many times for not really taking Julian and I into consideration when she had 6 people come, knowing that there was no way she could drive them around, cook for them, or do much of anything for them, other than buy meals for them; knowing that the responsibility would fall on me, and, that I would be the one who had no choice or say in the matter. Pity party? Oh yeah. Definitely. And, in my passive-agressive way, I just did the least amount I could — I only cooked once while they were here, and drove when I had to (having a concussion did keep me from driving for a few days though).
For me, this was one of the most confusing situations I’ve been in. Yes, this is my mother’s home. But, it is also our home, Julian and I. She’s always telling us this is our home, and how much she loves having us here, and how she’d have to sell and go into assisted living if I wasn’t here. Yet, for all the talk of this being “our home”, it’s not. It is Her Home. She decides how the house looks, what things she keeps (most things), and vetoes just about any suggestion of change. I understand her emotional attachment to the house, this house where she has lived since 1960, this house that was the only home she and my father ever owned, the home that hasn’t changed much in looks since my father died in 1980. So, I get it. It is her home, and we are just here because she doesn’t want to have to sell it. Still: it is the place Julian and I live, and, we aren’t ever asked things like “I’d like to invite some relatives, do you think you’d help me play host?”
Instead, it happened like this.
When mom was in the hospital in January, she changed her primary care doctor. When we went to visit the new doctor, the doctor told mom that she understood that mom had been through a lot while she was in the hospital, and she wanted mom to know that, as her doctor, she’d always listen to my mom. She told mom, “Some of my patients reach a point where they say ‘I’ve had enough treatments, and I don’t want any more.’ If you reach that point, tell me, and we’ll make you as comfortable as you can, and send you home, if you want. Some patients want to fight to the end, trying every treatment possible. If that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.” What my mom heard was “You went through a lot in the hospital, and there’s not much we can do for you, so go home and prepare to die.” She then had to call her relatives and tell them that she wouldn’t be going back East to visit them again, because she needed to stay close to the hospital, and that they needed to come see her soon, before it was too late. (Of course, my mom didn’t want them to come right that moment, because the summer is better for driving around in the mountains). So, what do you do? If you’re the relative, you come visit, if you’re the son and his partner, you grin and bear it.
I know I sound like an ass, whining about … what, exactly? Having to play host? That’s not exactly the worst thing ever. Being taken for granted? Yes, but, it’s not like I a have a job other than being around for mom, so, I don’t exactly have anything more pressing to do. I chose to stay home and be with mom, to live with her, to make sure she’s happy and well-taken care of. So, playing host is part of that, right? And, I shouldn’t be angry about it, right?
I guess I should have been nicer to mom’s relatives. Until they brought tears to her eyes.
Then it’s fair to not be polite, right?
I did, however, while we were out and about, encounter some wildlife:
After I posted this on my personal Facebook page, I had an idea: use my iPhone camera to document A Year In The Life of Mom. I’ve always got the phone with me, so, the camera is easily accessible, and, I need the practice when it comes to photographing people. Most people I don’t like well enough to photograph, so I haven’t spent much time pursuing that area of photography. But, my mom… well, most days I like her well enough to take a photo of her, though I doubt this will be a daily posting, as we’re not always doing anything photo worthy: there are only so many photos of my mom sitting in her chair, doing word search puzzles, that one can take before being accused of being a boring photographer.
For those of you who already saw this on Facebook: consider it a treat to see it a second time. :-)
In 2009, my mom had aortic heart-valve replacement surgery. Her recovery was quite difficult, and there was a period of several months where getting her to eat was a challenge. Slowly, her appetite began to return. Around the same time as she began to eat more regularly, and with a little more enjoyment, a friend of mind recommended a place called Bender’s Brat Haus, a local restaurant that makes their own bratwursts. I did a bit of research, and discovered that the restaurant also offered something called a Krautburger. In various parts of the county, a krautbuger is called a runza or a bierock, but, they are all basically the same thing: a dough pocket, stuffed with beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, sometimes onions. Years ago, there was a place down the street that made bierocks, and my mom enjoyed them so much, she would buy them by the dozen, keep them in the freezer, and pop them into the microwave anytime she needed a fix. When the restaurant was going out of business, mom asked the guy to make her several dozen. Mom’s friend Betty made them a time or two, and, mom always enjoyed them when she did, but, she missed not being able to have them whenever she wanted. I’m a good cook, but, the mysteries of pastry dough elude me, and, we’ll just leave it at that fact that I can’t make them. So, finding a restaurant nearby that made something that she’s long enjoyed was quite exciting, back in those days where she was still struggling to find food that she felt like eating.
Thankfully, the krautbuger was a hit, and, quite frankly, it was a gift: in those months after her surgery, she wanted to have a krautbuger almost daily. We don’t go daily any longer, but, we can be found there a couple of times per week. I’m grateful to my friend who, innocently remarked, in passing, “try a bratwurst at the brat haus”, and, I’m still thankful that I took mom there to check out the krautbuger, as I credit them with bringing the joy my mom had always felt about food before her surgery. Which, I think is why I felt inspired by the quick iPhone picture I took of her today at lunch, enjoying, what else, but a krautburger, to start taking more photos of mom.
Here are a couple more images from Castlewood State Park.
The final image is of mom (can’t have family vacation photos without including mom, right?!) Everyone wanted a photo of her, so she was joking about being a celebrity. She rolled her eyes when I showed her the photo, but, I think it’s rather endearing.