We’re sitting here, Dale and I, in the empty Room 5 of Mercy Hospital’s emergency department. We’re waiting for Mother to return from having a CT scan. She’d never had one before and was a little nervous. I assured her that it was fine – just lie still in a tube and they take pictures of your head.
When we arrived, Mother had a blanket folded over, covering her hair. She must have been cold. After all, they had brought her here wearing only a holey nightgown and a short-sleeved yellow bathrobe, which had been her attire for the last two days. She was sure they were going to take her to a “ward” because her nightgown had holes in it! “No, Mother, they don’t do that anymore,” I’d told her.
The blanket on her head had made her face appear even older and more pale, without the added dimension of the side of her face dotted with freckles and creased with wrinkles. The blanket cast a shadow which obscured that side of her face. As she spoke, I noticed her eyebrows – pure white and wispy, sticking up and brushing against the blanket on her head as she talked.
Much of her talk was reminiscing, as usual – somewhat rambling, but coherent. I was relieved. She’d been so confused on the phone, insisting she was not in Janesville and thinking she was going to Lutheran General Hospital. In the hospital, she told me that she had thought she was in Wausau. Lutheran General was where Mary had been last week for her knee replacement surgery and Wausau was one of the places where she grew up, the source of much of her reminiscing. The events had gotten mixed up in Mother’s head, as they do in dreams.
She had been talking about Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary. Uncle Jack had a “square” build, she said; he was very muscular. She asked if I remembered him. I said that yes, I vaguely remembered him but didn’t remember him as being muscular. I remembered Aunt Mary a lot better. Aunt Mary had raised Mother and her sisters, so she was more like an eccentric grandmother to me. Mother was talking about her funeral. Did I remember it? Oh yes, I did – I even remember what I was wearing that day. It had been the first funeral I had ever been to. I was 13 or 14 (Mother said it was in 1966, so I had to have been 14) at the time. I remembered sitting with my cousin Kabee, nearly my age. I thought it was so strange: At the cemetery, where it was cool and dark and drizzly on that spring day, the mood was somber and Aunt Mary’s nieces snuffled and blew their noses, but now that we were back at someone’s house, everyone was talking gaily and laughing. They shrieked with laughter while talking about eccentric Uncle Charlie who had lived in a tree. And the stories about Aunt Mary’s shenanigans flew around the room, cheering everyone up. By the end of the day, most of the adults were drunk on wine and reminiscing and laughter.
Mother’s reminiscing ended when the nursing assistants came in to take her to her CT scan. First she had to go to the bathroom, so we left and the curtain was pulled so she could sit on the commode. I looked at that commode now, the cover securely on it. Had they emptied it yet? Were we going to smell it while sitting here? But it must have been airtight, or else it had been emptied, because there was no smell. The CT scan was presumably to find out if she had indeed had a stroke. The nurse had told us that disorientation and weakness are typical of people who’ve had a stroke. But Mother also said she hadn’t slept well due to stomach pain and that the only thing she’d eaten that day was a half a piece of toast and orange juice.
I pulled my jacket over my shoulders – it was kind of cold in here. No wonder Mother’s head had been cold. Besides not eating, she’d had little sleep and was worried about Mary and her own decision to move to Assisted Living.
They’ve brought her back, wheeling her bed into the empty space in Room 5 once more. She said the scan wasn’t as scary as she thought it would be. The orderly that wheeled her in tells her how to use her call button, then leaves. He impresses me as being very young, as if he is in junior high. He even acts that way, but he must be in at least high school to have a job like this.
We wait for the results and Mother talks more animatedly now. Her eyes are bright behind her glasses, but her eyelids are red, I notice. Her bony hands are very cold. The IV she always fears when she is brought to the hospital must be providing her with some needed nutrition, I think, looking at the half-filled bag of clear liquid.
A young, attractive male doctor comes in. Since everyone wears similar blue scrubs with an ID hanging on them somewhere, too small to read from any distance, I’m not sure at first if he is a doctor or another nurse. He tells us that there were no signs of a stroke on the CT scan. In fact, there are no signs of anything they can treat, so she is free to go.
After he leaves, we wait a little more until a nurse comes to prepare Mother to leave. The clock reads 7:05. A new shift has come on, so the nurse that comes is different than the one before. She pulls out the IV and Mother winces. I wince too, because of the blood. However, the nurse efficiently wraps Mother’s wrist with blue gauze which she says can be easily removed later.
Mother is very tired. I want to take her somewhere to eat immediately but she has to go home and get dressed. She’s so cold, so we give her a blanket to put over her in the car. She has great difficulty getting from the wheel chair onto the pavement and into the car. Dale’s van is too high for her to get into without a stool.
Back at her apartment, I help her get dressed. She is so tired that she can barely stand. Every time she stands without the support of a walker or cane, she begins to topple over. It’s difficult for me to watch her deterioration. When she’s feeling OK, she can putz around her apartment without too much help. But when she has health issues and worries, she doesn’t eat or drink much, and she gets dehydrated. On days like today, she is totally helpless on her own.
Since there isn’t much food that I can cobble together for the three of us to eat dinner, we decide to go out. She wants to go to Culver’s but can’t remember what street it’s on or how to get there. She thinks it’s by the Pick n Save. We drive by but there’s no Culver’s. She says it’s on Court Street but can’t remember how to get to Court Street so we drive around some side streets, until Dale gets out his GPS and programs it in. The female voice immediately tells us to “turn right, then turn right again.” We go around in a circle until we’re back on the right track. Instead of being entertained by the GPS voice, as she usually is, Mother is embarrassed that she can’t remember where to go.
She was on the right track – Culver’s is next to a Sentry, another supermarket in town. By this time it is nearly 9 o’clock. Culver’s and other fast food joints are the only restaurants still open. Obligingly, Mother orders potato au gratin soup AND a roasted chicken sandwich. She eats about a third of the soup and a few bites of sandwich. I ask for a box and we take it back to her apartment for her to eat as a leftover – combined with the leftover salad and the leftover baked potato, she’s got a decent meal, not that she’ll eat all that at once.
“I don’t eat much,” she explains, “because I don’t get any exercise, so I’m not hungry.” She asks me what I think of Obama’s educational policies.
As we discuss our hopes for the new president, I see my real mother emerge – the one who talks about literature and debates the political issues of the day. Not the helpless woman who, by the time we return to the retirement home, is slurring her speech rendering her nearly incomprehensible, the one that I have to help undress and hold her up while she washes her hands and face at the bathroom sink. She needs to go to Assisted Living, as soon as possible, I now realize. I had been in denial up until now, thinking she could continue in independent living. Thinking that Donna – the woman she pays to take care of her and a good friend – is enough. Thinking that making the decision to go to Assisted Living will mean a downhill slide, until she dies. But she is already on a downhill slide. And none of us live in Janesville, where she insists on continuing to live.
On the way home in the car, Dale and I are too exhausted to even converse. I try to read, but soon put my seat back and fall asleep. The next thing I know, we are turning off the expressway and the clock reads 11:45. We get home at midnight exactly. Dale goes to bed immediately while I make coffee, a depressed mood settling in and making my movements mechanical, my walking slow. I’m suffering with pain from sciatica, a nerve being pressed down upon by one of my twisted vertebrae. The car ride aggravated it.
As I hobble around the kitchen, I think of myself and my mother, getting older, daily life getting more difficult. The pain I feel reminds me of my own mortality. Someday will I be like my mother, depending on others for every little chore? Will I cease to motivate myself to walk because my failing eyesight causes me confusion and depression? Will my primary entertainment be endless news shows on TV at full volume, even when I’m sitting no more than 12 inches from the screen? Will my memory, already poor, cause me to become so disoriented that I get rushed to the hospital because someone thinks I had a stroke? I worry most about my memory: at least Mother has incredible long term memory, the details still vivid in her mind. She remembers places, people’s names and faces and events with utmost clarity. She can reminisce for hours and entertain herself with stories of her past. What will be left to me when (and if) I reach 92? Not even memory.
I’m suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. I try to read in bed but soon put the book down. At least it got my mind off my depressing train of thought. I’m asleep in no time.