If I’d had any time to think it over, I would have been surprised at how easily Mom, previously independent to a fault, adapted to helplessness. Once bedridden, she deferred household decisions to me as she slipped effortlessly into an almost regal, though never imperious, manner in making known her personal needs.
Thirst was a constant. Mom needed lots of water and not just any water. Water with ice cubes, she said, was too warm, and she didn’t want ice to suck on. In trying to get the water colder than cold, I was running into the limitations of the laws of physics, which Mom had no use for. "Colder," she said. "It needs to be colder."
Eventually, I rotated glasses of water in the freezer checking every short while until I could see ice crystals forming in water that was otherwise still liquid. Inevitably, some would freeze before I got back to refrigerator. You sigh and start over.
With all that water, there were so many diaper changings that Mom learned to anticipate them: “You’ll need to get me a clean diaper in about 15 minutes,” she’d say.
One day, Mom called me into her room asking for her cigarettes. “They’re right there,” I told her, "next to you." “I know. Please hand them to me,” she said. I shrugged and handed them over. Later the same day, she called me for the TV clicker which was also next to her. “What’s wrong with your hand, Mom?” I asked. “Nothing,” she insisted.
After some experimentation, I found that her left arm was paralyzed. A small stroke, the doctor said, not uncommon in her condition. Nothing to be done. The result for me was many more trips to help Mom retrieve misplaced items she couldn't reach with her right hand. The funny part was that for the rest of her life, Mom refused to acknowledge that her left arm didn’t work and I never figured out if that was stubbornness or the stroke. Sometimes you can only laugh.
Mom’s hearing worked just fine, yet she intermittently blasted the television sound, so loud sometimes I couldn’t hear her calling for me. Nor could I convince her to keep the volume down.
Rather than sleep on a regular schedule, Mom napped an hour here, an hour there throughout the 24-hour day. She commonly called for me three or four times a night – for a pain pill, water, a diaper change or a misplaced TV remote - and I slept lightly, not wanting to miss her call. My vigilance and the sleep interruptions took their toll, and as the weeks passed, my weariness grew until I was never not tired.
Having attended to Mom three times one night, I wakened again in my bedroom down the hall. Did I hear my name, I wondered. I listened hard. Perhaps I dreamed it. I couldn’t be sure.
I laid there immobile, each and every cell of my body screaming for rest. I cannot pull myself out of bed one more time, I thought. I cannot do it. Joe’s in San Francisco tonight. I’ll just stay here and pretend I didn’t hear. No one will ever know.
I dragged myself down the hall nearly weeping with tiredness. As I entered Mom's room, I slapped a phony smile on my face hoping she wouldn’t notice how resentful I was and walked in with as much false cheer as I could muster. “Hey, Mom. What's up?”
I am not religious. Nor am I superstitious. And I do not believe in otherworldly things. So I have no explanation for what happened then.
The fatigue lifted completely and I felt the false smile become genuine. My resentment disappeared, and as a deep pleasure at being there to help settled around my shoulders, Mom said an amazing thing: “You’re like a little nymph. I just think of you and you’re here.”
Now maybe she forgot she had called my name. Or maybe I’d become so attuned to the timing of her needs that I only thought I heard my name. Or maybe something else happened. I don’t know.
Whatever Mom needed done we took care of, then I pulled up a low stool beside her bed and we talked quietly. I don’t remember what we said that night, though it was not about death or why we’re born or what life is for or about family or love or God or making peace with dying. We talked of nothing profound or important. Just stuff.
When I went back to bed an hour or two later, we had settled some unnamed thing between us, something primal for which no words are needed. And it was good.
…to be continued…
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript