Home Bound (Week I)
Guest post from Wendee - this is the first in a series of four posts. Well, this is a story I wrote about my mother who grew up in Utah in the 1920s and 30s and was the only kid from a divorced family in the county. She was scorned by everyone for that. She had a sad life. But she raised me in the church and I think about her every day. This story neither honors nor dishonors her, just tells it like I remember, almost five years ago. Wendee (former very active member of the mormon church, now living in a liberal Jewish household and feeling a little lost now and again.) My Mother’s Home Week I My mother is dying and I’ve moved to her house to care for her. This is the house of my childhood, the house I think about when I say I’m “going home.” Now, in the middle of my life, I’ve been away more years than I’ve lived here. But this is the only house my mother has lived in for any length of time. Her childhood was spent moving between parents, step-parents, grandparents and others. She’s frequently pointed out that my vagabond adulthood closely resembles her childhood. Its a sad irony she often says, that I’m unable to give my children the same stable childhood she gave me. This is the house I dream about when my dreams carry me to childhood. Here, there are secret doors and extra rooms and places left to explore. In reality I know every inch of this house. The wall which was once covered with green and white panoramic wallpaper depicting an English farmhouse surrounded by weeping willows. Spots and stains made by cats and dogs that were summarily put to sleep. The place in the floor where the hamster hid underneath a bookcase and spent four months chewing through carpeting, padding and hardwood flooring until he died, from old age, my mother told me. My mother lies dying in this house. Her once taut, muscular body, graceful from younger years of dancing and later years of gardening and swimming, is now gray, her skin sags from her bones and deep purple bruises, the bruises old people get when they come too close to unforgiving objects, mottle her arms and thighs. Her body betrays attempts at even the simplest tasks; showering, eating, sleeping. All have become nearly insurmountable challenges. Every day her friends visit, arriving at the front door with forced smiles and eyes that betray shock at my mother’s rapid deterioration. There are friends from her retirement years with names that belie their ages; Ethel, Iris, Betty, Opal. There are church people who’ve forgotten her until duty requires them to remember. And there are neighborhoods from my childhood, friends who bring with them their children and our shared memories. The first week passes quickly. My mother’s in the non-acceptance phase of her illness and I’m needed only at night, when she might fall on her way to the bathroom. She refuses to use a bedpan, although I’ve told her I can bring it if she feels too dizzy or too weak to get out of bed. Instead, every morning, I hear her moan as she pulls herself upright. Then I hear footsteps on the wood floors, uneven and slow at first, but by the time she reaches the hallway, she accelerates and stumbles into the bathroom. The same routine every morning: she sits on the toilet and brushes her hair. “Oh God, am I still alive?” More difficult for her to accept has been the daily hospice care that’s intruded into her social life. The first day, the Hospice nurse and I walk through the house, looking for areas of possible falls, bumps or other injuries. “You don’t want to trip over one of these rugs,” the nurse says as she and I begin rolling up oriental area rugs, exposing gleaming hardwood floors. “Are you worried about my breaking a hip?” I start to laugh and joke about her recent fall down Mt. St. Helens, the fall which lead to the doctor’s visit where we discovered the pain in her side was not from the fall but from liver cancer. My mother’s not joking, her face is serious, concerned, “Leave them until after my Canasta game,” and the nurse and I unroll the rugs. Halfway through the first week I move from my childhood bedroom to the couch in the den. I’m afraid to sleep in the bedroom. Afraid to miss a call for help or a moan of pain in the middle of the night. But mostly, I’m just afraid. To keep myself awake, I channel surf old reruns of Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. One night my mother stumbles down the hall, and I get up to see if she’s okay. “Are you sleeping on the couch now?” She slurs. I wonder if its pain, restlessness or fear that’s awakened her. Mid week my mother’s hosting a Canasta game. I try to convince her to cancel but she’s adamant, “This game has been scheduled for six months, what would my friends think if I canceled at the last minutes?” The night before, I prepare lunch: chicken garden casserole topped with thin layers of butter drenched phyllo crust, green salad, chocolate mousse. My mother’s favorite recipes cooked under my mother’s careful scrutiny. “How come you never cooked this good for me and daddy?” I tease. She doesn’t answer for several minutes and I think its the morphine that causes her hesitation. Then she says, “Because neither of you appreciated anything I did for you, ever.” I’ve heard this phrase for much of my life. Heard how inconsiderate I am of her feelings, how like my father I am; thoughtless, irresponsible. She once told me “You know its time to die when your children grow-up.” Then with a bark of a laugh she added, “I guess I’m going to live forever.” Now I want to ask, “Since you are dying, does this mean I’m grown up?” After I finish in the kitchen, we move to the den and I settle her in front of the TV. I give her her meds. Morphine and Oxycontin for pain, Colace to prevent constipation, Ativan and Valium to ease the edginess the pain pills cause, Diovan for high blood pressure brought on by the pain. The bottles have multiplied, delivered by the hospice pharmacy almost nightly. “Let’s look at photos,” she says after swallowing the last half dozen capsules. I dig through closets and drawers, all places where she’s stored family photos for as long as I remember but instead of my colorful childhood pictures, I find black and whites of people I’ve never seen before. Wedding photos. My mother, dressed in a white suit and high heels, posing in front of a small chapel on the arm of someone who’s not my father. The photos confuse me, scare me and I try to talk to my mother, to establish an identity. But she’s gone into a morphine induced trance. She’s holding a pencil and tracing the Celtic Knot design printed on a small wooden coaster. As she traces, she talks to someone. I wonder if she’s talking to my father, or her sister, both long gone. The hospice book says this is normal; its part of the dying process. I finally find my photos in the garage, stacked next to a rusting, corroded water heater. They’ve melted together, colors running, edges crisp-brittle, a dull patina of rat droppings crusting the surface. Most everything in the garage has been damaged by rats. I find a nest of curly blonde doll hair inside the living room of my Barbie doll house. The bellows of a child-sized accordion have been nibbled into a fragile lace skeleton. This is very sad. I call my husband, Scott, who’s not sympathetic. He’s been left at home with my angry teenage daughter. “She told you to take the things you wanted to keep,” “We don’t have room for them.” I answer. I want to add because your crap takes up the whole house and the garage and the closets and everything and my stuff doesn’t matter. But stuff doesn’t matter right now and I’ve promised myself not to nag. I feel tears of self-pity welling in my eyes, but I hate crying over the phone so I continue to list the items that’ve been ruined; piano music, childhood toys, a box of Halloween costumes. My husband listens for a while and finally asks, “Has anyone come to help you, besides the nurse?” “No,” I say. “You need to get out of the house,” I agree and decide to call Ethel to ask if she can sit for a few hours.