by Annette J. Wick
It was May. I sat in my mother’s oak rocker with a green crocheted afghan cushioning my back. It was too hot, that time of year, for the thick blanket to provide warmth. But the warmth we both needed was outside.
Whenever the temperature rose above sixty-eight degrees, I coaxed my mother outdoors. To remind her of that first kiss of summer yet to come. I thought of the times I overworked her in physical therapy to get her moving again after a fall, so she could walk around the gardens with a slow, steady confidence and no hall monitor, once her taut legs could handle her weight and the direction of her mind. There were also times when I escorted her outside and she cussed me out.
And there was one final time. My mother walked outside along the sidewalk and encountered another resident in her path. Or the two walked hand in hand or arm in arm without the other one aware. One of them pushed or pulled in the wrong direction.
Both had fallen. One landed in the mulch and was fine. My mother, unfortunately, landed on the rocks. On her hip.
The staff at the care home called me. The ER nurse too. I placed a number of calls back. Contained in them were my pleas for the emergency room doctor to wait to poke and prod my mother until I could arrive to discharge her from the hospital. Her health care directives stated she was not to endure excessive measures to save her life. Do Not Resuscitate. Comfort Care.
“She’s a DNR/CC,” I had said over and over to orderlies and receptionists on a Friday night as I scrambled through the hospital corridors.
When I’d located my mother’s room, she had been resting peacefully. A short, male doctor slipped into the room. “She’s a DNR/CC,” I’d stated again.
He’d acknowledged that fact and went on: “We’ll give her some medications for comfort before she leaves. But she doesn’t seem to be in too much pain.”
She had been sleeping, it was difficult to tell.
Finally, transport had arrived and I was able to leave again and take my mother to her home, a place with people who loved her in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
Now in my mother’s room, her rocker was my captain’s perch where I waited and rocked and imagined her rocking me in that chair. Though the arms were worn down from my mother’s worrying, I didn’t know for certain the age of the chair. Perhaps it had come along when my younger sisters were born. I had sold off my baby rocking chair with flattened armrests and wide seat sometime after I’d moved back to Ohio. Sadly, I hadn’t planned for more children after my young husband was diagnosed with cancer. Had the rocker been a sleek model such as the one I sat in now, with curves in the right places for my wrists to rest, I would have kept it.
I rocked and waited. Would my mother cry out when she twisted her body? Would she wake up and smile and make my day? I collapsed into the curve of the chair, resting from the many miles my mother and I had traveled together while she lived in her care home.
I told my husband, “I don’t want to remember Mom like this.” Her body tense, possibly in a pain that she could not articulate.
But honestly, what bothered me most was that our time together in the past six years had been compressed into only moments—the good ones, the hard ones, everything in between. Those hours she and I had spent together walking through the halls and outside her care home had erased the hours in my childhood when she—laughing and vibrant and young—had walked with me at a beach, the fields, our street. But I’d accepted that. What I could not accept was watching her curled up here in a bed, unable to walk, or speak, or even get mad at me.
The nurse stopped in and visited. She was new and talked about the framed photos of my mother and I that were scattered around the care home like a Hollywood walk of fame. They had been taken during a Cheering for Charity event. There were frames of other residents, too, but there were so many of my mother because she had appeared joyful that day. In the pictures, I was smiling and full of joy, too. The photographer had captured every last ounce of our togetherness
So many important moments had transpired in my life with my mother. I recalled how she loved both my first and second husbands, my little boy, the girls now mine, our trip to Italy. But times were different, and the good moments now were extraordinary because they were simple, fleeting.
I grasped at her hands. They were slender, with long nails she had once shaped and polished before her Saturday nights out with my father to Pier W for dinner, or at the Italian American Club to hang out with their Italian friends, or at the movies—her choice never his. Her long feet and fingers were not like my stubby ones. But where once I had added up the ways in which we differed—there were so many I’d bragged about in our past—now that number diminished.
Our lives had been converging—we even shared the same cowlicks along our hairline—and I’d never noticed until now.
I spoon-fed her some pudding and imagined what I had looked like, sick in bed with measles or flu, home from school on days when she had stirred up my favorite “get better” concoction—an egg, beaten, with sugar and vanilla. It’s an old Italian thing, she’d told me once. A while back, I had discovered a passage in a book describing a similar potion. Some days, I still made the concoction for the memory, not for the ailment or relief.
My mother didn’t have a fever. There was no forehead against which to press a cold compress. I rocked and rocked and rocked. It was only eleven a.m. How would I fill my next hours when they were once filled with our walks outside? My mother looked like a deejay wearing headphones, listening to Sinatra off my iPhone. I could hear him too, and his voice was getting to me. It reminded me too much of her vitality. The lyrics about looking at the moon, not able to say goodbye, lost to the summer wind, blah, blah, blah. I abhorred him and his words at the moment. But his voice kept her calm.
Hours ago, the x-rays had been read. My mother had sustained a hip fracture. Serious enough to consider surgery if she were someone else, younger, more spry. I was vindicated in my earlier insistence that she should be released from the hospital. But in another sense, I was condemning her.
I signed on for hospice care for her—for comfort—instead of surgery for the fractured hip. “It’s not end of life care,” I repeated guiltily to siblings and friends. There was a difference.
In all the decisions I had to make, my mother’s fall had made the decision—but not the follow-through—easy for me.
Would her life be shortened now that she had fallen? Perhaps not any more than if she hadn’t. Would she be comfortable in the Cadillac of wheelchairs and hospital beds? Probably so. She was already napping plenty.
Still, it was hard to say No to more surgery or medical intervention. Her body was worn down from being worn down.
My mother was snorting now, making sounds like the jackhammer that was used during the construction near my house. I was glad I wasn’t there to hear it. The sunny weather would have brought all sorts of construction trucks to the street and the noise would have driven me insane.
My mother’s room was near the television room and Dorothy’s voice in The Wizard Oz streamed down the hallway. It was the scene where Dorothy first encountered the Wicked Witch of the West after Auntie Em’s home landed on the witch’s sister. Just try to stay out of my way, the witch said. I used to crouch behind the patchwork couch to watch the movie as a youngster, or wrap my skinny arms around my mother’s belly and shut my eyes. I couldn’t hide any longer. I had to face my mother and our future.
My mother lay before me, sometimes gurgling with eyes closed, sometimes staring, wide-eyed. She had not said much, but offered a few smiles and stroked my hair.
“I’m here,” I reminded her out loud and plastered my arms to her torso, unwilling to let go. “We’ll get through this together.”
Someone turned up the volume on the television. We’re off the see the wizard. The tune drifted in from the other room.
We had been on a yellow brick road to see the Wizard, my mother and I. At times we were each other’s Dorothy, or the good witch and bad. We were the lion filled with fear, the scattered-brain scarecrow and the tin man looking for love. And the Lollipop Kids—two short girls, singing side by side. Who didn’t want to be them?
And now we had arrived at a point in our journey when Toto tugged back the green curtain.
Like Dorothy, my mother never needed the Wizard to pull the levers nor Glinda, the Good Witch, to transfer the ruby slippers to her feet magically. She knew the way. Her feet still knew the way even if she no longer could walk.
For once in my life, I had to listen to her, and let her make her way home.
I would be in the rocker, waiting.