My Mother’s Lists

This is the third in a three-part series following Mom’s fall.

Hip replacement… Thyroid malfunctioning when her doctor suggested calling hospice…removal of her appendix and some other little thing the doctor said was blocked and caused her stomach to blow up the size of a basketball.


In the driver’s seat of the wheelchair, pushing Mom from behind into the great outdoors and rampant humidity, I ran down the list of the physical obstacles she had overcome in her ninety years.

My mother had been a famed listmaker. Groceries for Thanksgiving. 16 for Christmas. Dinner for Christmas. 4 Weeks before Easter. Easter Menu. AMC Movies 4:00 – 11:30 p.m. Her work in the kitchen was unparalleled because of her lists.

Now, Mom was unknowingly generating new lists of maladies, of struggles not within her cognitive control.

Her record of medical speedbumps she encountered in her long life, excluding the overarching dementia, read like a multiple-choice answer on an MCAT exam.

The house doctor at her care home always sought me out after visiting with Mom, following any one of those medical hiccups. “Your mother definitely has nine lives. There she was smiling at me today,” the doctor claimed. He was young, handsome, brownish skin of Indian descent. Yes, she would smile at him.

Like always, I nodded and thought, The hospice chaplain said Mom might have 13. I held out for more.

As I circled around the courtyard, I kept counting. Anything to keep my mind off the fact that Mom was now confined. Or that she had slept through lunch. that she had lost weight, but not enough to be too alarmed, only enough to take notice.

Three seizures
c. diff
A fall ending with black eye
Eating flowers and leaves – real ones and the fake ones
Swallowing soap, almost forcing a tracheotomy
The latest fall, outside. One of the nurses said,
“She was just lying there, smiling, on the rocks.”
The Neil Diamond song, Love on the Rocks,
plays in my head each time I consider the accident
that resulted in a fractured hip.

I added one that I missed. Maybe the only episode I missed altogether. Breast cancer. She and my father hid the diagnosis from me (but told my husband) while we were living in Oregon and I had given birth to Davis four weeks early.

And then I added the most recent recent, deep blood clots from the non-movement of her leg and hip. Mom had now crossed the threshold of Ironwoman designation.

The sun beat down on the concrete. I could feel a whoosh of heat curling up from the sidewalk. If I could feel it, so could Mom.

I parked the “car” beneath the shade of an umbrella and retrieved headphones from my purse to place over Mom’s ears. Today, Italian mandolin music. If there is a heaven, there will be many mandolins playing to her satisfaction.

My eyes zeroed in on the raised flower box as a few musical notes slipped out of the earbuds. I leaned back and my eyes lids closed by themselves. How hard I had worked at keeping Mom safe, healthy, away from chomping on the plastic or real flowers or plants that dotted the courtyard or interior landscape of her care home. Except the tiny tomatoes which would flourish sooner rather than later this summer. We always picked one or two, so she could taste of her ancestors.

The days had been long as I spent hours reviewing Mom’s past, my past with her, her future in my rearview mirror. It had always been a challenge to accept this work of Mom. I wasn’t the oldest and I was number three in the lineup of five.

I thought of my siblings, of being a child of Mom, of all Mom’s children. Delving into the list of emotional or psychological aches of Mom’s was like devouring a year’s worth of Lifetime Movies.

Her birth father dying before she knew him
Her first-born son dying two days after birth
Mother dying of while Mom was in her thirties
A daughter with an eating disorder
The breakup of the family shoe store business
and Dad’s loss of livelihood.
A son-in-law succumbing to cancer
A daughter surviving cancer
Another daughter with surviving cancer
A daughter battling alcoholism
My father’s death
A daughter now a stroke victim, the tragedy Mom doesn’t know.

I understood why I always wrote from the lens of loss.

I started tapping my toes, my fingers. The mandolins couldn’t calm me. I was ready to move again. My arm muscles twitched as I gripped on the wheelchair handles, located at too high a height for me. Who needed a workout when I could push Mom + chair? What I needed was distractions.

I started to push again, over every crack known to me in these sidewalks, over all the gradual inclines and bumps and declines.

I knew which slivers in the base of the white-washed fence the squirrels ran through and wished the barrier was at least transparent, though too many residents would act like the birds that flew into windows when they saw their reflection, thinking it was another bird. It was not a pleasant analogy but an apt one.

Having tired of my exploration of all the square inches that made up the space around the courtyard, what I returned to were the flowers. What I looked forward to each spring and summer. What would grow here? What would die? In a kind way, it was a meditation on the residents themselves.

I was reminded of the Irish poet, Michael Longley, and his poem, The Ice Cream Man, a eulogy for the owner of an ice cream parlor who was murdered. In the poem, the poet drew parallels between the ice cream flavors in the shop and that of the wildflowers in Burren he had been cataloging.

IMG-7330I had stopped carrying in live flowers to Mom, because of her “eating habits”, though I’d rather she was mobile enough to consume them. But as we wheeled and wheeled in this endless circle of life and death and remembering and memory, I named for Mom the flowering plants of Arden Courts.

Russian sage
Sweet potato vine
Sweet Melissa
Black-eyed Susan
Asiatic lily

When I could name no more, I stopped orbiting and rested beneath the canopy of a birch tree. Janice, Mom’s caregiver, carried out Mom’s plate of lunch.

After I spooned a few bites of chicken into Mom’s mouth, she gave a little hack. She needed Gatorade. I handed her the cup. While she drank, I looked up or away or into the cloudless sky. Only for a second.

Mom squealed.

Gatorade had dribbled down her chin and splashed onto her a Jolly Rancher blue-raspberry-colored top that matched the hue of the sports drink.

I hurried to wipe up the droplets and swept the cornbread crumbs off her pant legs. From her right side – her good side for her hair part and failing hearing and sight, I said, “I don’t know what the future holds for you, Mom.” The tip of my nose touched hers.

Softly, Mom responded, “I don’t either.”

Both sets of our eyes were open, teary. Hers from allergies. Mine from grief. Her eyes oddly matched the blueish top. Their coloring had been shifting in tint and depth and I wondered, when we die, Do we finally get the color eyes we want? And the clarity too?

It was such a tender moment.


I brushed at a wisp of her gray hair fluttering like a butterfly in the breeze and cupped her scalp, still clinging to its thinning hair, in the palm of my hand.

Mom swatted my arm away. “Don’t you dare,” she said through clenched teeth.

I could have gone on with the lists that day, the residents I missed, the entertainment activities I most enjoyed, caregivers that had departed for other employment, and the occasions Mom had cussed at me.

But only one list would ever stand out. The number of times Mom had recognized me – known to me only by some pin-prick of light in the eyes, sort of way – and called me, “Honey.”

It wouldn’t add up to nine or thirteen. A better approximation might put that number closer to a few moments several times a week for over six, no, over fifty years.

But, in my imagination? It was infinite.


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