The Long Goodbye

My mom is 83 years old. She broke her ankle two years ago, she tripped on something, I forget what, and after that she refused to walk any more. She didn't say why -- it is her custom not to explain much of anything -- so everyone just assumed she was scared she'd fall and do it again.

All that not-walking she did caused her leg muscles to atrophy, and now she's bedridden. And stubborn as a mule -- a mostly-deaf mule with congestive heart failure, some mild dementia, and an arm made useless by a minor stroke last spring. Despite all that she is as sweet as the day is long unless you try to clip her nails, or roll her over to change her sheets, or try to tell her for the twenty-fifth time that no, we don't need to open the garage door for Dad, he's dead.

She's got one of those air-powered pressure pads underneath her so she doesn't get bedsores. Sometimes she asks for ice cream for breakfast, and then she chuckles when you say no -- like you caught her, you figured out her mischievous little ruse, ha ha ha, what will she do next, explode?!

My oldest brother, Chris, lives at home with her and is her full-time caretaker. This is not an ideal situation for a 55-year-old man who'd rather have a life, or at the very least a girlfriend, but he's doing it. People from hospice rotate through nearly every day -- a nurse twice a week; someone to wash her twice a week; a lady who does Reiki, of all things; a specialist for her delicate, bloody toenails; and some sort of pastor who shows up once a month to bother her and Chris about God. My other brother, Tim, comes almost every night -- a 40-minute drive across town for him, sometimes twice a day on weekends -- to give Chris a hand.

So when I show up for a week every three or four months and people say, "Oh, you're such a good daughter," I refuse to accept the compliment. Not out of some false modesty, but because I'm not the good one, I'm not in the trenches every day like my brothers are. I'm good enough, I guess, but living 1,000 miles away what happens is I show up for a week every three or four months, spend my first three days trying to unclench Chris's grip from his routine, spend my last four days actually being useful, and then fly home again.

If my mom's will was written with all this in mind, Chris would get all her dollars, Tim would get the house, and I'd get to clean out my room. Look at all these books I finally packed up and shipped to myself, twenty-two years after leaving home for good! Sheesh.

Anyway, one morning back when I was there a few weeks ago, my mom got kind of agitated. She made some noise about wanting fresh water at 3:00 a.m. so Chris got up and gave it to her. Then around 5:45 it was my turn. I hadn't gotten to sleep until about 1:00 a.m. because I was busy humoring the ghosts, but I went in and sat down next to her bed and said, "Hi. What can I can do for you?"

She needed her sheets and diaper changed, badly, but it's a two-person job so I needed to wait for Chris to help me. Since he'd already been up at 3, and since this was his week to sleep in, I needed to keep my mom distracted from plucking at the sheets and getting the mess in her bed all over her hands.

"What should we talk about?"


My mom has no idea who I am. She thinks I'm just some nice lady who comes over every once in awhile to sit and chat. She has clear knowledge and memories of her daughter, Eden, but she doesn't connect that Eden with the woman in the Target men's bathrobe sitting off to her left. Maybe that should bother me more than it does, but it doesn't too much. I can't take it personally. We were never that close anyhow and I'm done mourning that.

What's interesting, though, is that because she doesn't know I'm her daughter, because I'm for all intents and purposes a stranger, she opens up to me in ways she never has before.

So this morning she's feeling chatty and wants to talk "about family." I start running down what I remember of her family and six siblings -- Alfred came first, in 1919, then Joyce, then my mom, then uh, Dave? Carolyn? Jim? (I have it all written down somewhere.) Jeff was last, born in 1944, just as Al was going off to war.

But she keeps bringing the conversation around to this one dance she went to with her sister. My mom is a classic avoider, she can never get straight to what she really wants to say, even with her mind half gone she needs to beat around the bush for fucking ever. But eventually I get that she went to this dance with her sister, but her sister was using my mom as a beard to meet her boyfriend at the dance. And the thing it takes my mom an hour and twenty minutes to admit is that she was attracted to her sister's boyfriend.

"But I was married, so that was that."

I asked her about how she met my dad. I knew the story but I wanted to see if any variations were going to come out with the new honesty I was seeing. Yeah, coming up on sixty years after the fact, it turns out my mom wasn't all that interested in marrying my dad. He wouldn't let up, though. "He was very eager to meet my parents, I don't know why. He was just so eager to get married. I wasn't particularly eager to get married, but he had a good character. I liked his parents. He was a good man." (I guess fifty-odd years of emotional abuse are in the hazy part of her brain pan, which is probably for the best.)

So they got married and, unexpectedly and perhaps somewhat unwillingly, she got pregnant with my brother Chris right away. "Well, you know how men are." And that was that. Whatever hopes and dreams she may have had got folded into her new role as wife and mother.

It took about four hours to get all that out of her.

Actually, I want her copy of "Joy of Cooking," too, mine's trashed.