In the midst of getting ready to go to work and rustling my sons off to school, I called my brother, Brad, to remind him that I’d placed her living will in her purse before I returned home to Maine a few days before. “Well, it doesn’t matter, Heid,” he said with a huff. “She’s refusing to have the operation. She’s afraid she’ll die.”
“You’re kidding me,” I hissed. This is the woman who 18 hours before said over the phone that she had the peace that passeth all understanding.
It had been a long few weeks for both of us – for Brad because he lives next door and is the “first responder” – her go-to guy – and me because I’d come out to New York – a seven hour drive – to take care of her when she arrived home after eight inconclusive days in the hospital. We had a nice couple of hours sitting and talking, my mother reminiscing fondly (now that he’s dead) about her long and bumpy life with my dad and telling me tidbits about neighbors and family members that she forgets to mention when we talk on the phone. Then suddenly, things went wrong. You’ll have to trust me on this, because anything more gets into the realm of too-much-information.
After an initial, highly alarming crisis and a call to her doctor, we tried to settle down to sleep. She called to me in the night and I thought it was my son, Colin, calling. I thought I was at home in Maine…not in the spare room in what we call the “front apartment.”
After shaking off the confusion, I tended to her in the night, twice, three times, and in the morning we tried to leave for the hospital but she was too weak and dizzy to make it the last 25 feet to my car. “Do you want me to call for an ambulance?” I asked. It was a dumb question. She leaned deeply over her walker and I thought, “Shit, this is it.” I called 911 and returned to her, rubbing circles on her back while we waited.
“That feels good,” she said. “It feels good when you rub my back like that.”
I remember my mother rubbing my back when I was small and afraid to go to sleep or when I was sick. “I’ll pull out my old nursing tactics,” she’d say brightly. My mother, an army nurse during World War II, nursed many of the men who survived the Bataan death march when they returned to the states at the end of the war. She told stories of how they would rally for their families and girlfriends who came across the country to see them and then die shortly after the jubilant visitors departed. She told of how she painted all of their toenails bright red while they slept to cheer them up and then had to fess up when a general visited the ward the next morning. “Who did this?” the general bellowed, the story goes. “I timidly said, ‘I did,’ and the General roared with laughter.” And my mother always laughs at that sweet memory. But here she was at 84, dizzy and weak and waiting for the ambulance in the dingy garage of the front apartment. I rubbed her back.
My mother is a Southern Baptist, and we don’t talk much about religion anymore. She thinks I’m nuts and I think she’s nuts and we generally get along fine.
The previous evening, having been away from the piano for more than a week while she was in the hospital, she sat down to play. Between the ages of 11 and 14, when I started hitching rides to a more liturgical church and several years before I found myself at the door of an Episcopal church as a college freshman, I learned a whole lot of Baptist hymns and Gospel songs. Downstairs my mother started to play a song from the 1970s, Because He Lives by Bill Gaither. I know the chorus by heart; it goes like this:
Because He lives I can face tomorrow Because He lives All fear is gone. Because I know-oh-oh, He holds the future And life is worth the living Just because He lives.
Frankly, I’ve spent the last 27 years trying to forget that song and others like it. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus lives or that knowing Jesus doesn’t make life worth living, but because…
And that’s the problem, I thought as I stood in the upstairs hall listening to her play, suddenly I don’t know why I hate that simplistic, unnuanced, goofy music, because, whatever else it is, it is a balm to her in this frightening time of illness and worry. It’s her centering prayer, her compline, her Taize, her Eucharist.
Before long, we were stationed in an acute bay in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Nurses milled about asking questions. “She was just discharged yesterday,” I said from a chair in the corner. “Shouldn’t you have all that information?” They glared at me. I’m not used to this in a hospital. My husband is an administrator at a small, community hospital on the Maine coast where we know everybody. We’re used to big-hearted people but here my mom was just an 84 year-old female patient who presented with thus and so.
The nurses shifted her in her bed. “My mom’s a nurse,” I gambled. They perked up and looked at her. “You are!” Suddenly Mrs. Stukey was a person.
In the afternoon with my mother finally settled after hours in the ER, I drove back to her place and embarked on some industrial strength cleaning. Old ladies with walkers and bad eyesight who are too proud to pay someone to clean for them are prone to harboring crumbs in their toasters and all manner of splorches on their kitchen linoleum. I also had promised to find her living will, health care proxy, and power of attorney. After cleaning the kitchen, I was rummaging around in the curious mix of junk in her desk…ancient family photos, a TV Guide from last winter, never sent Christmas cards from 1964, and this month’s phone bill…when Brad walked in.
Here’s the truth: my brother Brad and I have spoken more in the last three weeks than we have in the entire time since he left home to learn to fly helicopters in 1973. We never felt we had much in common. We were busy with our own lives and work and families. He lived in Alaska for many years near our older brother. I’ve lived in Maine for most of my adult life. Like most families, ours is complicated in its own Tolstoyian way – the inner workings of which are of little interest to anyone outside the circle. But here’s another truth: I really like him. He sat on the sofa while I went through the desk. I chucked papers and photos at him to look at. We found controversial documents about our dead aunt’s estate and rehashed the drama.
“Come on, let’s go down to the VFW for a beer,” he said when I’d found the papers I was looking for and stashed the rest back in the drawers.
“No,” I said, smiling. “I promised Mom I’d come back over to St. E’s tonight.”
“Come on, Heid,” he cajoled.
“Really, no, there’s a certain type of bar I won’t go to,” I said. “When I was little, Dad dragged me to bars all over the place.” I named a number of them.
“Dad took you into LBJ’s?” he said, eyes wide. “What a dive, I wouldn’t go in that place.”
“Didn’t he take you to bars, too?” I asked. I always assumed my older siblings were dragged to bars as well.
“No,” he shook his head, still stunned at the differences in our childhoods. “No, he never did.”
“C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your house,” I said, and swung my arm through his, so deeply tanned and strong.
A week later Brad and I were on the phone after Mom’s refusal to have surgery. “I’ll come right out,” I said. “I’ll talk some sense into her.” So after making arrangements for kids’ activities and work, with a Michael Chabon novel to listen to on CD, back to New York I went.
With surgery declined, St. Elizabeth’s discharged my mother to one of three fates: eat food and bleed; drink fluids and grow weak; have surgery and return to health. When I arrived at the front apartment, she was obviously happy to be home. Her choice was to drink fluids until she got her nerve up to have the surgery. She had a permanent IV line dangling from her black and blue arm.
Still mad at her for refusing to have surgery, I couldn’t refrain from a snide remark, “What happened to the peace that passeth all understanding, Mom?” I was standing over her. She had lost about 15 pounds in three weeks. She was small and wrinkled in her easy chair, and I instantly felt like a supercreep for jabbing at her faith.
“I was so scared. An anesthesiologist came in last night and said, ‘Wow, you’re a serious heart risk,’ and walked out. It scared the pants off me. I couldn’t sleep and when Brad got there this morning, I told him I couldn’t go through with it.”
Sighing, I sat down on the arm of the sofa. Even if Jesus lives, even if life is worth the living, it can still be scary. And the fact is that right now, life is scary for my mother. Maybe what she needs to be brave is to see the face of Jesus in her children, no matter how imperfect they are. Being cynical about her simple, abiding faith shouldn’t be a part of how I live out my faith…so exquisite at times with its shades of gray and intriguing dappled colors.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” and bent down to kiss her hair before taking my bag upstairs to the spare room where as a little girl I had often slept when my sister – married so young – lived here in the late sixties. Downstairs I heard Mom move her walker over to the piano. She was playing “At Calvary,” and the fourth verse popped into my head:
O, the love that drew salvation’s plan O, the grace that brought it down to man O, the mighty gulf that God did span, At Calvary.
Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty
“Preach it, Mom,” I whispered.