“I smell fish.”
Conversations with my mother, desert sands blowing in light winds this way and that: “Fish?”
I’m making my daily phone call to my mother. Sometimes more than daily when I’m especially missing her.
She’s been saying this for days. There is no fish in her house. She has swallowing issues since her stroke so no longer even eats fish. She drinks her “nectar consistency” meals of smoothies and soups, thickened with “Thick-It.” Which sticks to the roof of her mouth so her aide uses what she calls “lollipops,” little red square gauze things, to clean out her mouth.
“Maybe it’s the cat food, ” I say. The cats only will eat fish cat food.
I change the subject: “Any cardinals out your window?” I know she’s sitting up now in the wheelchair beside her bed, facing her backyard.
Mom: “Any what?”
“Birds. Maybe your feeder is empty. I’ll fill it when I come.”
She has always kept the feeder full with sunflower seeds. Now she doesn’t notice. Or maybe in all painful honesty, just doesn’t care to notice.
“Where are you?” she asks. “Home. At home. With the boys. Your grandsons.”
If she doesn’t ask “Where are you?” she may ask: “So what’s new?”
The perfect generic question uttered by a person who no longer recognizes her own home or doesn’t always remember that her daughter is married with two children; sometimes I’m still on college. Maybe even high school, and she can ask about my “studies.”
So I ramble. About her grandsons. The dog. The hole in the ceiling where they had to repair leaking pipes from the upstairs bathroom. I tell her about the dog throwing up tin foil.
I ramble as I can when I visit her in the home she’s lived in for thirty years, and I pull down one rail on her hospital bed so I can lay my head beside her. Or if she’s sleeping so deeply she can’t be woken, I lay my hand on her thin veined one–beautiful somehow, in an inexplicable way, as only can be the delicate and withering. I lie close enough so that her breath is a welcomed breeze through my hair.
My mother can be up nights crying because she thinks my wedding has been cancelled and that I am heartbroken. So now I’ve put up photos from our wedding from thirteen years ago. I pulled out pictures of her grandchildren so that her aide, at 2 am, can show her, when she is not convinced that I am not heartbroken, that I have been married for thirteen years. And that I have children.
Last time my mother was in the hospital, I was only allowed in to her room wearing a paper yellow gown and gloves; she’d developed the highly infectious MRSA due to open infected sores because of very limited blood flow to her legs– completely blocked femur arteries.
One day when I walked into the room, donned in my antibacterial outfit, she was crying. “Oh, oh,” she sobbed. “I thought you were dead.”
Then later: “Be sure to give me all the keys before we go.”
“I don’t know. to all the trunks and suitcases…”
My husband says I wail and scream in my sleep. I don’t hear myself. But my dreams are vivid and repetitive: I am always packing, or trying to pack: either stuffing things into paper bags that rip, or I don’t have enough suitcases to hold everything, and I’m always in a rush, state of panic. Trying to get off a boat as it is sinking, hide from a tornado, or check in before my room is taken and I have to sleep in the dining hall full of beds, some kind of evacuation center.
We can analyze our dreams to eternity. I’m not interested in that. But I would like to quell the panic. I would like peace. But peace will not come with my mother’s death–I will be down on my knees. My head pressed against a hard wood floor.
Anyway, as her health care proxy, back at the hospital, I had been faced with two choices: invasive arterial grafting surgery or amputation of her leg.
And with such choices emerged the crazy side of the grieving daughter, screaming, begging, for a far more rational alternative for a 96-year-old woman.
Which is antibiotics for life, and anti-fungal topical meds as new sores emerge, to keep infection at bay for as long as possible. Daily wound dressings by home nursing care.
Another phone call: “I bought new glasses,” I tell her. “They’re different. I needed a new look.”
“Oh thank you.”
“No, I mean glasses. for me. I needed new eye glasses.”
Then this: “I have to go. I can’t sit like this anymore,” she said.
And I text her aide that she needs to be rotated.
Last time I was there, I helped her aide rotate her – my mother is too weak to roll over. Bed sores. And we had to pull back the blankets and change her Depends.
And I saw her. I saw my mother – her bones. Since her stroke she has lost weight. A lot. She is on that “nectar” diet. Protein, yes. Calories, not so much.
Because she has no fat left on her bones yes, she cannot stay in one position too long as nothing left to cushion her bones.
“I should’t complain. This too shall pass,” she still can say.
This too shall pass. She has been saying that to me all her life. Always during hard times.
One time as I lay beside her, back in her bedroom where she now is confined to that hospital bed, she said what she has said to me many times before: “You are a most satisfying daughter.”
“And you’re my best friend,” I tell her back.
We have in recent weeks told each other how we love each other “so, so, so ” much.
And she can still call me “Honey Bun.” Reaching out that thin veined hand to pat my head. “Go get some rest.”
Quality of life. When does one know if there is none left? When do you stop making her get out of bed to sit up after eating so she doesn’t choke?
Hallucinations: She saw a boy in orange. Then an array of flowers going by. And a row of figures. Someone swimming around the corner. A blue man on the ceiling.
But there are still her pearls of wisdom: “Be brave.”
“Go live it up!”
“Be sure to giggle. Giggling is so important.”
My own words, never mind of wisdom, are few. I am often left speechless. Unable to write. So today I took a picture instead. Of something close up. An image. The tangible. Of a lone feather: Unedited as are my emotions.