The scent of fresh coffee lured me from my bed. As I filled my birthday mug, (“I’ve got it all, a career, a family and a headache!”) the coffee’s aroma triggered a flood of memories. I closed my eyes and I was standing in front of my father’s wood stove, offering my small shivering body up to its’ warmth, as I watched the percolator pop coffee into the glass knob on the top of the pot. The ancient farmhouse kitchen smelled of yesterday’s baked bread and stale tobacco, the morning’s burning wood and fresh coffee.
I didn’t want to open my eyes because I knew that the reality of last night’s supper dishes and my dog’s wet pee papers would rush up to greet my eyes. It felt comfortable to feel eight years old, to revisit my childhood, if just for a few moments.
I could see my mom as she bustled around the kitchen, shoving huge pieces of wood down into the stove, stirring last night’s embers with the rusty iron poker, the flames roaring up as she quickly replaced the heavy black cover.
Her long black hair was “set” with bobby pins. As she removed the pins, and ran a brush through her hair, it fell down around her shoulders in soft waves, streaked through the front with white. She walked over to me and took my hand.
I lifted my eyelids, the vivid memory faded; only the smell of fresh coffee and a vague image of my mother holding my hand remained. I felt uneasy because my mother’s hand had felt as frail as a tiny child’s as I’d enclosed it in my own firm grip.
I settled into my daily routine that Monday morning, (write a lot, clean a little) as the present erased the past. However, I couldn’t shake the image of my mother’s hand, tucked into mine.
Monday evening my twenty-five-year-old daughter, Jennifer, called me. “Mom, I have some bad news. Nana had a stroke and she’s in the hospital.”
“Is she okay? How bad was it?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’ll call you as soon as I find out.”
I spent Monday night on the couch with the phone beside me, waiting for news. All I knew was that on Monday morning, Mom had driven herself to the hospital, and she hadn’t told anyone which hospital she was going to.
My mom and most of my family live in Boston or New Hampshire. I live in Oklahoma, so there was nothing I could do but wait while my family tracked her down.
Tuesday morning, I learned that it was a slight stroke; still, I made plans to fly to Boston on Wednesday. I talked to my mom on the phone and she told me not to fly out, that she was okay. Then she began to cry. “I’m coming and that’s it.” I said.
It was the longest flight that I ever flew to Boston, ten hours to make a five hour trip, thanks to storms over Chicago.
Late Wednesday afternoon, at last, I walked into my mom’s hospital room. As she saw me step into her room with my daughter and my tiny granddaughter, her eyes filled up.
“This is my Jeanne, this is my daughter,” she emotionally declared to the nurse and her roommate, Dorothy. (They’d met my daughter the day before.)
I dropped my purse and rushed to my mother’s bed. After carefully moving the IV tubes aside, I gathered her up into my arms. Her body felt thin, unfamiliar, and her face was ghostly pale.
Her terror was obvious as she clung to me.
Our roles reversed in that instant.
She was confident that everything would be okay now; her Jeanne was here! It was my job to validate that belief.
The worst things get, the sillier I behave, usually handling tragedy with humor. I knew that to behave any other way would frighten my mother, so I took a deep breath and shoved aside my fear. Always the comic, always the problem fixer, that’s me.
I didn’t know what to do now; but, I pretended that I did. I knew that I couldn’t cry in front of Mom. She was frightened enough.
I wanted to cry.
She looked so small and pale in that bed, her face a sickly shade of white, her eyes begging for reassurance.
Instead, I sat down and listened in amazement. She described her drive to the hospital, her lurching entrance and her six hour stay in the emergency room waiting for a bed to become available.
“I told you didn’t have to come, honey,” she finished. “I’m okay.” However, I could sense her pleasure as her eyes drank in my presence.
“Ya, and I want to see you while you still are!” I teased.
My two-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, observed her mom, her grammy and her nana. Her big blue eyes were wary, unsure of what was happening, somehow sensing our fear. I realized that we had four generations of women in this hospital room and I wished that I’d brought my camera. Reacting like a journalist, even now.
After an hour or so, my daughter took Rachel and left for home.
I stayed with Mom, and as we laughed and joked our way through the afternoon, I realized that in just a few hours, she looked much stronger. I decided to drive to her trailer to pick up the pajamas and personal items that she needed.
“Do you want anything special to eat?” I asked her, as I prepared to go.
“It’s funny, but all I can think about is shrimp,” she replied. “But, I don’t know where you can get any.”
“I’ll find some,” I promised.
I returned with a large order of jumbo fried shrimp. I smiled as I watched her peel away the fried crust and eat the shrimp hidden inside. When Dorothy’s friend called, she asked what was going on, she said it sounded as if we were having a party.
We were. We were celebrating life.
The three of us had turned the gloomy hospital room into a women’s social hour, ignoring reality with all of its’ pain. The nurses began to call it the “resort room.”
I decided to wash Mom’s hair. As she leaned over the sink, I wet her hair and began to massage shampoo into it.
I was shocked. Her hair was fragile, extremely thin, and her head felt like an infant’s in my shaking hands. I squelched my alarm, and I kept up the banter as I toweled dried and styled the thin gray strands. I gave her a quick makeover, a little blush, a little lipstick. She exchanged her hospital gown for a pink and purple flowered robe.
Now, she looked like my mom. She felt better too, though she’d been too weak to groom herself. She decided that she would take a walk.
As she exercised, faltering steps up and down the hall, determined to make her legs obey, I was in awe of her determination. I forced my arm to stay inches behind her back, not protectively around her, as I wanted it. I understood how she must have felt when I took my first steps. After our walk, we approached her bed and she fell into it, exhausted. I could see how much strength it’d required for her to take those short steps.
“Do you remember when you used to call me Grace?” she asked, her face inches from mine as I tucked her into bed.
We both smiled at the memory as I leaned down and kissed her baby soft cheek.
When I’d been a hippie, nonconformist teenager, I’d decided to call my mom by her first name. Although her mother had expressed intense disapproval at the lack of respect it implied, Mom just accepted it as a phase I was going through, and I don’t even remember when I began to call her Mom again.
But I’m sure she did.
As she napped, I watched over her, thinking of the promise that I’d made to her when I was fourteen. Working together in a nursing home, I’d seen the neglect and the loneliness the patients endured. I knew I couldn’t allow my mom to live in a nursing home, not in my lifetime. Back then, I’d vowed to her that she’d never spend a day in a home; a promise often repeated through the years. (Today, there are many excellent nursing homes available, but I’ve never been able to erase the memory of the shoddy home where I worked.)
Now, I wondered if I was strong enough to keep that promise. As I watched her sleep, knowing that the time might come soon to make a decision, I discovered that my heart already knew the answer. It was a promise I’d find a way to keep. I’d create a safe haven for her amid my hectic life, my cramped house and my shaky marriage.
When the doctor came in that evening, he explained that Mom had suffered a series of mini-strokes and that the MRI had shown that this was just one of many. I felt a chill in my bones. We’d laughed the bogeyman away; but tonight, the doctor called him out of the shadows to stand in front of us.
Mom and I listened, along with my niece and her husband, as the doctor explained the results of mom’s tests. He told her she’d die within a year if she continued to smoke, and they discussed the nicotine patch he’d prescribed for her the first day.
He told her that she had blockage in the carotid arteries in her neck and backwash in her heart. She also had a mitro-valve prolapse, but we’d known that beforehand. They’d found several new heart murmurs. Quite a list.
I thought of all the years she’d eaten her favorite foods; fatty fried steaks, thick greasy pork chops, rich, creamy gravies, butter thick on her bread, three teaspoons of sugar and cream in her coffee.
He said she couldn’t go home to take care of her brother, or even herself, until she became stronger. He treated her with respect and compassion as he attempted to persuade her to go to Northeast Rehabilitation, to recover. No, she couldn’t go home, even if I stayed with her for a few days; she needed a hospital. He promised a short stay and a full recovery. This time.
He looked at me as he finished his request with, “This is what I’d recommend for my own mother.”
My mother, a strong, self-sufficient woman, hates being helpless or at the mercy of other people. I understood. She had instilled the same principles in me.
She has always taken care of others, so it was a giant leap to for her to imagine others caring for her.
Just two months ago, at sixty-nine, she’d taken her severely disabled younger brother from an abusive group home and became his full-time caretaker.
We all wondered if that had contributed to her own stroke.
So did he. He cried when he first learned of her stroke because he thought that he’d killed his sister. His face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when he was wheeled into her hospital room on Thursday, and he saw for himself that she was okay.
When I left the hospital that night, I carried my mom’s assurance that she’d go to the rehab, “For a few days.”
I tossed around on the couch that night, never falling into a sound sleep, so I got up when I heard my granddaughter’s early morning giggles. My grandson soon joined us. We cuddled on the couch under a quilt while I basked in her and my six-year-old grandson’s innocent happiness.
As we played, I realized that I had become what my mom used to be when my own kids were young, a grandmother, in spirit as well as name.
After a while, I showered and reluctantly left the kids to drive back to the hospital.
I was due to meet my mother’s sister at 9:30, to discuss Mom’s and my uncle’s options just in case Mom couldn’t care for him or herself.
As we stood in front of the hospital, under gray skies, rain falling, puffing on cigarettes that could also kill us, I felt as if I’d changed–become a completely different person from the woman I’d been four days ago.
I felt like an adult, for the first time in my life. Not even becoming a grandmother had made me appear or feel any older; I often had to show an ID when I bought my cigarettes and I’d thought that I’d stay girlish forever.
That had all changed in a heartbeat. I literally felt myself change as I accepted the responsibility for my mom and her future.
“You’re the only one she’ll go with, you know,” my aunt told me.
“She won’t go with either of your sisters or your brother. She’s always told me that if she was unable to take care of herself, she’d go to live with you.” I understood that. Out of her four children, I was the only one to tell her that I wanted to take care of her in her golden years.
My younger sister had stayed with Mom until I’d arrived, but her husband and Mom didn’t get along, with good reason on my mom’s part, so that left just me at the hospital with Mom.
I went upstairs and we spent an anxious day waiting for the staff from the rehab to come and evaluate Mom’s condition and to decide if they’d accept her as a patient.
As I watched the physical therapist put Mom through her exercises, I cringed inside. I felt helpless when I saw the pain on Mom’s face, yet, I was proud of her spunk as she pushed her body through the moves. When the therapist finished, I noticed that Mom had soiled the back of her nightshirt and her bed. (Mom had already mentioned her incontinence to me.) I knew that one of her worst fears was having to use a diaper, but I couldn’t let her soil herself and not tell her.
First, I went to the nurses’ station and asked Mom’s nurse to come wash and change her. Perhaps she could give her a Depends to wear, until she strengthened her muscles.
Then I went back, explaining to Mom that she needed a change of clothes and a Depends, just for a little while.
The nurse told Mom that women begin their lives in diapers and often end them the same way. The way she explained it, made it seem okay, normal, and it happens to everyone, like gray hair.
As I look back, I know I should’ve changed Mom, but I felt as if I was about to lose control of myself.
I was right. I barely made it downstairs before the damn broke.
I was so brave until that moment, but the indisputable proof that my mom was ill, dependent, hit me hard. As I went outside in the rain, I began to sob for the first time since I’d heard about my mom’s stroke. I stood there gasping and choking as I tried to hold back the agony and the fear that all of my efficiency had hidden.
“I had to put a diaper on my mother,” I cried softly, over and over, my arms wrapped tightly around my body. I slowly rocked myself back and forth under the gray mist.
“I had to put a diaper on my mother.”
People avoided looking at me as they walked by on their way into the hospital.
I couldn’t stop the tears as I walked back in, so I ran straight to the rest room. Every time I cleaned my face, looking into the mirror to estimate the damages, the tears would gush again.
My mother’s condition made me feel vulnerable; she was my strength, how could I be strong if she was weak? She was my audience, my biggest fan. She encouraged me; her pride in my writing spurred me on.
Then too, if life could catch her, surely it could catch me. My mother could mend my heart when no one else could; she was always there, waiting for my call.
I thought of all the happy phone calls we’d shared this past year, her pride in my
I needed my mother–she was a glorious thread in the tapestry of my life.
I felt guilty that my thoughts about losing my mom were centered on me and how I would feel if I lost her.
I returned to her room. She lay in the white metal bed, clean and smiling. She’d declined the offer of a Depends.
“Were you crying?” she immediately asked. So much for pretending.
“No, it’s my allergies.”
She knew that I’d been crying, but she let it go. I left her at 4:00 P.M., with a map to Northeast Rehabilitation in my hands.
An ambulance transferred her to the rehab that evening.
Saturday morning, I arrived at Northeast and we spent the day together, reading, talking and visiting. I arranged her clothes so that she could easily reach what she needed. She was already doing so much better. I was going home Sunday, so as I prepared to leave that afternoon it was difficult to say good-bye. We hugged and said, “I love you,” a dozen times.
She smiled at me from the bed as I was walking backwards out the door. I tried to memorize her face and capture her love. I didn’t want to leave. I might never see her again, and although that was true each time that I’d visited and left, now the threat seemed more real.
Then I realized; she has no guarantee of my safety either! The risk of me being hurt or killed would be high for the next twenty-four hours. I was driving into Boston and getting on an airplane. Taking stock of my own vulnerability to death helped me to leave her.
Two years ago, a drunken driver killed my young son-in-law, Donnie, as he was on his way to work. One moment Donnie was alive, the next–he was dead. His death taught me to value every moment God bestows on me.
As I left Mom to fly back to Oklahoma, I needed to remind myself that death doesn’t make an appointment; it comes when it pleases to each of us and each day that we’re alive is a gift.
I placed her in God’s hands and I thanked Him for the time that we’d just shared, for another chance to look each other in the eye and say, “I love you,” while it still mattered.
It’s been two years since my mom’s stroke. Today at age seventy-two, she’s still taking care of her brother and living one day at a time. We’re enjoying each bonus day that God allows us. Last summer, after talking about it for ten years, we finally rented a cottage at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. We spent our seven days swimming and sunning, talking and enjoying each other’s company and I realized what a precious gift we were giving to each other.
As she lay on the hot sand, covered with towels to protect her still pale skin from the sun, she asked me, “Do you remember when you used to call me Grace?”
I just smiled.
NOTE: My mom went to play with the angels in 2009. I miss her everyday.
Tulsa Friends of the Library 23rd Annual Creative Writing Contest
First Place, Published Essay, “Remember When You Used To Call Me Grace?” 2000.