I originally wrote this in January 2008. Now, on this holiday, I post it here in thanksgiving.
To mom — I’m glad you’re still here.
“Nothin’ wrong with me!” she said, sitting in a chair in the living room four days after Christmas. Five days after she had fallen, when she had been trying simply to climb the two steps up from the living room to the hallway in the house she’d lived in for 46 years.
“Nothin’ wrong with me!” she repeated, chuckling, after each test the physical therapist tried on her.
“Show me how strong you are,” the therapist said, kneeling before her on the Oriental carpet, the rich red of the fibers setting off the gray of his pants and hair. He was easily twice as tall as she was. Kneeling before her seated figure, his head was still six inches above hers.
She hadn’t always been so small. But she was certainly never tall, her five feet three inches increased by high heels of great variety over the 85 years of her life. So many varieties that, as her five children grew up and left home, she overtook their closets to store her shoes, even installing a floor-to-ceiling rack on the inside of one of the closet doors. Any number of black high heels to be worn with her collection of cocktail dresses. Some of the shoes had beads, others ruffles. One pair of clear plastic pumps, a modern incarnation of Cinderella’s glass slipper. Gold, silver, patent leather, straps, slingbacks, pointed toes. Three pairs of pink satin shoes, one with pretty little bows on the heel strap. These she gave to one of her granddaughters the day before the physical therapist came.
She’d come home from the hospital that morning, three days after she fell, insisting that she be released because she had company coming. It was the day of the Christmas gathering. All the children, their spouses, and the grandchildren would be there, 24 people in all, counting great-grandchildren. Santa was to make a guest appearance, bringing his bag of gifts. She couldn’t miss the party.
There was nothing they could do for her in the hospital anyway. Monitor her vitals, administer the pain meds. The X-ray had shown multiple fractures of her spine, but none of them were new, and it wasn’t as though the doctors could do anything about them. What can you give to an elderly woman with advanced osteoporosis except drugs to keep her comfortable?
She hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital. She hadn’t bothered to go the first time, when she fell and broke her pelvis several years before. She’d been trying to reach a top cabinet shelf in the kitchen and had pulled over one of the kitchen chairs, the ones with wheels, to stand on. The chair rolled out from under her and she was stunned to find herself lying on her back on the linoleum. She hadn’t gone the second time, after she slipped while walking around the pool in the backyard. That time, she didn’t even tell my father what had happened. He had a tendency to fuss in a stern tone when he was anxious and she didn’t want to hear that.
But this time my sister tricked her into going. It was Christmas night, the night after she fell, when it became clear that the pain of the fall would not let up. After dinner, no longer able to tolerate her moaning from pain, my sister convinced my father to call an ambulance. Dad had written off the idea of taking her to the hospital the night she fell. He and my sister had been able to stem the bleeding from the gash on her elbow, and neither Mom nor Dad had thought it necessary to go. The most the doctors did for the previous falls was to give her painkillers while they waited for her body to heal. You didn’t need to go to the hospital for that.
This time, though, as Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed after dinner Christmas night, they called the ambulance. Then my sister went upstairs to put Mom’s shoes on her.
“We’re going for a ride,” my sister told her.
“Oh? Where?” Mom asked in puzzlement.
“To the hospital.”
Mom didn’t argue.
The initial X-ray showed several fractures. The CT scan enumerated them: Old compression fractures of T6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, and possibly L3. Volume loss of 10% to 30% in several disks. Osteophytes at L1 and L2. Something called Schmorli’s node at the endplate of L5. Protruding discs in the lumbar spine, with a vacuum phenomenon of L5-S1, all indicating degenerative disc disease. In short, her spine was slowly disintegrating.
No surprise, really.
In her 85 years, she’d had 8 pregnancies, raised 5 children. Shopped, cooked, cleaned the house, hosted parties, waited long nights while my father worked, living in the three-story house they’d bought when I was 2. They continued to live in the small town my father grew up in, the town her family had moved to during the Depression when she was 13. He had his accounting business, served for awhile in city government, and helped with his own family’s beer distributorship. She’d worked as a bookkeeper for a dress shop before they married and always had an interest in fashion. She had accepted the customs of women in our Midwestern town after World War II: try to marry well, follow the Catholic church in raising however many children you ended up having, meet your responsibilities, bear your pain in silence. She never said she was bored or unhappy. At their 60th wedding anniversary party, she stated simply, “It could have been worse.”
But she always loved to go to the big city to shop, especially at Christmastime when the lights twinkled brighter. In the nightstand by her bed, I once found a small black binder, its cover flaking from age. In the binder were her handwritten notes from a class in fashion modeling she’d taken before she married. She and a friend from the dress shop would take the bus to the city, more than an hour away in those days, to attend the class. I remember her telling us three daughters the proper way to place our feet when we were having our pictures taken.
Most of the time we were growing up, she was obsessed with house and yard work. I recall the sharp stink of the ammonia we’d use to wash the crystals from the chandelier in the front hallway, and the way the silver polish would make my fingers wrinkle. I remember the pattern I developed with the mop on the kitchen floor, wetting one square of tile at a time, all the way down the stairs to the basement. I can still see Mom from my bedroom window on the third floor, as she’d carry the bedsheets from the basement, where the washing machine was, to the clothesline stretching along the driveway to dry the sheets in the sun. Or the cold January air. She still puts those stiff cotton sheets on all the beds, though she doesn’t dry them on the line anymore. Too many stairs from the third floor to the basement and back up. I remember hanging out those sheets myself, clamping each flapping end to the line with a wooden pin.
I have told my own children how we’d rake copious piles of leaves each fall, after which we’d toast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames as the leaves burned in the stone fireplace in the backyard. I can still recall her mowing the 2-acre lawn with the push mower all summer long. I wrote a freshman English paper once in which I described her typical attire for mowing. Barefoot, she’d wrap herself in a beach towel emblazoned with the label of a Budweiser beer bottle, which we’d gotten from Dad’s family’s business. Mom was still shoveling snow just a few weeks before her latest fall.
It’s New Year’s Eve as I write this, and I slouch in my desk chair wondering what the New Year might bring for her, for me. At this time next year, will I be unpacking from another holiday visit? Will she preside over the family party as she always has, dressed in the latest find from her favorite discount store? Even though she had just come home from the hospital, she didn’t wear just any old robe to this party. She put on her double-breasted blue velvet one.
Will she recognize my face when I turn to talk with her on the couch? My father thinks her macular degeneration is what caused her to miss that step when she fell. Last year at Christmas, she cried as she told me how she’d curtailed her driving because she couldn’t distinguish the red and green on the traffic lights. She often can’t make out the faces of people who approach to speak to her at church or in the grocery store. But she knows her children, their faces and their voices. To comfort myself now, to distract myself from the fear of losing her, I conjure up the image of her as the physical therapist talked.
When she’d come home from the hospital, my sister and I helped her walk into the house. We weren’t a physically close family growing up – never ones to link arms or give hugs — so it felt awkward to touch her. I was afraid we’d hurt her, tear her fragile skin or bruise her once-full arms or hands, the joints no longer able to straighten after years of kitchen work. Though she was present and alert during the party, she seemed diminished in her chair, able only to watch and listen, rather than serve and joke as she had always done before.
When we were children, she had orchestrated the holiday activities, from playing Christmas records – Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – while we decorated the tree, to urging those of us who could sing to gather around the piano at the family party, where my sister or I played “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O, Tannenbaum.” Those who couldn’t sing were given other tasks. To her own mother, my grandmother, she gave the job of playing the triangle. This time, as I looked at my mother sitting in that same chair my grandmother had sat in, the wing chair next to the piano, I remembered the Christmas before my grandmother died. Grandma had grown so feeble that she had to be carried into the house by my uncle.
Now, on the day I conjure up in my mind, the first time the doorbell rang, it was the home health nurse. The next time it was the physical therapist. Dad and I spent the afternoon standing sentry during the nurse’s exam and the therapist’s assessment. We watched intently, answering questions and fetching supplies.
In the living room, the nurse began her session , and while she spoke, my father, who had been trying to put a good face on his anxiety for days, shifted into the role he knew best – providing the facts and discussing the business details. My mother sat in her chair, body sagging, her face drawn, trying to mask the fear that had taken up residence in her green eyes. With each health problem she or my father had encountered in the past few years, that fear flared fresh in her eyes.
The nurse took Mom’s blood pressure, her pulse, and listened for breath sounds. She examined Mom’s hands and feet, noting their temperature and circulation but never commenting on the toes, many of which were splayed from having been crammed into pointed shoes. She showed us the report of the CT scan and talked about the side effects of the painkiller. She scheduled in-home aides so Mom could bathe and have her sheets changed.
As the nurse changed the bandage on Mom’s elbow, she asked if we had some antibiotic cream to apply to the cut, which was still draining. Neither Dad nor I could find any in the house, but Mom suggested that we locate her jar of “Grandma’s salve,” her homemade concoction of olive oil, beeswax and rosin that she swore was the cure for any skin problem. She had even applied it once to the cancerous lesion on her foot. The nurse was kind and complied and Dad went off to find the jar. I marveled at the nurse’s sensitivity and the way she worded questions to allow my mother to maintain her dignity. With each reassuring response from the nurse, my mother’s face began to relax.
“Nothing wrong with me!” she said.
After more than an hour, the doorbell rang the second time, and I ushered in the physical therapist, a tall, lean man who drove up in his pick-up truck. He and the nurse exchanged information and, while the nurse finished her tasks, I escorted the therapist around the house so he could identify dangers that could impede Mom’s mobility or cause another fall. I purposely mentioned that she’d been shoveling snow recently, knowing that he would tell her to stop. I knew she wouldn’t hear that message from me.
The physical therapist was casual in his approach to Mom. There was none of the stuffiness or condescension that professionals sometimes retreat to with their clients. He told her directly that she was in serious trouble and that she had strained her back extensively and had to protect it. And then he began his exam.
“Show me how strong you are,” he told her, grasping her hands. One after another, he took each of her hands, her feet, her toes, her arms and her legs and asked her to push or pull against his hold. Each time he appeared pleased and said “Good, good!” He helped her stand and watched her walk using the walker we had borrowed from a neighbor. He took her to the kitchen, positioned her against the counter and worked her through a series of exercises that would strengthen her back and “booty,” as he called her bottom. She was so small against him, her head not even reaching his shoulder, but she became determined to do what he asked, seeming to sense the power and freedom in it. She pushed against his grasp, lifted her arms, squeezed his arm hard. He called her a “tough old bird.” By this time, her mood had lightened considerably and she became the good patient, trying hard to show him what she could do, what she, yes, still could do. When he asked her what her goal was for physical therapy, she said she wanted to be active again, even doing things like raking leaves.
I know her time is coming. She knows it too. But as she spoke these words to him, sitting again in the chair by the piano, I saw it once more – the face of my mother. Not the old woman who had overtaken her. My mother.
She’s still there.