Here I Am
The last twelve hours of 1999: a flight from San Diego to Chicago, a fitful nap in the startling dryness of my heated bungalow in the western suburbs. Then a drive through lucid, breath-taking, still-December night air into the city, north on Lake Shore Drive to a lakeside park. The winter-angry chop of Lake Michigan not visible from here, just the tree skeletons on the grassy banks where a crowd of people was gathering. Not thinking anything except, "Here I am. I'm here."
Fireworks began precisely at midnight, shot into the black sky from the beach. The sound through the speakers a medley of passionate classical climaxes, but the music was nearly buried in the Gatling-gun rattle of pops and big-boom detonations, and the exclamations we couldn't control. Continuing without pause for over twenty minutes, a war of color and flash and sparkle and glitter on a wide-angle black screen over our heads - with two or three other fountains of color down the lakeshore we could see from here, tiny like toys compared to the huge simulated-battle of sparks directly overhead, an entire ceiling of erupting embers. A celebration of the future made out of the technology that invented firepower and explosives for use in war. But the smell of gunpowder was heady, the smoke cloud unnoticed. Every flying, falling, arcing spark of color became a 2000 through cardboard 3-d glasses.
For a few hours, as the 1900's turned into 2000, I was in parenthesis - didn't feel the potent optimism the festivity was begging for, but neither did I open the door to the pall the new year had promised. At home, at the start of the year 2000, Vixen, my 16-year-old Shetland sheepdog companion and dog show partner, slept coma-like as her failing kidneys poisoned her body, and Bizzy's big heart, seemingly full of robust canine health at 15, would almost literally explode before the new year was 40 days old. Meanwhile, out in California, my mother couldn't say my father's name.
When December 1999 began, two situations were simmering, seeming to settle then threatening to flare again. In November, Vixen's appetite had abruptly waned, and she stopped displaying any signs of joy when attached to a leash for a walk. She could no longer come up the stairs from the basement and had to sleep down there at night because of the frequency of her urination. Blood tests continued to suggest her organs were functioning enough to sustain tolerable life, and finally steroids restored some appetite. How long did I think she would live like this? I didn't ask. Every day that I could entice her to eat with baby food or homemade cuisine was another day she remained my dog.
The other consequential event in the fall of 1999 was my mother's heart attack while she was visiting Maine. It was a small attack. She became slick with sweat and short of breath during the first day's requisite harbor-side stroll, before the real business of visiting lighthouses could begin. So she lay down on a grassy dune, just to rest for a while she said. But she also thought she knew what was happening, took an aspirin and didn't argue when my brother hurried back to the rental car and drove her to an emergency room.
My mother spent a week in the hospital in a small town not too far from Southport's craggy coves, where her grandfather and great grand-father had tended the light, and, legend says, over a century ago a baby floated ashore in a featherbed during a storm. I received a pastoral postcard in the mail: showing a placid blue harbor with quaint colorful fishing dinghies, a green park with meandering pathway. My mother drew an arrow pointing to a place on the grass and wrote on the card "Here's where it happened!"
She flew home at the end of September, an angioplasty scheduled in early December, so I assumed danger wasn't imminent and did not revise my plan to remain in Illinois for the holidays.
The angioplasty, however, immediately indicated that bypass was inevitable, so the more serious procedure was performed following day. Twelve hours after triple bypass surgery, my mother only had enough energy for depression over the extent of the trauma this common surgery has on a body. They'd cracked open her chest - sawed her breastbone and spread her ribs with the medical equivalent of a tire jack - stopped her heart, sliced her leg and pulled a vein out from shin to groin. They'd removed cardiac arteries and sewn in the replacement pieces. Perhaps they'd even handled her heart with latex fingers. The bruises, wounds and swelling are certainly more than skin-deep, and somehow more than physical, for every bypass patient. The prospect of eventually being more robust and capable of increased activity seems little consolation in light of their ravaged bodies immediately afterwards.
On the phone the day after the surgery, my mother's dull, weak voice wondered if she would ever feel better.
"Of course!" My forged bedside cheeriness boomed across seven states.
"I hope so," she murmured. Instead of "I will." The I will did not come back to her for a while.
There's another common side-effect possible after bypass surgery. A study in the early 90's, subsequently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, validated a long-held speculation that "neuralgic complications are a common risk of coronary-artery bypass graft," and that bypass surgery carried slightly more than 6% risk of "adverse cerebral outcomes." Neuralgic complications and adverse cerebral outcomes are commonly known as stroke, or, the National Stroke Association's appropriately scary nomenclature: brain attack.
Like a heart attack, where a cardiac artery is clogged with plaque or a blood clot, depriving the heart muscle of the oxygen it needs, stroke has been re-dubbed brain attack because an artery carrying blood to some part of the brain becomes clogged and the brain is suddenly starved for oxygen. Brain attacks are a risk to coronary patients because plaque due to coronary artery disease, or a blood clot formed in an impaired heart by arterial fibrillation, can break free and be carried to the brain where it becomes lodged in a narrower artery. So bypass surgery can either accelerate that risk, or can cause the risk: A blood clot forms because of the distress of interrupting the heartbeat - slicing, dicing and sewing traumatized tissue - then, within days of the surgery, just as the patient starts to be able to sit up and walk across the room, perhaps just as the sheath of depression seems to loosen because some small headway has been attainable: half the body goes slack or numb, or the head hurts like it may explode, or legs and arms have gone back to infancy without enough coordination to walk or hold a cup, or vision is suddenly blurry or completely lost, or a simple request to go to the bathroom comes out as gibberish.
My mother's brain attack was also small. There was no loss of consciousness, no paralysis, no blindness, no drooping, no slurring. But, with one of my brothers present, she was uttering an unintelligible alien language, then she shut up and refused to speak. The report to me was: something's happened and Mom can't talk. In truth, she could talk: she could make noise with her vocal cords and form the sounds of vowels and consonants, grouped as words, with her mouth. But what she wanted to say, tried to say, the things she was thinking were not the sounds coming out, and in fact the sounds coming out were not any words anyone had ever heard before. So, scared, she stopped.
She was sitting in a hospital but no one seemed to know what was going on. Reports came to me from cell phones via siblings who managed to get responses from nurses: maybe a seizure; a stroke or a seizure; they don't think it's a stroke, maybe it's her medication. Then a more hopeful report: she's talking again - She just said "What's going on?"
We later learned that after a brain attack, some restoration of the brain may come quickly, within minutes or the first 36 hours. Further restoration may take six weeks. And some of the damage may not be restored at all. For my mother, the outright speaking-in-tongues was gone in a few hours.
There were only voices connecting me to the scene, one at a time or in conference calls, but the picture in my mind didn't remain a white cubicle with echoes of disembodied voices. There had to be a hospital bed, looming large with thin white linen, cranked partially upright, polished chrome side rails, at the metal foot perhaps a removable chart for notation of meal delivery and medication. Above the head of the bed, on the wall, a bulletin board with my mother's name - computer printed in red with clipart flowers - not to remind her who she is, but for the nurses and aides, so each caregiver could enter the room with a cheery, "Hello, Ellie, how're we feeling this morning?" The bulletin board is also for instructions, quaintly in 1st person, "Make sure I wear my support socks to prevent blood clots," "Make sure my meals are low sodium," "Phone calls from my family are OK before 8 p.m." Beside the bed, a nightstand with plastic water pitcher and cup and, in the drawer, a bedpan. My mother's glasses are also on the nightstand, and the Reader's Digest she was reading the afternoon of her stroke. There's a tray table whose wheels can slide under the bed while the tray slides over the patient's lap for eating meals in bed; plus wheeled IV stands with plastic tubes running from the bags of fluid to her bandaged arms and, starting the next day, a nutrition bag will be hung there and attached to the feeding tube running down her nose, because the stroke has partially hampered her swallowing muscles.
This is generic, I know, until I add my father, only 5 foot 2, dressed in his cheerful red Christmas vest, his voice booming in forced enthusiasm, making puns and grimaces at hospital food, glasses glinting, hands in his pockets or on the rail of the bed, one hand going frequently to his bald scalp as though mopping sweat. And my oldest sister, Lee, sitting in a yellow vinyl chair beside the bed and holding my mother's hand; red-rimmed eyes and swollen nose, but smiling, eyes darkly glimmering, holding on, and holding onto her smile. And my brother, Ralph, 3 years younger than me - he lives in North Carolina but was on a business trip to Los Angeles when my mother went into the hospital. Only four inches taller than my father, dressed in a business suit, he looks more like a mature adult than I'll ever be, with his cell phone and laptop, keeping in touch with his company while he also keeps tabs on the doctors, what they know and still refuse to admit. The room doesn't (yet) have any pictures or flowers or cards, except a stack of mail my father remembered to bring that morning, before he knew of the stroke. But there has to be a window. A big one, with southern exposure. It has to be southern exposure because this is December, the sun nearing its lowest angle, not passing directly overhead but leaning south. California winter sun is reassuring, is faith, is what warmed me when I lay in my yard fully clothed in jeans and a sweatshirt after working all morning in my chilly slab-house on a novel I had no presumption would ever see the light of publication. There has to be a block of winter sunlight reaching into the room, passing across the objects as morning moves toward afternoon, spotlighting one wall then the foot of the bed then bathing the IV stand then the nightstand in genial radiance, glowing on each person's skin if they choose to seek its energy. Including my mother, in the bed, propped up and leaning toward her daughter's breast, short colorless hair awry, not wearing but covered by her new cream-colored fleece bathrobe, alternately crying and lying deflated with eyes shut.
A neurologist finally came, with an entourage of medical students. This was no television doctor imparting mentor wisdom. He spoke to the students instead of to his patient, and spoke to them about his patient in front of her and her family. While it's true she was failing to process incoming language almost as wholly as she was failing to produce verbal communication, she understood his indifferent, even pessimistic body language. The doctor asked her who "these people" were. She said, "They're okay." Perhaps his brusque manner made her think he was asking her if they were strangers, if she wanted them out of the room. More likely, she was covering, not wanting him to know she didn't know their names.
Then the doctor showed my mother his keys and asked her what they were. He showed her his watch. He showed her his pen. She opened her mouth. But she could feel that the sound about to come out was something else, the wrong word, or not a word at all. She closed her mouth. She needed more time, but he turned away, toward the students, shaking his head. "I know," she either said or tried to say.
As soon as the neurologist was gone, my mother pointed to the stack of mail my father had brought. He moved the stack to her tray-table. She didn't want any of the cards, just an envelope, the clean back of an envelope. Her hand made a writing motion, so my sister fished in her purse for a pen. My mother quickly and deftly sketched out a drawing of a key, a watch, and a pen. She passed the envelope to my brother. He took it and looked up. She was also passing him the pen. "Tell me," she said, pointing to the drawings. He wrote the three words under each picture. Then my mother held the envelope again, and they all said the words together. Key. Watch. Pen. She put her finger on each word, as though through touch her brain would process the information more clearly. Key. Watch. Pen. She said the words.
"Take with them man next year," she said. "She not mean I'm stupid."
She practiced with her envelope and the three drawings, said the three words over and over. Covered the printing and tried to say the word that labeled each drawing. She waited for him to come back, but the neurologist would deliver his diagnosis to her admitting physician and she would never see him again.
The only effect of my mother's stroke was aphasia. Sometimes aphasia is a catch-all term for a variety of language problems, including a brain that can no longer trigger the speech-making muscles to move properly but is unimpaired in writing, reading or understanding. While my mother showed a slight tendency toward a muscular involvement with isolated words, most of her aphasia involved non-physical language impairment. Aphasia's language impairment symptoms - always caused by brain damage - may be as severe as a patient who is able to generate only a few words and is completely incapable of understanding much, if any, spoken or written language. On the other end of the scale, aphasia could be as mild as being unable to come up with significant nouns and verbs but retaining fluent sentence-making capability and whatever ingrained use of grammar was present before the brain injury - symptoms most adults think they suffer from occasionally. Well-meaning people would tell my mother they knew what she was going through because they always forgot words and people's names. But no one can really know until language is taken away from them.
Understanding aphasia is almost proof that language is a mediator between what we're thinking and what we want others to understand - that we don't actually think in our spoken language. Spoken language is just one of the available methods of delivering meaning, but it's the one most of us have come to rely on exclusively. There are several classifications of aphasia, and sub-levels for patients with some symptoms from more than one category. My mother's aphasia was called anomic aphasia, which is mostly the pronounced difficulty finding words, in both speech and writing. But she had other language-processing symptoms as well. She could read single words and very simple sentences (if she moved her finger along under the sentence as she read). She could understand most speech said directly to her, if said slowly and if there wasn't any background noise or other people talking. But she could not follow dialogue on the television or read a newspaper article, let alone a book. As was demonstrated by the neurologist's sophisticated test, right after the stroke her brain was unable to supply words for things she wanted to say. Her sentence-making capabilities were also radically impaired. Simply put: what was still in my mother's brain - her whole intact memory and intellect, everything she wanted to communicate - had severe difficulty coming out through speech. Plus she had almost equally serious difficulty processing incoming language into meaning.
Clinically, linguists can learn about language by charting patterns of language difficulties after a brain injury. I couldn't help but marvel at what I noticed as my mother struggled to communicate. Pronouns were backwards: she consistently used he for she, him for her, and visa-versa. Other abstracts that could have an opposite or partner word were also often reversed: ago for until, since for before, give for take, to for from, year for week or month or even hour. Specific nouns that were lost to her were substituted with generic replacements: the person, the place, the thing. Lost verbs often became do, did or does. And then there were nouns indicating family relationships: husband, sister, daughter, son. These were a jumble. But out of the jumble, she still ended conversations with her trademark, "you bet," and didn't have to fish to find it. Her handwriting was the same, and her inflections and accent the same, although the sentences came more slowly.
Talk to her, read to her, ask her questions, do anything to get her to talk. This was her prescribed treatment. Of course she was also still in early recovery after heart surgery, so she fatigued easily, her appetite was poor, she was in pain and didn't sleep much, she was advised to do hourly breathing exercises, and her activity-level was supposed to be gradually encouraged and increased. She'll make most of her improvement in the first six weeks, the diagnosis warned us, she must get thorough and constant language stimulation and therapy during this crucial time. It was round-the-clock rehab work, and there were six therapists - her five children, and her husband - working shifts.
First my father and brother came in with armloads of framed photos of children and grandchildren and propped them on the nightstand, the window ledge, the tray table. She was happy to see them, but didn't want to try saying the names. "Yes, all of them. I know some people," she assured everyone. "They're of mine." Then she cried. Fought back the sobs and wanted something else. It was two weeks before Christmas. With the pencil she would've kept tied to her wrist if they'd let her, she motioned for another envelope from the day's mail - and she began to sketch. In moments the scene she was shaping was obvious: an exact black-and-white replica of the Christmas card she'd spent weeks creating, first by painting a watercolor of the three kings on camels, then by having the painting color-xeroxed, reduced and printed onto cards. The bundle of cards had been sent before her stroke. Now she wanted the painting.
When the armload of paintings arrived - the Christmas card and several others - she held each on her lap and reviewed techniques she'd employed to create cloudy or stormy skies, bushes or trees in the distance, and her constant watercolor nemesis, shadows and shade. Lee sat with our mother and helped with the names of colors when she used banana for yellow, gee for green, burple for purple, pond for blue.
Lee also brought a frayed illustrated Christmas Carol songbook we'd used as children. With my mother holding the songbook and Lee sitting on the edge of the bed, their heads leaning close together, they sang carols, soft high voices that gently floated into the hospital corridor and caused nurses to hum Silent Night or Oh Christmas Tree as they discharged meds or gave sponge baths in other rooms. The melody, coming from another part of my mother's brain, came effortlessly. Again her finger followed the lyrics, sometimes finding a word to sing in chorus with Lee. Hmmm-hmm-hmm Night. Hmmmm-hmm-hmm Night. All hmmm-hmm. All hmmm-quiet.
My youngest brother brought her a children's pictorial dictionary. This book was not organized in alphabetical order, but by category, so on the pages with body parts were pictures of noses and ears and smiles, arms, legs and feet, with the words, large and bold, beneath each. There were pages for dishes, for clothing, for transportation, for tools, for food, for household items. When the nurses wanted her to dress and go on a walk down the hall, she propped the book on her pillow and looked for the picture of socks, said the word, then put hers on her feet. Found the picture of a robe, said it, and put hers around her shoulders.
Meanwhile the photographs surrounding the bed were an exercise she still wasn't eager to tackle, simply saying "I know," as she looked at them. Unwilling to be wrong with her own children's names.
"Who's this?" Ralph quizzed, holding a framed portrait.
"Kee." The word that had eluded her when the doctor showed her his keys, one that she'd practiced as she looked at her drawing.
"Close. It's Lee."
"Almost." He was matter-of-fact and businesslike, the way he would lead a meeting of executives. "And who's this?"
"It's your grandson. What's his name?"
"Three of them start with J. Jake, Johnny and James. Which one is this?"
"The middle say you."
The photo of me they'd selected was a dog show picture taken after Vixen and I had earned the highest score at a trial. "I know him. And his pop- poppy."
"Her puppy. Who is it?"
"Good. How about this one, who's this?"
"That's right - that's been my name for fifty years!" Since the head-shaking neurologist, my father could no longer stand by and watch her struggle.
"What's his name?"
father's name eluded her the longest. But besides honey, there was always Dad. She said, "My dad."
"No, my dad."
Every morning, with her honey, she sat and read the Christmas cards that arrived in the mail. Holding the card between them, my father read the printed verse aloud while my mother underscored the words with her finger. Some words she said with him, or like an echo, merry and greetings and new year. Then my father read the personal messages aloud. Most of the cards were from people who had no idea how their season's greetings were being put to use:
"It's to- The man- At the school." A former colleague of my father's from Mesa College. "We haven't been them for- after fifty years ago." Old friends they hadn't seen for five years. "She does the cards." A man in one of their bridge groups.
My brother, listening from the foot of the bed, got the idea to bring a deck of cards to the hospital. My mother took the deck, face down in her palm, one by one turned each card over. "Jack of spade, two club, eight of club, queen diamond." She sounded like our Italian grandfather who'd never mastered English. "Ace heart. Ten of spade." The same number, ten, which could easily become a hundred when used for hours or years, gave her no problem in terms of playing cards. In childlike bliss, she tuned out the people in her room, laid out a solitaire game on her tray table, and began to play.
Finally, the hospital's speech therapist arrived with an armload of props so my mother could play the toddler-level What's this? game. Starting with items already in the room, the therapist discovered my mother had been studying with her pictorial dictionary.
"P- P- P- Pillow," the therapist helped.
"Yes, P-illow." After each answer, she looked at my sister who was trying to stay out of the way in a corner. Lee answered each of our mother's glances with a smile.
"How about this?"
"Curtain?" The woman smiled, jotting a note on the chart. "Okay, I have some new things here. Do you know what this is?"
A hat. My mother's hand on top of her head as she said "hair."
A pot. The therapist noted, again, the inversion of the P. "Bot."
A whisk broom. "Sweep."
A trophy. "For winning."
"Okay. And this? Isn't this pretty?" A magazine cover of autumn-colored trees in sunset light.
"Landscape," Lee muttered.
"Oh!" The therapist wrote again in the chart. "How about this?" A map.
"No, try again."
"Oh. Okay. It's also a map, isn't it? So what's this?" A miniature framed painting.
"I know. Mon-"
"I come there to hear it. Mon-"
"She's saying Monet," Lee said quietly.
"Yes. Moe-nay. I came to hear it, at where my mother stays."
The Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago. Where her daughter lives.
"Oh," the therapist said, smiling toward her paperwork where her pen scratched with apparent zest. Dotted her last i' with a whole-arm gesture, then she flipped the chart closed, packed her tools and said her cheerful goodbye.
The HMO decided our mother needed a rehab facility, possibly for up to six weeks. Then it took two days for everyone, even the paper-clogged HMO, to realize the rehab facility had nothing to offer. But before the paperwork caught up and allowed Mom to be discharged, one of her visits from my two sisters - Phyllis had, by this time, arrived from Idaho - featured a violin and clarinet Christmas carol concert. Between songs, my sisters giggled like they had when, as teenagers, our mother coaxed them into playing their instruments for relatives. Our mother, alternating between her upside-down smile and wiping tears, sang along when the melody helped provide a word or two. Almost forty years before, our mother had required my sisters to practice their instruments a half hour every morning before they got breakfast. One morning Phyllis' practicing broke off, and she came fuming out to the kitchen where my mother was feeding not only me (probably 4 years old) but also a 2 year old. Perhaps my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother. Phyllis knew better than to throw the violin, but she did stomp and was adamant when she reported "I can't and I won't." My mother left the younger children, immediately took Phyllis by the arm and led her back to the bedroom, answering firmly, "You can and you will."
Thank You for Being Me
I didn't arrive home until the evening of Christmas day. I had only spoken with my mother once on the phone, to tell her I was coming home. She cried. I think she was saying "I'm sorry," or "I'm happy," or both, or something else. And I think she did cry for some kind of happiness, or relief, but also confusion and uncertainty and fear. Perhaps the stroke had also damaged the part of her brain that regulates emotion - her bouts of weeping triggered by a swirl of extreme feelings she neither understood nor could name or blame. Except she knew she made mistakes and couldn't say what she wanted to. And she desperately wanted to. It made her cry, but it's what saved her. Her need to express herself outweighed her mortification over "being stupid."
But every time she cried, two or three of us would fly to her, flutter around her, pat and hug her, smiling and cheerful, to tell her it was okay. Our mother crying had always been a rare but dreadful event. Her skin darkened to an unrecognizable shade, and her features bloated or distorted - no longer the face at the center of our universe, a typhoon descended onto our valley which was supposed to be forever hale and sunny. Her crying meant a nameless horrible thing had happened that we would never understand. It's a sheltered childhood when nonviolent marital disagreements, maybe once a year, result in anxious alarm. A clue that childhood hadn't prepared us for familial crisis.
At the end of the 1900's, it was finally time to grow up. My siblings, raising children, had already realized they were adults, and I thought of myself that way: I paid bills, had bought and sold a house, had been married and divorced, had credit cards and life insurance, wrestled with my HMO, scheduled car repairs and dental exams, and twice a year drove the 2000 miles between Illinois and California in three days, alone. But despite having acquired all the accouterments of maturity, the sudden insight that now I was irreversibly an adult struck me when I went home for the holidays in 1999. Christmas 1999 was far more than a you-can't-go-home-again return to the house where I'd grown up: drowsing poorly in the same room where I'd pretended to sleep while listening to my sisters discuss high school social dramas, bathing in the same bathtub where I'd observed with trepidation my developing adolescent body, plonking together leftovers in the same kitchen where my mother used to - whirlwind-like - prepare fresh-ingredient cuisine for seven every evening.
The screen back door squeaked as I came into the laundry room. From the din of voices making merry in the living room, my father exclaimed, "There she is!" Taking the long way through the kitchen - strewn with platters of cookies and persimmon bread, homemade donuts left from breakfast, a platter of cheese and salami and olives, a tray with glistening empty oyster shells - I arrived at the foyer as though I'd come in the front door. The floor of the living room was barely visible - boxes and wrapping paper and ribbon and unopened gifts. Surfaces of end tables and the coffee table were likewise crowded with newly opened gifts, books, CD's, puzzles, more cookies, dates and nuts, my father's dried persimmons and figs. And people everywhere: four of her grandchildren - two kids lying on the floor, and two others, nearly-adult, leaning against each other on the sofa - and three of her children and children-in-law, also sitting on the floor or standing. Separate animated conversations boomeranging, the bubbling beep of the Gameboys, "Let It Snow" swinging from the stereo, all woven with my father's laughter. With her back to the foyer, in an arm chair, my mother was swathed in pajamas and fleecy robe. Her thin hair, having lost the last of its perm before she entered the hospital three weeks ago, rose wispy on her head like down on a chick, or a dandelion. A startling metaphor, even now - I'd never viewed my mother as fragile. My sisters were kneeling on either side of her, leaning close to speak slowly into her ears. "Oh? There-now?" she said, turning, her ashen face not brightened by the powderpuff texture and color of her robe, nor by the new emerald earrings, a gift from my father. But the smile, the upside-down smile, was hers. "Oh, you. You're- there." She swiveled the chair around and reached to clasp my hands, the last of her children to return home for this unexpected Christmas reunion. "Thank you for going to be me."
I don't remember what I said. "You look good," or "It's so good they let you come home." She was nodding, her voice hoarse from the breathing tube used during surgery, saying "I'll go to be- I'll do- Better next day- I was pretty good- later."
"She gets tired. She was doing better earlier," a sister agreed, always, all of us, touching her when we spoke.
My mother was gesturing an arm across the room toward a grandson. "Take now. Take. Of all. All my sisters."
"A picture?" He rose, having been given charge of her camera. My sisters and I gathered behind and around her chair, hovering over her and leaning close.
"All mine. In this place. Sisters all of one- Same hour."
"Yes, we're all here, all at the same time."
But the reunion made speaking and understanding all the more difficult for her. This room was a tempest of conversation, laughter, puns and jokes, brain-teasers read from new gift books, idioms from three generations.
My mother tugged at my sleeve. "Were you at- the place- enough years- before being here- to come to you, my card?"
"Did I get your Christmas card? I did. The first one I got. It was beautiful."
"I did all it- Everything since- this thing." Her hand indicating her breastbone where, under the fleece robe and flannel pajamas, the bandaged incision and stitches from her heart surgery were still fresh and painful.
"You mean you made the card before your surgery."
"Yes, yes. And- The one who takes them to me- He worked- you know, with the desks and pooks."
"Books? You mean a teacher?"
"Yes, yes. He teacher with her at- the place. A friend of- hers. My- Her." Pointing.
"You mean dad? A friend of dad's from school?"
"Yes, give it on his- machine in the desk-"
"Com. Com. Like, um, come. Come-puter."
"There you go."
How do you do this, help her without making her feel wrong, without correcting her? But they had said: Every time she says something wrong, tell her what was wrong and correct it, she should repeat it back, repeat it several times. But when we started to be able to understand her, as though inventing a new language, we started to answer without editing, the way our father used perfect American English in response to our grandfather's half-Italian. Sometimes we handled it this way, just replied to her reassembled language, letting her know we had perfect understanding of what she had meant. Some of us remarked on the "mysteries of the brain," like when she wanted something to drink and asked for Bubble-Up, a beverage that hasn't been manufactured for well over a decade. Occasionally we made light of her mistakes, made guess-what-Mom-is-trying-to-say into a family word game. She would laugh. But some of us, as often as we could, with previously unused levels of patience, laboriously corrected.
When my oldest nephew was 4 or 5, if anyone used the attention-getting gimmick, "Guess what, Bobby?" his earnest response was never "What?" but a staid, "Tell me." These were words my mother might've wanted to say, as she fought to find the names of things and places and people, but she also wanted to do it herself. Instead she would look at me, sometimes as she tried to put together a sentence for my father, her head snapped around, her eyes said "Tell me." Or "Show me." Her eyes not on mine but focused on my mouth, and I shaped the beginning of the word she wanted. Shhhhhh, or Brrrrr, or Oooooo, or Unnnnn.
Everyone finally left for other houses. After a restless night, I woke in the dorm-style bedroom I'd once shared with my sisters. The red piano had been replaced by desks and the new computer for which I had gotten my mother a step-by-step guidebook, now doubtful she'd ever be able to use it. The three closets now filled with filing cabinets, photo albums and winter coats. My old typing table held the sewing machine, the third bed had been replaced by the upholstered rocking chair - recovered five times over the years that her children had squeezed in beside her while she read aloud. I lay in bed for a while. I didn't have to fling myself into an Illinois winter morning and go down to the basement to tend a blind dog wandering aimlessly, to clean up her several rivers of urine and splotches of feces on the concrete floor, then try to find a delicacy she would eat.
My father's footsteps padded down the hall then made the kitchen linoleum creak. The click of light, the glug of water from the cooler as he filled the coffeepot. When I heard the faint murmur of my mother's voice, my father's louder answer as he came back up the hall, I got up and dressed.
My mother was sitting on the side of her bed in pajamas and robe, unwilling to go on until she could say what those things were she was about to put on her feet. The children's dictionary was beside her on the mattress, open to the clothing page. "Shoe," she muttered. "But- it's something else."
My shift started. Ralph had returned to North Carolina on Christmas Eve. Lee would have her first day in two weeks not driving down from Orange County - she left us a pot of homemade soup gleaned from the Christmas turkey. My other sister, Phyllis, who'd arrived from Boise four days ago, was on a Christmas-gift-from-grandparents day at Disneyland with her family. Walt was self-employed and had to work.
"But this," my mother touched an inner garment, already on under her pajama top. "This is- bud in this. Look. Is this okay?" She pulled the undershirt out from her body and leaned forward. "Is it okay, or is bud going out?"
The garish incision, eight inches down her chest, was dry. I glanced, but didn't stare. Then she unbuttoned her pajamas to show me the faint pinkish spots on the undershirt. "Bud got here. Need new others."
"Blood. But not really blood. And it's just a little."
"Also here." Her hand on her lap. "In my p- pan- pants."
"You're bleeding there?"
"The bills, from heart, give like period."
"Bills? Oh- The medicine?"
"To show bud- easier to go."
"Yes. Makes me give a period, after hundred years of none."
When I was 9 or 10, grocery shopping with my mother, I asked in an unbridled voice what were those huge pink boxes she was always buying and storing in our bathroom cabinet. She said she would tell me later. That night she'd sat with me on my bed and informed me that I would, someday soon, find blood in my underwear, but it was okay, I should tell her and she would show me what to do.
My father was out of the shower now, in the kitchen counting my mother's pills into a complicated pill box, one row for each day in the week, four compartments on each row for morning, noon, suppertime and evening medications. I made oatmeal, poured juice, stewed prunes. She came into the kitchen, her slippers making the same sandy sound on the floor they always had when she slid from stove to sink, fixing seven grapefruit halves while eggs popped in a frypan. She named the ingredients of her breakfast, but ate slowly and didn't finish. With one finger, she moved each pill my father placed on the counter, like beads on an abacus, from one side of her bowl to the other, asking my father what each was for.
"So many bills," she said, grimacing, perhaps a sardonic smile. "I never had to do bills."
"No, I do the bills," my father boomed, trying to be jovial, but his voice was hoarse too.
"What?" she looked up at him.
"Pills," I said. "Like Pan. P- P- Pill."
It wasn't just the steady amateur speech therapy she needed from us. And not just the coaxing her to eat and, especially, to drink. She still had breathing exercises, supposedly every hour. She'd been directed to get on her feet and walk, as much as she could. She would have home visitation from field nurses to check the incisions on her breastbone and 18 inches on the inside of her leg, take blood and give instructions. My mother's medical chart was a notebook that stayed with her, each nurse or therapist who saw her added their own report sheets. My father had been in charge of the pills and notebooks and instructions and appointments, but by the afternoon of the 26th, he was flat in bed with the flu. The house seemed dim, too amber and too warm, the air too syrupy. Outside in the sun, iridescent hummingbirds came to check empty birdfeeders.
"Ming. Ming," my other muttered, shaking her head. "They need."
I filled the feeders. I put music on the stereo - the Christmas CD's they had loaded yesterday. She followed the lyrics in the songbook then sat listening with eyes closed. I removed empty boxes and bags of trash from the living room. I warmed soup on the stove.
"I'll do in a year," she said of the soup I offered.
"An hour? Okay."
But she wanted to talk. Soft carols in the background, we talked about her sister who would be touring the Maine lighthouses with her daughters in the spring.
"My sister and my mother- His mother- No, the girls, children, his children. All coming down Maine to find the lights."
About the new watercolor teacher she'd found this year and the difference in his approach from the previous teacher.
"No many barns, he gives water, and much green places."
About a lady on their meals-on-wheels route, who'd moved into a rest home and my mother had tried to visit her every other week.
"He had, like you, a boppy, until he- stop work, no more work a hundred years from now."
reservations for a trip to Rome my father had canceled after the first heart attack in Maine.
"Maybe in an hour, we will come from it still."
About a cousin I'd only met once, who'd made jewelry and hitchhiked to Boulder in the late 60's, but who now lived with a husband in San Diego.
"He had it in ... the state, over there, with mountains. L - O - C."
She continued to talk while we played cards. She had to remind me of the rules for gin. And she won every hand. The smell of turkey soup drifted in the room. Sunlight left the windows. A few lights with automatic timers clicked on.
When Phyllis's family returned from Disneyland and moved their sleeping bags and Christmas toys into the big dorm bedroom - time, like noise, increased in vigor. It was only a week until I would leave, but we settled into some kind of routine. Three tiny meals, encourage fluids, hand her the breathing exercise contraption. Put her new Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney CD's on the stereo, play cards, re-stack the kids' toys that daily became strewn across the floor. Help her put her socks on and trim her toenails, take her to get her hair done then to walk in the mall - down one wing, rest, then back again. As we passed the movie theater, she labored to describe a movie she'd wanted to see, and as we approached a candy store she said, so so many words, that she wanted to be well by February so she could go out alone and get my father's box of Valentine chocolates. Days sandwiched around anticipated visits from the nurse, and, finally, a mobile speech therapist. Mornings we practiced with the worksheets left by the therapist, like fill-in-the-blank pairs I read aloud: boys and ____, dog and ___, fruit and _____, sheets and _____, knife and _____, paper and _____.
Regular exercise - standard rehabilitation after a heart bypass - was difficult, especially on Valley View Lane and the other county roads nearby, with no sidewalks and too much uphill. Phyllis and I took our mother to Chollas Lake. Practically an inner-city park, this was a place where I'd released my pet duck after he proved to be a boy, and a noisy one. A flock of hybrid domestic ducks and huge white geese share the lake with mudhens, mallards and cormorants. Fishing is allowed for kids, and a 3/4 mile walking/running trail circles the pond, with wooden exercise equipment - sit-up benches, pull-up bars - just off the path for complete workouts. My sister's boys were immediately absorbed into the culture of stomping mud, running, swinging, climbing, splashing, and chasing ducks, leaving Phyllis and me to walk the trail with our mother. We held her arms. Continually asked if her chest hurt, if she was out of breath. "I'm okay," she said each time, slightly panting. "Keep on."
But we couldn't. Halfway around, she said "Stop, have to." We stood, needlessly holding onto her, joggers and walkers passing us like busy traffic. "Wait, wait," our mother said, "Just for soon, wait." We spotted a split-log seat and urged her to walk a few more yards. When she sank to the bench, her face collapsed as well.
"Mom, don't cry, it's okay to rest."
"I did everything," she sobbed into her hands, then raised her streaked face. "Never so tired. Not bad like this. I did everything."
Phyllis and I spoke in chorus: "I know, and you'll do everything again. It's been two weeks since surgery, you have to get well, then you'll see how much better you feel."
"I don't know. How? Will I ever still be doing?"
"Remember what you always said, Mom: you CAN and you WILL."
On a quieter day, after Phyllis and her family had returned to Idaho, it was time to go buy my mother another bra. Actually a camisole. She couldn't wear a bra until the incisions fully healed.
The summer I entered 8th or 9th grade, my mother had consented to my first 2-piece bathing suit - not a bikini, but the kind where the bottom came up to the waist, and the top came down so close to the waistband, only two inches of stomach showed in between. The one we bought had "room to grow," but I never did grow into those stiff cups, and started to avoid wearing the suit in public because the top stuck out so unnaturally, lizard-green and Playtex-looking.
We decided not to park close to Walmart's doors because the walk from the parking lot would be her day's exercise. Our eyes, however, were unaccustomed to judging a slight uphill grade, and we were halfway to the store when her breath labored. "No, keep on, I can" she said, and we inched our way to the entrance. Inside, holding onto a shopping cart, she moved with more confidence, tried to explain to me how odd it was to her to be in a swarming after-Christmas Walmart after so many days in a hospital. "Like I've never gone in this place since a hundred years."
It took a while to find the women's undergarment department, especially with Walmart's knack for displaying merchandise in the aisles that helpless shoppers decide at the moment would be nifty to have. Because neither of us could come up with the word camisole, she didn't want to ask for help. The consequence of our poor judgment of the parking lot's grade and distance, our poor shopping habits, and our poor undergarment vocabulary, was that my mother was growing overtired.
Painstakingly, with others buzzing past to get to the check-out lines ahead of us, we maneuvered toward the cash registers. But even in a bustling line of post-holiday exuberant shoppers, everything remained underwater slow-motion. She said, "I have to ... stop." We glanced at the front of the store: the ice and soda machines, the manufactured firewood, a lotto machine, an ATM, a mailbox, and a bench. But two women were already sitting there. Why was I mired in glue? Why didn't I take her there and ask them if they could let her sit down? I just kept looking at the occupied bench, unloading our merchandise onto the belt, then she said, "I'll do there." Momentarily broken from inertia, I walked her out of line and to the wall, near the bench. "I'll wait, okay here." The two women on the bench didn't look at us. "Are you sure you're okay?" I asked, more for their benefit than hers, but she answered, "okay." I left her standing beside the bench and returned to my place in line. I kept my eye on her, but did I really? - where was I looking? Suddenly she was going down. Not fainting, not falling. Her knees bent, one arm reached for the floor.
I burst from my place in line. "Mom, are you-?" She was down on one flank, her other leg half extended in front, one hand down on the floor, the other in the air, reaching for something or someone. She was crying. I grabbed her flailing arm. "I can't. You can't do- can't put me up."
"I can, Mom," and together we hoisted her to her feet.
"I just was to sit, then couldn't- knew I couldn't- go up again."
"So you weren't fainting?"
"No, just down- to rest."
Still standing right beside the occupied bench, I finally said, "Could she sit here? She just had heart surgery."
One of the women got up and left without a word. When my mother sat there, the other woman began a dialogue that soon revealed she was on vacation from Maine. Speaking slowly, as though from fatigue, my mother was able to answer, including the name of the island, Southport, where her family had lived, and the lighthouse, Hendricks Head, where her grandfather had served as keeper. If the people in the checkout line hadn't put the rest of our things on the belt and allowed the cashier to ring up my total, instead of putting me at the rear of the line, I might've given my mother enough time to tell the lady the whole legend of the 1875 shipwrecked baby.
My mother waited at the door while I took the bags to the car and drove back to pick her up. After she settled and fastened her seatbelt, she laughed, mixed with a little more crying, wiped her eyes and said, "Don't tell Dad."
So my mom and I became confidants.
There are many things I never told my mother, the kinds of things girls share with their moms. The last time I'd gone to my mother with a social trauma, I'd been excluded by every group in a 6th grade puppet-show project. My mother had me call the only girl I knew who was also not in any group. We drove to her house, brought her home, had dinner, then the two of us made our own puppet stage out of a cardboard box. With my mother's artistic suggestions, we made our puppets, our backdrops and our script - Little Red Ridinghood - and practiced our show. The other groups - using refrigerator boxes while ours was probably a medium television-sized box - had spent most of their preparation time painting their cardboard stages "psychedelic," and their shows were unintelligible tempests of waving (or fighting) puppets and meaningless shouted dialogue. By the time all the puppet shows were given (and polite applause received for our staid 2-person rendition of a children's story), I was probably friends again with my usual buddies.
But after that - upon entering the feral world of junior and senior high school - I never again went to my mother to discuss the pertinent events of my adolescent life: romantic longings and disillusionment, social failures and triumphs, jealousies, insecurities, anxieties, and immature behavior that made messes of everything. I never told her that because I owned four pairs of kneesocks, for four days I could disappear safely outside the harsh light of junior high fashion scrutiny - while not nylons, at least kneesocks were also not anklets that showed my hairy legs - but the fifth day I faced with trepidation. I didn't tell her that the only boy who would dance with me at junior high dances was a kid from the family who'd lived next door when I was three, so he felt I was safe, like a sister.
I didn't tell my mother about the heartless joke I pulled at girl scout camp, pretending to be a boy and flirting with girls from other troops until one homely girl developed a crush on me, which I encouraged because I thought I was doing her a favor, making her the chosen one. Boys had that power, to choose us or not choose, and I didn't tell my mother when I got caught shoplifting at Disneyland, trying to impress a boy into choosing me.
In high school, where the stakes were higher, I didn't tell my mother that I let my boy buddies practice on me when they were too shy to touch their girlfriends' breasts; nor that when a boy finally was interested in me as a girlfriend, the only things we did "as a couple" was park on the way home from school and play "Can you get out of this one?" I didn't tell her that I thought something was wrong with me when I didn't feel any desire to kiss or have boys rub parts of me, so I thought I'd better endure it so I could "learn to like it" the way I was supposed to. I didn't tell her that in trying to learn to like it, I must have been simultaneously resisting because the second boy who "took me out" used the old clichÈ and told me I "didn't put out." Was I also called the other clichÈs, Ice Maiden or Virgin Queen? I wondered and worried to myself if these could be applied to me, but I never asked my mother.
Then, no longer a girl, the list of what I didn't tell my mother grew. I never told her how I sat trying not to squirm through several weeks of Jehovah Witness meetings, my mouth barely moving as a moderator led an assemblage through group-readings of a simplistic illustrated proselytizing pamphlet, like a fourth grade reading circle. I never came close to indoctrination, and that was never my goal. My fearful hope: that my attendance would make the young man beside me decide to be my boyfriend (then I could bring him back to the world). He pointed to a woman in the congregation, someone he had never met, and said she's someone he could marry. My mother never knew when I went to their wedding a year later.
I didn't tell my mother that long before I finished a four-year degree in journalism, I knew I'd never become a journalist because I would take a hundred-mile detour to avoid communicating with anyone I didn't already know. And I didn't tell her that two days into my student-teaching experience, I already knew I would never enter a high school as a teacher, immediately could admit to myself that I was indifferent toward what the students needed or were expected to learn. I didn't tell my mother that, despite this knowledge, I didn't quit, but let the year play out listlessly - without any concern for the students who were receiving scant attention from an incompetent student-teacher who would rather tingle at her master teacher's flirtations than work out a decent lesson plan. I didn't tell my mother that part of me knew the reason I hadn't quit was because of that flirtatious master teacher, because of the overt sexual tension he took pleasure in kindling between us, and because I wondered if he would help me lose my distressing virginity. Then he took me home to smoke a joint with him ... and his wife, the same wife he'd been telling me was inadequate to his sexual desires. A wife who cried on my shoulder after he left the room, asking me if he ever spoke about her at school, and if she'd lost him.
So, with too-little practice at intimacy with my mother, there was no chance I was going to tell her that within a few years, my marriage had become sexless. It hurt. I froze. He recoiled. It was easier to not try.
Naturally she knew nothing of the sex therapy, or the joke that was supposed to be sex therapy, where a repugnant man suggested that my parents had taught me sex was bad and dirty. She knew my musician husband was locked out of work in a year-long labor dispute with symphony management, and she may've known the extent of our belt-tightening. But no one, not even he and I, knew that instead of drawing us closer, fear was a growing ledge of ice between us, animals stunned in each other's approaching headlights, hopelessness and sexlessness somehow becoming the same thing.
There was no way I was going to tell my mother of the rash behavior that surged from our disheartenment. Of the lesbian woman who came to live with us for a month, who became meshed with our private lives, our aspirations, fantasies and fears, and came closest to our innermost secret. There was no reason to even consider telling my mother that my husband's agitation led him to yearn for a threesome: which would allow him to enter her life, and her body, through her admitted infatuation for me. Nor that the only thing that held me back from participating was the knowledge that his excuse - that maybe she would help cure me of my sexual demons - was not a good enough cover for the reality that he would use me as bait to allow him to make love to her. I understand his distress, because I acted on my own. Away for four months as a writer-in-residence, my sparse letters to my mother never indicated that I was sexually absorbed with another visiting artist and that, miraculously, the sexual dysfunction my mother never knew I had was evaporating in black nights laced with lightning.
Upon my return home to California and my husband - looking, one friend suggested gently, anorexic, and acting, she suggested even more tentatively, as though I were preparing for suicide - my mother also couldn't help but notice that something was wrong. So, for the first time, she asked me to tell her. I couldn't. I lied. I said, "Yes, something is wrong," but then I lied. I said I'd made friends in Tennessee and didn't want to leave them. She never again asked another question about the inevitable divorce, and all I told my mother regarding the slow death of my marriage, over the year following my return from Tennessee, was that the marriage was ending. I packed up and went to Meadville, Pennsylvania, and other than phoning me and finding a coldly uncomfortable daughter still reluctant to converse, my mother knew nothing.
Ten years later, in the last year of the twentieth century, with an almost life long history of not confiding in my mother, there were new reasons for the things I couldn't (or thought I shouldn't) tell her: For fear she wouldn't understand, that her impairment in processing language would force me to tell it slowly, to deliberately hold each horrible word in both hands too long before precisely passing them, one at a time, to her. But also because she had enough to endure, and they were, after all, "just dogs."
I always thought the dogs would tell me when it was their time to go. The reports from Illinois while I spent a week in California after Christmas were, "She's okay. She ate." Enough for me to put it from my mind while I tried to undo what the stroke had done to my mother. The vomiting I did the entire flight from San Diego back to Chicago on December 31 could have been emblematic of how I'd engorged myself with the foolish notion that I could fix my mother in seven days. Now I was emptying myself to be ready for the next situation I couldn't fix. The nausea lasted until the jet landed at O'Hare. I didn't appreciate that my air sickness resembled Vixen's distress in her last several weeks.
Almost as soon as I returned home, Vixen stopped eating again, her bowels issued only liquid, fluids had to be forced with a syringe, and she threw up at night. She no longer struggled for freedom upon being picked up. Instead she fell limp and immediately slept against my chest as I sat holding her. I knew it was time. I'd thought she'd tell me, but if she had tried, I hadn't heard until her no-longer-trying was too loud to ignore.
Two days after I got home from California - leaving my mother sitting, in that fleece robe and flannel pajamas, in the Christmas-strewn livingroom, dim as dusk before the sun rose over Dictionary Hill - I took Vixen to her doctor. She slept in my arms until I put her into her bed, then, just as the first shock of the drug hit her system, she lifted her head and looked at me a last time, her cataract-fogged eyes saying nothing more than they ever had: You're here.
Two days later I packed Bizzy and her beds and her food and her heart medicine into my truck, and we headed south to Alabama where I had contracted several years earlier to spend a semester as writer-in-residence at the university in Tuscaloosa.
I wrote to my mother every week about what I was seeing in Alabama. Described the sprawling eight-room house I was given to live in, furnished with what looked like the faculty's cast-off furniture. It had a big lawn for Bizzy that - I didn't mention - she barely and rarely used. I explained how, on the other side of a tall wisteria hedge, I was across a parking lot from the football stadium and row of college stores and bars, one of which played college fight songs over roof-mounted speakers starting at 8 in the morning, so even on Sundays, marching band music chimed across the empty asphalt. I told her of the beauty of an ominous mid-afternoon black sky and sudden quiet just before the tornado sirens scream, those glittering and gloomy thunderstorms which sent me to the spidery basement where I discovered a laundry room so I could quit hiking to the student laundromat. Told her about neighborhoods of historic houses with red flowering camellia trees, and old ante-bellum plantation mansions that now held downtown business or offices. Listed dense pine forests with signs proclaiming the year they were planted, and peach orchards beginning to bloom in the terrible dark light of another approaching storm, and cattle ranches converted into catfish farms with rows of square pools that would be drained and the flopping fish shoveled out. I portrayed old men on the muddy banks of creeks or ponds with four or five fishing poles propped up on lawn chairs, their lines in the water. I described single-wide trailers and 3-room shacks in clearings in the woods with vegetable patches bigger than the house's square-footage, elderly men in overalls hoeing the rows or seated on the tailgate of their vegetable "stands" - usually an old pick-up parked at roadside, the bed heaped with cabbages and corn and okra and greens. And these might be next door to a suburban ranch with circular driveway and vast turf lawn landscaped with budding fruit trees, huge trampolines in the back yards. I wrote that every small town had a large, privately owned florist and every small town's graveyard was always adorned with fresh flowers on almost every plot, even tiny hundred-year-old graveyards containing a dozen graves fenced off in a clearing in the woods. But I didn't tell her that these things were being viewed on the 80-mile drive between my house and the veterinary college hospital at Mississippi State University.
Bizzy had been a vigorously healthy dog from her first breath, which she took cupped in my hands. She was my first dog's first born. When I tore the membrane from the slimy 6-ounce newt, she literally opened her mouth and gasped. Fifteen years later, as soon as I was in Alabama, I noticed a change in Bizzy. She stopped her two passions: barking at other dogs and begging for scraps of my dinner. In fact her ration of kibble, usually gone in thirty seconds without chewing, had to sit all day before she finished it - even with stinky canned food mixed in to entice her. I wasn't in Tuscaloosa three days before I received an emergency phone call from my vet in Illinois reporting that Bizzy's last blood test indicated she needed immediate surgery to remove her parathyroid glands, otherwise her kidneys would begin to fail. I drove her home through an Indiana lake-effect snow storm - for two days a 15-square-mile section of northern Indiana was a blizzard while the rest of the Midwest was clear - then brought Bizzy back to Alabama completely shaved from her chin to her chest. She barely ate another meal for the last three weeks of her life. Bizzy's anorexia was her way of telling me. I (still) wasn't listening.
Bizzy's weakened heart, combined with no parathyroid glands to regulate her body's calcium, plus kidneys that had been compromised by the body's fight for oxygen from a malfunctioning enlarged atrium ... were killing her. But an easier diagnosis was confirmed by the specialist in Mississippi: A broken heart. Literally and figuratively. Bizzy had never been the only dog, alone. IV's gave her temporary dialysis, perked her up enough to lick at baby food. The doctors taught me to administer subcutaneous fluids from an IV bag to prevent dehydration, but if she didn't eat, she couldn't be helped. The first day home from her second week-long stay in the hospital, she began having seizures, each convulsion lasting five or six seconds, head thrown back, legs stiff, she fell to her side, her body emptied itself of urine.
I didn't tell my mother, by letter or phone, about Bizzy's last horrible night, about the Sunday-afternoon decision to prolong her life no longer or the electricity-filled storm that brewed as I made arrangements with the local vet. He came to the house that night through a tornado watch, over wet streets littered with branches and leaves, while I held Bizzy on the sofa. A special tribute for Charles Shultz, who'd died that morning, played silently on the TV. I lifted my head over Bizzy's ear tickling my chin and saw a cartoon on the screen: Snoopy on his doghouse with a thought bubble over his head, A dog is all I ever wanted to be.
What I was left with - or what I was granted like a gift - in my remaining two months in Alabama was a beautiful emptiness, stripped isolation, calm reclusivity, melancholy turned into tranquil retreat. Strangely, in grief: peace. Allowed a temporary austere life. Finish writing a novel. Read. Feed myself. Watch television. Sleep. Walk and walk and walk. Then drive to see a historic small town or nature trail or archeological site or lock-and-dam. Feel the genial spring sun on my skin. Smell the spring storms blowing in like warm, moist breath. See the azaleas, daffodils, tulips, dogwood, flowering pear, and wisteria paint the campus landscape as well as run amok in yards surrounding even the smallest shacks. I rarely cried. But I couldn't tell my mother.
I couldn't conceive any way or reason to ask my mother to share or understand the frenzy of my last three weeks trying to save Bizzy's life, nor the stillness of the months that followed. But it wasn't all altruistic, my not wanting to share it. It was selfish. I wanted every minute of it, not diluted, for myself. Didn't want anyone to take any of it from me. Suddenly understood grief and why we're half in love with it when we have it: it's what's left to us of still having what was lost.
Would she be able to process any narration of this solemn solitude when I could barely find the language to describe it? Or would I even need to describe it? Wasn't she living her own version?
I imagined her in a dismal, chilly Southern California winter, like those dim days after Christmas when the house was full of food and the floor cluttered with boxes and gifts not yet put away - books she couldn't read, photos of grandchildren whose names she couldn't say - the stereo playing a cycle of five CDs of Christmas carols while she sat in a chair in pajamas with a songbook, following the lyrics with one finger on the page, singing along, softly, just for herself to hear.
In reality, my mother's January calendar was cluttered with doctor visits and speech therapy appointments, and she crossed these days out impatiently until she could begin to go back to watercolor classes, at first driven by my father until she was given the medical clearance to drive alone. She walked daily on her new treadmill and wrote down her time and distance faithfully on a pad beside the controls, pleasing herself with each time and distance improvement. Her speech therapy was still twice a week, then in spring dropped down to once, with a therapist she came to love. To therapy sessions she brought photo albums and letters from her children. She described my father's gardens and their camping vacations to the Sierras. She dreamed of having her therapist come for dinner and conversation as a friend. In the old rocking chair where she'd nursed her five babies, in what had been our big dormitory room with picture window overlooking my father's terraced fruit and vegetable gardens, she sat and meditated. Something she'd never done in the whirlwind activity of her life, something she might've scoffed at if described by our hippy cousin who'd hitchhiked to Boulder, but meditation was recommended by her cherished speech therapist to clear and relax her brain and allow it to slowly look for words it had lost. She went back to bridge groups. Could follow words on TV's Millionaire because of how many times they repeated the question and all the time given to the contestant. Followed most of the play-by-play of the Superbowl because she understands the game. And she used her new computer's e-mail:
Got your long letter and will trying to read things. Sory about the terrible sick on the plain. but it was a with Jim for fireworks. I have want to tell you so sorry about Vixon. I now this friend was always dear to your. I am trying this all by my self to live this. I just now you be living Alabama so will not use your address. That is why I am trying e-mail. Trys to sent me pack to e-mail. I love you so much.. Mom
Will try a short note. this morning Dad took me to check on my Heart pacer. We have walked at the fishing place twice. This one we tried around all way. I have also been out to Bently around also. We will try to see your place soon. We love so much to you. Mom and dad.
You have been just good hearing from you that I feel so many times not hearing from you. The speech therapist is helping we my writing We am glad you got safely home and wish that Bizzy will get matter now. I have finish reading from your wonderful Waterbaby and told my therapist I could read the article taking a slow time! This past Sunday we went to the Symphony. Dad and I celebrating the 49 anniversary by going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I am looking for a valentine blouse. I want to gets Sees chocolates but will have to go by myself. I will be glad to finish these doctor times!
I will try a short email from you. We have loved all the southern letters. I am doing better for writing from you. My speech therapist is helping alot for me. She is working now with my writing and understanding other people. Have come a long way but now I still have to help. Hope you understand this email. I love you.. Mom
We are flying to Boise on May 4 - 8. By ladies Bridge is the next day at here. We did found how to attach the clip on the treadmill and I have up to 2.2 speed for 17 minutes which gets me 6.O miles each day for a week. Dad feels he gets enough work in the garden so has not tried the treadmill. Glad to see you soon!
We got your last letter about going to the automobiles. I am saving all of your letters which will be like a book! We look forward to coming to San Diego. Remember Dad and I are going to Boise the first weekend in May. I guess you are going to a dog show that weekend also. So, call me when you can some date in May. Hope you will see us real soon. I miss you.. Love, Mom
In truth neither of us was in a dark winter. I was in gentle Alabama where the daffodils came up at the end of February, and she in California where my father's strawberries began to ripen in early March. My Southern winter taught me the cathartic beauty of austerity, and hers at home in California gave her the gist of her own capacity - power that returned in four words that she had not forgotten she'd said to us: I can. I will.
Just a short note to tell you we are Home! Walt is comming for supper a few minutes. Dad went fishing yesterday. Had a great time with Ralph and Kate and the girls. Went to the beach on the Outer Banks and saw 3 of the tall lighthouses. I made it to the top of Cape Hatteres Lighthouse! It was some climb!!! Ralph & Dad went out on the boat fishing and also went clamming. So we ate a lot of seafoods -- steamed clams -- cioppino -- clam chowder & baked fish. We swam at the edge of the lighthouse last twilight & saw the light go on at dusk.