by Shirley Russak Wachtel
I like it best when she sleeps. When she sleeps, I don’t have to look at her eyes. Her eyes are remarkable, you see. They are matchless, neither a subtle cornflower, nor the color of a dusky, rolling sea, nor even a silky lazy sky which settles comfortably over apartment buildings as children sit down to their suppers. Nor are they fantastic for the incomprehensible fact that neither of her children managed to inherit the particular shade of blue. No, they are unique because of one irrefutable fact—they speak. Through the years, they have spoken of many things, most predominantly, love. But now, now that they are the only voice she has left, I can’t bear to hear them. Yes, definitely sleep is best.
Today the sun is pouring, pushing its way through the closed damask shades, which with little prodding, open. Sunlight, an unabashed intruder, falls upon her face, but her breaths come soft and steady, and her hands are motionless clenched upon her chest. I stare at the face, as I have the last four months, and I realize again how beautiful she is. Not the standard notion of beauty, but the kind accomplished by a mask of quiet serenity achieved only in age. I marvel at its smooth contours, and hope briefly that the powers of heredity bless me with the same fine skin one day. In fact, even with her chin sunken in like that, one can barely believe that she is 83 years old (give or take a year depending on the source).
I walk into the bathroom she never uses and wet a paper towel, which I then gently place over her forehead. She makes a few “puh” sounds pursing her lips, nothing more, as the towel caresses the furrows of her sweaty brow. I move the cloth down the willful nose, and as I take note of the bump in its center, I am surprised that I no longer feel the twang of guilt upon its discovery. The thin lips are expressionless and covered by pathetic little patches of crust. I make a mental reminder to coat them later with Vaseline.
She wouldn’t like people seeing her this way, without her dentures, mouth swallowing up the thin lips. Once, she accidentally broke the false teeth, and she cried for a whole day. But they wouldn’t allow even the teeth in this place. So I put the dentures away, or maybe I threw them out altogether. At the base of her neck are sprinkled the freckles of childhood along with a couple of moles, to which she is prone, and I lightly cover these too with the cooling wetness. Finally, I squeeze the last of the tap water onto the top of her head, and with my fingers I comb back the remaining hairs, straight and thin, like my own. She is almost totally gray now. There were times, as recent as a few months ago, when I would squeeze the Clairol Herbal Golden Brown onto her head, as she simultaneously pinched her eyes tightly shut. I can still smell the stinging odor of peroxide in the air. I watch as a single droplet of water, not hair dye, escapes onto her left eyelid which flutters as a petal would when brushed by a spring breeze. Standing back, I watch the rhythmic movements of her breathing, her chest barely rising beneath the sleeveless yellow flowered sundress with buttons (they all have to have buttons) down the back. The dress isn’t even hers, having somehow made its way into her closet, not an unusual occurrence. She is too tightly swaddled today beneath the beige flannel blanket, and someone has casually thrown an afghan over all, a patchwork of dancing pinks and grays. In the bed, buoyed by round sacks of air, she is at once a presence and an unimposing picture of fragility. No longer able to look at her, I turn away.
Photographs line the window sill, the TV stand devoid of TV, the dresser, the large bulletin board in the corner. Reminders of a life lived, the pictures are present in almost every one of the rooms. They are all the same, yet each is different. In this room, there is one of my wedding, twenty-five years ago, another, more recent, of her and two brothers, a black and white posed one of me and Jack, he with a striped rubber ball in his hands, I with a gray ribbon, then a scarlet red, wound around a ponytail. Jack’s face is round like my mother’s, mine long like that of my father. I am missing a tooth. Most of the photographs, though, are of the grandchildren, five in all, and all boys.
“No princesses,” she would often say, “only kings.” Every so often I hold the largest photo of all five directly in front of her face, and I point to each one.
“See, there’s Howie. He’s at Georgetown now...” and finally, “little Sammy, remember?” I say, calling him by a Yiddish endearment meaning “lightning bug.” As I point to each one, sometimes I think that I see one of the blue eyes begin to willfully tear. But each time, I dismiss the notion, reasoning this is a natural physical reaction to the dryness in the air. And I convince myself, I pray, that she is no longer capable of crying.
Today, there is silence. The creak of the double doors perpendicular to her room is less frequent than usual, and the lighthearted bantering of aides more distant, muted; even the screams, which rattle periodically through the corridors, are quieted now. All silent save for the steady cranking of the cogs rhythmically churning the liquid, which resembles a kind of noxious chocolate milk, into the plastic tube. Down beneath the crocheted dancing afghan, sneaking further, further underneath the too tightly wound beige flannel and sundress into the soft yellow putty which was once her stomach. Nourishment. Life—no, I correct myself—existence. She exists with every whir of those cranky cogs. To camouflage the sound, I place a cassette into the radio by her bed. Written across the edge it says: Favorite Jewish Melodies. Immediately, the sturdy voices sing out; I visualize young strong Israelis dancing with banners through fruit-laden orchards. “Shane vidila voona, lichtic vee der shtaren...Sweet little one, light as the stars... Fin Gott a mitunah, ost der mer tsi gui brangt...From God a blessing you have brought to me.” It is her favorite song, a tune which has always brought tears to her eyes. Now, her eyes are shut.
Yesterday was different. I found myself walking down the hall with its too pristine white tiles, shining golden oak chair rail, sedate salmon-colored wallpaper with the look of suede on which were placed at regular intervals, pictures—a Jewish woman praying over candles, a couple dancing under the chuppah, an abstract of a hillside in Israel. It was all too sanitary, too ordered, and I hated it. My high heels clicked against the tiles as, like radar, I followed the high-pitched whining sound which had reached my ears just as I stepped out of the elevator. My pace quickened as I walked past her room with its neatly made bed. Finally, I saw it. The back of the special narrow wheelchair with the inclined seat, the pole adjacent to it, and one skinny white arm with clenched fingers stretching into the empty air. The whines bore no resemblance to the strong, round tones I knew so well—those comforting tones which even in anger could wrap themselves around you and make you feel that nothing was ever or could ever be bad again. Nothing like this mutant cry which was an unnatural pitch, a hybrid borne of fear, of pain? When I faced her, she looked up at me, straight into me, and then altogether through me. She screamed again.
I stood up straight in front of her, my eyes going to my own skirt, a cotton blend of black and white Swiss dots. Somewhere inside my brain, a small egotistic voice murmured an unspoken question. “Do you like my outfit?” Of course, she had always loved polka dots, and so she would smile appraisingly, check the hem, and have me spin like a teenage ballerina.
“Zaya shein...Very nice,” she would say with a smile, and then she’d ask, “Viful?...How much?” She’d have to see the shoes, too. Bright black pumps with very high heels. She certainly would have approved.
Indeed, the voice in my brain is a child’s voice—still demanding to be noticed, appreciated—now drowned by an insistent whine. She knows only herself, reasons an older voice, submerging the child.
I approached the nurse’s station where I was greeted like an old friend. My tone, lighter than usual, inquired about her last dosage of morphine. I was told that the last supplemental dose was given 45 minutes ago. Her tolerance was building.
The sacral wound, which is delicately often referred to as a “bedsore,” rests precariously close to the anus, and is much smaller, I am informed, than when she first came here. Big enough to put a fist through, they had said, yet packed with bullets of pain. The morphine reduces the pain, which is often agonizing, but as her tolerance rises with each day, so does the dosage. It is a horrifying but unavoidable cycle.
Often, walking down the hallways (those further away from where she is stationed), I overhear the familiar banter between mothers and daughters.
“I picked up my new dentures today, ma...See?...How about some more water?” or “Lucille, you should really go to a doctor for that constipation problem.” “I’m eating roughage, mom. I’ll be all right.”
Sometimes, hearing it all brings a momentary smile to my face. I am definitely the youngest offspring here, as far as I can tell. Senior citizens with back pains and canes often drop by to visit their elderly parents. As I walk past, feigning oblivion, I wonder who will care about my dentures, my eating habits, my polka dotted skirts when I get older.
But, even here, you have to laugh. Indeed, emotions always hit highs or lows. There is no moderation, the subtle niceties of time having long fled this place where gentlemen wear diapers which emerge from tweed pant waists, and women go denture-less.
You have to laugh. Once, a woman in a wheelchair took her shirt completely off. And although there was nothing about the old lady’s body that could be recognized as womanly, one nurse running toward her joked, “Save it for when you can get paid for that, Sadie.” On another occasion, one of the patients was sitting in the TV room, where none but the attendants pay attention to the flickering screen. She was screaming, “I need something...I need something!” ignored by the overworked staff. “I’ll tell you what you need!” screeched a hag with the profile of a baba yagar, the mythical witch which so often scared me in childhood. With raised fist, she ominously wheeled herself, rubber baby doll in hand (many of the patients have these) toward the woman. “You need to be quiet!” she screeched, approaching until a tall aide with mounds of curly black hair promptly wheeled her away.
There are times, though, when the conversation is less dramatic, as when I overheard one patient, sporting a trim white bun, an alligator pocketbook resting on her lap, insist to her friend, “But I do love my husband...It’s just that I can’t remember his name...” As I said, you have to laugh if you’re going to return to the world outside, if you’re going to have any kind of normalcy.
When I came back to her, she was calmer; the morphine was beginning to work. I could tell that she was partially awake despite her closed lids, because the tremor in her hand, more distinct of late, was again present. I tried feeding her some applesauce, which she sucked slowly, every so often smacking her lips.
“Remember how you loved to eat apples?” I prodded, recalling the way she would carefully peel away one long circle of skin with the edge of a knife, then slice the white fruit into thin wedges, making sure to core the brown spots and save one thick wedge for the dog.
“I can tell you love this,” I said, trying to catch the sauce which had begun to drip down her cheek and onto her bib.
But, that was yesterday. Today is better. And so I wait until the Jewish song ends, and another begins. This one is about someone dear being more precious than all the money in the world. And then, for no reason, I begin to cry.
I place my cool cheek next to her warm one, thinking again how this time with her has become both the worst and best part of my day. My tears cover her cheek, which I kiss, murmuring, “I love you” over and over again, asif the force of the words could infuse her with some power. A lifetime of unsaid “I love you’s” sail up into the air and burst like so many bubbles. But she doesn't wake, and her eyes remain shut, speechless. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll have the heart to leave her, the strength to return. But, of course, I do—I must.
As I look through the window past the front yard into the parking lot where cars are neatly lined in rows, I suddenly remember that I have to get back home. Charlie will be home soon, and he will need a ride to Hebrew school, Brad will be calling for a ride from basketball practice, about thirty student essays needed grading, and a stop has to be made at the butcher shop if there is to be any supper tonight.
I begin to button my coat, and as I bend down to place one last kiss on the forehead of the sleeping woman, suddenly my body is gripped by an old fear. When I leave, no one will know her. No one will know my mother.
Shirley Russak Wachtel is a college English professor living in New Jersey. She holds a Doctor of Letters Degree from Drew University. She is the author of a book of poetry, In the Mellow Light, several books for children, and a series, Spotlight on Reading, a college-level text. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times OpEd section. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Middlesex, Haiku Journal, emerge, Leaves of Ink, Whisper, and other literary journals. Her memoir, My Mother’s Shoes, follows her mother’s journey during the Holocaust and as a new citizen in America. “When She Sleeps” is the introduction to My Mother’s Shoes.