“Elders” Contest Honorable Mention
by Sharon Frame Gay
The corridors in the nursing home were quieter than usual. It was a Saturday, only a skeleton staff striding the halls.
I slipped into her room and found her sleeping. Nodding at her new roommate, I set up a small table from home, fitting the little Christmas tree on it, lighting it, and fetching decorations from my bag, I placed them around the tree.
"Mom," I whispered, "Wake up. See what I brought you.” Her eyes opened slowly, then widened with happiness as she looked at her surprise. "So pretty,” she murmured.
"It's your own tree, from home, Mom," I reminded her, and she nodded, staring at the fiber optic tree that she had bought several years ago. She smiled sweetly, drinking in the sight, then turned and peered up into my face.
"I want all my money, my checkbook, bank account statements, and credit cards, right now," she hissed, " I am canceling Medicaid, leaving this place, and I am completely finished with you. You're a liar and a thief, and you have even tricked your poor brother into believing the things you say."
So begins another day, channeling through the sundry personalities that morph like the lights on the Christmas tree, daily, hourly, minute to minute. My mother. My jailer, my muse, my genetic partner, and my childhood fairy princess, now turned into an evil witch who smears poison apples against my teeth and begs me to swallow.
Stumbling out the nursing home door in tears and rage, I was like a dog hit by a car, wanting to bite whoever comes near.
At home, I crumpled into tears, keening as I rocked back and forth in exhaustion from spending months handling my mother's medical affairs, finances, household, and pet, while she languished in the nursing home in a flurry of psychotic dreams.
"Your mother is suffering from delirium, visual hallucinations, delusions and confusion. She has progressive dementia and failure to thrive. She is likely terminal." I nodded thoughtfully as the doctors and nurses, practitioners and psychiatrists gave me their diagnosis, but inside I thought, "Oh no, she's not. She is far from terminal, only a dream away from coming back into the swirling world where she has always reigned. She is going to rise again, for she is immortal.”
I was first introduced to my mother under a bright white hospital light on an oak-lined street in Chicago, pulled from her womb, wet and squalling. But I did not truly meet her, nor fall in love with her, until I was four years old, as we left the city behind one day on the way to our lake house in Michigan. I was bundled into a small red sweater, stuffed into the back seat with our old spaniel. Peering up at the front door of the bungalow, I saw my mother emerge in a flash of long legs, her sneakers skipping down the steps, hair in pigtails under a cap, with the brim snapped over her Nordic blue eyes. This was not the Ice Queen who came home each night from work in the dark, trailing the cold of January on the hem of her long, grey coat. Nor the enigmatic young woman, seated with her parents and my brother and me around the kitchen table in the golden lamplight after dinner. Then, she was more like a bigger sister, sharing her day with her two young siblings and her parents. No, this was the Lake Fairy, gliding into the car with a grin plastered on her face, her troubles left behind in the rearview mirror, as we departed the curb in a flurry of joy and laughter. My Summer Mother. I felt a flash of excitement and mystery with just a hint of fairy dust as we headed to the lake.
"Come with me,” my mother smiled, one hot July afternoon. "I am going to give you the greatest gift in the world. Books.” I followed her down the dusty road to the public beach, where a dingy tan Book Mobile sat, low on its tires in the shifting morning, the lake in the background like blue silk. Inside the musty bus, a treasure trove of books waited on shelves, motes of dust in the sunlight glinting off the spines as though they were enchanted. On the bottom shelf were children's books. "May I borrow one"? I asked tentatively. "You may borrow as many as you can carry", she grinned, and I filled my tiny arms with volume after volume, excitement rising as we hurried back down the lake road and into the cool glade of the front porch. She read to me into the evening, sharing pirates and ponies, puppies and faraway lands. I hung on each word, my head on her chest, hearing the rumble of her voice and knowing I would recognize it anywhere.
And so began the enchantment and bewitching, the blessings and the curse that came with being my mother's child.
One day I walked into the nursing home and found her in tears. "What's wrong, Mom?" I asked, alarmed. She sobbed, "I am thinking of Troy". Troy. My brother who died a year ago, but until yesterday, my deluded mother thought was on a ferry boat with her on their way to Germany in happier times, he forever nine years old. She had been sending me out into the facility hallway for days now, to call him in for supper. Now, she remembered the truth. I nodded in empathy, as she raised her sorrowful blue eyes to me. Then, she began to cry again. "Look at me", she sobbed, "I'm a cripple." She reached out her hand to me. I clasped it between mine, staring down at her. "What have you DONE to me!" she wailed, and I felt every word like an incantation, hexing me, driving me down with her into an abyss so dark that the night seemed bright by comparison.
She had been lying in a pool of misery for over three months. The doctors and physical therapists had given up on her, recommended only comfort care. Mom did not eat, she did not drink, and needed round the clock assistance. I called my brother to discuss if we wanted her to be tested for a cancer. The doctor said she was declining, and not wanting to add another layer to her grief, we agreed not to have her undergo painful biopsies and procedures.
Two days later, a physical therapist called me. "It is a miracle", she trilled. "Your mother suddenly stood up by herself, and walked! The aides came running to my office to bring me in to see it. Your mother can WALK after nearly 3 months bed ridden." I thought, "No. It is no miracle. She has simply decided to wake from her dark dreams and start moving again".
When I was twelve, she married a terrible man. A man so rank and evil that ravens began to nest on our roof tops, so dark that even now when I tell the tale my heart skips and I tremble inside. And for eight long years we lived like paupers in a snake's nest, going from town to town in hopeless abandon while my mother alternately tried to kill herself, then him, and succeeded only in killing the spirit of my brothers and me. Beneath the terror and the heartache, Mom was sweet and guileless. We thought she was a victim, too. We gathered around her, shielding her from coming storms. At all costs, we protected her, we as drones and she as the Queen Bee. Protect. Get hurt. Protect again with our young bodies, our frightened souls. Still, the scales did not fall from my eyes. I returned again and again to drink at the pool of confusion, as she was the only adult now in my young world. I thought all families were like this. I rejoiced at the magic, and cowered at the curse, losing myself in canyons so vast, that it took me years to find daylight again.
I can remember her on a summer swing, her laughter trailing softly in the coming dawn, singing songs with me as trout breached the still waters, the smell of wood smoke in the air. Mom was a nymph, skirting in and out of my consciousness like quick silver, while my grandmother was the one who held my head over the toilet, washed my hair in the bath tub, or brought me lunch while I lay, prostrate in bed, too terrified to go to school, afraid that when I returned, it would be to an empty house, and I would be left behind down some dusty road with no map, no way to find my family again
I can remember her screaming at me, her hands like talons, reaching to grab and scratch at me like a trapped cat. And I remember her calmly beside me, my heart broken over a lost love, her hand cupping my head like an eggshell, as I find solace at her knee.
Now we bring flowers and candy, promises of spring, all to lay before her feet as she travels first down one road, then another in her delirium. I am left forever behind, always trying to catch her long enough to gather some warmth on a sunny day, or to turn the corner and find her waiting for me, hand outstretched, as she says, "Hurry down the road with me, for the moon is coming up and the hills are awash in starlight."
I had followed her through canyons at midnight in the Arizona high country, my small legs barely spanning the back of an old mule, as her horse picked its way through the gullies, heading true north under a promising star. I had hid in terror as she ran through the house screaming with a shotgun, had felt my heart thud when I found her standing on a chair with a noose around her neck, threatening to jump.
My brother and I rode in the back of a pickup truck as we moved from town to town, stopping by the side of the road to cook. We left pieces of our souls from one end of this country to another as she chased demons up and down the highway. We were in limbo, ghosts passing through town after town, pausing each summer to return to the lake, finding our reflection in the water. Our love for her was fierce, our gypsy spirits held in her thrall, children of her rebel soul.
"It was magical,” my brother said one dreary afternoon, and I paused. Yes, I think. It was magic. And still is. For how else can she rise from her bed and enchant the entire nursing facility? How else can she drive me to my knees in fear and distrust, and keep me wandering through so many sleepless nights? How else can I hate her and love her all in the same breath, while she continues to dance in the shifting change of darkness and light, sweetness and cruelty, while the world spins on in stoic indifference?
My brother sighed. "Nobody would ever understand.” I nod. Nobody can. For it has been a lifetime of colors and threads, wafting and weaving into something so beautiful, so cruel, that my eyes burn if I stare at it too long. "She can't live forever, you know,” he said. "Life's impermanent. This, too, shall end.”
I scoff, take a sip of jasmine tea. "Oh no, you're wrong, my friend. It stays with us forever,” I say as I hear the sound of laughter and tears trailing down the nursing home corridor, across time, to the dusty road by the lake.