These days, Michigan in winter seems to be nothing but gloom and gray. As a kid, my memories were decidedly cheerier – I recall more snow and less melancholy. Now the leaden clouds hang overhead for weeks at a time, sapping the barren world beneath of any vibrancy. What I imagine living in a black and white movie would be like.
So maybe it’s appropriate that I have left sunny Colorado to be here in February, in the ‘ancestral’ abode, sitting with my 94-year old mother as her life ever so slowly comes to a close. To make sure she doesn’t fall or otherwise injure herself, to make sure she gets three meals a day, to make sure she doesn’t forget to change her diaper.
Her house is equally gloomy. A tiny, 60s-era ranch, it has been neglected for years. Paint is peeling from the walls, thanks to her attempts to save money by closing off the heat registers in unused rooms. Those rooms are also crowded with the flotsam of her life – though she probably doesn’t qualify as a hoarder, she’s damned close. Stacks of books, old clothes, framed family pictures and accumulated bric-a-brac teeter precariously on dressers and fill every available corner. It feels nothing like the house where I grew up.
Her short-term memory has become just that – a memory. Patches, the dog, is the biggest beneficiary of this development, as mom tosses another scoop of food into the bowl every time she passes it. Of course, Patches can barely get around anymore because of her burgeoning weight. And there’s a cat, practically feral, that won’t come out of the basement if anyone other than my mother is in the house. Both animals shed copiously, and cleaning has never been mom’s strong suit. On a related note, you learn to check expiration dates on everything.
Knee and hip replacements, one each, didn’t provide the desired results and consequently she has been dealing with low-grade pain and decreasing stability for years. She also bristles at using a walker, so we have taken to hiding her canes in the hopes of forcing the issue. But despite our best efforts, she falls. A lot. A face-first tumble in the neighbor’s driveway a few months ago is what started this vigil. Her nose and lip required stitches, and we kids knew the time had come. My step-sister took the first month-long shift, then my brother, and now it’s my turn.
There is this thing she does with the TV remote control where she taps randomly (or at least it seems random) on the number buttons, causing the channels to change erratically every few seconds. She looks up on occasion to see the results of this frenetic activity before returning to her incessant pounding on the remote. When you ask her what in the hell she’s doing, she’ll tell you it’s a ‘game,’ though that is the extent of her explanation. And this goes on for hours. At first I found it maddening, but now I view it as a bit of a blessing, because when she isn’t thusly distracted she spends her days obsessing on a thousand other things – turning off lights, moving the milk from one side of the refrigerator to the other (and, later, back again), rearranging caches of outdated coupons, querying me about the origin of pens that have resided on her kitchen counters for decades.
A few years ago we intercepted a letter she was sending to the “lottery officials” in Jamaica that contained her $3,000 “deposit” required to claim her “prize.” There’s no telling how much went out the door prior to that. Despite having changed her number several times since then, it appears the word is out again. She can be talked into anything, and so the phone rings constantly, and at all hours. Magazine hucksters are the most common, as the piles of unread publications can attest. Better Homes and Gardens, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Sierra, Woman’s Day, Popular Science, Shape, Hola (no, my mother is not bilingual). Do these people not have parents of their own?
Running a close second are the bean-counters at said publishing firms, trying to secure payment on what their sales scumbags have so shamelessly foisted on her. By the look of the statements from the collection agencies, the standard contract comes with a minimum five-year subscription, putting her on the hook for – as near as we can figure – somewhere north of $2,000. Another leech got her to purchase a pair of hearing aids, to the tune of about $1,700. What else may be lurking out there we can only guess at. One morning, the Medical Alert people called six times in the span of 45 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly the conversation ends when I identify myself as mom’s guardian, and then politely ask what the fuck I can do for them.
I know the woman who raised me is in there somewhere. Now and then, amidst the repeated questions about when I arrived or where the chili in the fridge came from (leftovers from the evening before), she will offer some obscure tidbit from the long-distant past, a happy recollection of better times. Or she will have a moment of searing self-awareness, where she’ll curse and bemoan how she wouldn’t wish her predicament on a dog. I can’t argue with her – this is not a life. On more than one occasion she has said that she is ready to go. Sadly, her body simply refuses to cooperate. And for those who tell me every breath is a precious gift from God, I would suggest that a compassionate God would not wish this on a dog either.