I touched my mother’s hands; they weren’t swollen with the familiar plumpness from arthritis. With great effort, she was sitting having her hair done so I’d see her ‘well’. Someone once said that hospital patients are ready for release when they care about their grooming or when a woman decides to reach for her lipstick. My mother was wearing lipstick.
She smiled a sincere expression of pleasure to see me. I giggled like a schoolgirl about the 3000-mile plane trip on a huge DC10, and the fancy Beverly Hills famous hospital she was in; we played out our deceptions assuming they were required. The nurse thought I was shallow and selfish…until I left the room about the same time she did and she saw my shaking body and heard sobs.
My buffer between this world and the unknown was terminal. I didn’t like phrases such as ‘feeling at peace’, or ‘joining her beloved husband after 32 years of widowhood’, or ‘going to a better life’. I wanted her to stay in this life longer; so did she. I wanted to be able to call Mommy when I needed it, yell at Ma, address her as Mother when I felt mature and indifferent.
How could she lie there pretending to be attractive when disease was end-stage and ugly! But how could those usually swollen joints have reverted to the slender sensation of girlhood digits? Death made no sense, and death from contaminated blood received during open-heart surgery made even less sense. Skinny digits but bloated body from the liver’s inability to function because of contaminated blood destroying cells made no sense. Who do I ask the question: why? No one.
Wrapped in her Swirl dresses, her hair in a snood, my mother planted tomatoes that crept up the red bricks under the kitchen window. When a breeze rustled her cotton garment, it parted and I’d wonder why she chose not to wear slacks, acceptable attire for women during the World War. Strong hands could yank weeds, yet gentle fingers could stroke my blond strands of limp hair.
She sat at my girlhood bedside when I had a fever, or when I lingered in the sun too long, which scalded my porcelain skin. She moved my bedroom furniture into a more-adult position, and handmade drapes and spread as teen years entered. My whispered fears and dreams I thought only my private walls heard were somehow understood by her.
Hickies? Hate? Passion? Lust? Friendship? Betrayal? Love? I wondered about all; she answered without embarrassment.
The fingers knit, sewed, shelled peas, played classical music on our baby grand piano (often decorated with a Spanish-fringed silk thing that resembled a cape). The fingers typed reports, wrote speeches, drew pictures, kneaded dough, skinned fowl, scrubbed, ironed, repaired plumbing, braided my older sister’s hair.
Now there was no chipped pearlized polish, but when I feigned California sunlight shutting my eyes, I sensed those digits of my girlhood.
Be strong, she illustrated when widowhood altered her existence, but be it in your own way. Protect those you love and allow each to become independent without conditions, she instructed, but also take care of yourself. She showed me that ‘things’ have little value as her household goods were carted off by a charity except for the baby grand and a few lamps I took; the silence of each empty room echoed her goodbyes before she moved from East to West Coast.
Be strong, my brain forced familiar into my conscious state, so I took my cues from the patient and pretended I was on a vacation. Be yourself needed suppression. Did I want to sit beside her and thank her for giving me life, stability, feelings of security, education, inherited skills, attention, unconditional love? Yes. No. She told me I must see Rodeo Drive, ride in a white Rolls limo, dine rooftop overlooking the hills and let her know how I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have done any of those things if she were well as I didn’t really care about phony glitz and surface glamour.
The hairdresser finished. I could see her masking exhaustion at the process of just sitting up, let alone having her hair curled, combed, sprayed. I pretended not to notice her whispered breaths, and revealing eyes. Sure I’ll run to Rodeo Drive and stick my head in and out of expensive shops, then report back; the ordered limo was waiting for me outside the hospital’s side entrance.
From a rooftop restaurant, I ordered lunch from a lavender telephone perched on a tall table. Sunlight filled the California sky and smog hadn’t clouded the brightness. Health, warmth, beauty, fragrant flowers, artistically arranged luncheon plate confused me as it truly was lovely but was I to enjoy it? Was it a betrayal when my mother had run out of her allotted time? Why did I allow her to control my day rather than fight her as I often did when I wanted my own way? Did a part of me find it easier to escape corridors of disease, and discussions of impending death?
Life. She repeated it was precious; she said it so often during my childhood that it sounded like a boring lecture and I tuned out the sermon. Yeah. Yeah. Life is precious but I was young and it was going to go on forever for me. Others would get old and die, but I could skip several stairs in a row and ride a bike for miles and run track faster than anyone I knew, so old was silly and life is precious still sillier.
Bye, bye. You’re getting better and I’ll see you soon at my end of the country. Flippant. Easy. Lies we both carried out to protect one another. Maybe that’s what role-playing is all about and each of us authors how we want to perform the scene and informs the actors to follow our directions.
Fourteen months later, I sat in the backless short hospital gown awaiting a cardiac catheterization to indicate whether or not I needed open-heart surgery. I stared through the slightly sooty window that allowed a parking lot to be seen, ran my fingers along my skinny body then sat on them as if each were a safety pin on the hospital’s mini-garment. How would I handle my personal situation? Life is precious, life is precious, life is precious ran through my mind with the staccato sequence of trains on a track. My mother’s enthusiastic ‘see you soon’ and ‘have a safe trip home’ rode on the same track. Her wishes.
Not mine. I needed to say goodbye should goodbye be decreed by the same force that controlled my inability to skip several steps at a time, run track fast, bicycle several miles on a no-speed two-wheeler. My slender fingers were plumping from inherited arthritis, and I felt my once-healthy mother by fondling my own digits. I summoned my family. “In case,” I began.
Choices. Maybe that’s what role-playing is all about and each of us authors how we want to perform the scene and informs the actors to follow our directions. I didn’t want to ‘act’ to spare myself or loved ones; I wanted to be the ‘me’ I felt within and authored my scene that way, but, as dyes infused my body and illuminated vessels inside my heart, I whispered to the silence “Mama, Mama.”
This is a reprint of work originally published in Need to Know Press.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/photos/memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.