She’s on her back when I enter, mouth open, eyes closed, gown hiked up, her half-naked legs twisted unnaturally to one side. She is as still as death, this woman who is my mother, and just that cool to my touch, but then, before I can go on with this, before I dare think what I am about to think, she opens her eyes.
“There’s a bug up there . . . on the ceiling.”
It’s an acoustic-tile ceiling, the kind where perforated panels fit into an aluminum frame. Someday I mean to install one like it in my bathroom.
“I don’t see anything, Mother.”
“Right there. It moved.” I play my part and locate a tiny blemish that we can both pretend is what she has seen. There are no bugs, of course, not in this clean and continually cleaned nursing home where everything smells of fresh wax and disinfectant and maniacal daily scrubbings. After 87 years, my hardworking dirt-fighting German American mother finally finds herself in a household free of life’s clutter.
I help her out of bed, into her chair, into the bathroom, on and off the toilet. She says she can do these things by herself but she cannot. Age, Parkinson’s disease, and a series of strokes have left her all but paralyzed. It’s a risky, tricky thing getting this heavy woman in and out of a wheelchair, even if your strength be doubled by love; she wants to stand on her own, wants to prove she can still do it, and you must let her try.
Erect in her wheelchair, she again seems her real self, eyes bright, mind clear; I feel as if I have snatched her from the tomb. “Would you like some salad?” I say. I’ve brought my lunch with me, an antipasto from the sandwich shop in the corner mall. She’s been complaining about the salads the nursing home serves, never crisp enough, never fresh enough. Institutional food? Anything from the outside seems better, Brown’s chicken, White Castle french fries, Bob’s burritos, even cookies of no greater distinction than the ones she gets here daily. Her eyes light up at my salad. The staff often compliments her on her deep, beautiful eyes; she’s flattered, pleased, vain enough to boast of it. One at a time she savors the crisp green-pepper slices, the bright red tomatoes–“Not like the stuff they give you here,” she says. There isn’t much you can bring people in a nursing home, not much they need, not much they can use; what they really want, no person alive can possibly provide.
It isn’t easy for a resident to “adjust” to a nursing home. No one ever means to be here, no one ever means to see a parent in here, but this is life, and sometimes life leaves little in the way of choices. This is not my home, she says, this will never be my home; we both know she will never have another.
My mother is a woman who greatly enjoyed life. A picture of her old bowling team surfaced not long ago. My mother stands out, sturdy, luminous, with surprising dark hair and of course those wonderful eyes. “Oh, we had good times,” she says, and yes, the face in the photograph seems to confirm this.
There was bowling at the nursing home last week. My mother laughs. Not real bowling pins, not real bowling balls, nothing you could take seriously. But she did give it a try. “Some of these people, they couldn’t even lift the ball.” I wonder how ever she did. “Oh, I did. I got a strike.”
This is an extended-care nursing home. It’s not like the nursing homes you sometimes see in made-for-TV movies: beautifully preserved seniors turned out by their selfish yuppified children, still struggling for life, dignity, and even a moment of romance. These people are sick; they have lost the use of their limbs, of their functions, of their very minds; they live in wheelchairs, defecate into diapers, drain through catheters; they clutch at visitors in the halls; they lie openmouthed and vacant on firm white beds waiting to die. If you plan on living past 90, you had best visit here and see what awaits.
My mother will tell you. She is gladly a story-telling woman. She will tell you of Ida who weighs no more than 80 pounds and dashes for the outside door five, six, and more times a day, fighting recapture with her tiny fists; she will tell you of Clara who endlessly chants “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” and while she is telling, you will hear Clara for yourself. My mother will tell you of the new man who throws his food on the floor because he wants to die; of the Alzheimer’s woman who appeared in the hallway wearing only a diaper; of Marie who sometimes believes she is a lost child in the bus station; of the nameless 90-year-old who lies in bed crying “Mama, Mama, Mama!” “Confused” is how the nursing home describes these persons. “They told her,” my mother says, half smiling, ‘Where do you think your mama is?'” My mother is gladly a story-telling woman.
To visit my mother is to hear her stories, the new ones, the old ones, the ones she has told a thousand times. She will never tire of the mouse she once baked in the oven (“It staggered out with all its hair singed off!”), or the cat that had kittens in my underwear drawer (for which she blames me), or the time her sister took a wrong turn on a dark road and ended up facing a man with a shotgun–her own fault, my mother says. The nursing home–how she hates it, how she hates the wooden feeling in her legs, how she hates not being able to maneuver her wheelchair in the halls, how she hates being lifted on and off the toilet, being given showers by strangers–has given her a whole new cast of characters. In my life I’ve seen her read just one entire book–it concerned Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives–but somewhere she has learned how to turn the stuff of everyday living into art.
My mother and her stories! There are positive and practical benefits of my lifelong interest in the literary arts: my sister, who is less interested in stories than I am, unfortunately gets to hear my mother’s complaints. I mean to discuss these things with my sister someday when we are all feeling more rational. Watching my mother gradually pull herself back into the land of the living, I find myself turning her toward the pages of the past.
In the past were hardships, hard work, and heartache. In the past were friends, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances, all gone now, or as old as she is, tired, helpless. In the past, almost a century of it, is a world we will never see again.
“Tell me about the farm,” I say. Bark River, Michigan. She was raised there, 1 of 16 children. I pretend I can no longer remember the old family house. “Oh,” she says, “I can see it just as clearly as if it were only yesterday.”
She enters now through the kitchen–these Germans are ever kitchen-living people–and talks of the sink with its hand pump and the cast-iron stove where Grandmother cooked for 16 children; she continues into the dining room and the double living room, notes the downstairs bedrooms, counts the bedrooms upstairs–nine bedrooms in all. People slept two and three to a room; some rooms were left unfurnished and unused. I don’t remember the house being that large. How on earth did they heat it? With stoves, she says. Stoves that went out every night and had to be relit in the morning, this in the Upper Peninsula, where winter is really winter, where snows pile high–she remembers her father digging a path to the road, and the children on their way to school following him “like a row of baby ducks.” Pity the one whose job it was to keep the wood bin full if the mother of these ducks found it empty in the morning!
She remembers an earlier house, in Algoma, another farm. She remembers her grandparents: the paternal Kasbohns whom, I vaguely sense, she sees as slightly cold and aristocratic; the maternal Wagners, seen as I suspect all maternal grandparents are seen, with warmth and admiration. She speaks of them now. Of her Grandfather Wagner, “the most handsome man I have ever seen,” and the silky white beard that he would stroke–80 years later, my mother in her wheelchair pantomimes this gesture. Of her Grandmother Wagner, who died too young and left only a portrait above the mantel, so beautiful, she says, “I would stare at her for hours.” Her untimely death so many years ago left my mother’s mother at 18 with almost as many brothers and sisters to care for as there were years in her life. No wonder she married young–a poor escape, followed by 16 children of her own and a husband who was by all accounts not easy to live with. He died before any of them were raised.
It was a tough life in those days, even without 16 children. The Upper Peninsula was a wild place; I remember it still a wild place in the 30s and 40s, and even today, behind the brick bi-levels with picture windows and attached garages that have been built in the old crossroads, whole chunks of the UP may still be called wild country–dense trees, dark nights, and empty roads to travel. In my mother’s childhood, the farms backed up to pure wilderness. Bears are part of her memories, and Indians, and sometimes the two together, as when the bear ate the papoose left hanging from a tree limb while the baby’s mother gathered berries.
The old family house was cold, drafty, and primitive; there were kerosene lamps; the toilets were outside, and people used chamber pots for something more practical than flower arrangements. My mother remembers years spent getting rid of the bedbugs. She still talks of how her sister cleansed her bedroom by pouring kerosene in the cracks of the walls and flooring. “It’s a wonder she didn’t burn the place down.”
But my mother fondly remembers the straw-filled mattresses and how sweet they smelled when the bedding was changed, and the pigs that she would not watch getting slaughtered, the horses that had names like Bill and Nick, and the cows that she and her brothers would ride, which angered my grandmother no little. She remembers the cats that lived in the barn and begged milk from the milkers; and so do I, my uncle Ed would squirt a stream of milk straight from cow’s teat to the nearest cat’s open mouth without losing a drop. This was the same Uncle Ed who talked me into bathing the cat beneath the pump. It was many years before I favored cats again.
My mother remembers her mother as a good woman with a sharp sense of humor who, keeping her complaints to herself, darned stockings in the dark so no one could see the tears in her eyes. “Why did you have so many children?” my Uncle Ray asked her. “Why didn’t you shoot some of us?” “Would you want to be the one that got shot?” she replied. She not only raised her own but took in an orphan cousin or so and raised them too.
I know that the stories Hamlin Garland wrote of 19th-century farm life are true. That world still existed when I was a child, and it was a world of work, work, work, and endless work. A city boy visiting the country relatives could only wonder at these people who rose before dawn and never left the fields and barns except to eat and sleep, whose children of his own age were already hardened and strong with no time for play. The Upper Peninsula is not easy farm country; the seasons are short, the soil rocky, the land better suited for pasture than crop. There were cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and a great red bull that would start your way when you cut across the field, and geese that could beat a child’s legs black and blue with their strong wings. There was a chicken too, remembered in a story I hear again today, that my mother–fully grown, married, and visiting from the big city–could or would not hold while its head was being whacked off. My grandmother chased after the unfortunate bird and performed the entire operation herself. “You’re not getting any!” she cried to my mother. “I told her I wouldn’t eat it anyhow,” my mother says proudly, her dark eyes glowing with pleasure. “And I didn’t!”
My mother was born in 1902. Today we talk of a time when children rode bareback on cows while Europe bled at Verdun. Seldom does she speak of this war. The anti-German sentiment that passed for patriotism at the time did not reach a little town like Bark River, and indeed, what could it have done there? German was the language of my mother’s childhood, of her school and her church, of her birth certificate, a language oddly lost in the lifetime to come. “Yes, we spoke German at home.” Three-quarters of a century later she cannot recall a word.
There is an old Polish woman in the nursing home who has forgotten how to speak English. Wheelchair-bound, she pushes up and down the halls, muttering in the language of her childhood. At the sight of my mother, her face lights up; they grasp each other’s hands and speak as old friends. “She doesn’t understand a word I say,” my mother informs me as soon as she feels we are out of earshot.
Communication between residents of the nursing home is difficult, often impossible. Almost no one hears well or speaks above a whisper; in the lunchroom, where an unwatched television intrudes, I must lean close to hear my mother’s words. Then I feel the frustration she and her friends share.
There are six regulars at her table. For people like my mother, it is very important that you sit with your friends. Lunchroom seating is difficult; wheelchairs clog up the aisles, and quarrels are not infrequent. Residents no longer in possession of their wits force their way into corners and aisles with no exits, and a man with a leg brace, nearly blind, reels dangerously from table to table. Watching these people eat will test your compassion. Crumbs fall, fragments dribble, substances ooze. Some residents must be fed by the aides, patiently opening and closing their mouths like obedient children. Soup is a challenge for everybody. Mother’s friend Marie rejects that challenge. “I never ate soup in my life. I’m 96 and I’m not going to start now.”
My mother is proud of Marie’s independence, and just as proud of Carl, who sits on her left and eats every drop and bite. “He leaves a clean plate,” she says. In my mother’s view, leaving a clean plate is an act of virtue, but then so is refusing your soup. Like all mothers, she has no difficulty holding two contrary opinions at one and the same time.
Michael, who sits across the table, puts me in mind of my father as he might have been if someone had squeezed all the meanness out of him. Michael likes to sing and drum his fingers on the table as if it were a keyboard. “Give us a song, Michael,” someone will say, and without hesitation Michael will deliver. My bonnie lies over the ocean. Sweet Rosie O’Grady. My father had almost come to this when the staph burned his life away. I do not forget our last time together, how he suddenly sat up in his hospital bed and how we looked directly into each other’s eyes. His were as pure and blue as the winter sky.
My sister and I hate visiting the nursing home. She is there every day, and I come every week, and there are things that run through your mind when you enter such a place that you would rather not say aloud. We talk to other visitors who have brought their parents here, and it is the same with them. Most of the visitors are old themselves, in their 60s, some of them in their 70s, some with canes and walkers of their own. I’m young, I’m young, you try to tell yourself, and then in the hall mirror you catch a glimpse of yourself and your white hair. Walk gently now and try not to see, in rooms on either side, those people bound to their beds, vacant eyed and openmouthed, waiting.
My mother has no use for death. Life is her thing. She came to Chicago shortly after the First World War to work in the homes of the wealthy. It must have been a bold move, a journey of unimaginable risks; if she experienced doubts, she kept them to herself and does so to this day.
Recently I visited a friend who was staying at a writers’ colony in Lake Forest, the first time I had ever been in that town. I mean to impress my mother with the wealth I have seen. “You should see how those people live,” I tell her. “My God, you should see those homes.”
“I worked in one,” she says. She still remembers the street name. Green Bay Road. I may have driven right by it.
My mother did not find domestic work demeaning; she is not ashamed of the uniform she wore. She speaks with pride of her employers and remembers them fondly. She tells of the little upstairs room they provided, warm and cozy and all her own, and of the friends she made, some young farm girls like herself, some imported from overseas. Those were the days of full domestic staffs: upstairs and downstairs maids, cooks, chauffeurs, laundresses, gardeners, a butler. The pay was good and the work was light–certainly by Upper Peninsula standards. On free nights she and her friends would take the train into Chicago for an evening of dancing somewhere on Montrose; returning, they’d be met at the station by the family chauffeur. I try to imagine this dancing place, the train stations, the house on Green Bay Road. In less than an hour we could drive there. We could drive down Montrose and head up to Lake Forest, and she could do her best to point them out to me. Alas, it is too late. My mother no longer can be fitted into a car, she must travel by ambulance; the daring farm girl who left childhood for the big city is now bound within these walls.
Even a trip down the block in her wheelchair is painful. The welcome sun and fresh air soon become enemies, the hated room and bed a refuge. Her head hangs helplessly, drool trickles from her mouth, her bladder is a threat. Public rest rooms, of course, are impossible; handicapped-accessible means nothing to a woman who must rely on a son. It is a relief to return, and you can see it in her face. Once my sister managed to transport her home for a holiday–it was an experience neither cares to repeat.
When she was in her 20s my mother bobbed her hair, wore skinny dresses, danced to live music, met and married my father. One of the challenges of family life is that children come into these stories when they are well beyond the beginnings and must puzzle certain things out for themselves. My mother and father did not seem to us children to be compatible, and we never stopped wondering what brought them together.
Unlike my mother, my father was not a man of stories. He must have known that very few people got rich telling stories. In my father’s view, art was quite simply a means by which lower-class people might become rich. He chose music and the piano, and why not–his was the heyday of vaudeville, of Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, of Red Nichols and his Five Little Pennies. My father honestly loved vaudeville and never recovered when movies took its place. “Just shadows on a screen,” he sneered, as good an excuse as any not to take his children to see them.
To use his own expression, he was as Irish “as Paddy’s pig.” He was born in Evanston, where his father–Irish enough to petition the archbishop for a job–dug graves at Calgary Cemetery. There, on the shores of cold Lake Michigan, rest many wealthy Catholic bones, and my socialist-voting grandfather’s too; but on the single occasion when we went looking, my father and I could not find the grave. Because my father did not much tell stories, I cannot tell you much about his early life. He was one of nine children; his parents were both deaf-mutes–hearing-impaired, I suppose we would call them today–who communicated through a sign language that relied heavily upon spelling out words with your fingers. All of the brothers and sisters could do it, of course, and we grandchildren learned our fair share. I remember a little printed card with the letters of the alphabet shown in finger signs. Armed with this we could speak to our grandparents. Somehow this family came to live on the north side of Chicago and send all but one of their children to college, the exception being my father, who dropped out of high school and ran away from home. Or maybe he didn’t actually run away; he did not, as I say, tell many stories.
Curiously, these grandparents who could not hear a sound possessed a piano that almost everyone learned to play, my father included; and never, until old age and Parkinson’s disease, did he give it up. He was about as good a piano player as I am a writer, which is to say not quite good enough. Only at his funeral did I learn he had once led his own band and performed professionally throughout the area. Things of this nature my father did not find sufficiently interesting to tell his children. In World War I he traveled around the world, and later declared it everywhere the same.
There is a picture of him in his Navy uniform, as he must have looked at the end of the war. He should be described as handsome. Movie-star handsome. My mother must have seen him as quite a catch. Only later did she see what she had caught.
It isn’t easy to talk of my father without creating certain misunderstandings. The word “love,” I want you to know, was not used much in our household and certainly never by my father. I knew him, of course, not as the handsome young man with a bright and promising future but as an eccentric Depression-broken cynic whose dreams had soured into absurdities.
He had lost the only white-collar job he would ever have. Too proud to live on relief, he brought us to a bitter little flat on Western Avenue where the rent was free because he worked as janitor, shoveling coal into the hopper just as he had shoveled coal into the boilers of merchant steamers during the war. He had a string of these janitor jobs, as many as eight or nine going at once, and he worked from dawn to dark and often beyond. This was work beyond menial; he had not one boss but a dozen, and he was a man who took orders poorly. He worked, he played his piano, he threw his money away at the card tables, he forced his children to take piano lessons in the hope that they would someday earn fame, and he engaged in a nonstop war with my mother that sometimes went beyond words and did not end until age and disability took the fight out of him.
My father died at the age of 71 in Hines VA Hospital in Maywood. The VA people were not too happy to have him there; in their view he plainly belonged in a nursing home. Everything in his body had collapsed; he had Parkinson’s disease, prostate troubles, kidney failure. Prematurely senile, he had become a man who got lost in the rooms of his own house. Had the staph infection not done its work, sooner or later someone would have had to make a decision, and my mother would have been the one to make it.
Visitors to the nursing home talk to one another about these decisions. It’s not an easy matter to pack up your mother and tell her, in effect, that this strange and terrible place will now be her home. Few people make such a choice willingly. In many cases it is the doctor who does it for them. The patient is bedridden, incontinent, often senile, in need of day and night nursing care; must be lifted, moved, given therapy, drugs, and medications; must be monitored by professionals, cannot ever be left alone. The care giver at home fights to repay a lifetime of love and sacrifice and live up to the ideals of yesteryear, but modern science, you see, does a very good job of keeping old people alive, and finally the moment comes.
My mother was carried into the nursing home on a stretcher. My sister and I accompanied her. There are things we do in this life that are hard, and this is one of the hardest things of all. She was given a bed next to a woman who had curled into the shape of a fetus and never moved again, a living corpse if you will. Across the hall was a woman who screamed. There are many such screamers in nursing homes. They scream for mama, they call for long-dead children, they simply make a noise, often the same noise, the same tone, the same intensity, over and over and over, mechanically. “I’m in an insane asylum,” my mother whispered.
I speak to other people, people at work, old high school friends, students, and acquaintances, about the experience. People with parents in nursing homes seem to seek each other out. Perhaps we should form support groups, but who in hell would have the time? The stories are all different, all the same. Bitterness, anger, confusion, pain, sorrow, love, what an awful brew. There are people who push themselves to physical collapse visiting parents who no longer recognize their faces, people who drive for hours to see parents who simply lie there and scream. They will tell you with tears in their eyes that he was “the kindest, gentlest man . . .” Now he rams his wheelchair into old women pushing walkers and curses them straight to hell.
When you talk to the residents, those who still think and talk, they will tell you proudly of their lifetimes of work. Motorman on the old streetcar lines, telephone operator in the “number, please” days, salesman for some forgotten product, this factory, that office, 30, 40, 50 years of service, money earned, money saved, families raised, homes purchased; these people believed in work. During World War II my mother, like so many other mothers, went back to work, first canning pickles and olives and chicken for Libby’s, a tough assembly-line job paid on a fiendish piecework system that she, of course, made the most of; then as a waitress and cook for a series of restaurants. She did not stop until those powerful legs, good for so many on-your-feet years, stiffened with arthritis.
By then money was not the issue, although as in so many Depression-era families, for many years it had been the only issue. People today would as soon not hear about the Depression, or failing that, see it in a kind of pink-clouded glow: a gentler, simpler time when people grew close and loved. Not so; the Depression tore into people’s souls, left wounds that never healed, scars that remained forever. Lacking money, good people became obsessed by money.
If my father and my mother agreed on anything, it was on the need for money. For my father, money meant more than goods, more than services, more than comfort and security. Naively, he saw money as his entrance to the envied upper classes, what little he knew of them. One can imagine him growing up in the shadow of Northwestern University, the oldest son of working parents who were not only Irish, not only Catholic, but deaf and dumb as well. Those were the days of “No Irish Need Apply” and of rumors that Catholics stored weapons in the convents, waiting for the day the pope would take over. My father–who once said “I used to wish that story was true”–chose not to go by his given name, Patrick, but by his middle name, Richard. He would not have the world know him as “Paddy.”
My mother was made of more sensible stuff. She had no illusions, no foolish expectations that she would ever live as those wealthy families in Lake Forest did; she wanted food on the table, clothes on the back, a solid secure roof to keep the elements out. She saw no stigma in the relief food my father so proudly shunned. Her wildest dream might have been to one day own a home, the kind of home any good solid American workingman ought to provide his family. I remember, instead, our apartments, one over a tobacco wholesaler with an adjoining rooftop we used as a playground, the other above a bank. These were commercial buildings with uncertain steam heat that other tenants held my father responsible for. There were cockroaches, mice, and above the tobacco wholesaler, rats that entered from an adjoining poultry house, creatures that eventually entered my mother’s collection of stories. Like all good storytellers, she welcomed their contributions, if not their actual presence. She was especially pleased by the rat Trixie bit so hard that blood squirted on Aunt Gertie’s silk stockings, Aunt Gertie being my father’s sister and a character only slightly less eccentric than himself. Aunt Gertie had gone to teachers’ college, and led a mysterious life seasoned by men; she had two children and no husband, smoked crimson-tipped cigarettes, and taught kindergarten, where she kept order by threatening to flush bad little children down the toilet. I don’t think the blood on her stockings bothered her quite as much as it might have my Aunt Flo, who according to Gertie looked beneath her bed every night for a man “and never found one!”
These Irish relations slightly appalled my mother. “They let the cat lick from the frying pan.” “They water down the catsup.” I never saw such things, but I must confess that my father did take a casual view of housekeeping. I once saw him bare-handedly squash a cockroach without interrupting his dinner, an accomplishment I found almost as admirable as it was disgusting. My mother’s frequent cleaning binges brought sneers to his aristocratic lips. “A human dynamo,” he would unkindly quip, and thus instigate new wars.
When he did buy a house, it was an ancient storefront frame building with space heaters and a false front, right in the middle of the famous Western Avenue hill where traffic slid backwards on snowy nights. A cigar maker occupied the storefront; an old half-blind woman, Mrs. Hanks, lived in the tiny downstairs apartment; the upstairs was ours, six drafty rooms that swayed like a ship at sea when the winds caught hold of the false front. The wonder of this house was not that it was so miserable but that my father had been able to purchase it at all.
This was during the Second World War, a time when working people in America were beginning to get back on their feet. Slowly. I speak of these things because I want you to know that the money my mother eventually turned over to the nursing home was not quickly or easily accumulated; it represented a lifetime of work, of sacrifice, of conflict, the profits from this house, sold when the new highway went through, and from its successor, sold after my father’s death, the pensions, the insurance, everything.
I read somewhere that the average nursing home resident becomes a pauper in less than a year. Lifetime savings that once seemed substantial and comforting evaporate like water on a hot grill. A very mediocre nursing home costs around $2,000 a month; the price goes up if you require extended care, if you would like a room of your own, if you would like such services as the use of a beauty parlor or having your laundry done. Medicare does not cover nursing-home costs, nor does your health insurance–take a look and see if I’m not right–and to qualify for Medicaid you must first spend every dime you possess. Here is something to think about if you plan on inheriting large sums from your parents.
Poor half-blind Mrs. Hanks who lived downstairs had no nursing-home option, no care-giving relatives to watch over her. On several occasions before she died, she nearly set our house on fire with her wood-burning stove. In the old wooden chest of drawers she left behind, I found newspapers from Germany dated in the 1880s. Doctors today, I am sure, would have kept her alive for a few more years. In this sense you might say she was lucky.
We all want to live forever–or think we do. My Irish grandmother lived past 90 and died at home, cared for by her daughters. She weighed less than 100 pounds. I helped carry her coffin; it could well have been empty. In the end small people make life easier for those left behind.
German women of my mother’s generation saw no disadvantage in growing–well, stout. “She needs some meat on her bones,” they would say about young women such as my wife. My mother, shrunken now, is still a big woman. Tall, strapping, she could work like a man, paint walls, scrub ceilings, move heavy furniture, stand at a grill all day, fight a near-even battle with my father–and he was no ninny. Never was she sick. She laughed at doctors who told her to lose weight, right into her 80s she laughed; how long after all is a person supposed to live?
People in a nursing home do seem to live forever. It’s an illusion, of course. From my mother’s room I can see the back entrance of a second nursing home that adjoins this one. One afternoon I observed an old brown station wagon pull up behind the other home and quietly remove something that was long and still and wrapped in white. I did not mention this to my mother, who was facing the other way, but several weeks later she informed me that she had often seen bodies taken out that same door.
When a person dies in the nursing home, word spreads quickly among the residents. The lady down the hall. That old man with one leg. A woman in the other wing. Sometimes a name. Helen. Irene. No announcements are made, no services held, but every resident who can know somehow does. They shake their heads but they do not mourn; if there are tears, they fall from the eyes of staff persons, who become surprisingly fond of their charges.
People who work in nursing homes do not become wealthy. That is a fair statement. One aide told my sister he was leaving for a better job, a chance to earn eight dollars an hour, proof I suppose of an adage I call Pekin’s Law: the harder the work, the more unpleasant the task, the less the reward. To help each resident out of bed, to struggle with her heavy, inert body, to bathe her, dress her, get her into her chair, to get her on and off the toilet, to wheel her into the dining room; to repeat that process with the next, and the next, and the next patient; to strip the sheets, to empty the bedpans, to carry off the soiled diapers; to feed the helpless and answer their calls, to direct the lost, to comfort the confused, to shave the ancient faces and comb the thinning hair, to turn the bedridden lest they develop sores, to wash and dress these sores when inevitably they develop; to do all this and more knowing all along, as any thinking person would know, that the fate you see around you may someday be your own–this is not work for the squeamish, nor for the weak, nor for the impatient and hard of heart. And if there is a constant shortage of help and a continual turnover among the help, this is not the wonder, the wonder is that anyone would want such a job at all.
Before coming to the nursing home my mother lay on her back at my sister’s house, incontinent, catheterized, unable to lift her head, a tank of oxygen at her side. Night and day–what difference was there between them to her?–she would call my sister’s name, until my sister came to dread the very sound of it. A pillow must be turned, a sheet straightened, a cover pulled back, the bedpan positioned. Trips to the doctor had to be made by ambulance, house calls having disappeared along with the youth of my mother’s generation.
In the nursing home there is a doctor who makes regular calls. Medicare, subject to its arcane regulations, pays his fees. A specialist in aging, he tells my sister, “You can treat the elderly, but there is always something new to go wrong.”
In the nursing home, my mother has regained her ability to sit, even to take a perilous step. She again can feed herself, her eyes have grown brighter, in her wheelchair she has at least some mobility. And yet, even as she fights to hold her life, she sometimes says, “Why couldn’t I just die?”
Dying is a difficult, tedious business, not a very fine reward for a long, hardworking life. Modern science has made it so. People who would have quietly drifted off in their beds now hobble the halls or lie openmouthed with tubes in their veins. My mother has made a “living will,” but do not be deceived, a living will will not save you from the needles, the tubes, and the catheters that will prolong your last days into weeks and months. There are no rights and wrongs here, no clear ethical solutions, only good people face-to-face with eternity.
My mother tells her stories. She tells of the chicken that caught her sister’s pigtail in its beak, of the bear encountered in the berry patch, she remembers again the old drafty house that swayed with the wind, the bowling team and the friends, all dead now, who gathered in the Schnitzelbank Tavern, the brothers, sisters, neighbors, all dead now, my youngest sister, also dead now, her ashes buried in the plot that awaits my mother. My mother tells her stories, she remembers her little dog Jughead, dead now, barking at the toll keeper; the cat, Hiska, dead now, that ate the feathers off her java temple bird; old Trixie who bit the rats. She recalls her life, and large chunks of mine, and maybe some of yours too if you have roots in this country’s past, the cars you cranked to start, the milk bottles that froze outside the kitchen door, the iceman and his tongs, the smell of the old stockyards, the train rides to the Upper Peninsula, the World War II bomber that flew so low over our building (were the boys waving at my sister?). Her stories and my stories are all mixed together and maybe not accurate, and soon enough no way to check. I see her this day, with her eyes deep and beautiful; we will have a priest when she dies, not that she wants the prayers or even believes in the afterlife, but we will have a priest, a young priest, and she will like that because she always did like young men.
There will be other days almost as good as this one, but they will grow fewer and fewer. I rise, time to go to work, and pick up my gym bag–in it are my gun, my leather, my uniform shirt and star; did she ever imagine her scrawny son who read too many books and “ruined his eyes” in poor light would wind up a cop? I bend to kiss her good-bye. I have kissed my mother more in the last year than in all my life. We Pekins are not a kissing, hugging, touchy-feely family, we are staunch and tough and self-contained and only occasionally will you see a tear in our eye. Good-bye, mother, good-bye; no, I never say good-bye, I’ll see you, I say, take care of yourself, I say, and she says yes.
I walk down the hall, quickly now, past the legless man who clutches at my arm, past the mindless old woman endlessly beating her tray, past the bedridden openmouthed ancients who already have begun the long sleep, past the angry armless man. I stop and pat old Carl on the shoulder, I do the same for John K., who recognizes no one, I say goodnight to the nurse at the desk, and then I am outside. Such a simple act, to open a door, to step out, I almost did not write it, it’s so common, so mundane. “He opened the door and stepped outside.” So simple, so easy, so absolutely impossible, and here it is, the living world, whizzing by on four wheels, the young and healthy with their Camaros and Grand Ams, the homeward-bound commuters with cigarettes in their lips, the heavy trucks. I head north on Harlem, fighting traffic, squeezing around the road repairs, ignoring blasting horns and jabbing fingers; soon enough I’ll be in uniform and getting even with these guys. It’s funny what pops into your head while you are driving–or maybe pops into your head a year later while you are writing this down, but suddenly I’m remembering my own time in the hospital and how I spent the night waiting for morning and the operating room. No sleep that night, only a hundred trips to the bathroom and finally, standing at my window, a chance to watch the sun rise in the east.
If you stand very still and watch the sun rise, you can actually see it move. You can see it rise over the horizon and actually form its ball, you can see it lift and grow round; and if you are in a hospital and very aware, you can feel, somewhere in your ancestral blood, the earth itself turn. The sun moves, it moves, you can see it move, and then it is up and bright and you can no longer hold it in your eye.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.