Excerpt from a novel in progress
[Raymond is 40, and he refers to his mother as JP, which stands for Janie Poo.]
Though she’d sometimes make mention of the Big Guy, JP didn’t seem to buy into the conventional Catholic Creator she was raised to believe in, and although I never pressed for specifics on what that all-important word meant to her, how did she define it, I did ask her about Heaven and Hell (having been scared shitless ever since Sunday School): did she believe these existed as actual places the way we were taught? Her response confirmed how far she’d strayed from the Catholic course.
“O heavens,” she said (no kidding, apparently unaware of the pun). “That’s all right here. Hell is where poor Marsha Brennan lives.”
One of JP’s old high school chums, Marsha Brennan at seventy-three had so many things wrong with her—physically—her body had become a war-zone of conflicting maladies that left her in a constant state of pain, mitigated only somewhat by a steady, daily diet of pain meds.
“Marsha’s Hell isn’t someplace else,” she goes on, “it’s her own life.”
JP, on the other hand, was in pretty good shape at seventy-three, when we had this conversation: first thing every morning she’d go for a forty-minute bike ride, rain or shine. Whenever I’d come to town for a visit, the two of us always stayed up late talking and drinking wine, warmed by a bristling fireplace while Sinatra—or Rosemary Clooney, or Mel Tormé, you get the idea—crooned to create a nostalgia we craved. In these years, my mother was excited and garrulous about sharing her past, and by then I’d learned that, for me, listening had become infinitely more interesting than doing my own talking. Having endured two husbands who couldn’t be called “listeners” regardless of the means used for measure, JP had whole chunks of her history she’d never shared, so an eagerness to tell—coupled with my eagerness to hear—made us a good match. And these nights always ended the same way: at some point it would hit me that I’d had a lot of wine, and while she might still be going strong I knew I’d better pack it in for the night lest I be completely useless the next day. (Not that I was ever bored—fact is I always hated to call it quits, so fun was it to hang out with such an interesting woman as my mother was.) And no matter how late it might be when at last we succumbed to bed, that badass would be up and on that bike of hers first thing the morning following, like her body kept the schedule of its own volition despite what she might have done to throw it off. And it showed. My mother had such great-looking legs that I’d sometimes catch myself gawking at them—not in any prurient way, rather all those muscles she had gave a guy like me something to shoot for.
All this changed once she hit 75, though, and—here again—it’s almost like her body had its own internal clock she couldn’t have changed no matter what. It started with a wreck, a fall from that bike, her hand gripping the wrong brake due to a dulled instinct that locked her front wheel and sent her over the handlebars.
At that age, one bad move and you may never ride again.
Not that she didn’t try. A number of weeks subsequent to the accident, once her scrapes had scabbed-over and her limbs’ soreness subsided, she rolled her bike out of the utility room one morning to mount again the horse who’d thrown her, only to fall before she’d even gotten out of the driveway. She wasn’t exactly sure how it happened, like maybe when she climbed aboard that bike and began to pedal her foot slipped and the next thing she knew she was again plastered to the pavement, the bike on top of her this time. And she couldn’t get up. Something about the renewed pain, the awkwardness of that bike bearing down with her skin seared against the sun-soaked pavement, put her in a panic, and when at last she’d wrested herself out from under the thing she was finished with it forever, would never again try to climb aboard it.
Later she’d admit it was fear, pure and simple—those two falls scared her off the bike for good, even when she considered herself lucky for not having broken any bones. This fact alone—that she was afraid—told the tale, for I never knew my mother to be scared of anything, certainly nothing so simple as a bike ride. Yet insidiously, over a period of weeks, there was a shift into a more cautionary mode.
Which only means I should’ve seen what was coming.
It was a Wednesday phone call from my sister Christina that woke me what my mom’s life was becoming. The Tuesday night prior, sometime just after eleven, JP had gone to the bathroom and, rising from the john, lost her legs and dropped in a blink, striking her head on the porcelain edge of the tub on her way down.
She wasn’t knocked out, but couldn’t get up: her legs were useless bloated appendages twisted underneath her; her lower back now had an exploded disk undermining every effort to move; and from the side of her forehead, just above her left temple, blood pumped onto the floor of the pristine bathroom she kept as immaculate as every room in the house. (We’d always joked that even JP’s floors were clean enough to cook an egg on.) If the fall itself hadn’t rendered her woozy, or the blow to the head, the blood-loss made sure of it. Too weak to get anywhere, she just lay there while life leaked out of her. Time crawled by in a blur. Sometime later she gripped the edge of the tub and was able to pull herself up to a seated posture, but that took everything out of her. Again, time crawled on. Imagine what she must’ve thought. Post-facto, I never rose to the task of asking, partially for fear of her answer, and partially because I didn’t believe (still don’t) that putting her through the memory in such detail would have done her (or anyone) any good. Why ask her to relive it? To satisfy a son’s compulsive curiosity? I couldn’t do it, so what little we know is that when Christina couldn’t reach JP Wednesday morning she drove over to the house and, letting herself in (nervous) when JP failed to answer the door-bell, found our mother sitting against the tub in the bathroom in a pool of herself worthy of a horror movie (such was how William, Christina’s husband, described the scene since he was the one who’d gone over to clean up the mess, make order out of the chaos, JP now in the hospital where she’d lay for days trying to heal-up enough to go home). It had been sometime after ten that morning when Christina found her, meaning eleven hours had elapsed since she’d fallen—overnight hours. Know what I’m saying?
If you don’t, damned if I can tell you, lucky bastard.
Once she got sent home I drove down to visit, and the woman I found in my familiar childhood home—a woman who, up until a few months prior, still made-up her face every morning, still went to the salon to have her hair colored—was a horribly beat-up, damn-near gruesome-looking version of my mom. A fat, awful bandage over her left eye covered almost that whole half of her face, and the other eye was so swollen and cloudy I could hardly recall what color it had been. Both arms were banged up and likewise bandaged and blood-stained, her once-gorgeous legs so bloated from fluid build-up they appeared to belong to someone else’s body. The warnings Christina had given to prepare me were no help whatsoever: my face fell the second I laid eyes on her. Even a simple hug was now out of the question—too fragile. The only physical affection afforded us was the most delicate touching of fingers.
By now Christina had hired a home-care nurse named Roberta, who helped with everything from getting our mom up and down to going to the bathroom to taking her meds and changing her bandages. Thank god JP had been a slave to conventional pragmatics and saved money all those years—unable to afford home care she’d be in a nursing home for sure. Roberta Tally was a saint among us, kindness incarnate, whose very appearance surely pushed buttons my mom had never bothered to conceal, not until now, that is—a hefty woman, for starters, and JP was bad about seeing pounds as the product of indolence and lassitude. Roberta was black, too, and while JP was by no means a racist she definitely harbored skepticism whereas it regarded the races getting along. She believed that whites had brutalized blacks for so long there was an earned, inherent distrust that leaned always toward animosity. Learned behavior. Now here she was, dependent on an overweight black woman for every damn thing.
Christina’s view? God put Roberta there on purpose to teach our mom, show her.
“Are you kidding, Ray? All the nurses in Ferndon and mom gets Roberta? That’s no accident.”
Her body now oozed fluid like one giant wound, thus her bandages needed to be changed frequently, and regularly, a process she said was like watching her own butchering. Roberta had this little water-bottle with a pin-sized aperture, and as she started removing the old bandages she’d spray water to loosen the gauze lest she peel my mom’s skin off with the bandage. As it is, plenty of skin did come off, causing JP to wince and hiss the entire time from the searing sting. This was my mother, who long ago got diagnosed with what her doctor called “a dangerously high tolerance for pain.” Dr. Broughton, who’d been her doctor even BC (Before Christina), told JP point-blank that if ever something started to hurt she should come in immediately—whatever it was would be a lot further along for her than it would be for most, given that she didn’t register pain the same way most of us do. One time, in her late fifties, my mom had broken her nose when a shower curtain rod fell on her—of course she didn’t know her nose was broken and lived with it for a week before at last calling Broughton, who made the diagnosis and also observed that things most people would call painful were merely uncomfortable for JP. This explained a lot to me and Christina, who suffered the usual array of childhood injuries without much in the way of sympathy from a progenitor who, we now knew, simply didn’t get it, couldn’t relate. Subsequent to a bike crash when I was ten she used nine Band-Aids to keep closed the long ragged gash a metal pipe had ripped in my side. Breathing caused a stabbing pain, like a vicious, insistent cramp, and blood leaked constantly. After a few days of this JP finally took me to Dr. Milton, our pediatrician, who scolded her (really, that cat wasn’t afraid) for not bringing me in sooner to have it stitched up—twenty-something stitches once all was said and done. Pain to her was something you just dealt with, if you were weak enough to feel it in the first place. Now she spent an hour wincing while Roberta changed her bandages, like she needed a bullet to bite on.
That weekend I realized my mom would never be the same: the eleven-hour ordeal on the floor of her bathroom, the one the doctor said “should’ve killed her,” punctured something in her spirit that would never rise again. It was obvious, and to say it was heartbreaking to witness (terrifying, too) doesn’t even come close. Always easy to laugh (at least with me), she no longer laughed, at anything, ever. Nor did she smile. Reading, for which she had a ferocious passion, no longer was possible: between her bad eyes and an attention-span she admitted didn’t exist anymore, sitting with a book and expecting to become enraptured by it as she always had been (or at least escape her bleak reality for a bit) was a fatuous notion she wasn’t foolish enough even to try. So she did what it seems we’re all destined to do, the thing I honestly believed was beneath her—she buried her brain in the television. My mother, who’d always loathed TV and its idiotic drivel, now sat in front of that jabbering box from the time she woke to the time she lay down, and I spent that weekend doing it, too, sitting in awful silence while that thing spoon-fed us its specious “drama” and absurd “comedy,” between which it bludgeoned us with advertisements of every conceivable kind, the majority of them being for one drug or another. Drugs! What the hell? Not having spent considerable time in front of a television since I was a kid, I couldn’t believe what it openly acknowledged about us: that we’re all sick with something, and between over-the-counter stuff for allergies or indigestion and the prescription stuff for depression or erectile dysfunction, drugs have become the Big Business. Not that I didn’t already suspect as much, given the fact that every other block in any town no matter the size is taken up by one of those sprawling drug stores that means to sell (along with drugs) damn near everything a supermarket does. But three days of TV-watching and I was becoming one of them—fast. Do you feel bad for any reason whatsoever, physically, emotionally, or otherwise? Dissatisfied with your life? Ask your doctor (because of course you have one, right?) about SOLVITOL, though you’ll likely become saddled with any of the following fifteen side effects should you start taking it . . .
Think I’m exaggerating? Then you haven’t spent any time in front of a television lately—lucky you. Three days of that and I felt like Death eating an onion sandwich, ready to take any damn thing at all. Really, to see what we’ve become will make you ill, or at least put The Fear in you. In my case, it boiled my blood. Smoking a little grass could land me in jail, yet everyone in the country is knocking back drugs like candy—antihistamines and antacids, or kidney-killers like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, the “innocuous” ones. And the number of ads for prescription drugs is unbelievable: Mother’s got more Little Helpers than ever. Pretty people with pained expressions trudge through their blurred homes in slow motion, convincing us it can happen to anyone, but a prescription to this latest drug and miraculously the image resolves itself into focus, brilliantly-colored, you’re smiling in the sunshine while pushing your happy little girl on the swing-set . . .
I bore witness, JP next to me with a stare gone vacuous, duly taking her half-a-dozen pills every morning and evening, the television taking what little energy she had left by flogging her with the glamorous worlds of all those celebrities living happier lives than she, or—on another channel—the shattered lives of poor damaged sots whose history of spousal abuse and alcoholism have somehow gotten them a seat on a talk show being watched by millions.
What a fucked-up lot we are.
Three days. No longer did I spend the night there at home with my mom, staying up late talking and drinking wine, relishing stories from her steal-trap memory. Rather, I’d stay for as long as I could stand it—JP dozing before that overloud chatterbox, snoring up a storm and humped over like a body—then I’d kiss her lightly on the top of her head and leave her to Roberta, who’d eventually move her to bed where she’d remain until noon the next day, no more the early riser going for a bike ride first thing up to kick-start another good day of retirement. Me, I’d head to Christina’s, which is where I was staying, but en route I’d always stop at this crummy sports bar for a necessary pre-bed purgative, a place whose epileptic lighting via a dozen giant-screen TVs was battled only by the bad music they played so loud I couldn’t imagine trying to have a conversation around it. Such was the tradeoff. No way was I going to get through the night at Christina’s born-again, bone-dry place without booze of some kind, so I’d drink a couple of gin-and-tonics, barely tolerating Bad Company or something equally empty while the reality of what I’d spent the day doing sank inside of me like a sense of defeat only the alcohol could ameliorate. Truly, those drinks saved my ass, proving that booze can be a blessing, a life-saver: though drunks have ruined its reputation forever, nobody can tell me that those post-JP drinks were a bad thing. They brought me back, reminded me I was alive and in a body that had yet to betray me—though of course that day would come whether I boozed it up or not. Even the lame, downright obnoxious surroundings of the sports bar didn’t distract me from the restorative decompression I’d come for. Okay, it’s happening, JP is starting to go, she’s on that treadmill to the tomb we’ve all got waiting for us. This is what happens, this is what I’ve always known would happen.
Well, not exactly. What I imagined was her slipping painlessly into death like the Long Sleep, here one minute gone the next, and while the suddenness of that might scare some, still it was hoped-for here, it was what I most wanted for my mom. Who wouldn’t? Alas, this is not the way it was going, and I needed to adjust my expectations accordingly. This business of watching her gradually lose one thing after another, not only her health but her happiness, just wasn’t part of the plan I didn’t even realize I’d composed, so all the things I’d imagined would be difficult—no more phone calls, no more advice, no more fun wine-long nights, no more unconditional support—all those things got edged out by what was difficult: bearing witness to her suffering, no way to ease it, not even knowing what to say, she with whom what-to-say had never been an issue at all since there was so much we each wanted to share. Then the next day I’d be back in that house which now reeked of sad suffering and debilitation. The repository of so many of my own mixed emotions was getting weightier by the day and I’d sit in silence staring at that fucking television screaming out its absurdities while JP stared or dozed, my wheels working away, watching the clock and watching the clock and watching the clock until it gave me permission to get up and fix lunch for myself (not that I was hungry) or—better—go out to lunch, walk through the door and see that outside it was cloudy or sunny and people were living their lives and the neighbor’s cat was curled on the hood of their car or killing a bird while Mr. Markham up the block mowed his lawn with his little girl Leslie selling lemonade in Dixie Cups like something out of the good old days. Sometimes I’d even get JP’s now-never-used bike out of the utility room and pedal it around the old neighborhood, the haunts of my youth, the rushes of remembrance rolling over me—the Murphys lived there, brothers Ted and Walter being my best friends when we were still in single digits, killing time like there was an endless supply of it. They moved away sometime after junior high, and later word got to me that Ted became a lawyer and Walter a pharmacist, their father Walter Sr. having died of a stroke some time ago. Around another corner was the house of Sara Joselove, my first crush, grade school, years before Lauren Petersen became my obsession. Who knows if this two-story brick house still belongs to the Joselove family, but by god I stood outside of it on my dying mother’s too-small-for-me bicycle trying to will an adult Sara to walk out that door. Truth is there were so many other corners still to turn, so many other avenues down which I could travel, and all of them leading to the same place where My Time no longer lazed around waiting to be burned through, rather was running out faster than I could assimilate. Well, why not take that ride, why not bike up to Hodge Elementary School, whose halls held my young spirit for four years? I’ll tell you why: because nowadays, in this gun-crazed country of ours, an elementary school like Hodge has to be locked down like a prison, a tall chain-link fence keeping sentimentalists like me safely at bay, Memory Lane cut off by a road block. So it goes . . .
Just as well, though—by the time I biked back home I was drenched anyway, soaking wet from all these tidal waves. Walking back into the house usually stirred JP from her dozing, and I’d settle right back into that same seat on the sofa still warm from when I left it, noticing with a sense of shame that my mom smelled bad. Bad. Who knows what it was? All those drugs, maybe; or the fact that bathing now meant nothing more than a sponge cleaning from Roberta, her oozing decaying flesh literally falling off with every bandage-change; or maybe it was some synthesis of all these things. Whatever the source, the very smell of her was working on me, starting to sicken me and turn my stomach, and it seemed to get worse by the minute, like I was losing tolerance. It was in my nostrils, it clung to my clothes, so when I left and went back to Christina’s it came with me, I could still smell it. The stench made me so nauseous I could hardly stand to eat. I’d shower, soap my whole body twice, wash my hair longer than usual, leave Christina’s sweet-smelling lavender-scented conditioner on for five full minutes, then smear lotion all over my face afterwards. Yet when all was said and done I’d try to fix a sandwich or something and there was the smell again, overpowering everything I’d done in vain to drown it. The reek of my mom’s dissolution was everywhere, everywhere, so pungent it penetrated my soul and stayed with me no matter the efforts made to get shed of it. It spoiled my appetite, my mood, and my hope that anything fun would ever happen again. And when a concerned friend would inquire about JP, how’s your mom doing, it was all I could do not to say just take a deep breath, catch a whiff of that woman’s dying stench I carry everywhere like an incurable disease that corrupts even my dreams.
How’s she doing? Going the way of all things . . . and in no special hurry.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Joseph Hanson