Waiting for the Grassy Drop
“Oh, he loved his mother / Above all others” (“The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh)
We drive the seventy-five miles to my father’s grave and my mother barely says a word. Through towns and farmland once so familiar she’d list each one and its inhabitants, the names dropping like musical notes. No more. Today, all she says is, “Ah, I don’t remember any of this. I must be addled.” My heart cracks a little more.
We pick our way back from the grave, treading carefully to avoid someone else’s resting place. Clouds scud by over the mossy, bird-shit stained gravestones and my mother stumbles as she navigates the grassy drop to the path. I catch her fall and bear her weight, realizing the next time I visit this blasted patch of earth might be to bury her beside my father. “God bless you, Son. You’re very good,” she says.
No. Not really. I’m not very good at all. Far from it, if I am honest with her. I left home and twenty-one years later return to witness my mother’s descent into a childlike state of bewilderment and uncertainty. The signs were there eighteen months ago when she tripped over a trouser press in her bedroom and gashed her hand. It was three days before she had it looked at by a doctor. An accident, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she insisted when the doctor pressed her on the matter.
You’d have to have known my mother to know her strength. Raised four boys and a husband who was, for all intents and purposes, a fifth boy. He couldn’t boil an egg. Mow the grass? No problem. Domestic duties? You must be joking. After raising us, she took care of him in the aftermath of a terrible car wreck. Started a small business selling apple tarts and cakes to local shops, until some jealous neighbor shopped her to the health department. She marshaled our father through his medical appointments, his drinking, and his flailing nightmares.
Since my father died of a stroke fourteen years ago she has lived alone, independent, taking care of herself on her own terms. I call her every Sunday. The conversation rarely wavers from a well-oiled script—the weather, “How are the family? How is work? The words turn in on themselves, repetitive patters of paisley print. She asks, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And three minutes later, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And again, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” The repetitiveness is ominous. Her short-term memory is in tatters.
She no longer cooks: this, the woman whose baking and cooking was the talk of our friends and relatives for most of her lifetime. The cousins and aunts and uncles who’d show up every year just before Christmas to collect their cakes and puddings and couldn’t stay for tea because of a million excuses are long gone and never visit. The fridge is a museum of hard-caked milk in jugs, of meat gone off, of bread with mold, of decay and ageing.
There is evidence she no longer bathes, either. The week I’m home, the shower in her room never gets used, nor the bath in the landing bathroom. I sneak into her bedroom and check her washcloth for dampness and use. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing her body with the wet cloth every few days. Her clothes, too, are dirty, unwashed, recycled. I do three loads of laundry for her, making sure to dry them on the rickety clotheshorse in the spare bedroom. The fastidious woman who took so much pride in her appearance has been shut inside another version of my mother, a living Babushka doll.
For as far back as I can remember, mother solved with alacrity the Sunday Observer Crossword for forty years. Every time I arrive home we pass the paper back-and-forth, solving the last few clues together. This time the grid is a blank slate. I fill in a few clues to get her started and pass the paper her way. Two days later only my handwriting is on the checkered grid.
I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. The phone calls from my brothers warned me, “You’ll be shocked at what you see.” Not really, as my weekly phone calls, or Skype time with her tip me off to the changes afoot. I ask her what she had for dinner at my brother’s house. “Chicken,” she says. He interrupts and corrects her. Not chicken. Chorizo. Her once-strong mind, her sharp-witted remarks, her caustic comments on various topics are now faded tapestries in a room no longer accessible to her.
I see myself in my mother; the genetic code of her side of the family is strong in me. I have her family’s famous ears, as do my son and daughter. I put my daughter to bed each night, reading her a bedtime story, giving her the “double cuddles,” she asks my wife and I to bestow. My toddler cried her eyes out when I got on the bus for LAX and my heart gave way. “You go see your momma?” she asked me before I left. “Yes, my love, I go see my momma…” I didn’t finish the sentence. I wanted to say, “Yes, I go see my momma, and it might be the last time I get to see her alive.”
What I see when the door to her house opens is not my mother. Is my mother? My mother is not my mother. Not the mother I want. Where has she gone? She has been replaced by this diminished, bird-like imposter. I try to draw her into conversation about her life, my brothers and their families. She sits in her armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. A distant look on her face. She is there, but not there. I am bereft; witnessing her withdrawal from this world, seeing this woman who used be the rock our family clung to, reduced to shards.
The truth is unknown. Over coffee with my brothers we speculate. Willful decision to withdraw? A series of mini-strokes? Dementia? We don’t know. Tests on Thursday: brain scans, angiograms, EKG, MRI, the lot. Maybe there’ll be answers. She has an inhaler for the emphysema and smokes like a fucking chimney. Did the doctor tell you to cut down on the cigarettes, I ask. “Ah, no, he didn’t.” Of course, the doctor said cutting back would be a good idea, but that cutting them out at her stage of life might be depriving her of one of her few pleasures in life. Irish doctors, I suppose they know what they’re doing…
She tells the doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital when we go in to have her eyes checked that she’s addled, too. She also tells the Romanian receptionist we make her six-month check-up with: “I’m addled.” Code for bewildered, confused, unsure, and unable to remember. All I want to do is go home to my wife and daughter and cry. I’m addled, too.
Her pills are displayed on the kitchen counter. Seven boxes, and three bottles of eye drops in the fridge. The names and the directions confuse me, so I can only imagine what they do to her. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she says. Several times a day I ask if she’s all right and she answers the same each time, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” She sits in her chair, smoking. Silk Cut Blue, the long ones. The cushion and the carpet around her feet bear the burn marks that have us so worried she’ll burn the place to the ground one of these nights. Grandchildren refuse to enter the house because of the smoke, and one tells my brother to shower immediately he returns from her house.
We meet again, my brothers and I, at a local coffee shop, to have a conversation we never imagined having. Talk of living power of attorneys, of long-term care, of nursing homes, of unimaginable scenarios we surely only thought happened to other people. Amazingly enough, for a quartet that rarely agrees on anything, we are in consensus about how to move forward with my mother’s care. We all agree that maintaining her independence for as long as she is able, and of reasonable sound mind, is what is best. If, or when, she becomes a danger to herself, well, that’s another conversation to be had.
My mother and I sit in front of the television; her breathing a shallow wheeze of short, swift inhales and exhales. I picture her lungs, 80-90% useless, blackened from seventy years of smoking. The specialist spotted her breathing issues straight away, declared her to have “emphysema.” Strange, how her regular GP never said a word about her breathing. Bloody nationalized medicine and its inept purveyors.
At night, her bedside alarm clock beeps incessantly, the snooze button malignant and disruptive. I try to fix it for her, but she shepherds me out of her bedroom. The alarm keeps going off every ten minutes, and after two nights of this fiasco, I take the batteries out and hide the clock in the spare bedroom.
Two weeks later, back in the smoke-free house on the avocado ranch in Southern California, I realize it’s as if the alarm clock was displaying the same repetitive pattern as my mother does when I speak with her on the telephone. If only the answer to her problems were as simple as replacing the batteries inside the clock. There’s no replacing her batteries. All that remains is to tell her I love her, ignore the repeated questions and answer them as if each instance is the first time of asking. If we’re lucky we’ll travel home at the end of the summer so her grandkids can have a few memories of their Irish grandmother before she deteriorates further.
I see my mother in my children, I hear her voice on Sunday phone calls, and I write my stories and novels with the love for words and literature she gave me when I was a young boy. She is in all my stories, standing over the actions of my characters, a witness in a manner of speaking. And I too am a witness, to the playing out of her dénouement. All I can do at the end of the day is bear witness, say, “I showed up.” All else is beyond my control.
Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, Salon, Jezebel, The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen leads The Manifestation Retreat/Workshop: On Being Human all over the world. Next up: a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Seattle and London July 6 and Dallas. (London sells out fast so book soon if you plan on attending!)