I deal with my parents when they are very old

Mom wanted to stay home. Dad wanted her to stay home. Yet home had become a bedlam.

“I don’t like white cake,” she said through clenched teeth. “You’d think somebody would remember I liked chocolate cake.”
  • “I don’t like white cake,” she said through clenched teeth. “You’d think somebody would remember I liked chocolate cake.”

A week before Christmas, two weeks before her 80th birthday, my mother fell and broke her hip. She was in the kitchen, trying to open the refrigerator. Weakened and trembling from ten years of Parkinson’s, she struggled with the door. My father scurried to help her. The door was flung open and Mom went backwards to the linoleum.

 “I only weigh a hundred pounds. It doesn’t take much to keep me alive.”

“I only weigh a hundred pounds. It doesn’t take much to keep me alive.”

Scott Cunningham

Dad called 911 and then me. I was relieved he’d called. He’s 84 and he still drives, a tiny gnome behind the wheel of his old New Yorker. He stood 5'4" in his prime and looked remarkably like Ross Perot, down to the burr haircut and the Dumbo ears. Now he’s shrunk to pygmy height. Even with the pillow he puts on the seat, his head is hardly visible when I see him coming carefully down the road. Thirty years ago he killed a young woman, running her off the road into a bridge abutment. This happened, ironically, as he was making a left turn into the State Patrol office to report another driver. I feel guilty letting him drive, fearing the death of another innocent, but I’ve done nothing about taking the car from him. It would be the final step, reducing him from the once-vital man he had been to a helpless oldster trapped in his mobile home.

I picked him up and took him to the emergency room. Mom was lying on a narrow, padded gurney. The limp hospital gown gaped open over her thigh and buttock. The flesh was white, blotched, veined, and hung limply over the fragile bones. I pulled the flannel sheet over her nakedness. “You must be cold, Mom.”

“No, no, I don’t think so,” she said. “Where am I? Who are these people? I want to go home. I was just starting dinner, and I want to sweep the kitchen tonight.”

My mother has been a housewife for 55 years. The house was always spotless. She hemmed our pants and made Dad and herself matching golf outfits on an old treadle Singer back in the windowless closet converted to a sewing room. Dinner was on the table at six sharp.

Dad, my brother, and I took the dinner, the hemmed pants, the scrubbed floors for granted. We took her for granted, too. In recent years, as her capacity for work diminished, her resentment increased.

“How do you feel, Mom? Are you in any pain?” I asked.

“I’m a little sore. I fell down and bumped myself. I want to go home.”

She noticed Dad for the first time. “Did you turn off the burners on the stove?”

She turned back to me. “He forgets to turn off the burners. I always have to remind him. He’s going to burn the house down someday.”

Her resentment focuses on Dad. Their conversations have deteriorated into a continuing argument, with her hurling increasingly improbable accusations at him and him trying to placate her but usually only making her angrier.

“Now, Grace, you know that’s not true,” he said as he nervously tugged and tucked the sheet around her.

“Oh, you old fool! Between those burners and your stinky cigarettes that you leave everywhere, you’ll manage to burn it down.” She laughed. “If I don’t get to come home, you’ll probably do it tonight. Then I’ll have no place to go.” Her voice, though weak and trembling, was laden with scorn.

“He’s been stealing cigarettes, you know,” she said to me. “Fifteen packages. That’s 15 years in jail. He’s going to ruin us. You won’t listen, but I know.”

“Now, honey. I know you’re upset and don’t mean anything you say,” Dad said.

She slapped feebly at his twitching hands, his hovering face. “Get away from me! Give the injured woman room to breathe!” She laughed again. “Or you could just put the pillow over my head. That would be better than burning to death!”

The emergency room doc arrived at that point. A skinny, awkward kid, the class nerd whose devotion to study had gotten him into and through med school. Six months earlier he diagnosed my agonizing gut pain as “maybe a ruptured abdominal aorta, and there’s always the big C....” I spent a terrified half-hour before a cheerful x-ray tech told me, “That’s one of the biggest kidney stones I’ve ever seen.”

The doctor leaned against the gurney, exposed and poked absently at her wasted flesh. “I can’t see a fracture on the x-rays, but then, that’s not my area of specialty.” He poked a little more firmly. “She doesn’t seem very tender either. Maybe it’s just a deep bruise.” The same x-ray tech brought in a couple of films and clipped them to a large viewer. “Two fractures, one just below the head of the femur, and here, the lesser trocanter is broken completely off.”

The triangular piece of bone floated in the sea of gray that was my mother’s leg. A dark gray line zigzagged through the long bone just below the ball of the hip joint. The doctor coughed. “Well, yes. Hal sees a lot more of these things than I do.” He poked Mom’s hip some more. “We’ll have to call one of the orthopedists; they usually like to see these things right away. Do you have any preferences?”

The town’s two orthopedic surgeons moved here together 15 years ago straight from their residencies, built a building, and went into practice as partners. Within a few years the friendship and partnership soured into a bitter feud. Mom had been treated by both, once for a fractured kneecap suffered in another fall and once for an increasingly withered hand, a remnant of her childhood bout of polio. My parents disliked both of them, having had higher expectations for the surgeries than the results warranted, and, after refusing to hear the gloomy prognoses, claimed they had been misled.

“Who did that surgery on your hand, honey? I think it was Missel. That’s his name, Missell.” Dad started going through his wallet, looking for the card of the suspect orthopod. “He didn’t know what he was doing. Look at her hand. She can’t use it any better than she could before that $3000 operation.”

The hand was a claw, permanently constricted into something that didn’t look human. As a young woman, there was just a stiffness of the thumb and index finger, a clumsiness that she covered adroitly.

She had been a good-looking woman-wavy auburn hair, a trim figure, large breasts. My friends commented on them: “Your mom’s got the best tits of all the moms.” She was a graceful dancer, and she knew all the steps. Dressed in a red ball gown with a skirt that flared when she twirled, she taught me to tango in the living room one evening before a dance.

Now she was a tiny, shrunken thing. “I only weigh a hundred pounds,” she would declare as she refused lunch. “It doesn’t take much to keep me alive.” Her hair, which had turned white in her 40s, was a thin lank mass that failed to conceal the bones of her skull and thick blue veins that humped her scalp. Her nose was beaked, sharp as a toucan, but it still ended in the round bump that saved her from real beauty.

“Was it Morris, Dad?”

“Oh yeah, that’s it. Morshel. Something like that. He didn’t do her any good at all. You’d better call the other one. Whatshisname. He isn’t any good either. She couldn’t walk after he messed up her knee. That’s why she fell today.” He was panting with anger. The fistful of cards, receipts, and notes on torn corners of paper that he had carefully removed from the wallet, minutely examining both sides of each scrap, fell to the floor and scattered. “Oh shit! Goddammit!” He knelt and started gathering up the papers and stuffing them back into the bulging wallet, furiously muttering “Goddammit!”

My mother peered over the edge of the gurney. “You don’t know what any of that is. You write something down and put it in there and 15 minutes later you don’t know what it means. You should just throw it away. It’s useless. Just like us.” She rolled back and stared silently at the ceiling for a moment. “Yes, call the other one. I liked him better.”

Because we live in the same town, because they’re lonely and dependent, and because I can’t see how to get out of it, I spend a lot of time with my parents. I’m one of those rare people in present-day America: a small-town boy who stayed. My great-grandparents came over the mountains, across the desert, to the south of town in a wagon. I’ve never really been able to conceive living anywhere else.

We watch TV together. I listen to complaints about their health, answer ritualistic questions about my life, glance surreptitiously at my watch, and wait until it is over. We’ve never been “close,” in the way small-town, middle-class families are supposed to be. All the Norman Rockwell images are there — the scrubbed children and loving parents in the front pew at the Episcopal church, the father teaching the son fly-fishing, the mother and son painting the walls of the tidy house a hideous ’50s pastel. But the images were about all we had. Once TV reached our somewhat remote town in the mid-50s, it swiftly removed any need for conversation and interaction.

I left town in 1960 and didn’t return until 1971. We hardly communicated the entire time I was gone. Once I returned and divorced the wife they had rather liked and married one they disliked, we spent ten years living less than a mile apart with almost no contact at all. Dad retired during that time; they got a trailer in Phoenix and spent six months a year there. I looked forward to their leaving. It was much easier being a son to parents a thousand miles away. Five years ago my mother decided she could no longer make the trip south, and they settled into their trailer in Pinecrest Mobile Park to await their deaths.

After Mom’s best friend Dot died 20 years ago, she told me, “The hardest thing about growing old is watching your friends age and die.” She didn’t seem to feel it would ever happen to her. It’s all come as sort of a surprise.

Dad and I sat in a waiting room and stared at old copies of House Beautiful while Mom was moved from the emergency room to a bed in the main hospital. He kept pulling his pack of Merits from his shirt and preparing to light one. I kept reminding him the hospital was a no-smoking area.

By the time we got to her room, the “other” orthopedist had already arrived. He was holding her clawed hand and stroking the fingers straight. “Have you been doing your exercises, Mrs. Hubbell? As I told you when I did the surgery, you have to do the exercises or the tendons will just contract again.”

My father nudged me in the back. “What’s this guy’s name?” he rasped in a stage whisper. “He’s the guy that did her hand.”

“Hello, Dr. Meyer,” I responded, stepping forward to shake the orthopedist’s hand. Bill Meyer and I took flying lessons together, even discussed going partners on an airplane, but his sights were much higher than mine. Now he flies a Lake Amphibian, I pilot a paraglider.

He held one of the x-rays up to the overhead fluorescence. “Your mother has a fracture of the femur. Only one shows here, but I suspect there are others. Usually in a break like this, the bone will shatter through the entire area. The trocanter is fractured completely off. I’ll probably just leave that. In a person your mother’s age, it isn’t worth the extra surgery necessary to replace it. I’ll put a screw into the head and attach it to the bone with a plate. It’s a pretty standard piece of surgery; the only problem is the bone density.”

The bones were a light gray. A thin layer of white outlined them. The interiors were filled with a delicate tracery of near cobweb fineness. “She has advanced osteoporosis. The screw might just strip right out, then I’d have to replace the whole head.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Mom said. “I’m just lying here. You important people can just talk about me like I’m a piece of meat.”

“Now, honey, Dr...umm...the doctor is just trying to help.” Dad hurried to the bed. “Have you got everything you need? Have they given you anything to eat?”

“No, nothing to eat tonight, Dr. Hubbell. I’ll be doing surgery on your wife’s hip first thing in the morning.” My Dad is a dentist, 20 years retired. At one time he was an important man in our town. Head Vestry man at the Episcopal church, a perennial contender for the President’s Cup at the Golf and Country Club. His name was in the newspaper and people crossed the street to greet him. That’s all gone now. Most of the people who might remember it are gone too, or they can’t remember. I don’t know if he has Alzheimer’s; it’s a subject never spoken of, but his short-term memory is gone. Sometimes he gets lost in the village where five generations of Hubbells have lived.

She went under the knife early the next morning. Dad and I saw her briefly before she was wheeled into the O.R., trying to radiate good cheer and optimism while realizing that she might not survive the surgery.

When we returned that afternoon, she was back in her room. Her leg was a hump beneath the thin covers. The hump grew thicker and firmer. “The cat’s gotten under the covers,” she said dreamily. “He was, he was....”

“Yes, Mom? The cat was...?” It did look like a cat under the covers. Certainly not the crazy feline I’d gotten them for Christmas.

Their lives were so dull. They did almost nothing. Dad had coffee with some old buddies at the Coachhouse several mornings a week; occasionally they went to church; friends would infrequently drop by; I would come out four or five times a week. Most of the time they sat in their identical black recliners in front of the TV, staring aimlessly at whatever was offered. The remote control was usually misplaced. The cat would give them something outside their miserable selves to think about.

It was a big fluff ball of a cat, a Siamese/Persian cross with blazing blue eyes. He spent most of the day sleeping beneath the far corner of their king-size bed. During the night he prowled the trailer, pouncing and crumpling newspapers, running up and down the hall and over the furniture. A failure of a cat, less a companion than an annoyance; yet my mother fell in love with him.

“Oh, you should have seen that cat!” she’d exclaim. “He was sitting right here on my lap, but when he heard your door slam he jumped up on the table and watched you coming up the walk. Then he ran down the hall. He’s probably under the bed again. You won’t get to see him. He’s such a pretty cat.”

“I’ll go get her, Grace....”

“Oh no, you won’t. You old fool, you just frighten the poor cat. You crawl under there and poke at it. You’re driving me and the cat crazy. And it’s a he.”

Dad always called cats “her.” He was a dog man. He’d had dogs for 50 years, big, strong hunting dogs. Dogs tough enough to swim a mile of the ice-choked Willamette, return with a brace of mallards in their huge jaws, and wait trembling with eagerness to do it again. Most of the dogs were cat killers. King, the monstrous Weimaraner that I grew up with, hated cats with a particular passion. I watched him kill two. Both times it happened so fast there was no possibility of stopping it. Both times he caught the cats in open fields, ran them down with a blur of speed, and without slowing, grabbed them by their heads and flung them contemptuously over his shoulder, breaking their necks in the process.

Mom couldn’t stand King. He was huge, he farted constantly, he bit the neighbor’s children, and trapped her friends in their cars. Most of the other dogs weren’t much better. Their hair got on the furniture, they tracked in mud; the whole place smelled like dog.

She’d had a cat when I was a kid. It was the most ignored cat I’ve ever known. I don’t recall it purring even once, can’t remember it sitting on a lap or rubbing against a leg. The only pleasure in the cat’s life was tormenting King, the cat killer. The cat would lie sleeping in its favorite place, the back doormat, and we would all step carefully over its inert frame. King, bringing up the rear, would attempt the feat and the cat would casually reach up and claw him in the balls and then lie there watching him howl with pain, secure in its knowledge that it was the cat of the house and safe from reparation. I always had the feeling the cat would be glad to do the same thing to me, it just couldn’t reach high enough. So I wasn’t unhappy when we gave it to my girlfriend in the country and it got run over by a train a week later. Mom didn’t seem too upset either. After all, she hadn’t even bothered to name the cat in the years it lived with us. This made her devotion to the new cat even more unbelievable, but it was real enough; I hadn’t seen her so involved and interested in something in years, perhaps decades.

The hump of her leg stood cat-high for a moment and then gently flattened with a soft hissing. I pulled back the covers. Her leg, from ankle to thigh, was encased in an inflatable plastic cast. Air lines led to a machine next to the bed that clicked and hummed as it started pumping air back into the cast. “It’s not your cat, Mom; it’s an inflatable cast. It’s pumping to keep the circulation going in your leg.”

“Oh, how stupid. This is all so stupid,” she muttered. “These girls keep coming in and bothering me. I want to go home. Why can’t I go home? These people don’t know what they’re doing, and I need to go home.” She cast her eyes wildly around the room. “What motel is this? I wouldn’t have come if I’d known I’d have to stay in a terrible motel. Those people in the hall, they’re talking about me. Where’s my cat? He was just here. Where’d he go?”

I patted her on the shoulder and took her hand. Much like her old cat, she was not one to invite physical affection and I was awkward and unpracticed. “The cat’s at home, Mom. Dad told me that it came out and ate this afternoon. You’re in the hospital. You broke your hip, and Dr. Meyer put your leg back together this morning.”

“Oh, oh. They shouldn’t have done that. I was okay and now they’ve operated on me. I want to go home. The kitchen is such a mess. Your father has been trying to cook, and he just makes a mess and never cleans it up.” Her clawed hand scrabbled feebly at the covers. “You help me up. I need to get out of here. These girls keep coming in and bothering me.” Just then a nurse came in, popped an electronic thermometer in Mom’s mouth, and started wrapping a blood pressure cuff around her arm. Mom batted at her with the claw and mumbled around the thermometer, “Stop that! I don’t need that! What are you doing to me?”

“Now, Mrs. Hubbell, keep your mouth closed around the thermometer. It has to stay in there a minute, and if you talk we’ll just have to wait longer.”

Mom quieted, clenched her teeth around the thermometer, and glared at the nurse as she pumped up the cuff. Finished, the nurse unwrapped the cuff and took the thermometer from Mom’s mouth, wrote her blood pressure and temperature on her chart. “I’ll be back in a minute with your dinner, Mrs. Hubbell. You must be hungry, you haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

When dinner arrived, Mom just stared blankly at the tray. “Do you want me to help you with that, Gracie?” Dad asked as he picked up the spoon and tried to push some mashed potatoes into her closed mouth. She turned her face and the potatoes smeared across her cheek.

Long before she broke her hip, mealtimes had become a battleground between my parents. Dad, convinced that Mom wasn’t eating enough, spent much of each meal pleading with her to eat just a few more bites, pointing out the wonders of each foodstuff, tasting it and smacking his lips much like the father on TV trying to get the cranky baby to eat its mush. She had always taken forever to eat and had a phobia of choking. She took tiny bites and chewed each one into a smooth paste. When I was a kid, we used to sit around the table, unable to get up until everyone was finished eating, watching her carefully chew for a half-hour after we’d cleaned our plates. Since her Parkinson’s had gotten worse, the process was even more tedious, but I never was convinced that Dad’s coaxing helped.

While her eating was troublesome, elimination was even more difficult. I remember her bathroom shelves filled with laxatives. As a child I thought that all grownups went through a couple of bottles of milk of magnesia a month as some sort of dietary supplement. In her old age, one bowel movement a week is about normal. Since she broke her kneecap a couple of years ago, she has needed help to go to the bathroom, and Dad has been able to monitor the process as much as he does her eating. He starts getting worried after five days. By ten, panic sets in and he spends much of the day urging her to take more laxatives, perhaps try an enema. After two weeks he drags her to the emergency room for a professional enema, frequently with scanty results.

Dr. Meyer felt the surgery to be a success. The bone was very weak and porous, but he had injected plastic around the screw threads in the ball of the femur and thought it would hold. They planned to keep her on the ward for a week; then transfer her down the hall to their recovery and physical therapy area for a month or so while she learned to get around again.

It was Christmas vacation. Our sons were home from school. All fall we’d talked of our ski trip over Christmas. Mom was getting better, so we packed up the car and left. Four days later we came back to a fresh emergency.

Mom was being discharged from the hospital the next day and would have to go to a nursing home. She did not take well to physical therapy, likening it to “torture,” and calling the therapists “vicious sadists.” Her recovery was complete enough to no longer justify the care she was receiving on the ward, and she wasn’t going to be a good patient for the recovery area. A nursing home was the only option.

Two nursing homes were listed in the phone book. The first one I called had a room. “We’ll take it,” I said. “Have the van pick her up at ten tomorrow.”

The room was small, barely 10 by 12 feet. A curtain divided the space between two hospital beds. Mom had the one near the window, a tiny rectangle that looked onto the parking lot. A large woman in a flowered flannel nightgown lay on top of the bed near the door and wheezed asthmatically. Every few seconds she’d cry out, “Nurse, nurse.”

The noise from the nursing station across the hall made it necessary to yell my responses to the admitting social worker. “We’ll be able to monitor her constantly in this room,” he said proudly.

I suddenly remembered why the nursing home looked so familiar. Mom, 20 years ago, had taken Uncle John here to die.

He’d become terminal in San Francisco; Mom was his nearest relative. She’d had him put on a plane. She and Dad met him at the airport, laid him in the back of the Caprice Classic, and drove him straight to this nursing home. I think the old man had something more in mind like the plump bed in the guest room, a loving niece bringing him tender pork chops and listening to his final tales.

“Now, I want you kids to pray that Uncle John croaks by Thanksgiving,” she told us. Thanksgiving was their traditional departure time for the Southland.

He died a few days later. Death came soon after Mom’s last visit. My wife, the one they never liked, said, “She probably smothered him with a pillow.”

Within a couple of days we had Mom moved to a newer nursing home, out on the flats next to the Full Gospel Church and the abandoned drive-in theater. Still uncertain where she was, most of the time she thought it a prison or a mental hospital, perhaps a concentration camp.

“I haven’t told them a thing. They want me to talk, they think I’m nuts, but I know who’s the nutty ones.” She gripped my shirt and pulled me close to the bed. “Oh, Jacky, I could tell you about these people. They’re terrible people. When you’re not here they torture me. This morning, it was three o’clock. They stripped us and took us down the hall and gave us enemas. Fleet’s. They gave me such a...vigorous one, I’m still recovering. I don’t know why they do that. I tell them to stop, but they don’t listen.”

But sometimes she was completely lucid. One afternoon I sat in the chair at her bedside and we continued a conversation started 40 years earlier. I brought it up. “Do you remember the time we talked in the basement, Mom? I was roller skating and you were doing laundry and we got to talking about how you and I were alike and Dad and Jim were alike?”

Jim is my brother, an accountant in the city 50 miles south. He’s a rotund, jocular fellow, a past president of Rotary. I can’t stand him.

Her face lit up. It was obviously as clearly held a memory for her as it was for me. “I was right, wasn’t I? You’re so cold, Jacky. So cold and unfeeling, sometimes I wish you had a little more of your father in you. But I like it better than the sloppy mush he and your brother ladle out.”

She was right. Dad and Jim were seething balls of emotion, weepers at funeral and weddings, screamers when they’ve been crossed. Mom was so contained I never had a clue as to how she felt about anything. She put more emotion into the 50 aprons she sewed each year for the Episcopal bazaar than her relations with the family. The only way I could be with any of them was ironically detached.

“I wish I’d divorced your father years ago. He doesn’t do anything anymore except make my life miserable. He watches me. Wants to get me things. Things I don’t want. He’s driving me crazy. Am I crazy, Jacky? Sometimes I have dreams. They’re such strong dreams, I’m not sure what’s real.”

She was better when Dad wasn’t around. He questioned her about her eating and bowel movements. He constantly offered her drinks of water, adjusted her covers, cranked the bed up and down, and wondered aloud where the nurses were to deal with some problem he wanted fixed. He twitched and jittered; his nervousness was exhausting.

Their marriage had always been offered up to me as an example of a union made in heaven. It was, once again, Norman Rockwell. The housewife in her apron greeting her husband at the door after his working day. Bridge parties, family picnics, Scrabble on the kitchen table; I have a mental scrapbook of Saturday Evening Post covers. But they never seemed to have much fun together, just the two of them. I don’t know what the sex was like. I walked in on them once; I must have been ten. They seemed to be enjoying it, but there weren’t any Saturday mornings when we were banned from the back of the house or weekends off to motels. I never could quite figure out why they were together. They were decent enough people, might have even been kind of interesting with different partners.

Dad was a hunter and fisherman. His perfect vacation, one that we took every year of my youth, was to stay in a run-down pre-war motel in Enis, Montana, with a bunch of his war buddies and their wives and kids. The men went fishing and the women took care of the kids, cleaned the cabins, washed clothes and dishes, and cooked up a big dinner for the men’s return. He spent much of November far up in the mountains north of town, hunting elk. The elk camp was so remote that the jeeps had to be winched down cliffs to get into the canyon and so high that some years everything but the whiskey froze and fires had to be built under the jeeps’ differentials before the wheels would turn. We lived on trout, salmon, ducks, and pheasant. Our locker at the cold storage was filled each fall with haunches of deer and elk.

Categorizing Mom was more difficult. She had a degree in history, and for several years before they married she taught high school and hated it. In the days before TV she read to my brother and me in the evenings. I remember one winter we read a fat history book, The Complete History of Man, or something like that. I can’t imagine my brother, four years younger than I, got much out of it, but it fascinated me. Probably much of my scanty knowledge of India, Greece, Egypt, and Rome comes from those nights curled up next to her while she read of ancient empires now crumbled to dust. She’d met my father in a speakeasy dance hall, a fact I didn’t learn until just a few years ago, and I have a hard time reconciling that wild girl with the proper matron I’ve known all my life.

The matron role suited her well. They knew all the right people. She was president of Altar Guild, although I’m quite certain her faith went no deeper than her mouth. She was president of the Garden Club, although she hated dirt. She was president of the women’s charitable club and a committed social Darwinist.

She never seemed to enjoy it much. Her life was her job. She worked at being good at it, but it was obviously work. Daughter of a deputy sheriff, she was very conscious of her higher station as a professional man’s wife. While Dad might go up to elk camp with a bunch of loggers, truckers, mechanics, and farmers, their wives would never set foot in our house.

Mom turned 80 the end of her first week in the nursing home. My brother organized a party in the cafeteria.

Dad’s sister Lucy and her husband, far and away my favorite relatives, were over from the coast, staying at Dad’s for the weekend. Lucy was 13 years younger than Dad. She quit high school to run off with a soldier, the quiet Texan she was still married to. Her father and brothers didn’t speak to her for years.

Jim and his wife, Gloria, and Gloria’s parents were there. Gloria’s parents were always there. People too stupefyingly dull to ever be invited anywhere else, they had become fixtures at all my family gatherings, lumps of gray banality that sucked any possibility of liveliness from the events.

Mom’s wheelchair had Mylar balloons tied to the handles. Jim presented her with an electronic cat, which, when turned on, vibrated nastily and emitted annoying mewing sounds. “Mom, I know how much you miss your cat. When I saw this, I knew you’d love it,” he said as he turned it on and put it on her lap. She stared at it in horror for a moment, then brushed it to the floor.

“Wouldn’t you like some cake, honey?” Dad asked as he bustled over and tried to force-feed her a big lump of Vons white cake with lard frosting.

“I don’t like white cake,” she said through clenched teeth. “You’d think somebody would remember I liked chocolate cake.”

The party went downhill from there. I rather hoped Mom would talk with Gloria’s parents, finally tell them with her newfound honesty just how much she despised them. But she fell asleep. I found myself trapped in a corner by them, having to listen to tales of their grandchildren’s school successes.

After the party, I went home. Jim went back to Dad’s and got in a fight with Lucy. By nine the next morning I’d heard both their versions.

Lucy was furious. “That cheap little bastard! He’s willing to let his mother die in that nursing home just because Medicare is paying for it! They’re doing nothing for her there, and she hates it. She needs to come home, and you need to hire someone to come in and take care of her.”

Jim was even angrier. “That cunt! I can’t believe the way she talked to me! Jesus Christ! I can’t stand that bitch! She’s just made up her mind what we should do. Didn’t even ask me what I thought. Who the hell does she think she is?”

I tried to point out that Lucy had spent considerably more time with the parents in recent years than he had and might possibly be better informed as to their wants and needs. It was the wrong move and only enraged him further. “Oh, so I should just butt out of it now, huh? She’s not going to be paying for these people to come in. They’ve got about $400,000 — how long is that going to last? The insurance won’t pick up any of that, you know. In a couple of years they’ll be broke. Oh shit, you do whatever you want; nobody’s going to listen to me anyway.” He hung up on me.

We took him at his word. By the next day we’d found people to give Mom 24-hour care at home. I made an appointment with Dr. Meyer for early the next week. As the admitting doctor, he had to write her discharge papers.

Jim drove his new supercharged Bonneville up for the appointment. When he arrived, Mom was having x-rays taken. “So now it’s going to happen, huh? You’ve got everything arranged, you and that bitch Lucy. Jesus, this tees me off!” He was talking loudly, the words were hard with rage. At either side of the shared waiting room, the receptionists of the two feuding orthopods peered curiously at us from their sliding-glass windows. “You should have heard what she said to me! Goddammit, this pisses me off!” Now he was pushing me, his hand on my chest, his red face inches from mine.

When Jim played guard on the high school football team, his teammates called him “Tank.” He was five foot five and weighed nearly 200 pounds. One Christmas vacation during college, one of my friends, four years older and eight inches taller, “pissed him off.” Tank picked him up and threw him across our double garage into the opposite wall, hard enough to momentarily stun him. Jim hasn’t changed much since those days. He perhaps weighs a little more, and the weight has dropped into his belly, but his temper is still as explosive and any disagreement with him is likely to end with at least the threat of violence.

The only time I’d ever talked to him about our parents was 20 years ago, on a wilderness float trip. We were alone together for five days. The second day out I gave him a joint and steered the conversation from fishing, to fishing with Dad, to Dad, and finally, to Mom. What was Mom all about? What was her trip? (Remember, this was 1975.)

“She doesn’t seem to have any friends,” I said. “She just picks people she thinks will be useful and is nice to them. I don’t think she likes them any more than the people she’s nasty to.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” Jim yelled. “That’s my mother you’re talking about! Goddammit, I don’t want to hear that kind of shit!”

And that was it. We drank beer and ran into some of his crazy floating buddies, and the subject never came up again. And it hasn’t in the 20 years since. Jim was the good son, going fishing and hunting with his dad and attending all the family holidays, his awful in-laws in tow. I was rarely seen, the black sheep, liberal pothead son.

In the past five years, however, the situation has changed. Jim still attends upon holidays, but he’s rarely seen between them. The 50 miles that separate his home from the parents’ has gotten longer. It certainly saddened me. I was quite content being the black sheep and not having to spend much time with the folks. But they needed an increasing amount of help, and they were desperately lonely. So, gradually and grudgingly, I became the responsible, dutiful one.

Jim was right. I hadn’t considered him when I decided to get Mom out of the nursing home. I hadn’t realized he cared.

“Jesus, Jim, calm down. We haven’t got any quarrel,” I said, backing and stumbling around the island of chairs in the middle of the room. It was becoming a sort of amphitheater as more faces appeared at the receptionists’ windows. “Jim, please, please, stop this. We don’t have to fight.”

“Sure! Sure! You don’t have to fight! We just do what you and that bitch want and there’s no fight! What about what I want?” he shouted. I noticed Dr. Morris’s head atop a stack of three, craning to see around the corner of the window.

“Jim, I don’t know what you want,” I said, taking in all the watching faces he seemed oblivious to. By the next day the story would be all over town. It would be attached to me forever and, much like a missed house payment in 1978, would hurt my credit rating.

“Let’s take a walk,” I said, breaking off and heading for the door, “and you can tell me what you want.”

We walked around the clinic, down the street a half block and into a parking lot behind some condos. Jim was still yelling, “What I want, goddammit, is to have my opinions considered!”

“I’m sorry, Jim, I really didn’t....”

“No you didn’t, you didn’t think of me, did you?! Maybe staying in the nursing home would do her some good. She’s weak, she needs rest. Who are these people you’ve hired? I’ve never met them. Have you? Shit, I don’t know anything!”

“They’re a group of very nice women, they’ve been doing this for years. They took care of Lucy’s best friend’s mother. She said they were wonderful. They’ve been down to the nursing home to meet Mom, and I think they’ll get along fine,” I told him.

A woman came out from the back of the condos, looked at the confrontation in fear. “What are you doing here? I’m going to call the police unless you leave right now!”

The headline from the “Brief Locals” section flashed across my mind: “Brothers Arrested Fighting in Alley.” Jim must have seen it too, because he quieted instantly and said, “We were just talking. Sorry it was so loud.”

We walked back to the clinic in silence. The x-rays had been developed, and we all gathered in an exam room while Dr. Meyer clipped them to a viewer. “It looks pretty good,” he said. “Everything is lined up well, and we should be getting some bone growth by now. I want her to not put much weight on it for a month, but we’ll have the therapists come out and help her. I see no reason she shouldn’t be discharged today.”

“Oh, he sees no reason why ‘she’ can’t be taken out and left by the side of the road,” Mom said in a singsong voice. “No reason why ‘she’ has to be talked to.

“That’s the wrong leg, you know. That picture, it’s the wrong leg. It’s the other leg that doesn’t work.” She laughed a mirthless chuckle and passed a blank gaze around the little room, looking at her family and her doctor. “None of you can do anything right.”

Two days later we took her home. The trailer had been rearranged so she could navigate her wheelchair through it. The physical therapist had set up an optimistic schedule of exercises and planned to have Mom back on her feet in a month. But she refused to do the exercises and within a week was again spending the days slumped in her recliner.

“Who are these Gypsies?” she queried me. “They moved in with us and they’re eating all the food.” “These are the ladies who are taking care of you, Mom,” I replied. “This is Sally. Her daughter Amy Lou will come at eight.”

“How much are we paying them? They’re eating our food. Are they getting free food too? We can’t afford to feed anybody who just walks in here,” she said.

Dad pulled me to him and said conspiratorially, “What’s this gal’s name? She’s the mother, isn’t she?”

Sally sang out happily from the kitchen where she was making dinner and retreating from the continual abuse. “I’m Sally, Dr. Hubbell. Tomorrow I’ll make some name tags and we’ll all wear them.”

The woman’s cheerfulness amazed me. Both she and her sister Martha seemed to be holding up very well in a situation that I found quite unbearable in minutes. But poor Amy Lou was suffering. “That girl that comes in at night, what’s her name?” Dad asked me.

“Amy Lou, Dad.”

“Is that the one? It’s the young one, the daughter.”

“Yes, that’s Amy Lou,” I replied. Trying to forestall the talk we had every time I visited, I continued, “She helps Mom get to bed, is there to take her to the bathroom at night, and gets her up in the morning.”

“She just sleeps,” he said. “I’m paying her to sleep. Then she gets up and eats breakfast. We don’t need her, I’m going to let her go.”

Futility descended over me like a lead cape. Anyone with any sense could see that Amy Lou was an absolute necessity. I could visualize Dad trying to struggle Mom from her wheelchair into bed, the two of them ending in a tangle of broken bones on the trailer’s floor.

“She has to be here, Dad. Even if Sally and Martha were to put Mom to bed and get her up, you have to have somebody here at night.”

“She hasn’t gotten up at night in days,” he said grumpily as he stood. He walked toward the kitchen to get a drink of bourbon.

“Oh look!” Mom cried. “He’s going to do his Old Man’s Dance! Look how funny he moves! That’s right, Old Man, bend your knees and shuffle your feet! Isn’t that funny?”

She turned to me, “You don’t know it, but he’s going to be arrested. He’s been bothering the girls in the stores. Pinching them. The old goat can’t keep his hands to himself, and they’re going to put him in jail.”

Dad stomped back into the room. “Dammit, that’s not true! What do you know about what I do? You just sit here and make up things!”

“Oh, oh, he’s so mad! Isn’t he scary when he stamps his foot? Are you going to hit me now?” she taunted him.

She looked over at me, “Did he beat you? You look like a beaten child.”

“No, no, Mom, Dad never....” I tried to defend him. “Maybe you should talk to one of those people who help you get your memory back,” she continued. “You’ve probably just forgotten. You look just like one of those beaten children.

“He’s a child molester too. Little babies in the shopping carts. He doesn’t care. Touching, pinching, poking. They’re going to put him in jail.”

“She does this all day long,” Sally said resignedly. “There was this little lady here,” Mom exclaimed. “Really nicely dressed. A Renaissance lady with a big skirt and a hat. He pulled her clothes off and gave her an enema. Right back in that room. I saw him dragging her down the hall, but I couldn’t stop him.”

Her voice was stronger than I’d heard it in years. She talked continually, riding over silences and conversations alike, a stream of consciousness of imaginings, distortions, and acute observations.

“Look, I think he’s going to cry now!” she exalted. “I like it when he cries, maybe that means he’s listening. You should listen, you old fool! Maybe you’d learn something! You always thought you were so smart. You and your scientist sons, think you know everything. Oh, I can see it so clearly. You’re all wrong. You ought to listen to me sometimes.”

Dad beat his forehead with the heels of his hands. Tears streaked his remarkably unlined face. I couldn’t find an appropriate emotion. Horror came to mind. Horror touched with Brechtian humor.

“Shut up! Shut up, you two!” I shouted. “I feel like a playground monitor. This is no fair, making me referee your fights. And it’s not fair to Sally either, making her listen to this nonsense.”

“You know, Jacky,” Mom said calmly, “sometimes you get a tone in your voice. It’s very ugly. You have such a nice voice. You ought to pay attention, not get that tone.”

“Please, Mom,” I begged, “you’ve got to back off. Stop telling Dad all these horrible things. And Dad, you’ve got to stop hovering over her. Leave her alone at mealtimes.”

“Wasn’t hovering,” Dad muttered. “She needs help eating, I was just helping her.”

“I think I hear that tone again,” Mom said.

“Can I get you anything, Gracie?” Dad pleaded. “Maybe a nice cookie?”

Every visit was the same. Sally and Martha told me I was just seeing a slice of a continuing dialogue. Amy Lou wept. I felt trapped. Mom wanted to stay home. Dad wanted her to stay home. Yet home had become a bedlam, and Sally told me Dad talked about shooting himself.

Jim saved me. He drove up for a visit a month or so after Mom came home. As soon as he got back to his phone he called me. “Hey, bro, our mother’s crazy.”

“No shit,” I thought.

“Yeah, she’s really lost it,” he said incredulously. “I couldn’t believe what she said to me. Called me an SOB, said I was a lousy son. She was really mean. She needs help.”

He pulled some strings and two days later she was admitted to the psychiatric ward in his city’s biggest hospital. She is still there as I write this. I visited her last night. She was asleep and I didn’t recognize her at first, her shrunken body and wizened face hardly resembling the mother I’d known.

They’re giving her Prozac and Haldol, but she doesn’t seem any better. She was asked to leave group therapy after she told her fellow inmates they were “fat, stupid, crazy people.” Several were reduced to tears and had to have their dosages increased. Last night she entertained me with more stories of midnight enema tortures and wanted me to find her slippers so she could walk home.

I sat by her bedside and listened to her prattle away. “We have to pay the King County Jail. Every minute the fine goes up. Just now, that was 97 cents more. Two, four, eight...that’s how they charge you. It keeps going up.”

We opened a big box of See’s chocolates someone had brought her. Mom sorted through it carefully, remarking that there weren’t enough “soft ones.” “They come in here, take big handfuls of the good ones. There’s nothing left for me,” she complained. Occasionally she picked one up and bit into it. Most were rejected. She’d always loved chocolate; now it seemed the only love she had left.

The psychiatrists say they’ve done all they can for her and she’ll have to be discharged. Jim is trying to place her in an adult foster care home. He thought he had one all lined up, but the woman went to interview Mom today. Half an hour later she called and told him she wasn’t equipped to deal with “someone with your mother’s special needs.”

She’ll have to come back to the nursing home. The doctors say her vital organs are strong and that she could live for years. I think of changing my name and moving to Montana.

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