No Country For Old Women (Part 3)

Arrangements are made to send her back to the home and put her in hospice care there. This is good: she goes back into the hands of people who love her, and when she slips another notch, they're no longer obliged, legally or morally, to rush her to the hospital. I meet with the hospice people, a nurse and a social worker; they both have a trained, professional manner, a little like casket salesmen, and they relax when they meet me and see that I'm not going to go hysterical or weepy on them. Thank you for making it so easy, says the nurse, and before she goes, she hands me a piece of paper with the names of local morticians on it.

They bring my mother back from the hospital; I'm watching through the window when they arrive. Two strapping young EMT guys slide her out the back of the ambulance. There she is, in full merciless daylight, the open mouth looking particularly tragic and cavernous. They wheel her in and load her onto the bed. The staff are all over her, kissing her, patting her face, arranging pillows. One of the EMT guys is so young his cheeks are rosy. He and his partner are polite, but I sense their revulsion at the decomposing female flesh they've just transported. On the way out, one of them sees a photo of my mother, taken forty-five years ago. Whoa! he says. Who's that? 

I spend the night in a nearby motel, dream that my mother and Gwendda have merged into one chimerical creature, go back and see her in the morning. They're getting her up. I walk into the room at the exact moment they have her on her feet, supporting her on both sides, about to lower her into the wheelchair. They've dressed her. She howls, vigorously, not at all like someone who's dying. There are no words, but the message is clear: Leave me ALONE! They offer her food: she takes it. Not enthusiastically, but with an air of Oh, Jesus Christ, okay, if you insist. She glares at us with red-rimmed eyes.

I get behind her and start combing the tangles out of her hair. Careful, the staff people warn me; she'll hit you if you pull it. Don't worry, I say. I know how to do this. I get it all combed out, and it looks startlingly beautiful — fine, silky, flowing, with subtle colors, from white to gold to black. I take a picture, from behind, of just her hair. I check the picture: it's a keeper. The back-of-the-head shot, though, the slight tilt… it's just a little too reminiscent of Norman Bates' mother, down in the basement, before the chair swings around.

Later, back at the Safeway, I watch young parents wheeling their cute little babies along, and I wonder: Do any of you ever look ahead eighty or ninety years or so, to when you are long dead, and your darling baby, if it doesn't die of disease, accident, or war, will once again be bald, toothless and in diapers, but nowhere near as cute? And at whose mercy, in a survival-of-the-fittest world that'll make the Pleistocene look kind and gentle? The year 2038, which it's entirely possible I'll see, most likely as a crone living in a car on its rims on the outskirts of a 1000-acre municipal dump with Bladerunner flames shooting into the sky, is a frightening enough prospect, but 2088? 2098? What are you thinking? 

My mother doesn't die. She gets better. Joyful reports from the staff come in daily: she's up, she's feeding herself, she watched TV today, she smacked one of us. The part of me that dreads my mother's death the way a child would is flooded with relief. Another part is darkly disappointed. One day soon after, I'm over at Gwendda's house, throwing away newspapers. I find a photo, from two months before, of the kid killed by the tiger, lying in his coffin at a "viewing." The shot was taken from a discreet distance, with only the boy's nose and forehead visible against the white satin. The father stands, his back to us, looking down at his son. The father's body language speaks eloquently of crushing grief and bewilderment: What the hell happened? 

In May Sarton's novel AS WE ARE NOW, she describes an old woman as a "grotesque, miserable animal." My appreciation of that phrase has deepened over the last several years, but fully ripened during this latest skirmish. My mother's screech when they moved her from the bed to the chair was not of pain — it was of exhaustion. In Sarton's novel, a woman in an old people's home thwarts the ghastly ignominy of death by disintegration, for herself and her fellow inmates, by burning the place to the ground: a violent but decisive and honorable death.

I imagine a Siberian tiger, three hundred and fifty pounds of feline speed, power and killing efficiency, equipped by nature to bring down a muskox, loose in the nursing home where Berna lies in bed, or in Gwendda's house, or...in the assisted living place, headed for my mother's room. A pause, a pair of green-gold eyes, a basso profundo rumble, a flash of stripes, claws, and teeth, faster than thought, faster than light....

In exactly the same way that Sarton's old woman chose fire, my mother, if she could, would choose the tiger.

Postscript: The Mystery of Room 157

At the end of April following the winter of the escaped tiger, crashing trees and power outages, my mother faded away and died. At the beginning of that April, I'd lured Gwendda out of her bathrobe, into clothes, shoes and socks, out of her house and into the car. Not her car; the other one. I told her I was taking her to the doctor, which was true; what I didn't mention was that I wouldn't be bringing her back.

Dotty though she was, enough of her terrifying perspicacity remained that I was awash in cold, sweaty fear. I'd knelt on the smelly carpet and pulled socks onto her feet, a highly suspicious act in itself, not something I'd ever done before, and she didn't fail to notice. I felt her looking at me with completely un-senile curiosity. Handling her poor old feet, an act of mildly odious intimacy, felt like before-the-fact penance for what I was about to do. The nails were long and yellow, the toes compressed and deformed from eighty years of too-tight shoes, a little like the unwrapped "lotus feet" of elderly Chinese women. But the color....ah, the color. Warm, pink, healthy. She could easily live another ten years, whispered the voice of doom

In the car, she asked the name of the doctor I was taking her to. When I told her, she let loose with a stream of expletives that would have made a Comanche blush. "There's nothing wrong with me," she said. "I don't need to go to the damned doctor."

It was true, there was nothing physically wrong with her, aside from being impressively old. I was taking her to the doctor so that he could sign a paper declaring her incompetent to care for herself, a requirement for admittance to the assisted-living place she'd be in, with luck, before the sun set that day.

The room at the old folks' home, just a couple of miles from my house, was all ready for her. Two days ago, I'd sneaked a couple of loads of clothes, dolls, teddy bears and pictures out of her house, audaciously, in full daylight, while she was napping. Eight years before, I had done exactly the same thing, but for my mother, taken the things to the exact same assisted living place. At the same time of year. And…into the exact same room, now assigned quite randomly to Gwendda. This was an eerie little Twilight Zone development to which I strove to attach as little significance as possible. In retrospect, I think perhaps I should have demanded a different room.

It was a fantastically pleasant room: on the sunny side of the building, big gleaming luxurious bathroom, a deck with an overhanging magnolia tree shedding enormous white-pink flower petals, view of woods and sky. The exact same deck where, eight years before, my mother had huddled like a war orphan, smoking, looking out at the forest, flowers and birds with eyes that saw a strip-mined, radioactive moonscape.

My mother had lasted a scant four weeks before they threw her out. I'd tricked her into the place with a similar cock-and-bull story to the one I'd told Gwendda: We're going out to lunch! That part was true. It was the part I omitted — that I'd be leaving her there — that made it something other than the truth.

It had been tense for a few days after my mother's admittance, and she'd appeared to be settling in, when she erupted: pounding the walls, screaming my name, stalking the halls at night in her underwear with a lit cigarette, attacking a guy on night duty so that he had to hide behind a door. There were midnight phone calls from the staff, stern warnings, hard voices abruptly devoid of sympathy reciting rules and regulations. Drugging followed, the only way they'd give her another chance, to the point where she was falling down and slurring her words, but she fought on until they gave her the boot. After that, I played Judas further, more deeply and egregiously, and she ended up in an Alzheimer's facility 150 miles away. That was where she died, eight years later. And now here I was, the same eight years later, decorating the same room — not merely a room just like it, which would have been peculiar enough, but the same actual room — putting clothes in the exact same drawers and hanging them in the exact same closet, putting pictures on the same walls, with the same vacillating hope and despair, queasy misgivings and the same sure knowledge that like some hapless character in a morality tale, I'd be absolutely required to do, again, the thing I hate most in this world: betray someone who trusts me. No need for a special place in hell for me; the act itself is its own hell, clings like Napalm, with a half-life of fifty thousand years.

The removal of Gwendda from her home had been planned with commando precision: I'd take her to the doctor's office. While she was with the doctor, I'd vanish, and Mitch, far more courageous than I in such circumstances partner, would appear. He'd be waiting for her when she came out. She'd forget I'd brought her there. He'd buy her ice cream and take her up to the old folks' home, into the dining room for lunch, then to her room, and then he'd slip-slide away. The success of the mission depended entirely, at every critical turn, on her confusion and damaged memory and our premeditated manipulation of them.

It worked. The upheaval and unfamiliar surroundings helped, unraveling her already-tenuous hold on reality. The staff reported that evening that she'd gone to her room and exclaimed at how pleasant and attractive it was, seemed to think she was in a hotel, and said: Be sure to tell the boys who brought me here where I am so that they can take me home. I knew who "the boys" were: she was remembering a recent trip to and from the emergency room after she'd fallen down in her house, luckily near a phone, and more luckily, she'd remembered 911. "The boys" were the young EMT guys who'd brought her back to her house in the ambulance because they hadn't been able to get hold of me. She'd imported them into today's shenanigans like a cinematic special effect. This was excellent: "The boys" would take the rap for me. By the time she landed in her new room, she was like a blindfolded driver backing up in the dark on unfamiliar terrain: she didn't connect me and the car ride earlier that day with where she was now. Craven relief flooded my system.

I stayed away for a week or so, checking in with the staff by phone. This is what they tell you to do: make yourself scarce. Let the old person "adjust." Break the dependency. It's a directive you're eager to follow, and you tell yourself that the "experts" know what's "best," but you yourself will have as many contradictory voices muttering in your head as Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion." But you stay away.

Unless you are the spouse of the committed person. I saw this over and over in the eight years my mother was in assisted living: a non-demented husband or wife who'd reached the breaking point and put a spouse in the home, then, consumed and driven by guilt, appeared daily and stayed for hours. What else did I see over and over? Something even sadder: newly-arrived inmates trying to talk their way out. Demented enough to land them in the facility, but not yet fully vanquished and with enough wherewithal remaining to size up the situation and try to put on a good act. They zero in on visitors, having already got nowhere with the staff. Like the guy wearing his hat and jacket, duffel bag in his hand: Say, can you give me a lift home? My car broke down. Or the professor who once spoke seven languages: I need to call my wife so she can come get me. Or the woman who walked into my mother's room, looking at her watch, snapping her fingers peremptorily: I need a ride to the airport. Come on. Let's get going. I'm late. I watched the staff give the professor a non-functioning telephone to keep him busy.

The dread of becoming a non-person, stripped of rights and a voice, with no recourse, of the doors clanging shut behind us, is universal. There are a lot of ways for that to happen: you can get tossed into prison in a foreign country, you can be kidnapped and locked in a windowless basement, you can be committed to an insane asylum, or...you can be put in an Alzheimer's facility. With the latter, there's startlingly little due process involved, often none at all. Just like that, you're locked up. These people understood exactly what was happening; their personhood was about to disappear like a dream at dawn. My mother had understood this as well, but reacted on a purely basic, primal level: she fought. I'm not sure which was sadder — that, or seeing people trying to appear to be reasonable citizens, trying to mobilize the respect and authority they'd had all their lives. As a visitor, you're always grateful when they unlock the door and let you leave: back to your car, back to your life. For now.

So I didn't visit Gwendda for a couple of weeks. Guilt, procrastination and avoidance are the ingredients of the wallow in my particular psychological pig pen. When I finally did go, I was deep in it. I waited until dinner time, when I knew she'd be in the dining room. I crept down the hall, peeked around the corner, saw her at the table with two other folks, took a deep breath and stepped into view. When she saw me, she squealed with delight. Real delight, not the kind you can fake. I was flushed and suffused with relief and gratitude. If she had thrown soup in my face instead, I would not have been at all surprised.

Meanwhile, 150 miles away, my mother was fading like a sun that's used up its fuel. On a recent visit, I'd put the photo album in front of her. She took her uneaten sandwich off her plate, put it on a page of the album, and tried to close the cover. The sort of thing you do in a dream. And I knew: Whoever I was, I was a figment in her dream. Two feet from her, but light-years gone. Solar winds howled and black holes yawned. Mom! 

She died at the home, in her room, a Filipina nurse praying by her bed. I drove down, found a funeral home (one of my favorite euphemisms), made arrangements with a perky Miss Thanatogenous. There was a delay of a few days before they could do the cremation. My brother said this was good; in certain Buddhist traditions, it was customary to wait at least three days, so the soul could get used to the situation. My mind is more literal: I had to work hard to not think too much about morgue refrigerators, cold stainless steel and such. Miss T assured me they'd call when the actual cremation took place. They did. That's also something you can think about literally, or shove away. I did a little of both. George Bernard Shaw took it further: He witnessed the cremation of his mother, and wrote about it. I guess I'm no George Bernard Shaw.

My mother's death and disposition took us to the end of the first week of May. In the second week, I returned one afternoon from errands and checked my answering machine. There was a call from the home where we'd taken Gwendda. She had erupted: waved a butter knife around in the dining room, "fired" the entire staff, cursed and shouted, refused to go back to her room. The voice, which belonged to a dumb-as-a-brick but conscientious gal I'd met a few times, was hard, devoid of sympathy. I also detected a rich, ill-concealed vein of Schadenfreude. "We called the police," the woman said with deep relish. "You need to come up here, pronto." Mitch went up. He found the English Patient sitting at her place in the dining room in the company of 250 lbs. of armed, beefy young sheriff's deputy. She was calm now, as if nothing had happened. The other residents and the staff were in a tizzy of pretend shock and high pleasure. They hadn't had this much fun in ages.

Drugging followed. The only possible way they'd give her another chance. I looked at the pharmaceutical name on the prescription: Zyprexa. Ah, yes. My familiar old friend. I'd once written that the list of names of the drugs they'd given my mother sounded like evil warlords from another galaxy. Lord Zyprexa, enemy ships have entered the star system.....And exactly as it had been when my mother was on probation, in the same home, in the same room, at the same time of year, with the same stakes, Gwendda swallowed the diminutive capsules, themselves like tiny space war-ships carrying a potently concentrated payload into the tangled neurons and exploding nebulae of her brain.

Anyone nowadays who's dealt with the sad slippage of the elderly knows the tyranny of the answering machine. That winking red light looks like the eye of Satan himself, concentrated Essence of Bad News in Morse Code. Eight years fell away as I tiptoed around, flinching and leaping every time the phone rang, frightened of punching the message button. Ten days passed. All was calm. The drug seemed to be doing its job. As with my mother, I hated, hated, hated introducing powerful chemicals into a fragile aged brain, but it was the only way she could continue to live at the home. Taking her back to her house was out of the question. The downward spiral into degraded, dangerous senior squalor would resume with a vengeance, and I'd be responsible for whatever happened. Talk about a deal with the devil.


(Part 3 of 4)

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