In the six to eight hours each day that I’ve been sitting with my mother, I’ve had endless time to think. It’s Day 12. She can’t stand when I turn my attention to other things.
“Hey!” she cries. “Are you there? Help me! Do you love me?”
It’s much like caring for an infant again, except that I can’t pick her up and rock her in my lap.
Today as I sat beside her bed, holding her hand and patting her chest to communicate my presence, my mind replayed scenes from my somewhat idyllic though far from perfect childhood on Ponderosa Drive in the foothills above Napa Valley. I’ve crossed paths with a handful of grade school friends, but most of my playmates seem to have disappeared from the planet.
Six of them lived on the same dirt road as I did. We rode our bikes down steep construction mounds, chased through the woods, got poison oak, ran through sprinklers, drank ginger ale, wandered in cow pastures, watched Romper Room, Sesame Street, Electric Company, H.R. Pufnstuf, and Gumby, played Star Trek and cowboys and indians, sat in front of metal fans when it was 120 degrees in the shade, went to the fair in Sacramento, had birthdays at Taco Bell and 31 Flavors, and climbed to the tippy tops of pine trees and swayed in the wind. Sometimes the Hell’s Angels came roaring through and disappeared down the other side of the hill into Pope Valley. Our parents spoke in hushed tones about the gas shortage, the Zodiak killer, and rising real estate prices in California. Our big brothers were drafted during the Vietnam War and dropped off at bus stops in the middle of the night with their clean white T-shirts stuffed into green canvas duffle bags.
We watched The Wonderful World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on our black and white TV’s on Sunday evenings. On other nights, we watched Bonanza, Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers, Laugh In, and Little House on the Prairie. We listened to Andy Williams, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, Wayne Newton, Rose City Singers, Del Delker, and Wedgwood Trio on the record player and The Carpenters and Olivia Newton John on eight track. We saw Fiddler on the Roof and Bambi, had grand marches, and saw Victor Borge and Warren Miller live in the big gym while chewing on black licorice. We went to the Ice Follies and China Town in San Francisco and watched hippies in Ghirardelli Square. The circus set up a tent in the field in front of the mercantile with a white poodle that leapt from high ladders into the arms of a clown. We ate chocolate prune cake and won goldfish for buying the right kind of laundry detergent. We were given a free Hot Wheels car with each fill-up at the gas station where men in blue hats and uniforms filled our gas tanks and washed our windows. We knew the sound and vibration of a VW Bug and Volkswagen Bus as well as we knew our mothers’ voices. How can all those things just have vanished?
Like my mother’s memories.
It’s hard to sit and contemplate the imminence of life’s end for eight hours each day and then turn my energy to creative and productive pursuits during my other waking hours. I stare at my screen while my to-do list pulses behind my eyes like a bad headache. Caregiving is tough when it’s just a job. Caregiving is crushing when you actually care and can’t do more than make sure all meds are given, diapers are changed, and tubes remain in place.
When I arrive each day, she gently fist bumps each of my cheeks, then my forehead and chin. We stare into each other’s eyes.
“Who are you?”
I’ve stopped answering. I lean my head on her chest, and she strokes my head. Who is taking care of whom?
She broke out in loud wails yesterday, and I asked her what was wrong. She patted her heart.
“Why are you sad?” I pressed.
She looked perplexed. “I don’t know. I guess I have a funny heart.”
Tonight, near the end of my shift, as I prepared to give her her last tube feeding for the day, we looked at each other and both started crying.
“I love you so much!” she wailed. “It will last forever.”
It appears that in the end two simple things remain—love and sorrow. I’m holding out for when love is all that remains.
July 18, 2017