Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – April 18, 2004
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – April 18, 2004 – My telephone rang at work one morning in July. It was my father calling to tell me that the hospital had a bed available for my mother, and asking me if I would come with him when he took her to the long term care ward. I left the next day for home. I turned into our familiar driveway and stopped my car at the bottom of the lane. I sat there looking up at my family home and trying to filter through the memories that flooded my mind.
Berry picking in the summer with my mother, learning to ride a bicycle, my first trip to the dentist, my first day at kindergarten, high school dating, wrapping Christmas presents, leaving for university, long distance phone calls when I had a boyfriend-related broken heart which only a mother could soothe, job interview strategies, should I buy a house, do you think I’ll meet a new guy questions, I need to come home for the week-end to talk comments, wonderful birthday gifts, leaving for my first trip to Europe, understanding why kindness is important, having pride in my family and my ancestry, knowing how fortunate I was to be a Canadian, the importance of honesty and integrity.
I drove up to the house and went inside. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table across from my father. Her little packed suitcase sat beside the fridge door. No one spoke. How do you close out a life? What do you take with you when you’re never coming home again? Should you feed the cat one last time before you go?
What will it feel like to lose your freedom? What will it be like not to have access to a telephone? What if you want a cup of tea at nine o’clock and you have to wait until breakfast? How will it feel to be locked in a hospital ward with other people? How do you walk out the door and leave your home and your life behind? I’ll never know what my mother was thinking. She looked up at me and said – “please don’t take me away from my home”. I felt a piece of my heart crack and fall away.
My father gently took my mother’s elbow and helped her up. I picked up her suitcase and we went out to the car. They were expecting us at the hospital. We walked down the corridor to a room where a nurse helped my mother unpack her suitcase. My father and I went to sit with the head nurse to fill out some paperwork and then we went back to my mother’s room for a cup of tea. We’d been asked not to stay for long.
The first afternoon is the hardest for the person being left behind. We chatted about the sodding weather. I remember looking down at my thumbs for an inordinate length of time, unable to look in my mother’s eyes. No emotional turmoil has ever been so punishing. In the hours of that afternoon I understood betrayal. A nurse popped her head through the door and asked Mary if she wanted to see the day room.
It was a necessary but colossally stupid question. Of course my mother didn’t want to see the bloody, stupid day room. It’s simply the start of acclimatizing someone to a new environment – a new reality. We stood up and walked out the door. My father fell behind as my mother took my hand and held on for dear life. She shook the nurse’s hand off her elbow and marched up the hallway.
The head nurse was standing beside the ward door. She unlocked it as we approached and slipped the key on its red ribbon back into her pocket. My father hugged his wife of forty-two years good-bye, with a promise that he would see her the next day. I could not speak for tears. We turned to leave and the door was locked behind us. I had walked no more than ten feet when I turned around. My mother was standing behind the glass topped ward door with her palms pressed against the panes. The two nurses stood on either side.
She quietly mouthed, “Please don’t leave me here”. I grabbed my father’s hand. My legs were shaking so badly I could hardly stand. We rounded the corner and I started to cry, great noisy, ugly, heaving sobs. I’ve never felt so heartless, cruel, relieved, confused or nauseous. It was gut wrenching. We returned to a house draped in an eerie quiet. A home that had lost its heart.
My father had to face an enormous adjustment. An integral part of his life was gone forever. I checked in with him a couple of times a week and called my mother every week-end. In her lucid moments she begged to go home and in her confusion she passed the phone to a nurse saying, “I don’t know who this is, the call must be for someone else”. My father visited my mother twice a day, desperately trying to understand this bitter, new world.
I wanted to forget that I had parents. I was angry. I wanted things to be different. I denied my mother’s illness. I fantasized about a Kodak family. I told my friends that I was fine. I was not. I was exhausted all the time. I hated my weakness. I was plagued by guilt and resentment. I didn’t want to visit my father or mother. I hated answering my phone. I hated the need I heard in my father’s voice. I hated my mother’s disease. I just wanted it all to damn well go away.
The weeks passed and I questioned what kind of woman I was. I wanted to be stronger, kinder and more understanding. I wanted to feel inside the compassion I pretended to have. I longed to be a better daughter and a more loving person.
I tried to imagine how my mother must have felt. Afraid, confused, abandoned. Her fine brain no longer functioning as it should. The monotony of a hospital ward. Locked doors and a regimen of waking, sleeping, mindless day room activities, meals on a tray and volunteers clapping their hand and singing “old MacDonald had a fucking farm”.
Mary’s lucid moments must have been sheer hell – her addled thoughts a blessing. My father tried a couple of overnight home visits but they proved to be disastrous. My mother was not a woman prone to theatrics, violent out bursts of anger, or sadness so severe that it threatened to devour her, but she experienced these emotions and more. Over the next few years, Alzheimer’s did what he does best, he took unadulterated pleasure in stretching our family to the breaking point.