“If I’ve gotten myself into a mess, come and save me,” she would say, when I drove her to physical therapy for debilitating back pain that was keeping her awake at night, or took her out to plant nurseries after she hadn’t seen anyone for days.
“By the time you need saving, it will be too late,” I would answer. I would always ask her to come live with me. For years, I asked her to come live with me, with us. She would always say, “But where will I put my stuff?” She was a lifelong collector of antiques and collectibles; I could take her, but I couldn’t take all her “stuff.” We live in a two bedroom, one bathroom house, up the hill in Camas, but just downhill from where the houses get big. I would have gladly slept on the living room couch, but we just didn’t have the room for another house of furniture.
The day before my mother died, I had this crazy strong instinct to put on her black ’60s LeRoy Knitwear sweater with the fringed sleeves. I cooked roast pork for dinner, just like she did the night Dad died almost ten years earlier. And the kids and I ran errands and moved through our day somberly, saying to each other, “What if she dies tonite?”
My relationship with my mother was the culmination of many years of very hard work. Molested at age 7, my mom never recovered. It took me years to uncover the reason for her fearful outlook on life. It took years to earn her trust enough for her to tell me the stories of that time. It was the stable hand. He was nice about it, you see. That made it okay. If you were nice about it, it was okay. Wasn’t it? Her dad and his mistress seemed to think so, when they shared a wink about it in front of her.
After she died, I found out that behind my back, she told people I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I guess she said that often – though, wisely, not to my face after that one time I exclaimed, “Yes … and I’m FINE!” That was her excuse for me, her reason for me when others didn’t like something I did or said, “You can’t throw a baseball with a broken arm,” she’d reason. Along with all that work on my relationship with my mom came a lot of good work on myself. I found out the hard way: Healthy boundaries were not welcome in my family.
I was so angry at first, when I heard that. It’s taken a long time for me to realize: She said what she had to, to whoever she was talking to, to keep the peace … to make everything “okay.” I’m sure she learned that at an early age … maybe age 7.
Later that evening, I found a voice mail on my old phone, the one that didn’t have voice mail set up at all, so how could I have a voice mail waiting there? But I did. It was Nana, calling for help, 11 times, over and over. I could tell that she couldn’t breathe. I called her caregiver immediately, who responded to my grave concern at this desperate voicemail from my mother – who clearly was gasping for breath, and could not find her way back to her oxygen – with an incredulous, “What are you trying to say?”
I just stared at the phone. How does that answer even come to mind at a time like this? Does not compute.
I called the police, and the officer who returned my call didn’t seem impressed with the news that had landed him on the other end of my phone, so I detailed years of recorded neglect and injury, a year landing in hospital repeatedly, trash piles blocking the way of this woman who had to use a walker (why I bothered with that if the other didn’t impress I do not know), and finally resorted to recounting the porn photography her caregiver shot in and around her home, without her permission. The officer took a detour to share how difficult it is to care for the elderly and, by the way, filming porn between consenting adults is perfectly legal. And anyway, what exactly do you mean, “Porn?” Maybe he wanted to see it for himself, see if it really qualified. “Good quality? Poor quality?” I imagined him wondering. Ridgefield’s finest, ladies and gentlemen. I didn’t share this photographer’s reputation, in the artistic-muff-shot world, for being very respectful … for being very nice about it.
After arguing the finer points of artistic muff shots of young women (who post publicly on Facebook that they just lost their day job “again”), I called the Adult Protective Services investigator who had been assigned to Nana’s case – who had never reported back to me what she found or what had been done on my mom’s behalf – and left a voice mail. To their credit, though, after I called APS, the piles of trash and recycling that blocked Mom’s way to comfortably navigate from living room to kitchen did disappear. So there’s that.
Mom always told me, “I’m okay.” When I could hear her starting to lose herself, several years back, when they went to Europe for 10 days and she was afraid to be alone: “I’m okay.” When she was struggling to cook breakfast for herself at noon, the broken refrigerator door falling open and almost knocking her over: “I’m okay.” When they rented a van to try and take her out with extended family, dropped her on the van step so that she skinned both her neuropathic shins, which wouldn’t heal for months: “I’m okay.” When her legs just spontaneously started bleeding all over her white kitchen floor in her last months: “I’m okay.” When she landed in the hospital because no one noticed she’d stopped eating; or again, after she’d been stuck on the toilet, with diarrhea and vomiting, all night, the bathroom window open to the winter night: “I’m okay.” She actually was okay, in the hospital, even though she was careful not to show it in her caregiver’s company. She knew she was being taken care of, there.
Earlier, Mom had left a voice mail in which she was obviously very much on morphine. She was waiting in a “mess of her own making,” and wanted to know if I still loved her, even though … that. She was waiting for them to come clean her up. “They’re taking care of me,” she slurred. I seriously wonder how long my uber-proper mother of high-society, heavily English upbringing waited in that state before she picked up her phone, dialed my number and left me a voice mail.
Of course I always knew, part of me always knew, but that was when all of me really knew, and I broke down crying: She was never okay.
Short weeks before, she had been back in the hospital again. I walked in to her room to see her deep in thought. She said she was contemplating how many cigarettes she’d had recently, trying to count them in her mind.
“If I’ve gotten myself into a mess, save me,” she said then.
“You can sleep in my bed,” I told her.
“But … I can’t leave my stuff,” she said.
The next morning, I found more voicemails, this time from a briefly repentant, very tearful caregiver. And I left one more for APS.
“Nevermind,” I told her. “She’s dead.”