In August of 2013, I found myself spending a weekend with my mother in a retirement home, and all I can think about is poetry.
My mother had fallen and broken her hip. She had surgery; the surgery was successful. I had spent a long weekend with her when she was recovering in a nursing home (described in my post yesterday). She had eventually returned home.
She was required to use a walker. She hated it. It was awkward maneuvering around the house, she said, although her house, the house I grew up in, was not cluttered. She convinced herself she didn’t need it to walk from her bedroom to the kitchen. One afternoon, leaving the walker in her bedroom, she fell in the kitchen. Fortunately, she had no broken bones. Unfortunately, she couldn’t pull herself up.
The neighbor who checked on her twice a day had gone out of town. The backup neighbor wasn’t due to check on her until the next morning. My mother couldn’t pull herself to reach the telephone.
She spent the night on the floor.
She spent as total of 18 hours on the floor.
She’d hear the phone ring, but couldn’t answer it.
My sister-in-law called, a daily ritual. No answer. She called the neighbor. No answer but she left a message. Same thing with the backup neighbor. My sister-in-law got in the car and started the 90-minutes journey to my mother’s house. Halfway across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway bridge, she connected with the backup neighbor, who had been out grocery shopping. She said she’d check immediately. She did, and found my mother asleep on the floor.
We knew we had to do something. My mother was almost 90; she could no longer live alone. The cost of hiring a full-time caregiver would be horrendous. All of us, including my mother, knew what this meant: a retirement home,
She had lived in the house for 57 years.
Moving her was for her own good.
Moving her from her home would also be a sign to all of us that she was dying.
|My mother holding Cameron, with my daughter-in-law Stephanie - June 2010|
In May of 2013, my younger brother and I flew to New Orleans, charged with a task we weren’t looking forward to: breaking up my mother’s home, with her there to give us guidance on what to keep. For three days, we sorted papers, objects in her curio cabinets, clothes, photographs, some of our own personal things she had held on to, things belonging to our father. Over the years, my mother had been rather ruthless in culling through “stuff” she owned. It made our job easier, but there was still a lot of stuff.
A week or so later, she moved into the retirement home. She actually knew someone who lived there, and she seemed to have made friends rather quickly (she had a “circle” she ate lunch and dinner with regularly). I spent a weekend with her that August, staying in the home’s guest apartment.
She had fractured her back, lifting the toilet tank cover one night to fix the tank stopper. She thought it was just like home, where the tank cover weighed only a few pounds. This one, specifically designed for retirement homes, weighed over 30 pounds. Her back fractured, and she had been in constant pain for several weeks, helped only by pain medicine. The home had to get someone to administer the pills – my mother would take them as soon as the pain started, and consequently was spending a lot of time sleeping.
I sat with her in her little apartment and with her for meals, and the pain was clearly debilitating. The only thing that seemed to help was me. I had experienced a ruptured disk in 2011. Ongoing pain, strong pain meds, eight months of physical therapy including traction – yes, I knew what my mother was experiencing.
Because of my own experience, my mother felt comfortable talking about the pain she was experiencing. She knew from the expressions on others’ faces that they wouldn’t understand, would get impatient, would believe she was only complaining because she didn’t have anything else to do. She knew that I understood. That kind of pain changes your personality. It narrows your horizons and confines you like a strait jacket.
Yes, I knew what she was going through. And we talked. I know it helped her. It helped me as well.
As I listened to her talk about the pain, and then gradually shift to talking about other things, and her own life stories, I began thinking about poetry, and how her life and her very self were like poems. We both knew that her time was short; she died six months later. But her life, and this time we were spending together, bonded by a common experience in pain, had become something of a poem, likely a poem I will never be able to write but one that wraps itself around my heart and has become part of me.
In Mortal Blessing: A Sacramental Farewell, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell quotes Catholic poet Denise Levertov: “To write poetry is to labor in the transcendant.”
O’Donnell might call my experience with my mother the sacrament of pain, a sacrament we mutually shared, one that became part of both us.
Our last poem together.
Photograph: March 2013 – my younger brother and I in front of my mother’s house after her memorial service. It's the house we both grew up in.