My Mother's Requiem


September, 2009

My cell phone starts singing “Love Me Do” at seven in the morning. I’ve been awake for an hour, lying in bed, thinking, wondering what to do about my crumbling house and my crumbled marriage – abandoned like an old broken sofa by the side of the road. The sound of the phone so early brings on a rush of adrenaline. What now? It’s my daughter, Celina, in a quandary about a paper that’s due in an hour. I’m almost grateful to be given a problem that I can handle so easily. I get up and shoot her some suggestions by email. Celina is in college now and rarely needs my help anymore, but her moment of desperation brings me back to all those times when she was younger and she forgot her homework or lost her keys or had some other mishap and I always ran to the rescue.

A couple of hours later, my friend Darryl calls. He’s agreed to go play Scrabble with my mother on Tuesday and Thursday evenings since I have late classes to teach. He wants to know if I’ve seen my mother this morning. I haven’t.

“Well, she wasn’t doing well at all last night,” he says. “She was very slow and only able to come up with three-letter words. Then when it was time to go, I asked her if she wanted me to take her upstairs. She said no and then she said yes. So I started to walk with her to the elevator. She was wheeling herself, and she turned and went in the other direction. I tried to correct her, but she insisted I was wrong and when I tried to push her wheelchair to the elevator, she began to fight me.”

Oh God, I’m thinking, picturing my tiny mother, her mouth set in grim determination, her silver head lowered like a bull, and her hands with their purple bruises clutching the wheels of her wheelchair. And poor hapless Darryl, ever the gentleman, trying to convince her to go the right way.

“I finally let her go in the other direction and then after she couldn’t find the elevator, I pushed her the right way but by then she was very upset.” And this too, I can imagine: the resigned despair in her eyes, the fluttering hands, the hang-dog look and the inarticulate stammering.

“Yes,” I say. “Every time she goes to the hospital she comes back a step lower. I’ve no idea what to do.”

And it’s true. I’ve no idea what to do. They surely won’t keep her at The Sanctuary indefinitely if she’s that diminished. They do have a memory care unit – a locked door at the end of the hallway. I’ve never been inside, but I’ve heard sounds: people calling out, laughing sometimes, or crying.

It reminds me of a story by Ursula K. Le Guin that I often assign to my students called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin describes a happy, almost perfect society – except for the neglected child kept chained in a basement. This is the price that has to be paid in order for the society to be as delightful and orderly as it is. Everybody studiously ignores the horrid basement and the unspeakable cruelty in which they are all complicit. Though I know the memory care unit is not a bad place nor run by bad people, still, I have ignored it with the same suppressed horror as the people in Le Guin’s story ignore the child in the basement.

But why am I even thinking about the memory care unit? We can’t afford that. She’d most likely have to go to one of the nursing homes where the lumps of flesh are gathered in their wheelchairs, dozing and drooling and occasionally looking up to ask where they are and if you will take them home.

Then a new thought gives me pause: maybe it’s the new prescription the doctor in the hospital gave her. So I call her family doctor and ask him to “d.c.” – discontinue – that medication. Maybe I can buy her a few more months. If she can just make it till February 21 when I plan to take her back to the church in Jacksonville, Florida to hear her music one more time. Her Requiem.