by Kathy Ewing
My wife and I are sitting with my mother in the ICU. The nurses, murmuring as though we’re in church, explain that my mother’s medication removes the blood from the periphery of her body to fight the infection in her lungs, which makes her hands and feet blue and cold. My wife sits on one side of the bed, I on the other, holding her hands under the blanket, trying to warm them despite what the nurses say. Each time I return to her room from the cafeteria I dread taking up her chilly hand again, but once I do I don’t want to let go.
Now beyond the help of doctors, my mother is ministered to by caring nurses. They whisper that she is leaving us. Every few hours, we’re asked to leave the room for a while, and when we return, my mother wears a fresh gown. Once, a resourceful nurse rolls a white towel and sets it by my mother’s cheek to hold the ventilator hose at a more comfortable angle. Another nurse smoothes Vaseline on my mother’s dry lips. Watching the computer screen, the nurses tell us which lines indicate blood pressure and pulse. All our eyes are drawn to the lit screens like TVs.
I hold my mother’s left hand. It has worn her slender wedding band for over fifty years. After dinner one evening last year, my mother came out of the kitchen, her hands still warm from the hot dishwater, and found my father sitting in his red rocking chair, his head flopped back. She held his head, still warm in her hands for a few minutes, and then settled it softly against the cushion before she phoned us. I run my thumb over her ring’s three tiny jewels and recall my amazement, as a boy, that they were real diamonds. I thought diamonds were only for very rich people. As I got older, I admired its simplicity.
My mother’s fingers are long and graceful. Once or twice, I saw her play my grandmother’s piano and watched her hands tentatively pick out chords they hadn’t found in decades. I recall her snapping her fingers when she and my father played old records. At the bakery one day she explained to me that the ladyfingers there were long and slender, as ladies’ fingers were supposed to be, and I thought she was describing her own hands.
Down the hallway in identical rooms lay similar mothers. I imagine their papery hands lying on blankets. Hands that were once tanned. Hands that sported jeweled rings. Hands that spread peanut butter on bread and sewed buttons and wrote notes for teachers, changed diapers, bathed children, ruffled their hair, and bundled them into snowsuits. Their hands snatched us out of the path of cars and spanked us. They held tennis rackets, opened jars, and caressed our fathers. Now, transformed by time, they wait on blankets.
As we wait in the hospital, my mother’s breath comes shallowly. The nurses tell us to be careful what we talk about, because she may be able to hear us. Her face is smooth and blank. Sometimes her eyes blink open, but they are unseeing, as far as we can tell. As I keep this vigil, I am remembering the year I turned 20, when I moved back home.
That summer my mom would come roaring into the driveway returning from the grocery store with her windows open and the radio blaring, usually Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In”) or Bonnie Raitt. I would come out to help bring the bags in and she would grin at me. She had admitted before, sheepishly, that that’s what she did when she was in the car by herself – play her favorite cds over and over, very loud. In fact, she told me that’s what she would do when she came down to Columbus to get me at school. On that long boring drive south. When I was in the car with her, we usually listened to a sports station or classic rock – my choices – and I realized with a start that she probably enjoyed the trip without me in the car.
When I came home, having flunked out of The Ohio State University in my sophomore year, I found she had taken up new habits. She had fixed up her heavy old Schwinn, which had been rusting in the basement during our whole childhood, and took it out for jaunts around the neighborhood when the weather was nice. She looked ridiculous in her sweatshirt, old jeans, and bike helmet, sitting up straight on the bike – I told her the seat needed to be raised but never offered to do it for her – peddling around up and down the neighboring streets. But she lost some weight – having also taken up swimming in our town’s new rec center and told me she had increased her laps steadily and now swam about fifteen miles a week.
She’d been very worried about me, of course, as my grades dipped and the missives from various administrative offices arrived warning that I’d soon be booted. But after I came home and found a job, she relaxed. I got my old job back at the Italian restaurant where I had bused tables in high school and picked up with the high school friends who were still around. So, I had a life. I was around, where I could see my mom and dad in a new light.
She walked every day. She had read that doctors recommended a half-hour of walking every day, and so she added that to her regimen. She took an online test that told computed your real age, factoring in your eating habits and family history, and she would report every now and then. “I’m not sixty any more,” she said proudly. “Since I’ve started taking Vitamin D, I’ve dropped three years.”
“Is Vitamin D for everyone, or just women?” my dad asked at dinner. “Menopausal women?”
“No,” she said pointedly. “Everyone needs Vitamin D. Not just women. Not even just post-menopausal women.”
“Give it here,” he said and popped one in his mouth.
I was convinced that my parents had changed. I didn’t think they would have said “postmenopausal” around me before I left for school. Now they shared jokes and exchanged sidelong glances. I almost felt included, even though I didn’t always get the joke.
Once I walked into the kitchen, and they stepped away from each other. My mom had been standing at the sink, and my dad was facing her. The dish towel had fallen on the floor. My mom’s hand was resting on my dad’s shoulder. “Want some cookies?” my mom asked, and my dad turned away, smiling. I knew I had interrupted them. Interrupted something between them, a sweet, quiet thing. It was something I would never really know about.
The pulmonary specialist arrives. He’s been called in to evaluate my mom. He nods seriously at us, and we leave the room. My wife and I stand in the hall across from each other, and I know she wants me to talk, but nothing comes to me. There’s nothing for me to say about my mom.
When the doctor comes out, I see he’s younger than I am. “The nurses have talked to you, right?” he asks. He’s earnest and direct, looking straight at me, like a newly ordained priest. He glances occasionally at my wife conscientiously including her. “The antibiotics don’t seem to be working.”
I nod. “Right. They told us.” The doctor continues to look intently at me.
“Intubating would be an option,” he says. “Maybe some more hours, maybe days…” He drifts off.
We look at our shoes. He goes on, “I don’t know. But if it were my mom, I’d think about … Is it necessary? Is it worth it?”
I say. “We have to do what she would want.”
“Do you know?” the doctor asks. “Did you ever talk? About …?”
“No,” I say. “No. What I think she’d want. I don’t know. I can only guess she’d want it to be simple.”
My wife’s eyes fill with tears as she’s nodding.
I call my sister, out of town and awaiting the birth of her third child. My wife and I take up our stations in my mother’s room, hold her chilly hands, and continue keeping watch.
It’s forty years ago, and I’m five years old. Awake long after my bedtime, I stand on the upstairs porch overlooking our driveway and yard. The house, our tomatoes, my mother’s marigolds, and my father’s beans are all receiving the fall’s first frost. I’m warm, though, carrying the heat of my abandoned bedclothes. My admiring mother tells me I’m always warm.
The back door slams. My mother, with brown hair and firm limbs, plunges her hands deep into the pockets of her blue nylon jacket and stands for a moment surveying the yard. Then I watch from above as she strides down the driveway, scooping up the toys I have neglected to put away. My ball glove and the plastic bats we played with that afternoon, my sister’s little trike – her practiced hands can carry many toys. She tosses them into the garage and makes a second tour around the yard. This time, her fingers close around the silver handlebars of my precious bicycle. I can almost feel the achingly cold metal.
She scouts around and inhales deeply and looks up at the stars but doesn’t notice me watching from above her, because she imagines me warm and safe in my bed. She probably is thinking about everything she has to do before she sleeps. Wash diapers for my sister and finish the last of the dinner dishes. Perhaps she’s imagining the ordeal of getting me up for school in the morning, or looking forward to getting back to the book she’s reading or cuddling in her own warm bed with my father.
With a last glance around the darkening yard, she yanks down the garage door. She crosses the driveway, cold hands again thrust deep into her pockets. She hesitates at the door. She glances across the street to the neighbor’s window where a TV is always on. Then her eyes drift up past our red-leaved oak, beyond the garage roof, and then up to the sky. I sense her breathing the cool autumn air. Her face is hidden. What she thinks is beyond my knowing.
Kathy Ewing teaches Latin at Cleveland State University and a Sages seminar at Case Western Reserve University. Her website is www.kathyewing.com