Renewal Three : Polishing Both Sides Of The Coin
My mother was an interesting character. A strong and opinionated Scorpio, she passed away on Friday, February 15, 2002 in the same hospital my father passed away some 32 years earlier. It was a premature death, despite the fact she was 84 or 85 (the year of her birth tended to change). She’d had a stroke some two-an-a-half years earlier and had been steadily losing her life force since that time. Though the stroke did not affect her ability to talk, for which she was infinitely grateful (as she always had been), and for which my siblings and I often felt infinitely hobbled (nothing much changed here either), it was a difficult thing for her to go from being independent and on the move one day to needing around the clock care the next. It was difficult on her friends and on her children as well. Mostly we all tried to remain upbeat for her sake, though we increasingly had nowhere to turn for our own sakes.
We had talked quite a bit about this state of affairs (and talked and talked), accumulating a number of stories about her state of dependency, many of which we could not help but bust out laughing about.
For instance, on one occasion I was guiding her wheelchair with her aboard, through a very busy public place as we negotiated our way to a medical building for an appointment. As we were rolling along, she casually mentioned that she could feel a cold breeze blowing up her leg. My mother was attired in a hospital gown, but was wearing a sweater and had a blanket in her lap that covered and warmed her. Apparently, when we had loaded her onto the wheelchair, the gown had ridden up so that there was nothing between her and the cushion she sat upon. Furthermore, as we were wheeling about, she had slumped down in the chair so that her posterior had moved forward, closer to the front of the chair rather than near the back.
In any case, I looked down to find that her Depends® had come loose and was flapping in the breeze like a white flag both announcing her exposure and her surrender. Here we were, the dignified Southern lady flashing her “blossom” as she called it, and her eldest son, now regulated to quickly re-diapering his mother in public.
She just threw up her hands, began laughing out loud (like we needed more attention), and mumbled something about the prankster universe, and about what her life had finally come down to. She was laughing so much that it was contagious and I began to laugh out loud as well. It had to be quite a sight and we both commented about that, which only served to fuel our sense of irony all the more. We became like two kids trying to control ourselves in a solemn atmosphere which only made it all the more difficult.
We were still chuckling when we arrived for her appointment, which evoked smiles from all the office personnel, who never asked us a thing about it, but believed, I think, that it was very sweet to see a mother and her son so happy.
However, all comedy and insight aside, towards the end she was very upset with God, professing to not believe in either God or life after death. She got like that every once in awhile and she reversed her position just about as often. On one particular occasion, I pressed her dismissal of life beyond death.
“Obviously,” I said, “there is life after death; dad has been gone for over 30 years and we’re still alive.”
“Verbal trickery,” she asserted.
“Oh, you mean is there individual identity after death,” I asked? “Okay, do you remember being one-year of age?”
She gave me a suspicious look, “no.”
“Were you one-year old at one time?”
“Yes, of course,” she frowned.
“So, the problem” I asserted, “is not about life after death or identity after death, it is about remembering. Even at that, it looks like we don’t have to remember in order to be.”
She just sighed, but I think she was considering it. Sometimes we configure our beliefs and our expectations, and thus our “reality,” through our use of language. If we change the language a bit, we may change the components of our “reality.”
I don’t know that it actually slowed her up any, her opinions were not often subject to change. Still, the opinion didn’t have to change for it to be dinged a bit. Nonetheless, her life force continued to decline, belief or not.
By late January of 2002, she had been diagnosed as having colon cancer, something her half-brother had, from which he died, and something her own mother had, but had survived. An operation removed the cancer, but things began to go wrong. The short version is that she developed pneumonia, her blood oxygen levels dropped and she was put on a respirator. Finally, a day before she died, even the respirator couldn’t keep up and her oxygen levels fell below 90%, which is considered a minimum number. Her blood oxygen levels were mostly about 70% over the next 24 hours, falling as low as 15% at times. Her heart refused to give out, though she had been on heart arrhythmia medication for years, and my siblings and I had to make the decision to remove her from the respirator. She took only a few shallow and unsteady breaths, her eyes rolled back, and it all just stopped.
The longer version of this is much more complex. How it will turn out is unknown at this point, but we have asked an attorney to look into the care she received, especially in the last two weeks before her death. We are convinced that her care was less than what was prudent. She got pneumonia because she had aspirated twice, once on whole pills, which she was not to be given, and once when an attempt was made to feed her through a tube inserted through her nose and into her stomach. Neither of these procedures were safe, or necessary, under the circumstances. There are far safer, if somewhat more costly methods of taking care of both issues.
Her death was a journey of seeming hopelessness. Her life was much more, though to hear her tell it, at least to me and as I remember it, and despite her generally upbeat attitude, there was much that seemed hopeless in that as well. But in life, she basically just took all that was not bright and hopeful and said screw this and scrapped her way to what made her happy. That ability, that resolve, was what seemed to be lost in the last years before her death. The pictures from her last Christmas showed that loss, she had become something which she was not. She knew it, and was sunk in the depression of it all, though with coaxing, she would look up and smile for a bit.
It is impossible, in a short space to tell all that she was. For now, as I process all of the recent events, I will leave it short. But two stories she told me say a lot about her I think.
I’d once asked her what was the first thing she remembered about the time she was 10 to 12 years of age. She recalled how all the male dogs in the local area had showed up at her parent’s house and were barking and raising hell. This had annoyed everyone and the “menfolk” gathered together and decided to do something. The problem, it was decided, was a frightened female dog in heat taking refuge underneath the house. The solution was simple–shoot the female.
The demeanor of my mother’s energy as she told the story was very telling. To me, the story represented all that she didn’t like about masculinity. Sometimes I think that she was a borderline misandrist, which is interesting because she had no patience with misogynists. Actually, I believe that she did not appreciate what she perceived as a non-reciprocal relationship. It seemed clear to me that she appreciated reciprocity, talking and listening, leading and following. She was remarkable in her gentleness if a person who didn’t buy into her logic or her stories, stimulated her to think about her position, but woe to those who attempted to bully their way into her world and foist their realities upon her.
The second story that revealed her character involved her choice of interior decoration. After a number of years spent traveling in the military, my parents settled into a house in early 1956 which they would live in the rest of their lives. The decor of the house was not to my liking, nor, I think, to my father’s. But my dad had long ago given up and largely preferred to drink, to be left alone, and to go to work. My mother had selected turquoise and shades of lavender-pink as the basic color scheme. This struck me as odd. It was a house entirely without the influence of testosterone.
For years I just accepted it as some mystery involved with being a woman—there was just no explaining it. Carpets, walls, drapes, couches, chairs—all in the turquoise/lavender-pink color scheme. This template in the yard is one thing, and she certainly preferred those colors in her landscaping (she accepted green, thank goodness), but with the exception of wood tables and some white for the ceiling and the sheers over the windows, the scheme was turquoise and shades of lavender-pink.
I finally asked her about the lack of earth tones and what was in her head about turquoise and shades of lavender-pink. She had been in the Women’s Army Corp in WWII, stationed in London and Paris. She said that after enduring buzz bombs and blackouts and the grey of war, she had gone to the French Mediterranean. The town was alive in bougainvillea blooming pink and purple flowers and the sea was bright turquoise. The light, the bright, and the life lifted the gloom of war, the Great Depression, the female oppression and struck hope once again into her heart and into her being. And so, from a critical period arose an imprint and a new beginning—renewal.
Though I never got used to the color scheme, I always had to smile whenever I thought of her story or saw her house or noted her choice of clothes.
She had her own spirit and her own explanation. If others didn’t like it or took it too seriously, that was just too bad. I know that it was not all that simple, there are few who are not affected by negative opinions and strong resolve doesn’t mean insensitivity to another’s criticism, but however she was hurt or unfulfilled, she was not cowed.
When she was told about the colon cancer, for a moment she became her old self, rolled her eyes, and in no uncertain terms said, “Isn’t that the shits.” And in the same breath she said, “Well, I’ve lived a good life.”
That’s both sides of the coin—both sides polished and attended to. I’ll miss you mom, you were quite a character and I thank you.