In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I ’m at home in Ohio when the call comes. It’s a Saturday afternoon, late summer, and in a few moments I’m going running (or so I think). I’ll start out easy down the long hill to the railroad tracks, past the row houses where the miners lived when Athens was a coal town. Then I’ll lean into the rise of the hill toward campus, running beneath a cloudy sky, rainwater still dripping from the broad leaves of the sycamores. I can see the route before me: the green athletic field, the asphalt path behind the red-brick dormitories, and then the highway, the hill climbing and climbing, the cupolas and spires of the Athens Mental Health Center towering above me as I pass alongside its rocky wall. Or maybe this time I’ll stay along the river — the Hocking — following its graceful curve and marveling, as always, at how, years ago, a team of engineers moved the river to alleviate flooding. Moved a river, I’ll think, imagining the cuts and angles and drainage paths it must have taken to redirect the river’s flow, what lengths it took to change this landscape forever.
But I do not get to choose between hill and river because the phone rings, and it’s my uncle in Illinois calling to tell me that my mother is slipping. I picture him in his kitchen, staring out the window at the apple orchard and the field of wheat stubble stretching back to the tree line. “She’s slipping,” he says, and though his tone is apologetic, he’s practically shouting. He’s of the generation that always speaks loudly when making a long-distance call, an event reserved for extreme emergency, delirious good fortune, or heart-numbing disaster. I remember, as a child, hearing people call someone to the phone, the urgency in their voices, the waving of their arms: “It’s long-distance. Hurry, come quick. It’s long-distance.”
My mother, my uncle tells me, has lost her wits. She lets a group of neighborhood kids into her house. They steal from her. Worse yet, she gives them money. Blank checks. She signs the checks, and these kids fill in whatever amounts they want. “They’re robbing her,” he says, “robbing her blind.” He reminds me of the door-to-door salesmen, of all the money she’s foolishly spent on an elaborate vacuum cleaner and carpet shampooer, on new doors and windows for her house, and the magazine subscriptions — Lord knows how many magazines, more magazines than she could ever possibly read.
“I know,” I say, “I know.” And I say it with shame because, for some time, I’ve suspected this change was occurring in my mother, but I’ve been afraid to admit it. It’s been easier, separated by a distance of some five hundred miles, to pretend that her life is hers and mine is mine. But now someone else has pointed out what I’ve lacked the courage to own up to — that my mother needs me — and because I am her only child, and because I love her, I have no choice but to face the facts.
“Can you come home?” my uncle asks.
And I tell him, “Yes.”
When she was a girl, my mother cared for her grandfather, a Civil War veteran who spent his last years bedridden. She brought him medicine, turned him to prevent bedsores, sat in the darkened room and sang him hymns, sang “Blessed Assurance” and “Bringing in the Sheaves,” even though she was tone-deaf and hadn’t the voice for it. She had five brothers and sisters, and she was the oldest, so it was determined early on that the others would rely on her. She grew to fit their expectations. She was good-hearted and meek, earnest and quick to please. Her features were pleasant, nearly Asian in their delicacy, but, unlike her sisters, she never learned how to wear makeup or jewelry, how to dress stylishly, how to flirt and make boys notice her. Her name was Beulah Abigail Read, and for twenty-three years she was the old-maid schoolteacher who bandaged children’s scraped knees, helped them on with their galoshes, and pressed them to her when they cried. She didn’t marry until 1951, when she was forty-one years old and must have long since given up on becoming a mother.
I came as a surprise, four years into the marriage. The doctor performed a Caesarean, bringing me into the world through my mother’s abdomen. Within the year, my father caught his hands in a corn picker, mangling them so badly the surgeons had to amputate. Though my father learned to use prosthetic hooks, for the rest of his life he required my mother’s assistance. She put salve on his stumps where the hooks’ holsters rubbed blisters. She bathed him and shaved him and dressed him and wiped him after he used the toilet. When he needed help on the farm, she learned to use wrenches, chisels, crowbars. She lifted cultivators and corn planters, crawled under combines and tractors. Her own hands became scarred with calluses, bruises, mashed fingernails, cuts.
After my father died, she told me, “I don’t hardly know what to do with myself. All my life, I’ve been taking care of someone.”
As my wife and I drive up Route 33 to Columbus and then across Indiana on Interstate 70 into Illinois, we discuss our options. Deb lets me name them, offering her opinion only when I ask for it, even though she, too, has a stake in this; she has always loved my mother dearly. “Whatever you think is best,” she keeps saying, and I know that, whatever I decide, she’ll support me. It’s clear to both of us that my mother can’t go on living alone in her house, easy prey for the neighborhood kids. The question is where to move her: A nursing home? A managed-care facility? A retirement village? I find none of these alternatives palatable. All of them accuse me, the son who would abandon his mother to someone else’s keeping. “I don’t think she needs to be in a home,” I say. “She can still take care of herself.”
And this is true. During the two weeks we spent with her earlier in the summer, I saw no indication that she was a danger to herself, nothing to make me fear she would leave her gas range on and burn down the house, or forget to feed herself, or wander away from home and not be able to find her way back. She still put in a garden and kept her house clean. She tended her houseplants, worked crossword puzzles, and helped with Vacation Bible School at church. So much of her was still familiar to me: the soft tone of voice; the laugh that turned girlish when she was really tickled; the way she tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair, forefinger to pinkie and back again, as if playing piano scales. But there were also new oddities: the water faucets she left running; the Chihuahua she kept in the house, when she’d never had a dog in the house before; the tawdry glass figurines she bought for outrageous sums from those neighborhood kids. “They’re poor kids,” she said. “I just thought I’d help them out.”
Now the question is how we can best help her. “She could come to Athens to live,” I say. “We could rent her a house somewhere close to us, so we could look in on her.”
“She could make new friends,” Deb says. “We could take her to church.”
We drive a few miles in silence, each of us, I suppose, picturing this scenario. For my part, I’m thinking about how alike my mother and I are: both shy, never joiners, always uncomfortable in new situations. I try to imagine how it would feel for her to come to Ohio, where she would know only us. And, beyond that, she would have to follow Deb and me wherever we moved after Deb finished graduate school.
“We’ll move her to Olney,” I finally say. Olney is twelve miles from her home. Her church is there, as are many of her friends, and a few relatives. “Olney,” I say again, and I press down on the accelerator and feel the engine surge, speed lightening the burden I’ve been carrying since my uncle called. “It’ll be all right,” I tell Deb, and I let myself believe it all the way to Illinois, where we check into a motel because it’s after midnight and I can’t imagine waking my mother in the middle of the night and explaining to her why we’ve come.
On Sunday morning, when we walk into my mother’s house in Sumner, I feel like an intruder. She is still at church, giving us a chance to look around. The Chihuahua, Cuddles, yips and growls and nips at my ankles. I nudge him away with my foot. Finally, he loses interest and hunkers down by my mother’s chair to watch us.
The quiet that settles over the room then is one I’ve always associated with this house on Sundays. I remember my father napping, my mother reading the newspaper while the clock chimed off the hours of the afternoon. I open a window, and a breeze puffs out the curtain liners, moving the leaves of a prayer plant on the dining-room table. That’s when I notice the glass figurines everywhere: on the table, on top of the television set, on the plant stands, in the shadow box on the wall — more figurines than I can count. There are poodles and seals, monkeys and dogs, unicorns and cats, all of them no more than an inch tall, all made from spun glass, its slender threads like caramelized sugar. I feel like smashing them all.
Then I spot a loose sheet from a writing tablet; written on it, in a little girl’s scrawl, is the name Marcie Travis. It enrages me to think that this girl and her friends and brothers and sisters have been spending so much time in my mother’s house. My uncle has told me how sometimes my mother leaves them there alone, how they play the radio so loud the neighbors complain, how they run in and out, screaming, the screen door banging against its frame. “Like they own the place,” my uncle has said, and indeed they have claimed it, leaving signs of their presence like the spoor left by wild animals: a bracelet made from candy beads on a string; a pair of muddy thongs; crayon drawings taped to the refrigerator; unfamiliar names in my mother’s telephone book on the page reserved for frequently called numbers. It is this, finally, that distresses me most — seeing these names and numbers, Marcie Travis’s among them, written in my mother’s own neat hand on the same page where she has written my name and number. I feel betrayed, as if my mother is saying, “Marcie Travis is the one I can trust.”
Part of me blames myself for all of this. If only I had stayed close, I could have kept it from happening. I had the chance. Only three years ago, Deb and I lived an hour and a half away, in Evansville, Indiana. Then the University of Arkansas accepted me into its MFA program. My last chance to stay came when my father died, a week before we were to move, and I almost chucked it all to stay near my mother. But I wanted to be a writer and a teacher, so I went to Arkansas, with her blessing. Once I did, it became unlikely that I would ever live close to her again; the only job opportunities in rural Illinois were agriculture or commerce, neither of which interested me. My mother had given me a love of books and teaching, and so, without intending to, had determined that I would one day live my life distant from her.
When she comes home from church and finds us in her house, her eyes open wide, and she smiles. “My, my,” she says, “what a surprise.” I can see in her face that finding us here is the most wonderful thing she might have imagined, and I recall how, in a letter last fall, she told of having been uptown in front of the drugstore when a group of schoolgirls came skittering by, and how their bright laughter had made her wish she were still a teacher. It must be the years and years she spent loving and caring for children that has now made her open her house to Marcie Travis and the rest.
The phone rings; it’s my uncle calling to see if we’ve arrived. He asks me whether I want him and my aunt to come over and help explain to my mother what’s happening, and I tell him that I do. When they get there, we all sit around the table, and I begin: “Mom, we’re worried about you.”
“Worried?” she says. She keeps her head bowed over her lunch plate, as if she senses what’s afoot and is afraid to look up and catch our eyes. She looks like a guilty suspect facing her accusers. I wonder whether, at this moment, she wishes we were gone from her house. “I don’t know why you’d be worried about me,” she says. “I’m all right.”
On the table in front of her are small dishes of boiled potatoes, steamed broccoli, and chopped steak — the meal my mother prepared for herself before leaving for church, then warmed in the oven when she returned, insisting that she could fix something for Deb and me “in a whipstitch.” We declined, too anxious to eat. Now I imagine all the meals my mother has eaten alone at this table since my father died. I imagine the long evenings spent with the television on, even when the programs don’t interest her. (“Sometimes I just like hearing the voices,” she told me once.) I imagine the moment each morning when she wakes from sleep and hears the quiet of her house and wonders how she will bear another day of it.
“It’s those kids,” I say, and then I let it all come out, as kindly as I can. “Mom, we think it would be better if you didn’t live here for a while.”
“Not live here?” She still won’t look up. “Why, where in the world would I live if I didn’t live here?”
“Olney,” I say. “We’ve come to get you a house in Olney.”
She looks up and frowns. “Olney.” She lets out a nervous laugh. “Gracious, that seems like a world of trouble just because of these kids.”
I’m thinking there wouldn’t be any trouble if she could only say no to the kids, to the door-and-window salesmen, the ice-cream peddlers, the magazine solicitors, the people from church who brought her the Chihuahua, insisting he would make good company. (Not to mention the people I won’t discover until I start snooping around in her bank accounts — sellers of supplemental Medicare insurance, cookware, personalized pens, costume jewelry, do-it-yourself books.) But my mother has never been good at refusing people, and I realize, with a sudden rush of shame, that in a way I’m just another huckster, counting on her to be an easy mark. I’ve come to sell her on this move to Olney, hoping she’ll buy it.
“We love you, Mom,” I say, and even though I mean this with all my heart, I suddenly feel suspect, caught between the roles of dutiful son and con artist, and the words stick in my throat.
“Beulah, they just want what’s best for you,” my uncle says. “You know that, don’t you? You know they’re good kids.”
“Yes,” she says, “I know it.”
“So you’ll let them help you?”
She’s fussing with her paper napkin, twisting it around her finger. She bows her head again, and I think of how she kneels at the side of her bed each night to say her prayers, the way she must have learned as a child. I think of how, during the past few years, TIAs — small strokes the doctors say are caused by arteriosclerosis — have come upon her with the least warning: a tingle in her lip or down her arm, and suddenly the world tilts. For a few seconds, she loses her balance, control of her extremities, sometimes consciousness. Maybe, at those moments, she experiences something akin to prayer — a giving over, a dispossession, an acknowledgment that whatever happens to her is ultimately beyond her control.
“If that’s what you all think I need,” she says. And with this, though I’m not sure she intends to, she has announced that we are accountable. Tomorrow, when we drive to Olney to look for a house, it will be our show. Though eventually Deb and I will escape back to Ohio, convinced we have done, if not the best thing, the only thing we can, the consequences will be on our heads.
Seven months later, the second call from my uncle comes, and this time the news is even worse. My mother has gone downhill, he says. He wishes he didn’t have to tell me any of this, but the truth is she’s confused much of the time. She forgets the days, forgets to take her medication, wears her shoes on the wrong feet. The past few days, he or some other relative has been staying with her around the clock, because “it’s hard to tell what she might do.” Just the other night, he tells me, she went into the clothes closet and peed on the carpet. It is this detail that unsettles me the most — the idea of my always demure and modest mother squatting in a dark closet like some feral creature in the night.
Gone now is all the optimism I felt back in August, when we rented the house in Olney just a few doors down from my mother’s church. It even had a front porch where she could display her plants and sit on pleasant days. I made sure the senior center uptown would include her on its van route in case she needed a ride to the center for lunch or recreation. And there were relatives and members of her church who would take her to the grocery store, the doctor — take her back to Sumner, even, to tend the garden she left growing there, and the fruit trees. I took every step to make her life comfortable and safe. I opened a joint checking account in both our names at an Olney bank and arranged for her Social Security checks and her teacher’s pension to be directly deposited. I’ve paid her rent and utilities and sent her money each month for groceries and incidentals. I’ve done everything I can to make sure she doesn’t have money around to squander on whatever salespeople and telephone solicitors have to offer. She’s in a place where she knows people, where people love her — a place away from those kids who stole from her — but now I wonder how much the stress of the move has contributed to her deterioration. I recall how weary my mother looked that August afternoon when we stood in the house in Olney and I asked her what she thought. “We might as well take this one,” she said, surrender evident in her voice. “I’m tired, and I want to go home.”
This time, when Deb and I make the drive to Illinois, we go to do what we managed to avoid doing in August: place my mother in a nursing home. We have talked it through and through, considered all the possibilities, cursed ourselves for having lives that don’t allow us to be caretakers. How would we manage it? We have neither the time nor the space. We live in a one-bedroom apartment, and we’re both gone a lot — Deb to classes and rehearsals; I to teach at a small college. We would have to rent a larger apartment, hire someone to stay with my mother. And within the year, we might easily be moving. Who knows how many more times we’ll have to move until one of us finally lands a tenure-track teaching position? (The number of moves will turn out to be four over a nine-year period: two visiting appointments and a Ph.D. program. Each time, I will try to imagine my mother going with us, and I’ll say to Deb, “She wouldn’t have been happy with all this moving around. Look what happened when we moved her to Olney.” What I won’t say is the truth: that we could have made the tough choices to allow us to care for her. We could have taken her with us again and again and again. Had we been determined, we could have found a way.)
In 1968, my mother’s last year as a teacher, she had to pick a favorite saying to accompany her photograph in the school yearbook. She chose “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” I like to think that, even now, as Deb and I park at my mother’s house this March evening and see her shadow move past the living-room drapes, she understands how difficult this is for all of us. I have to believe that, even in her confusion, she senses how hard it is for us to say what’s right. Otherwise, I can’t begin to forgive myself.
Inside her house, she sits in her chair holding a Church of Christ cookbook up to the light and squinting through her glasses. “Beulah, what are you looking at?” my uncle says, and she answers, in the patient voice I’ve heard all my life, “A recipe for a Jell-O salad.”
The cookbook is upside down, but she keeps moving her eyes back and forth as if she’s reading, and I wonder whether she really thinks she’s deciphering words, or whether she’s become a huckster, too, determined to convince us (and herself) that everything is as it should be.
“Why don’t you put that down for a while?” my uncle says. “Lee and Deb are here.”
“Well, I know that,” my mother says with just the slightest irritation, a touch of vinegar most people would miss, but certainly not us, the ones who have come to spirit her away from this place.
We sit with her, Deb and I and my uncle and aunt, and we explain that in the morning we’ll pack her bags and take her to Bridgeport Terrace, where she’ll receive the care she needs. People there will make sure she takes her medicine. She won’t have to worry about cooking her meals or washing her dishes or shopping for groceries or cleaning her house — all the chores, I think as I list them, that she would give her right arm to continue doing.
“Won’t that be nice?” my aunt says.
My mother doesn’t answer. She taps her fingers on the arm of her chair, one finger at a time — pinkie to forefinger and back, again and again. Finally, she pushes herself up and goes into her bedroom. When she emerges, she has on her coat and head scarf.
“Mom, where are you going?” I ask.
“I’m going to take that package to the right house,” she says.
Earlier, a package meant for a house up the street was delivered to my mother by mistake. On the brown wrapping paper, my uncle has written, “Not at this address,” and he has promised to put it on the porch for the mailman to take in the morning.
All her life, from the days she cared for her grandfather, through the time she saved her teaching salary to buy my uncle a winter coat, to the years when she became my father’s hands, my mother has believed in the golden rule. Now a package meant for someone else has come to her, and it’s her obligation to see it gets to its rightful owner. It’s an obligation she doesn’t mean to neglect.
Her goodness humbles us all.
“Mercy, Beulah,” my uncle says, “don’t fret with that now.”
“It’s dark,” Deb says. “You don’t want to go walking in the dark.”
“Mom,” I say, “don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
She sits down on the ottoman and claps her hands together. The noise startles me. “All right, then,” she says, and there is a hard, fierce edge to her voice, so desperate is she to have this one final chance at humanity. “If it doesn’t get to where it’s supposed to go, I won’t be the one to blame.”
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. My mother would sit by my bed until I fell asleep. If I woke and called for her, she would come. No matter how many times I called, she always came.
On this night, the last night my mother will ever spend in this house or any other house of her own, I stay awake in a chair facing the hallway so I can see if she comes out of her room. I listen for the sound of her moving about, afraid of what bizarre things she might do. What if she mistakes the closet for the toilet again? How will I handle that? I’m caught between wishing the night would pass quickly so my vigil would end, and wanting the night to go on and on so I won’t have to face what tomorrow will bring.
Deb is dozing on the couch. I’m glad she’s with me; without her, I’m not sure how I would manage any of this. She has laid out my mother’s clothing and written “Beulah Martin” in permanent marker on the tags of dresses and blouses and sweaters, on the waistbands of underpants, on the backs of brassieres and slips, on handkerchiefs and inside shoes, on my mother’s Bible, her writing tablet, and her phone book. We will take framed photographs to place on my mother’s bedside table: one of my father and one of Deb and me. And we will take knickknacks to make my mother feel at home, most of them souvenirs from trips she made as a young woman: a glass-domed paperweight from Brulatour Courtyard in New Orleans; a cedar box from the Wisconsin Dells; a hand-painted china plate depicting the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. (To these, over the next year and a half, as my mother’s strokes continue and she sinks deeper into dementia and becomes aphasic, we will add baby toys: a ring of plastic beads filled with water, a set of plastic keys — anything she can press and move with her fingers, which will remain active, their constant dance both frenetic and graceful. Deb and I will sit with her and hold her hands still, and her skin will be warm and smooth. Sometimes tears will leak from her eyes as she babbles, unable to express the feelings that rise up inside her.)
Throughout the night, she comes into the kitchen nearly every hour, fills a glass with water from the faucet, and stands at the sink while she drinks it. Deb has helped her brush and braid her hair, and it hangs down the back of her white gown. Without her glasses she looks frightened, vulnerable. I don’t speak, afraid that if she sees me there, watching from the dark, she’ll be insulted by my presence. I allow her the dignity of being able to move about as she wishes for one more night, in her own house. She leaves the water running, and after she has gone back to her room, I get up and turn off the faucet.
Then, toward dawn, she goes into the bathroom and switches on the light. She opens the medicine cabinet, takes out a bottle of nasal spray, and removes the cap. When she tips back her head and holds the bottle above her eye, I call out to her, “Mom, no!” I rush to her and gently take the bottle from her hand. “This is nose spray,” I tell her. “Is that what you want?”
“I thought it was eye drops,” she says.
“No,” I say, thankful that I’ve kept her from squirting nasal spray into her eye, thankful that for at least this one moment, I’ve saved her, saved us, this mother and son, standing face to face. In my memory, I hold us there while the sky begins to lighten and the day, obeying the relentless march of time, waits for us to move.
“Thank you,” my mother says, and I am filled, forever, with love and shame.
As I read Lee Martin’s essay “Not at This Address” in your April 1999 issue, I asked myself, Why is it so bad that Martin’s aging mother gives money and shelter to local kids? Why does our culture automatically read this kind of behavior in the elderly as a sign of dementia or senility? I waited for Martin to see things from his mother’s point of view, to have some sort of epiphany, a flash of insight. There was none. Instead, I read page after page of self-recrimination and self-pity.
Thankfully, I have not yet experienced this kind of decline in my own parents, and my sympathies go out to Martin. But I’m disappointed: this is the first time I’ve read The Sun and felt depressed for all the wrong reasons.