April 12, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
As some readers will know, I was on blogcation last week, visiting my parents. There was much to be thankful for in the time I visited, and much that was difficult. I am still processing the experience, and find my reflections are not yet ready to post. I do, however, have an earlier story that provides some context for what will follow.
This piece was originally written for performance at Cheap Theatre at the Black Forest in May 2013. It is not a slam story, and therefore is longer than a typical blog post. I am grateful to Cheap Theatre’s Artistic Director Erica Christ for providing a venue in the Twin Cities where longer, more complex material can be attempted.
The game-changer for my parents came in October of 2011. At least that is the moment I focus on.
They were moving the dining room cabinet away from the wall so that someone could come in to paint. Why an 83 year old man and a 79 year old woman would hire someone to paint the dining room but insist on moving their own furniture I do not know. I’m guessing it wasn’t my mother’s idea. They had sliders, it would be easy, As Seen on TV. On the count of three, my father would lift up one end of the dining room cabinet, and my mother would slip the slider underneath. One, two…
“I need to sit down,” my mother announced, and she did, on the picture window ledge, next to her Christmas cactus. My father straightened up – it takes a while these days – and when he looked at my mom, she was slumped over unconscious. He couldn’t wake her up.
I learned this all on the phone, after it happened.
My parents live in a tiny little town in New York State, over a thousand miles away from where I live in Minneapolis. In my mind’s eye I see my father’s hand, its knuckles knobby from arthritis, age spots mottling the skin, reaching for the phone receiver, the one with the cord so long it would travel all over the house. I see his index finger shaking as he dials 9-1-1. Of course that phone is gone now – they have a cordless – and nobody “dials” anything. But the picture is as vivid as if I’d been there.
A fire truck came first – they must have been the closest paramedics – and then an ambulance. Lots of flashing lights, my mother said. By that time she had regained consciousness. She had no memory of the last twenty minutes, and could not figure out what the fuss was about.
At the hospital, they did a battery of tests but found nothing. “Could have been a drop in potassium,” the doctor said. “These things happen.” Still, they made her stay overnight.
Over the phone I ask her how she is feeling. “I’m fine,” she says. “Isn’t that exasperating?” Mainly she seems annoyed.
“Your mother’s tough,” says my father. But I’m not convinced he believes it.
The hierarchy I observed in my parents’ marriage was both personal and professional.
My mother was an elementary school teacher, and my father was a principal. At different schools, thank God. My father was the official breadwinner; my mother worked, we were told, to send us all to college.
She would come home an hour or so before he did, and talk to us kids about our day over oreos and milk. Then, if what was supposed to be thawed was somehow not thawed – before microwaves, this was a problem – there was the inevitable question, “Now what should I make your father for dinner?” “Macaroni and cheese!” we’d scream, but though we saw that as a main course, my father most certainly did not. Macaroni and cheese was a side dish for something with bones in it.
Whatever she decided, the thing with bones had to be in the oven before he got home at 5:30. Dinner was promptly at six. You didn’t want to deal with my dad if dinner was late. In the meantime, there’d be wine and snacks in the living room while my father told her about his day.
If anyone remembered to ask about my mom’s day, the answer always seemed to be the same: they were studying the tundra. I knew the definition by heart: “an ecosystem where the tree growth is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons.”
I saw beneath that hierarchy once.
In 1976, my sophomore year in college, I came home for spring break. My mother had just had a “routine” hysterectomy. The issue was fibroids. She was 43. My father had said he was not himself, that he was taking medication, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I had seen my grandmother depressed; she cried a lot. My dad just seemed slow, and not altogether there. He’d had a physical recently; they were ruling things out. But it was my mom who was in the hospital.
The morning before we visit her there, I find my dad standing in the bathroom in his ratty blue and black striped robe. A white card with a brown smear is in his hand. “Do you think it’s enough?” he asks me. I realize that what I am seeing is a stool sample. My father is 46. I am nineteen. Gee, dad. It looks pretty shitty to me. And then out loud I say, “I guess.”
In the hospital parking lot, he spends ten minutes trying to decide what door to enter. It’s not a big place. “Let’s just pick one.” We go in. I ask for directions at the information desk, find the right elevator. My father follows me in. “Push four,” I say. When we get to my mother’s room, she is groggy, and in pain. My dad asks her what he should do about the milk order, and if we have any 60 watt bulbs. When he starts to tell her about the stool sample, I cut him off. She sends him down the hall for a can of pop from the vending machine, then turns to me and whispers, “Please. Get him out of here.”
I used to pray that if one of my parents had to die first, it would be my father. Not because I wished him ill. Mainly because I couldn’t imagine how he’d manage without her. And also, I have to admit, because I wondered who she might be without him.
“Have you noticed Mom’s forgetting things more?” my sister asks me. “That she stumbles with her words?”
“Everyone does that,” I say.
It was May 2012. My sister had organized a surprise party for my mother’s 80th birthday. Cousins I had not seen since my grandmother’s funeral twelve years before showed up. Both my mother’s younger sisters died of cancer within a year of each other. My mother looked – and sounded – more like their mothers than anyone else alive.
“Sometimes I think it’s getting worse,” my sister says. “And other times I think I’m imagining it. It’s hard because I’m so close. I’ll be interested in what you think.”
What I think is that someone from Mission Impossible has made a mask of my mother’s face, and put it over her real one, and they haven’t gotten it quite right. It’s too pale, and too vague, and far too distant. She can laugh through it, and cry through it, and sometimes it seems quite natural. I watch how she interacts with each person, how she brightens when the connection is clear, and dims when it is not. And how hard she works to keep everyone from knowing the difference, until late in the day, after my youngest cousin says goodbye, and something finally gives.
“I’ve never seen that man in my life,” she says.
“Dorisanne!” says my father. “Are you drunk? That’s Stephen. Of course you know Stephen. He’s Carol’s boy.”
“Don’t shout at me,” she says.
She looks embarrassed. “I must have had too much wine.” But the mask goes up, and I know that’s not what it is.
After this I start noticing things, even on the phone, even a thousand miles away.
How often names disappear. How often words go missing, or get jumbled up with other words. “I must be tired tonight,” she says.
When they put her on a new medication, she tells me, “I have to check my blood pressure three times a day. And write it down in my obituary. … No, wait. That’s not the right word.”
“You’re right, Mom. That’s definitely not the right word.”
There’s one word she won’t say, and doesn’t want to hear, even after the diagnosis. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I know what that means.” It was my mother who had power of attorney for my grandmother after her two younger sisters died, who visited her in the Memory Care Unit, who saw each step of the disintegration ahead.
My father won’t use the word either. “We have to have hope,” he says. “They’re finding new medications every day.”
“Forgotten is forgiven,” says F. Scott Fitzgerald. All my life the point of telling stories has been to remember and forgive. Now it seems we must learn to do both.
It’s the summer before my mother’s collapse, before she’s forgotten Stephen, before she’s writing her own obituary.
I am sitting at the picnic table on the screened-in porch with my parents, eating corn on the cob. A plate full of fresh ears have just come out of the pot, and on my father’s plate two are already cleaned. My mother has finished an ear, delicately, with so little butter on it you would not know it was there. She is working on her cottage cheese and pineapple, but it’s slow going, because she has to keep getting up and down to check on the next six ears.
“On the farm,” my dad says, “we’d have whole meals that were nothin’ but corn and biscuits, snap beans and tomatoes. ” Apparently meatless meals were OK at harvest time. That made sense. The more the family ate, the less you had to can.
My mother is not a farm wife. She brings out a plate of Pillsbury Grands.
Even into his eighties, my father is a corn-eating machine.
He goes row by row methodically, confident in his lower bridge. He does not bother with the handles shaped like little ears of corn, the ones we adored when we were children, the ones that sent a cannibalistic shiver of poetic justice down our own plastic spines as we stabbed them into the center of the soft cob.
My mother would suffer in silence as we children buttered our corn the way my father taught us, farmer-style, turning the hot ears atop the gradually deforming stick of butter. She was an urban creature. Butter was a rectangle for a reason; it should disappear gradually in slivers, so that you barely noticed its diminishment. But “rolling the corn is half the fun!” my father would say. And we agreed. After the meal, she would hide the mess that remained in the back of the refrigerator, and put a fresh stick in the butter dish, one that did not display the marks of appetite, the indignity of meltdown.
These days there is not enough food in the refrigerator to hide a deformed stick of butter behind. Mostly they eat Lean Cuisine. But the corn is in at the Farmer’s Market, and this is a special occasion. The prodigal daughter has come home.
My father’s chin is greasy and there are little skins of corn kernels that escape his methodical attack and end up at the corners of his mouth, and on his chin as well. When he is finished with his ear he will wipe them off, but it is inefficient to do so each time one appears, and I’m not sure he is aware of them anyway. As he eats his own ears move back and forth, up and down, with the motion of his jaw. Their cartilage has grown and cauliflowered: what is the purpose of this? What evolutionary advantage could it possibly serve?
After everyone is in bed I take out my laptop and hold it heavenward in the living room, searching for our neighbor’s wi-fi.
I find a spot near the window and type my question into Google Search: Why do our ears keep growing? The basic answer appears to be gravity. They don’t get wider, as it turns out, just longer. Our ears are growing toward the ground. I go to bed and dream, my own ear to the pillow, listening.
I dream that my father is eating the years; the niblet days line up in rows and he mows them down, his teeth the harvesting scythe, then tosses each onto the plate for my mother to carry away. His munching, moving ears grow down and down, till they are too heavy, and slip off his head altogether. They hook onto his shoulder blades, and still they keep growing. When they reach the ground he must decide: Should they grow bark, or sprout feathers? Does he want roots, or wings? He turns to ask my mother what to do, but she is birling down the River Styx, or Lethe – can anyone tell them apart? Her feet are dancing on corncobs; she cannot answer, nor could he hear her if she did.