November 1, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
That night my mother came to my room – I should say that it used to be my room, and was the room I was staying in then – expecting me to spend the night with her.
It was the second to the last night of my visit home, this past July. I had said we could have a sleepover. “But that’s OK if you don’t want to,” she said. She was tentative, like the new girl at school asking to join someone for lunch.
“No, no,” I hastened to say. “It’s fine. I’ll just be a minute.”
I thought I could take the time to check my email, touch base with friends on Facebook.
It had been a long day of no contact with the world I had lived most of my adult life in: a world in which I had friends, and a job, and a private life, and a place to spin my thoughts.
Here I had: my parents. And there were a lot of thoughts that needed spinning, but no privacy, no time to put the words and images down. I loved my mother – I ached to see her so – but I was feeling mentally, intellectually and emotionally drained. And I had been home less than a week.
My father had had eye surgery that morning – “the last thing I’m going to try,” he said. “After that, I’m done.” He has macular degeneration, but the surgery was on his tear ducts, and was supposed to stop his eyes from watering continuously. There was no general anesthesia. He did not feel pain, but he knew what they were doing the entire time.
“The doctor says I have to sleep upright,” my father said. “all night.”
He’d been nervous about the surgery, clearly regretting he’d even agreed to do it. I had watched him get ready for things the night before, without any help from my mother, without any sympathetic recognition of his anxiety. It was a lonely marriage now, between two people who loved each other very much.
“The doctor says I have to sleep upright. All night. That means I have to stay down here, and you have to stay upstairs,” he said to my mother. It used to be his refuge, that chair, when he couldn’t sleep, which was often these days.
He had a ritual. He would come downstairs around four, turn the gas fire on in the fireplace, cover himself with the polartec blanket. He’d get the remote and turn on the TV to easy listening. He did not look at the screen. Even if he did, he’d seen the ads in the corner so often he did not even notice them. Ads for catheters, for lifesaver bracelets, for scooters At No Cost to You.
“The music is just wonderful,” he’d say. “It puts me right to sleep.”
By music he meant The Many Moods of Mantovani; or movie themes, whirled in a blender; or musak Beatles, the orchestrated scores sounding like they’d been stamped into silly putty and stretched beyond recognition. “It’s magic,” my father would say.
That trip downstairs had been his sanctuary from the noise of the CPAP machine. The mask made my mother look like a deep see diver, and dive she would. In the early stages of her Alzheimers diagnosis, she would sleep until eight, sometimes even nine – uncharacteristic for a woman who had been an elementary school teacher.
But something had changed recently.
“She won’t stay in bed anymore,” my father complained. “No matter how quietly I try to get up. She follows me down.”
It triggered a memory of my own. Of being a young mother trying to get some time to myself before the baby or the toddler woke. It was like they could feel awake energy in the house. I loved them – I really did – I just wanted twenty minutes for the coffee, twenty minutes to daydream.
But no sooner was I in my chair than I would hear the thump of feet hitting the floor. I remembered my son clambering onto my lap in that oversized Reed Reunion t-shirt he wore as pajamas, on the back porch in our Nashville bungalow. That towhead leaning into my shoulder, the knobby little knees, the legs dangling on either side of mine.
My mother is at my door in her night gown.
“I’ll be right there, my mommy.” I call her “my mommy” because my grown daughter still calls me that sometimes, and it makes me happy. “We’re going to have a slumber party!” My mother giggles. I hope if I am there she will feel secure enough to leave him alone, to give him the rest he needs, the time he needs to worry about himself and not her.
Tonight she skips the CPAP. I understand this happens on occasion, and it is not a battle I am going to fight. Nor, when she insists she must wear her bra to bed – “They told me I have to wear it ALL the TIME,” do I contradict her.
Her leg touches mine briefly as she quiets into sleep, and I wonder if she thinks I’m Alice.
She and her younger sister slept in the same bed until my mother graduated from college. I realize I have not shared a bed with anyone in two years, and the last time it was to say goodbye to someone who probably should not have been in that bed in the first place. I did not sleep well then, and I do not sleep well now. Downstairs, despite his longing, neither does my father.