Here is Chapter 10 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
It is Tuesday, January 27, 2004, and we have arranged for mom to be transported by ambulance from the Joan Glancy Rehabilitation Center in Duluth to the Parkwood Nursing Home & Rehabilitation Center in Snellville, a distance of about 20 miles. All goes as smoothly as can be expected. Polly and Billy depart a few days later with promises to return if we need them. It is right that they leave. Mom faces a long, arduous, potentially slow recovery. No one can do for her what needs to be done. She will have to get through it with grit and determination, or not at all. I am sorry to see Polly and Billy leave, but they have done all they can short of relocating; a Herculean upheaval is neither necessary nor desirable.
Paula, Shelby, and I stop in for a visit around 7:00 p.m. on the first evening of her new residency. Mom is awake and lucid after a vigorous session of speech therapy. Hoisting herself up in the bed, she smiles as we enter the room.
Paula pats her on the shoulder. “Well, just look at you. How are you doing?”
Mom points to her hair and mumbles her usual hodge podge of half-words, half-gibberish. At least the intent is plain. Paula, whom mom calls the “smart one” in our relationship, gets it right away.
“Your hair? You want your hair fixed, is that it?”
Mom nods. “Scootch, scootch.” That’s it.
Paula looks at me. “I think Parkwood has a beautician that comes in once or twice a week to fix the residents’ hair. We can certainly look into it, wouldn’t you say?”
I nod. “Of course.”
“It might cost a little extra, but I know we can afford it.”
“Absolutely.” I personally care nothing whatsoever about women’s hairstyles, but if it is important to mom and keeps up her morale, I am willing to go along.
Paula turns back to mom. “Everything else okay?”
Mom shrugs and slurs through her usual litany of “scootch, scootch.” Then, quite unexpectedly, she utters her first intelligible words since the stroke. Motioning to the room and, presumably, the nursing home, she mutters, “This is merciless bullshit.”
Our mouths drop open, not at the profanity but at the precision with which the words have been pronounced. A second later, we recover from our surprise and burst into laughter. Seeing our merriment, mom laughs, too.
“Leave it to my mom to protest ‘merciless bullshit’ as her first memorable words after a stroke.” I wipe my eyes. “That was classic.”
Even Shelby is in a joking mood. “Nana has a potty mouth.”
Paula sits in the chair next to the bed. “So your therapy was pretty tough, huh?”
Mom rolls her eyes and nods. Yes, it was pretty tough.
“Not as tough as Joan Glancy, though?”
Mom nods. Not as tough as Joan Glancy, though, right.
Paula snaps her fingers. “I have an idea. Let’s get you in your wheelchair and have a look at the place. Is that okay?”
“Scootch, scootch.” Mom motions at her hair.
“Oh, okay.” Paula reaches toward the hairbrush on the nightstand. “We can take care of that.” She picks and teases the thinning hair for a minute or so before handing a small compact mirror to mom.
Mom’s eyes light up. “Scootch, scootch.” She likes what she sees.
Paula smiles. “So it’s better?”
Mom shakes her head. “Scootch, scootch.” Presumably this means, yes, it’s much better than before. Thank you.
“Good. Now, what say we explore this place?”
Judging by her animated facial expression, mom likes the idea. She cooperates without complaint as we roll the chair next to the bed and help her shinny into the seat. Reaching into her closet, I find a terrycloth robe. Paula slides the robe over mom’s shoulders and we are ready for our initial trek into the bowels of the Parkwood Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center.
Parkwood Nursing Home
We are a strange group as we wander the halls of the nursing home in the coming months. Mom is many years — sometimes a couple of decades — younger than the average denizen. Aside from her stroke and hefty frame, she is physically better off than most Parkwood residents. They look so small and frail that a strong wind might carry them off if it blows through the dining room.
By contrast, mom is a sturdy woman. Whatever else might happen, she will not become an insubstantial thing wasting away beneath the layers of soiled sheets. She is a force to be reckoned with and always has been. I expect that most people strive for that designation — “a force to be reckoned with.” Few of us are rich, handsome, or famous. If a person can just become a force to be reckoned with — at least in his or her own family — well, that’s something. Maybe that’s everything. Mom used to tell me when I was a child that “we are not special people.” Sometimes when I was a little too big for my britches or displayed unmistakable signs of conceit or unmasked arrogance, she would remind me that “you’re not king of the universe yet, buster.” Maybe I was not, but that was okay. If I could just fashion myself into a force to be reckoned with within my own family, that would more than suffice.
As we roam the halls, we reflect that perhaps this is the final home for our force to be reckoned with. We have no idea if mom will return to her basement apartment. Much depends on her progress in coming months. We have about 100 days before her private insurance policy and the Medicare supplement stop paying for the nursing home. If she still needs to be institutionalized at that point, she will have to enroll in Medicaid. That’s when the fun really begins. Because Medicaid is designed for low-income patients, we will have to surrender virtually all of her assets except for a small personal property allowance, a homestead exemption, and a pittance in her checking account. Mom worked hard throughout her life to sock away a nest egg for her retirement, but that small account might not be hers after all.
“This is a nice place.” Paula speaks as if to push away unpleasant thoughts. I cannot tell from her tone of voice if she is sincere. I do not feel that a nursing home is the horror I once thought it was, but neither do I find much to praise during our perambulations.
Mom looks up at Paula with an expression of doubt written on her face but she says nothing. She peers into the residents’ rooms as we conclude our trek at the end of a long hallway. Paula swings the wheelchair around and we head back in our original direction.
Shelby steps forward. “Here, I’ll push Nana for awhile.”
When we leave Parkwood, we are quiet and unnaturally subdued. I, for one, feel a mixture of hope and fear. I am hopeful that we have found a place where mom might recover, or at least recover as much as she is going to recover. Her blood clots are dissolving and the outlook is optimistic. Her doctor has prescribed medical TED anti-embolism pantyhose to prevent the likelihood of additional clots forming. Things are finally looking up after weeks of gloom and doom.
At the same time, I am fearful at our long-term prospects. Mom is a stroke patient and that fact cannot be denied or avoided. She will never be the same woman she was before December 29, 2003. As long as she lives, she will be constrained from living the life she has always known. The nature and extent of the constraint remain to be seen, but whatever happens, it will still mean that her old life is gone for good. I can never forget that reality. It weighs heavily on me as though a large metal weight has been inserted into my chest, constricting my breathing.
Paula, Shelby, and I try to stop in every day, although occasionally we miss a visit because we have a previous engagement that cannot be avoided. We fall into the habit of dropping by either at lunchtime or in the early evening after dinner. Typically, we watch television with mom, which is a pleasant diversion. It allows us to spend time with her without the burden of an extended conversation.
Sometimes we accompany her into the residents’ dining room, although it strains credulity to call it a “dining room.” It is an alcove with a few round tables and more than a few wheelchairs. Staff members hover in the background, attaching bibs and cleaning spills, as necessary. If anyone chokes — a far too frequent occurrence, in my view — staffers scurry forward to remove an obstruction or slap someone on the back. The place is always teeming with old people struggling to make it through the meat loaf. It is typical, bland institutional food heavy on succotash and strange-looking meats and meat-substitutes buried beneath voluminous gravies and sauces and mounds of mashed potatoes.
Mom has graduated from a pureed diet, which I thought would have been a welcome development. It is not. Before her stroke, mom loved everything about food. She loved thinking about it, talking about it, planning for it, cooking it and, best of all, eating it. She had not blossomed into a large woman owing to culinary restraint. After her stroke, even as her appetite returns, she finds the foods available to her singularly unappealing. Although she cannot say it, I harbor little doubt that she longs for the steaming, fragrant, heaping, delectable meals of her old life.
As for me, I dread meals at Parkwood for a different reason. Residents’ families are always welcome to visit at mealtime, but few apart from Paula and me take advantage of the opportunity. It is little wonder. Most Parkwood residents have difficulty eating without spilling their food. Just piloting the utensils to their mouths is a monumental feat, often worthy of comment. “Well, lookee there, Mrs. Pendleton,” I remember one nurse cooing at lunch, “you ate that asparagus all by yourself!” The sounds of their chewing and moaning throughout the meal can be unnerving for someone without an iron stomach and a large capacity for blocking out unpleasant sights and smells.
I know these observations sound callous and unfeeling. “Watch out, buster,” mom probably would say to me if she were able. “You’ll be old one day, and then we’ll see how you feel about the disgusting eating habits of the elderly.” I know how I will feel when that day comes — and I know it will come, believe me. I will still feel that such habits are unpleasant but it will be far worse because it will be happening to me.
That realization, I think, is what makes life in Parkwood so difficult for mom. It is happening to her. Thanks to the stroke, she has grown old before her time. I often find myself on the telephone with mom’s friends when they call to check on her progress. They are her contemporaries, men and women in their mid-sixties, facing the unenviable chore of caring for their aging parents, most of whom are in their eighties or nineties. It is eerie when I realize that I have more in common with my mother’s friends than my mother does. She is in the same shape as the parents of her friends. Mom is stuck with all these ancient strangers surrounding her, eating bland food, unable to communicate, stuck inside what undoubtedly is a nightmare.
Realizing the predicament and doing something about it are very different things. We try to make the best of a regrettable situation. We do that by visiting mom as much as we can stand. We try to stay light and cheery, as upbeat as circumstances allow. We do not talk in a condescending manner — at least we are not intentionally condescending — but we steer clear of unpleasantness whenever possible. We avoid topics we know will upset mom. Shelby is having troubles at school, and this is a subject bound to trigger strong negative emotions. Rather than prattle on about a subject beyond her control, we simply handle her numerous entreaties by assuring her that all is well on the home front, even when it is not.
Television becomes a friend and constant companion. The pre-stroke mom watched a great deal of television, but she also was a voracious reader. Now, she can no longer read anything apart from short, simple words, so television is her sole source of entertainment. Thus, we are all gathered around the TV in mom’s room to watch the Super Bowl football game on Sunday, February 1, 2004. That is when the singer Justin Timberlake, one of Shelby’s favorite boy-toy singers, exposes Janet Jackson’s breast — the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” — during the halftime show. We enjoy much merriment together in the wake of that snafu. We also watch several episodes of a television show featuring a musical competition, “American Idol,” in the coming weeks.
“Law & Order,” a gritty, quasi-reality cop/courtroom television program, becomes her favorite show. Fortunately, it has been on the air for many years and reruns appear throughout the day. It is difficult to visit her at Parkwood without encountering “Law & Order.” I must confess that I, too, have become something of an aficionado of the program. Its hard-boiled look at the seamy side of life is entertaining, an infectious brand of television drama that is difficult to resist.
Late one afternoon we watch an episode of “Law & Order” that, amazingly, we have not seen, which is saying a great deal considering how many episodes of “Law & Order” we have consumed. Her eyes light up at the prospect of confronting an unfamiliar plot line.
The nurses have administered some kind of drug to make mom groggy for a battery of tests her doctor has ordered. As the program nears the end, she swoons and her eyes dance around in their sockets. I can see she was not focusing on the program. I am unsure if she ever takes in all the plot twists and turns on a regular day, but she seems even less lucid and coherent than usual.
“Are you okay?”
“Scootch, scootch.” She smiles and points at the television. Comprehension is not necessarily the point. We must experience the phenomenon.
“Scootch, scootch, son.”
I snap my fingers. “That’s right. Your son is watching ‘Law & Order’ with you.”
“Son scootch ‘Law & Order.’”
I laugh; we are making progress with her speech. “Yes, that’s right. Your son is watching ‘Law & Order’ with you.”
Five minutes before the end of the show, just at the climactic moment when the jury announces its verdict concerning the fate of the alleged killer, a nurse appears. “We’re ready for you now, sweetie.”
Mom looks alarmed, so I say, “can we have just five more minutes so she can finish her show?”
The nurse ignores my question. “Okay, Bill.” A young muscular black man appears wearing green scrubs.
“Scootch, scootch.” From mom’s tone of voice, I interpret the gibberish to mean, in rough translation: Hush up, you fool. My son is watching the conclusion of “Law & Order” with me.
The nurse fails to appreciate the gravity of her transgression. “That’s right, hon, we’re ready for your tests.” She and Bill fiddle with wires around the bed.
Mom’s nostrils flare and she snaps at the woman through the fog and haze of her drugs. “Scootch, scootch!” Her meaning cannot be any more transparent: Shut up, cow! You are spoiling the end of the show! My son and I must learn if the jury agrees with the prosecutor, Mr. McCoy, that this vicious miscreant must be locked away as punishment for his heinous crime.
“She’s trying to see the end of the show.” I point at the TV.
The nurse is fiddling with mom’s IV bag and seems oblivious to the discussion. “Um hm. Ready, hon?”
“Scootch, scootch!” Mom protests when it is clear that this impudent woman intends to wheel her from the room before the conclusion of the show. Hell, no, I’m not ready, sweet potato pie. Now, leave me in peace and come back in five minutes when the show is over.
“Okay, hon, time to go.” The nurse has a false smile plastered on her wide, shiny face. She kicks the edge of the bed to unlock the wheels. Bill does the same thing on the other side.
Although she is still groggy, mom is quasi-livid. She wags the index finger on her left hand at the nurse and mutters a series of semi-words beginning with “s” and slipping into “scootch, scootch.”
“Sir, you will have to leave this room now.” The nurse speaks to me as she and Bill wheel the bed toward the doorway.
Sitting up and staring with her most ferocious look, mom announces as loudly as she can, “my son is watching ‘Law & Order’ with me” before falling back in the bed, exhausted and sweating.
All of us — the sweetie-sweet nurse, silent Bill, and me — look on in amazement. The clarity of her speech is stunning.
I look back to the TV screen but the credits are rolling. I do not know what happened at the conclusion of the show, and I know mom will fret that such knowledge has been denied to us.
I am a strong believer in the concept that when comfort and truth collide, comfort should win out; consequently, I cover for my lack of knowledge. Trailing behind the bed as the Bill and the nurse roll mom toward her appointment, I utter words of comfort. “Don’t worry, mom, I saw the ending. They convicted the guy.”
She looks back at me. “Scootch?” Oh, yeah?
“Yeah. Mr. McCoy won the case.”
“Yes!” mom agrees triumphantly as they push her through a set of double doors at the end of the hall.