Here is Chapter 11 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Weeks pass, and we leave the “Law & Order” crisis behind us. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we chart improvement. Mom works with a cadre of speech, occupational, and physical therapists. Unlike Joan Glancy, which pushed her far beyond her normal tolerance, the Parkwood staff patiently works with her. If she does not want to participate one day, they cut back on the regimen. She is allowed to proceed at her own pace, and we are heartened by the results.
Our relatives see progress, too. February is a month filled with visits, beginning with Bonnie Poindexter, mom’s ex-sister-in-law, along with her daughter, who also doubles as my cousin, Martha Neale. They both live in North Carolina and seldom visit. Nonetheless, they are fond of mom and are anxious to check on her recovery.
I transport them over to Parkwood and watch their faces carefully as we enter mom’s room. I am accustomed to dealing with the new Laura Martinez, but I always try to gauge the reactions of others when they first lay eyes on her. Are they shocked? Do they put themselves in her stead and ask, what if that happened to me? Are they depressed, hopeful, discouraged, encouraged, or perhaps a combination of emotions? If so, they can understand a little of the world we now inhabit.
If Bonnie and Martha Neale are shocked, they never let on. Their visit is pleasant and, as far as I can tell, enjoyable for mom. They stay overnight at my house and visit a second time before leaving town.
My cousin, Walter, also visits around this time. A writer and world traveler from New York, he finds it difficult to carve out time for a visit, but he manages to squeeze in a few days before a journey to South Africa. I pick him up at the airport late one night.
In the car as we ride to the nursing home, he pushes me to tell him the truth sans false optimism. “So how is Laura really doing? I hear the reports from my folks, but I never know if they’re sugarcoating it.”
I nod. “She’s improving. It’s not fast enough to suit me, but it’s better than nothing. You can judge for yourself.”
He does judge for himself. The next morning we show up in time to watch Walter’s aunt Laura practice her walking. The physical therapist strains to hoist mom from the wheelchair and onto her feet. Once she is vertical, the progress is evident. Mom uses a walker to steady her gait, but I see marked improvement over her tentative half steps at Joan Glancy.
The therapist is a gusher. “Much better, Laura, much better. You are doin’ so good, child!” She looks at Walter and me. “She’s showing tremendous improvement.”
Walter beams. “Well, I for one am pleased to hear it. Congratulations on your progress, Laura.”
Mom beams back at him. Few people can make her feel as special as he can. Ever since she babysat him when he was a child, mom and Walter have enjoyed a special bond. He is possibly the greatest intellectual she has ever met. Although she isn’t exactly an intellectual herself, she appreciates intellectualism.
The therapist pauses. “We have a few more minutes together. Can you give us about half an hour?”
Mom starts to protest, but Walter holds up his hand. “That’s fine, Laura. We can find a coffee shop and catch up.” He looks at me. “That is, if it suits Mike.”
“There’s a Border’s bookstore with a café just a few miles back that way in Snellville.”
Walter pushes his eyeglasses onto the bridge of his nose. “It seems that Snellville can meet all of our needs at this time.”
We depart for Border’s while mom finished her exercises. Sitting inside the bookstore café, we sip our cappuccinos and contemplate mom’s options. As always, Walter is quick to grasp the nuances of the situation.
“It must be difficult to juggle the rest of your life with your mother’s illness.” He wipes foam froth from his beard.
I shrug. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world. But she took care of me when I was little. I can return the favor.”
He nods. “Of course. And you have done an admirable job of making the best of a bad situation.” He pauses, clearing his throat. “I assume Paula is on board.”
I have never asked her about it, but I assume so. In many ways, this ordeal is even harder on Paula than it is on me. Laura is my mother, the woman who raised me since infancy. She is Paula’s mother-in-law-to-be. They do not share the same bond that I share with each of them.
“She’s on board and driving the boat.”
We return to the nursing home to find mom slouching in her wheelchair. I can tell from her rosy complexion and extreme lethargy that her workout was vigorous. Even before the stroke, she was not a person to withstand a great deal of physical exertion.
I pat her on the back. “It must have been a good session.”
Mom sighs. “Scootch to say.”
Walter and I exchange glances as if to say, hey, her speech is improving.
And her speech is improving; I can tell that much. It is a little difficult for me to notice at first because I see her almost every day, and the change is incremental. People who see her once every couple of weeks are astonished at her progress. Gradually, her “scootch, scootch” pattern has begun to morph into recognizable words.
The problem is that the absence of grammar and syntax make comprehension a challenge. I always have been a stickler for correctly conjugating verbs, it is true, but I cut mom some slack. As long as I understand what she is saying, that is good enough for me. Thanks to the aphasia, however, the way she strings words together does not always make sense to the uninitiated.
Through the whole painful process, she retains a remarkable sense of humor. Perhaps her high spirits are attributable to generous doses of Lexapro, but whatever causes her ebullience is welcome. I doubt many people could endure what mom has endured and remain so positive in his or her outlook. Except when she is perturbed about her therapy or the “merciless bullshit” of nursing home protocol, mom usually is in a good mood when we visit.
I notice she is more child-like, too. When I bring her a cappuccino from the QuikTrip convenience store near the nursing home, her eyes light up. “That scootch good! That scootch good for you, too?”
I nod, holding up my own cup. “Yes, that is good for me, too.”
“Scootch is good.”
“Yes, scootch is very, very good.”
Always the hostess with the mostest, mom offers to share her food whenever someone enters the room while she is eating a meal. One evening when I show up alone at Parkwood, she is trying to cut a chicken breast with a plastic knife. The stroke deprived her of the use of her right hand — an unfortunate occurrence since she is right-handed — so she struggles to cut her food and deliver it to her mouth with her left hand. It is no easy task, necessitating the use of a bib and frustrating, repetitive gyrations.
“Let me help you with that.” I take the plasticware from her and start cutting the food.
“This scootch…char…char?” It is a question.
She nods vigorously. “Yes, chicken. Scootch chicken. Scootch chicken?”
I shrug. “I dunno. I guess it’s supposed to be chicken.”
“Scootch not good chicken.”
“If it’s not good chicken, what is it?”
“Scootch good chicken.”
“If it’s not good chicken, mom, then what is it?”
“Scootch bad chicken.”
“Yes. Very good.” I slip a morsel into my mouth. “Even with whatever this sauce is, it’s dry.”
“Yes. The scootch is dry. The scootch is very bad chicken indeed.”
Mom points as though speaking to an imaginary person in the room. “Scootch bad chicken?”
“Yeah. You call this chicken?”
“Scootch.” She gestures at me.
“Yes, my name is Mike.”
She holds up her plastic fork with a piece of chicken breast speared on the end. “Mike, scootch this chicken?”
“Are you asking if I want your chicken?”
“Yes. Scootch this chicken?”
“The very same chicken we called the ‘bad chicken’?”
Given the advance billing and the pieces of chicken strewn all over her bib, to say nothing of the sauce dripping down her chin and decorating the bedspread, I have lost my appetite. I grimace, and we share a laugh.
Despite her overall joviality, good cheer cannot last indefinitely. As the weeks pass, mom’s good mood slowly slips away. She grows impatient. Her therapy is still progressing, but it is tedious and slow-going. She seems to reach a plateau as February gives way to March. Frustrated and weary from her new, institutional life, she presses Paula and me to liberate her from the nursing home.
During one especially heated discussion, mom points to the door.
Paula frowns. “You want us to leave?”
Paula nods. “You want to leave?”
“Yes. Me. Me want to leave.”
Mom is determined to return home to her basement apartment as soon as possible. Unfortunately, her physical and occupational therapists indicate that she has not made enough progress to live outside the nursing home without continuous nursing care — care her insurance will not cover if she returns to her apartment prematurely.
She has lost none of her cunning. Early in her tenure at Parkwood, she convinces us that her doctors are prepared to release her into our custody. We are astonished. When we confront the nursing home administrator, she informs us that Laura has told them her family wants to bring her home despite the fact that her doctor and therapists believe the move to be unwise. It seems that my crafty mother is playing both sides against the middle.
Our biggest concern is whether she can get to the bathroom and in and out of bed without assistance. If she is completely bedridden, it will mean that Paula and I have to be available to take her to the bathroom, fix her meals, get her dressed, and care for her every need at virtually all hours of the day. I love my mother, but that kind of sacrifice will fundamentally alter my life as well as place an enormous strain on my relationship with Paula.
Let us not mince words here. Few people are saints or as selfless as Mother Teresa. As much as a person cherishes a relative or close friend, it is difficult to care for an incapacitated loved one. The thought of my mother languishing, forgotten and alone, in a nursing home is abhorrent, no question about it. At the same time, I have to live my life, too. Even though I work from home, I still have to attend business meetings, travel out of town, and enjoy some sort of social life. I will resent my mother terribly if I cannot enjoy a normal life. It pains me to admit these things, but it is true.
As usual, Paula takes charge in explaining these realities to mom. “Laura, I know you want to go home soon, and I don’t blame you one bit. No one wants to live in a nursing home with their bad food and their endless, ‘merciless bullshit.’”
I can tell mom’s pout is a strong one when that last comment fails to elicit even a smile.
“But if you’re not ready to come home, you’re not ready.”
Mom’s eyes flash with white-hot anger. “I scootch ready!”
To her credit, Paula is adamant. “No, you are not ready. You still have trouble walking. You’re still unsteady on your feet. You still can’t get to the bathroom without help.”
Using a trick she learned from her mother, Weeze, the drama queen, mom redirects the conversation. “Scootch. And I can go on…on….” She jabs her finger at us.
“On your own.” I help to complete the thought.
She nods. “Yes, yes. On your own. I go on your own. I need no much money or scootch. I get a little…little….”
Paula helps her this time. “Apartment.”
Mom nods. “Yes, yes. Apart. I don’t need much money or scootch.”
I feel myself growing angry. “That is totally unrealistic. Completely and totally out of the question — ”
Paula gently touches my forearm to forestall a tirade. “Laura.” She speaks in a calm, soothing voice. “You know you can’t get an apartment and a job. That’s impractical. You know it and we know it. What we need to focus on now is improving enough in your therapy so you can come home.”
Of course, mom knows her plan is ridiculous. She is in no condition to live independently and probably never will be again. We certainly understand her frustration and desire to pick up the pieces of the life she once knew. It simply is not to be.
Learning to live with the effects of a stroke is no easy matter, to put it mildly. It changes everything. No aspect of mom’s old life remains untouched. In many ways, she — and all of us — have to live through the stages of grief. We do not want to face what has happened, but eventually we must accept it.
When we leave the nursing home at the end of our visit, mom is in a foul mood. Still pouting, she refuses to acknowledge us as we tell her goodbye. I am upset that she is so down, but I understand her feelings completely. She wonders, as do her friends and family, whether she will ever return to her basement apartment or if she will spend the rest of her days hidden away in a nursing home.