Here is Chapter 20 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
We have rented a condominium in a building called Capri by the Sea on Ocean Boulevard in San Diego, south of Palisades Park and north of Pacific Beach Park. It is a prime location, directly facing the ocean and adjacent to many San Diego attractions. Paula found the place on the Internet. Internet transactions always makes me wary — I am from a generation that came of age without computers — but in this case it turns out to be a charm.
After reuniting with our luggage and procuring a rental car, we navigate our way through torrential rain to the condo office. I take several wrong turns, much to the amusement of my passengers, but eventually I find my way. I could narrate journey, but the event is far too prosaic to dwell on our maneuvers. Suffice is to say the trip from the airport curbside to our condominium office takes less than an hour, even with the wrong turns.
The condo administrative office is situated in the corner of a nondescript office park. If I did not have a street address and suite number, I would never find it. Even so, the task is not without challenges. We circle the office park twice before we see the small, unobtrusive sign perched in a small window adjacent to the door.
“Golly, this one takes the long way around.”
I laugh. Mom can never resist commenting on my driving skills, or lack thereof.
It is after hours and the office is closed, but I am not perturbed. The management has alerted us to this possibility in the handsomely decorated, brightly colored brochure our personal care representative mailed to us. Not to worry, they have assured us; the door key can be conveniently found in a lock box along with explicit directions.
Sure enough, I step from the car and approach the front door. Off to the side, hidden behind a bank of high shrubbery, I spot a series of combination lockboxes. Consulting a slip of paper we received in our personal care package, I punch in a numerical code on the lock box labeled “1004” and retrieve the promised items: a door key as well as driving directions to our accommodations.
Back in the car, I appoint Paula our navigator. She sits next to me in the front seat while Shelby and mom are strapped into the rear seats. Slowly, uncertainly, we crawl through residential neighborhoods, past spacious, immaculately maintained lawns, their flat, square lots decorated with plentiful palm trees and a variety of colorful plants and flowers.
Paula notices mom noticing the houses. “These people must have money, Laura.”
“Money, yes, money. Lord, they must have money!”
I turn onto the main highway parallel to the coast. As I swerve in and out of traffic past the pizza parlors and the Ralph’s grocery stores that seem to populate every intersection, I hear the sound of mom’s good foot pumping an imaginary brake.
Paula hears it, too, but, unlike me, she cannot identify the source. “What’s that noise? Did we hit something?”
“Nana’s jiggling her leg.” Shelby sound befuddled.
“What’s the matter, mom? Is my driving scaring you?”
“Yes, scaring you. Scootch, yes!”
I slow down as we approach a tall cylindrical building that I take for the condominium complex. I am no genius of navigation in this respect. I read the sign “Capri By the Sea” on the building facade.
Mom cranes her neck to gaze up at what amounts to a high rise on Ocean Boulevard. “This one has the look of a crooner.”
We laugh as I swing the car into the underground parking lot, momentarily shielding us from the rain. It has slacked off since our plane landed, but it still tumbles fast and furious from the sky.
Minutes later, we check into Room 1004, a two-bedroom unit facing the beach.
Standing in the doorway, Paula, Shelby, mom and I marvel at the scene. The clouds are thick and pewter-stained, but we nonetheless command a panoramic view of the beachfront. Far below, prancing along the sandy shore, a group of surfers in their brightly-colored wet suits charges into the giant waves with their boards in tow. Shelby and I stare down at them from the balcony until Paula calls us back.
“Give me a hand with the suitcases.”
Mom nods vigorously. “A hand with the suitcases.”
Shelby and I comply at once.
Paula removes the leg braces from the wheelchair, which are never attached unless we are outside of mom’s apartment. It frees her to navigate through the room using her feet instead of attempting to use her one working arm. Manual wheelchairs are designed for people who can still use the upper torso to maneuver around the landscape. Mom has a tougher time. Despite her continuing physical therapy, her right arm remains a misshapen claw. Using it for any practical function is out of the question. If she is to propel herself forward in the wheelchair, she must rely on her feet. When the leggings are no longer an obstacle, she can speed through a room with surprising dexterity.
She rolls over to the balcony and gazes through the sliding glass door. “This is a thing to be savored.”
Paula and I laugh.
Mom looks up, bewildered at our reaction. “A thing to be savored?”
Paula pats her arm. “It’s funny because you said exactly the right thing.”
“Yes. Exactly the right thing.” She pauses, squinching up her nose. “Exactly the right thing?” She taps her chest with her left hand. Do you mean to tell me that I have communicated in expert fashion on this occasion?
“Yes, mom. You said exactly the right thing.”
She smiles, pleased at her progress. We take whatever triumphs, big or small, we can salvage.
In addition to the view from the balcony, the condo suits us to a T. It is spacious and comfortable. Although the furniture is a bit outdated and the carpeting seems frayed around the edges, the place is huge. The living room is so large it allows for two massive sleeper sofas, a table with eight place settings, a large china cabinet, a big-screen television set, and numerous chairs, ottomans, a recliner, and several bookshelves to be piled into the area without appearing cluttered. The kitchen is also roomy, with sparkling white appliances and Corinthian counter-tops. The master bedroom where Paula and I will sleep is large as well. The second bedroom, with twin beds for mom and Shelby, is not as large as the master, but it more than meets our needs. Luckily, we have two bathrooms and everything is wheelchair accessible.
Smiling, I sweep my hand around the room. “This is fabulous.”
“Fabulous, yes. This is fabulous. Yes, that is the scootch!”
Shelby appears pensive as she stares out the sliding glass doors, an unusual look for her. “I hope it stops raining soon.”
We all mutter our agreement.
I snap my fingers. “I know something we can do, rain or shine. Is anybody hungry?”
Mom is the first to respond, which is not a shock. She loves nothing so much as a good meal. “Is anybody hungry — yes. Yes. Anybody is hungry and hungry.”
Paula nods. “I could eat.”
Shelby nods, too.
“Let’s go then.” I step behind mom’s wheelchair, pop the brake and we are off.
Paula again serves as our navigator as I drive the car from the underground garage. She has the small local map we received from the condo management company. “If you turn here, we should be headed for La Jolla. I think there are quite a few seafood restaurants around there.”
Mom perks up. “Seafood restaurants! That is good for the scootch.”
Paula and Shelby laugh. Yes, it is good for the scootch.
We park on a side street and step from the car, mercifully, during a rare lull in the rain. The looming gray clouds suggest the rain has not ended, but we count our blessings as we emerge from the Buick Le Sabre. No one thought to bring umbrellas.
The restaurant we decide on is called Top o’ the Cove and, as the name suggests, it specializes in seafood. We are seated and examining our menus when I catch Paula’s eye. Over the top of the menu, I motion with my head to watch mom. Paula does, and grins.
Hunched over the lengthy menu, with its impressive selection of shellfish, mom is squinting and studying the words with the single-minded purposefulness of an “A” student cramming for the SATs. I know she is reading the words; I can see her lips moving. The mask of concentration is total. Completely guileless, she never looks up to see us watching her.
Shelby notices us noticing her. “Are you okay, Nana?”
“Are you okay, Nana, yes. Okay, yes!” Looking up, it is plain she is delighted with the selections available to her. “This is fabulous.”
The waitress appears about five minutes later to take our drink orders. Five minutes after that, she returns to take our food orders. After running through the obligatory list of specials and off-the-menu items, she asks us what we want to eat. Paula, Shelby and I place our orders without ado. Mom, as one might expect, presents a problem.
“Ma’am, what can I get you?”
Mom looks up, momentarily panicked at this trick question and the potential pitfalls it suggests.
Because I am seated close to her, I slide my chair several feet and look over her shoulder. Instinctively, she pulls away. The look plastered on her face is one of righteous indignation.
Paula smiles. “It’s okay, Laura. He’s only helping you order.”
She blinks behind her glasses. “Helping you order?”
“What did you think, mom? Did you think I was going to steal your purse?”
Mom shrugs. It’s a crazy old world, and she doesn’t know what to think.
“You don’t even carry a purse these days.”
Again, she shrugs. It’s a confusing world, all right.
I reach out and she hands me the menu. Opening to the list of entrees, I slide my chair ever closer. “Here’s a seafood platter. You like everything on the seafood platter. They have shrimp, crab cakes, oysters, and hush puppies. Mmm, umm.”
Mom laughs. “Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work.”
Paula looks at the waitress. “We’ll need a couple of minutes to decide.”
“Take your time, folks. There’s no hurry.” She disappears.
Mom and I lean over the menu. Her nose practically touches the glossy plastic protective covering.
Paula notices this, too. “Can you see all right, Laura? Do you need to get your eyes checked?”
Mom looks up at Paula and cocks her head. “Do you need to get your eyes checked, no. But I have the dill pickle on my pork chop.”
Shelby finds this comment irresistibly funny. “Nana, you say funny things sometimes.”
“Say funny things sometimes? I say funny things sometimes?”
Mom points inside her mouth. “I have the dill pickle on my pork chop.”
As usual, Paula is the first one to get the message. “Your eyes are fine, but your tooth hurts.”
Mom seems as astonished as the rest of us that Paula has figured out the meaning. “Yes. Yes.” She looks at me accusingly. “This one is the smart one!”
“Yes, yes. I know. I know. You don’t have to rub it in, mom.”
“Do we need to find an emergency dentist tonight or can it wait?”
Mom waves her good hand at Paula. “It can wait. It can wait. I have the dill pickle on my pork chop for a long time!”
“Okay, Laura. We’ll make you an appointment with Dr. Bob when we get home. Right now, let’s find us some food, okay?”
Mom beams. “Okay. Find us some food. Okay.” She turns to me. “Right now, let’s find us some food.”
“Okay. Let’s do that.”
We turn back to the menu with the same concentration as before. “As I was saying mom, the seafood platter looks pretty good. You like everything on it. I think that’s what you should get.”
She dismisses my suggestion with the wave of her hand. “The seafood platter, no. No to the seafood platter. Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work.”
I shake my head. “Okay. What do you have in mind?”
She places a finger on the menu.
“Alaskan cracked crab. Wow. That’s really what you want?”
He nods her head back and forth. “That’s really what you want.”
“This is fabulous.”
I look at Paula, and she shrugs. It’s pricey, but if it’s what mom really wants, so be it. We will not pass this way again.
The waitress returns and we place our orders.
Mom gazes around the restaurant. Her eye catches the lobster tank and she points. “This one is good sats for the baking.”
“Do you want me to wheel you over there so you can look at the lobster tank?”
She brightens at this suggestion. It is not on our itinerary, but mom is a creature of spontaneity. Recognizing her interest, I step from my chair, unlock her brake, and we head toward the tank. “Back in a minute.”
“Back in a minute, you all!”
I hear Shelby talking as we leave. “Nana’s acting like a little kid.”
Mom hears the comment and laughs. “Nana’s acting like a little kid.”
We stare at the doomed lobsters lounging on top of each other at the bottom of a tank half filled with murky brown water. Their claws are bound with wire. They are on display so lobster connoisseurs can select the particular crustacean they want to consume for the evening meal, but something in their predicament strikes a chord in mom.
“They like me.”
“I guess they do like you, mom.”
She looks at me as though I am an idiot. “No. No.” She waves her uninjured arm in circles. “They and me.” She points to herself. “They and me.”
I nod. “Your situation is the same.”
She looks away from me and into the tank. “Yes.”
“They are like you.”
She looks intently at the shellfish. “Yes. They are like you.”
I have captured her meaning, and it leaves us both inexpressibly sad. It never ceases to amaze me how her condition can leave us reeling in unexpected ways at unexpected times. In years gone by, I never looked at a restaurant lobster tank and waxed philosophical on the fate of the creatures inside -- or on the similarities to the human condition.
A moment later, Shelby is standing next to us. “The food’s here.”
Mom’s eyes light up. “The food’s here! The food’s here!”
As we wheel back to the table, I see Paula sitting at mom’s place setting with a silver object in her hand. She looks up at us and shakes her head. “The problem with ordering Alaskan crab, Laura, is somebody’s gotta crack it open so you can get to the meat.”
Mom frowns. “Somebody’s gotta crack it open so you can get to the meat, yes. I do that. I do that.”
Paula sighs. “You need two hands to crack crab, Laura.”
Mom glances down at her claw, and the reality of the meal situation hits her. “Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord.”
“Don’t worry about it, Laura. It’s not a big deal. I asked the waitress to bring us two more lobster crackers and picks.”
Paula points to Shelby and me. “So Mike and Shelby can help.”
Mom laughs. “So Mike and Shelby can help. So Mike and Shelby can help.”
The waitress soon arrives with the implements of destruction, and we set to work. It is no small matter to break apart the hearty Alaskan crab. He is a large crustacean, sporting many appendages that must be forced open. Shelby and I have a difficult time at first, although Paula proves to be a pro, as she is at most things she attempts. It is hard work for little meat.
Mom sighs. “Maybe next time yes to the seafood platter.”
Paula nods. “Right you are, Miss Laura.”
“Right you are, Miss Laura. Right you are.”
After we finish cracking the crab and arranging mom’s plate, I ask the waitress for one last favor: We need a bib. Apparently, the restaurant is not accustomed to providing bibs for adults because we are forced to make do with a child’s bib. It reads: “My mommy said ‘no’ tonight to the stove, and brought me and daddy to Top o’ the Cove!”
We can live with the message — in fact, I read it aloud and we all share in the merriment — but the bib is so short it does not provide the coverage we need. Fortunately, Paula’s innovative use of napkins saves the day. With Scotch tape supplied by our increasingly harried waitress, Paula fashions a napkin suit that covers most of mom’s blouse. Any bits of lobster, hush puppies or coleslaw that fly from her mouth or slide down her chin have a safe, temporary home until they can be disposed of properly.
“That’s a nice looking suit there, Laura.
Mom is attacking her crab meat and can hardly be bothered to acknowledge comments.
Our dinner is long and pleasant. Mom has rarely been so “up” since her stroke. She laughs in between chewing mouthfuls of food. We stay for coffee and dessert, and she savors every minute. “Savor” is not a word that has applied to my mother in the months since December 2003, but it is a word that applies on this night and in this place.
Occasionally, Paula or I reach over to wipe food from her chin or dig bits of crab from the corners of her mouth, but otherwise nothing mars the occasion. I even manage to stifle a look of horror when I am presented with the bill at the end of the night. The look of delight on mom’s face is worth every penny.
Pushing the wheelchair through the restaurant toward the front door, Paula asks a loaded question. “Did you have fun, Laura?”
Mom heads her head vigorously. “This is fabulous.”
As we stroll back to our car, we notice the clouds have thinned. They appear more ominous than we would like, but at least the rain has retreated for the moment. We remark on our good fortune.
Before we find the Buick, mom points across the street to a curio shop. It is a small store that advertises itself as an “antiques emporium,” but most of the merchandise clearly is imported from the Pacific Rim. Just about all of the items were probably manufactured this year. I think of such establishments as “old lady knickknack stores.” My designation is appropriate since an old lady seeks to examine the knickknacks therein. The “Open” sign is illuminated; the establishment is still soliciting patrons.
“You wanna go inside, mom? I guess we have time. Paula?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Maybe we can find some gifts for people back home. Don’t you want to get something for Shirley, mom?”
She looks up at me with a sharp expression plastered on her face. Whether it is feigned or real, I cannot tell. “What is wrong with you, Michael?”
We are required to lift the wheelchair up one small step from the curb, but otherwise we enter the premises with no problem. I am pleased to see that the aisles are wide enough for mom to navigate without colliding with the knickknacks.
Despite this good fortune, it never hurts to be safe rather than sorry. I point to a sign that reads, “I am nice to touch, good to hold, but break me now and consider me sold.”
“Be careful, mom. We don’t want to break anything.”
She nods. “We don’t want to break anything, no.”
Shelby tugs my arm. “Can I walk around?”
“The same thing applies to you.”
She laughs. A moment later, she disappears to browse far away from the uncool parents and stroke-addled grandmother.
Paula points toward the back of the store. “I’ll be back here.”
“Have you got her?”
“Sure. No problem.”
I remove the leg rests from the wheelchair so mom can guide herself past the shelves using her feet. I am careful to stay behind her — not so close she thinks I am hovering, but not so far away I cannot keep an eye on her and intervene, if necessary. I carry the leg rests under my arm.
After 10 minutes or so, mom spies a bumper sticker. I am standing three steps behind her at the time. Paula and Shelby are browsing somewhere across the store. In a loud, clear, not altogether-tuneful voice, mom breaks into song. “California here I come, right back where I started from!”
I race forward to stop the onslaught. Although I spy only a handful of customers in the store aside from us and two female proprietors, embarrassment does not lessen with the scarcity of the crowd.
Apparently, those are the only words she knows from the song. Rather than merely quit after she has exhausted the part she knows, mom repeats the line so anyone who has failed to hear the refrain will be suitably impressed the second time around. “California, here I come, right back where I started from!”
I kneel and quickly whisper in her ear. “Mom, keep your voice down. We’re in a public place. Not everyone is a fan of your singing.”
She chuckles uproariously and points at me. “Not everyone is a fan of your singing!”
She holds up a bumper sticker. Her reading skills remain top notch. The item reads “California, here I come — right back where I started from.”
“I see that mom. That’s very good.”
“It is? Is it very good? It’s good for you and good for your soul?”
“Yes. It’s good for you and good for your soul.”
“California, here I come, right back where I started from!”
“Mom, I said to lower your voice. It’s good for your soul to know the words, but it’s not good for your soul to sing them over and over so everyone else can hear you.”
“California, here I come, right back where I started from!”
“Okay, then. Let’s go outside.”
“California, here I come, right back where I started from!”
“Don’t you know some other song besides that one?”
Without missing a beat, once again at the top of her lungs, she erupts into song. “I wish I were in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. Look away! Look away! Look away — Dixie Land! I wish I were in Dixie, hooray, hooray!”
I look up to see a mortified Shelby and a laughing Paula standing one aisle over, watching us.
I yank my head toward the door. “It’s definitely time to leave.”
“To live and die in Dixie! Look away! Look away! Look away down South in Dixie!”
Paula nods. “I think you’re right.”
Mom laughs. “What? What?”
We burst from the store with our Southern roots exposed for all to see. “Look away! Look away! Look away — Dixie Land!”
Safely ensconced inside the Buick as we navigate through the side streets toward the Capri by the Sea, mom slouches in the front passenger’s seat while Paula and Shelby sit in the back. After her near-euphoria at the meal and in the knickknack shop, mom strikes me as strangely subdued.
“What was all that with the singing in the store?”
“You’ve never been a big singer. What was it with the singing?”
Mom looks over at me as though I have spoken in a foreign, guttural tongue. “Singing?”
I cannot see her face completely; it is obscured by shadows. It reminds me of that day not so long ago when she first could not speak my name. My heart thunders in my chest.
I crane my neck toward Paula in the back seat. “Can you lean up here a second?”
I hear the seat belt snap open. Paula leans forward. “What’s up?”
I jerk a thumb toward mom. “Does everything seem okay to you?”
Paula reaches over and touches mom’s forehead. “You doin’ okay there, Laura?”
“Doin’ okay, yes. Doin’ okay there, Laura.”
Paula senses it, too. “You sound tired, Laura. Are you tired?”
Mom nods in the semi-darkness. “Tired. Yes. Just tired, Laura.” She slumps against the seat.
I wait a moment. “Is she asleep, Paula?”
“I don’t know.”
“I wonder if we should take her somewhere to get checked out — at least to a doc in a box. She seems lethargic.”
“I don’t know. It’s been a pretty long day with the flight, getting to the condo, the big meal, shopping. Maybe she’s really just tired and that’s all.”
“Maybe. Or maybe the crab was bad, and she’s sick.”
“I don’t think she’s sick like that, Mike. She’s not nauseated. We would know if the crab was bad.”
“Still. Something seems wrong.”
“I know what you’re thinking. Let’s just watch her and see. We can call Philip if we need to.”
Shelby picks up on the conversation. I hear her worried voice float up from the back seat. “Is Nana okay?”
Paula answers. “I think she’s just tired. Let’s get back to the condo, look at her under the light, and see how she is.” She pats me on the arm and leans back. I hear the sound of her seat belt snapping closed.
Suddenly, without warning, mom opens her eyes, lifts her head, and opens her mouth wide to yawn. “Maybe next time yes to the seafood platter.”
I nod. “Did the crab make you sick? Is that it, mom? Is your stomach upset?”
“Stomach upset, no. Stomach is upset, no.”
“Do you feel all right? Are you just tired?”
She nods. “I just tired. I just tired.”
“It has been a long day.”
“It has been a long day. A very, very long day, yes.”
I cut my eyes back to the road. “Okay. We’re almost back at the condo, so you can go straight to bed. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t feeling bad.”
“Not feeling bad. No. This is fabulous.”
“As long as you feel okay. You do feel okay, right, mom?”
She yawns again. “Yes. Yes. Near perfect.” She smiles. “I feel near perfect like this one says.”
“Your brother, Bobby? Like he says?”
She nods. “Your brother, Bobby. Your brother Bobby is near perfect.”
The smile and playfulness immeasurably brighten my mood. I meet her smile with one of my own. “Can you say ‘near perfect’ in 50 languages?”
We both laugh, and mom yawns a final time before her eyes flutter closed.