Here is Chapter 22 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Mom sleeps for almost 12 hours a day during the week after our return from California. Never have I seen her so utterly exhausted, so weary to the bone, so bleary-eyed and lethargic — at least not since the early days after her stroke when she was struggling to master physical therapy at the Joan Glancy Rehabilitation Center. I worry that the trip was too much for her. She is a tired old woman, and I sometimes forget she cannot endure as much as she could in her salad days. Perhaps we have pushed her beyond her capacity. In seeking to enrich her life, I fear we have endangered it.
Still, she had the time of her life, and I doubt she will enjoy many more such times. I recall all the hopes and plans she used to tell me about before her stroke. She never had much money when I was a child, and what money she had was reserved for me and my needs. She made sure I never lacked the means to have trips and clothes and material items necessary to enjoy a solidly middle class existence. One day, after I was grown and on my own, she planned to use her nest egg to travel, perhaps to see the world with her more affluent friends.
It was not to be. She has made plans for a future that will never exist. When I ponder the cruel fates that led her to this cul-de-sac in her life, I gauge the cost of the trip to have been worth the price.
Not everyone agrees. Shirley gently chastises me one evening after we return. “Lord, ya’ll done wore Miss Laura out wif your goings on.”
“Well, Shirley, traveling can tire you out. Even sitting on a plane for four or five hours can be exhausting, especially in mom’s condition. But she wanted to take the trip.”
“I wouldn’t be gettin’ on no airplane. Dr. Prokay one time tole me to come on with him and the missus to take a airplane up to see his kin. I say, ‘huh-uh, no way, Dr, Prokay.’ I say, ‘you ain’t be gettin’ Shirley on no airplane.’ He don’t, neither.”
“I don’t see why you won’t fly, Shirley. It’s probably safer than driving a car with all the crazy drivers around here.”
Judging by the sweat on Shirley’s brow, I see the subject has agitated her. “If’n the car don’t run or is breakin’ down on the side of the highway, you just pull over and you be okay. But the airplane ain’t the same. It ain’t the same at all.”
I look at mom. She is lounging on her bed, draped in her nightgown, watching her favorite game show, “The Price Is Right.” She has refused Shirley’s entreaties to dress her since our return. I resolve to let her enjoy this one last day of tranquility before I insist she get out of bed and resume her normal activities.
“What do you think, mom? Which is better — a car or a plane?”
She cuts her eyes at me, and I can see the weariness in them. Shrugging, she points back at the television as if to say, stop bothering me with this foolishness! Can’t you see I’m following Bob Barker’s every move, and you are interfering with my entertainment plans?
“No opinion, huh, mom?”
She ignores me.
Shirley points at the bed. “I tole you, Michael. You done wore your mama out. She can’t be goin’ on no more trips like that.” Ever the eternal optimist, Shirley pauses and considers our absence. “Least ways I got my ironin’ and vacuumin’ done while you was gone. Miss Laura don’t want me ironin’ and vacuumin’ when she’s home, so I got to wait ‘til she go to the grocery store or on a trip. Ain’t that right, Miss Laura?”
She grabs mom’s foot in a playful gesture, but mom absently kicks her hand away without cutting her eyes from the television screen.
“I tell you what, Michael. That’s a tired woman.”
Mom nods and mutters under her breath. “Yes. That’s a tired woman — yes.”
I stand up to beat a hasty exit so mom can rest and Shirley can get back to her chores. “See you tomorrow, mom.”
She nods but otherwise does not acknowledge my presence.
We have not had our confrontation over the potassium pills she spit out in San Diego, but I have watched her closely since the day Shelby showed us the half-chewed remnants in the trash can. We will talk about it sometime, but I want her to recover from the trip first. When she is back to full strength, we will resume her routine.
I snap my fingers. “You know what. While I’m down here, I’m gonna do your pills, mom. Then I’ll leave.”
“Doing her pills” involves taking a list of her prescription medications, of which there are many, and apportioning each tablet or capsule into a pillbox marked for the days of the week: S, M, T, W, TH, F, SA. Some medications must be taken every day while others are administered every other day. With the different permutations and combinations, the only practical way to keep track of the proper dosages is to separate the pills into the appropriate compartments. This allows Shirley to administer medication even if I am not there on a given day. We have alerted Shirley to the possibility that mom might try to spit out her salty potassium pills, so I assume our controls have prevented a recurrence since we returned from vacation.
I pull a cardboard box of medications and the accompanying list from a cabinet over the stove and then park myself at the kitchen table. Behind me I hear Shirley dusting the living room. The blare of mom’s television clearly indicates that the crowd approves of a lady contestant’s astute bidding for her “Price Is Right” showcase.
As I finish dividing out the medication, I cannot resist one last wry comment before I head upstairs. “Okay, mom, there you go. I finished your medications.”
She ignores me.
“You’re taking all of your pills, right — even the god-awful, nasty potassium pills?”
She turns away from the television and regards me through heavy eyelids. “What now?”
“You’re taking all your medicine, right? Even the pills you don’t like?”
She nods her head and looks back at the game show.
“See you later, Shirley. I’m going upstairs for the night. Be sure to lay out her clothes for tomorrow.”
“All right then, Michael.”
Having left mom for the evening, I sit on our back deck listening to the katydids chirping while I reflect on my life. I have been blessed with good health, at least a modicum of intelligence, and a warm, loving family. Never have I taken these things for granted, and as I grow older I appreciate them even more.
While I sit watching Orion, the hunter, appear in the night sky, I feel a chill. I should get up, go inside, and find a blanket or a jacket, but I do not move apart from folding my arms to retain my body heat. Hortense and Daisy sit at my feet. One of them snores, a thin, musical sound that is mildly amusing. Paula has gone out to a business meeting. Shirley has bathed and fed and cooed over her ward, departing a little early tonight to take a bus trip with her friends to gamble in a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. Mom is firmly ensconced in her bed.
After an hour or so, when I venture downstairs and peek in through mom’s bedroom window past the curtains, I see her half-dozing in front of a rerun of the old Angela Lansbury television series, “Murder She Wrote.” I am alone with my thoughts.
Since we returned from San Diego, I have been in a wistful, reflective mood. We enjoyed ourselves, and I was grateful to have the financial resources to treat my mother to a vacation in her autumn years. Something in the trip has changed me, though. It certainly was not the beaches or shops of La Jolla or the trinkets of Tijuana. The local color added spice and flavor to the trip, but something more has shifted.
In everything we did during our vacation — negotiating the airports, loading the rental car, searching for handicapped-accessible parking, pushing the wheelchair through muddy lanes and across broken, uneven sidewalks — I was reminded of the fragility of life, of mom’s life. She is no longer the ferocious woman who left college at 20 and immigrated to New York City on a whim and a prayer. The woman who smarted off to a highway patrolman all those years ago is gone, and she is never coming back. The woman who taught me everything I know about the beauty, mystery, and wonder of life is dead. In her place is another woman, in many ways a simpler woman, but a fundamentally, inalterably different woman. I can love the new woman even as I mourn the old one. I know how close my mother is to the edge — it never leaves me alone for a moment — and I resolve to cherish each day as best I can.
Sometimes I watch her as she gazes at the television set. I scrutinize everything about her face, her body, her posture, the way the eyeglasses are perched on her nose, the slight tilt of her head, the claw-like appendage that used to be her right arm. I watch for the inevitable stains that will decorate her blouse as the day progresses and she snacks without bothering to slip on her bib. I wonder where we are headed and what we will find there.
Of course, I know where we are headed. I have always known where we are headed. The moment Paula told me it was a stroke, I knew where we were headed. It was never a question of if, but when.
An astute observer, of course, can philosophize that we are all headed the same place and it is always, and always has been, not a question of if, but when. The youngest newborn faces the same question, hopefully seven or eight decades from birth.
But for most of us, as Ernest Becker once observed, we live with a denial of death. If we faced up to our mortality every day, really faced it with a deep-seated knowledge that affords us no respite in mawkish sentimentality, we probably would be paralyzed with fear and indecision. We would become the walking dead. So we think about it subconsciously, but mostly we put it high up on a shelf in our minds, present but out of reach. Only when a friend, close relative, or well-regarded public figure dies do we glance at the shelf and remind ourselves that we, too, will arrive at that destination.
So I am treading well-worn ground. I step gingerly into the land of clichés. How easy it would be to collapse into the philosophical equivalent of a clusterfuck. Perhaps I can demonstrate sophomoric histrionics by shaking my fist at the sky and cursing God. Why, oh why, did this happen to my mother? She is the salt of the earth. She never hurt a fly. Why, she has been like a mother to me.
Smiling, I look down at my sleeping dogs. Should I let them lie? Wincing at yet another cliché, I stand up and move inside. Daisy follows me while Hortense heads for the woods behind our house. There is my answer: Sleeping dogs rise sooner or later.
Speaking of sleeping dogs, mom calls me on the telephone a few minutes after I walk inside. My initial response of one of alarm, but the tone of her voice suggests she is not hurt or upset. I glance at the clock on the kitchen microwave and notice that “Murder She Wrote” has ended.
“You can give voice to my thoughts and feelings?”
“I thought you would be asleep by now, mom.”
“This one is to say something for this one.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying. I’ll be down there in a minute.”
Thank God for speed dial. She can push a button on the telephone and summon me through the simplest of procedures.
I charge downstairs to stand in her bedroom in less than 60 seconds. The television set blares out some sitcom I do not recognize. Mom lies in bed holding the phone receiver in her hand and shakes it in broad concentric circles. Normally, this pantomime could refer to anything from “I have to go to the bathroom” to “have you seen my bedroom slippers?” but I take the phone from her, anyway. Looking down, I see the message light blinking on the answering machine.
“Is that what you’re talking about? There’s a message waiting? Is it Polly?”
I depress the button and hear a familiar voice before I can cut the power to the answering machine.
“This is Mr. John Wise, ARS, calling about Laura Martinez’s Chase MasterCard account. I need you to pick up the phone. It is necessary for me to speak to someone there as soon as possible regarding this delinquent account.”
I look at mom and see something akin to fury in her eyes. Grimacing, I reach down to hit Stop on the machine, but her sputtering words interrupt me.
"This one is the imagination for my sake?"
“You want to know what’s going on, right?”
“Yes, Michael. Yes. Want to know what’s going on, yes.”
“If this matter is not handled immediately, I will be forced to pursue other avenues to close out the account. Call me at 888-319-0986 by the close of business to avoid legal action in this important matter.” The message ends.
“Well, mom, it’s like this.” I sit on the edge of the bed and explain the situation without sugarcoating it. What would be the point? John Wise is a tenacious bulldog; sooner or later, he will get mom on the phone, so I might as well tell her where we stand.
I cannot help but chuckle. Wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation?
“So tell me, Laura, girl, if that is your real name, how do you plan to pay for your Chase MasterCard account?”
“I can say something for yourself.”
“I don’t know what kind of con you’re pulling here, lady, but I don’t believe for one moment you’ve had a stroke. I think you’re just trying to get out of paying on your Chase MasterCard account.”
“Good sats for the baking.”
“You claim to suffer from a speech impediment, but I don’t believe that for one moment. You may have everyone else fooled, but I know better. I know you’re faking it.”
“Scootch for the scootch.”
“You see, I know how these things work. You think you can just pretend to have a stroke, lie up there in your hospital bed, climb into the wheelchair and roll around in your fancy apartment, using your bedpan and watching your soap operas and your reruns, and you don’t have to pay. Then one day you’ll pretend to be dead, let them embalm your body, and stick you in a hole in the ground — all so you don’t have to pay on your Chase MasterCard account. I know how these things work. Some people will do anything to get outta paying their bills. What makes you think you are so special you ain’t got to pay your bills? Hmm?”
“I can tell you the secrets of the children.”
“And you got your son, Mr. Mike-man, the pretend lawyer, running interference for you. He’s nuthin’ but some two-bit hack that can’t get into an accredited law school, can’t get a real job, and charges up things on his mother’s Chase MasterCard account.”
In this imagined conversation, I envision my mother slamming the phone down, just as I have done, with a resounding rejoinder to this officious little half-man: “All I gotta say is fuck you!”
Of course, that will never happen, but I can dream, can’t I? If only. If only.
Mom is a proud, independent — dare I say, stubborn — woman. She always has prided herself on paying her bills and keeping her household running smoothly. Although she can no longer generate income apart from her modest retirement policy from State Farm Insurance Company as well as the Social Security Administration, she is mortified to think that a bill collector is gunning for her and she has not arranged a payment schedule. She cannot tell me things, of course, but I know of whom I speak.
Her eyes are not half-lidded; she is wide awake.
“Okay, mom. Okay. I know what you’re thinking.”
She cannot get the words out, but I know her well enough to get the message. “You want to know why we took an expensive trip to California when we could have been paying on your MasterCard account. Am I right?”
There is nothing quite like grasping the meaning of what she cannot say, but would like to say. Mom’s face brightens. I have captured even the nuances of her communication. “Yes! Yes! That’s it, Michael.”
I sigh. It is a question I have asked myself many times. “Look, mom. There’s no way we can pay this guy twenty grand up front. That’s what you owe — twenty thousand dollars. Even if they reduce the debt, it’ll probably be somewhere around six thousand or more. Maybe I can raid my savings and hand it over, but I’m not gonna do that. You intended to pay the account, and then you suffered the stroke. Forgive my French, mom, but shit happens.”
She nods. “Forgive my French, mom. Shit happens.”
“I offered to go onto a monthly payment plan — $150 a month indefinitely. At first, this ARS company accepted the deal, but then they reneged.”
“So what do you want me to do? Get a second job? Work on weekends? Skip quality time with my family so I can pay off your bill up front? I’m not gonna do it. End of discussion.”
She looks at me wide-eyed, as if to say, well, excuse me!
What I don’t say aloud, but I am thinking as we speak, is that our time together is limited. I don’t know how long she will live, but I suspect it can be measured in years or months, not decades. I am loath to cut back on the adventures we might enjoy with each other during the last part of her life just so I can pay off a high-interest credit card.
“Besides, we have plenty of other expenses. You said you need to go to the dentist, right? Paula’s going to make a reservation with Dr. Bob this week.”
She nods. “I have the dill pickle on my pork chop.”
“That’s not covered by Medicare. It means you’ll have to pay it out of your account.”
“That’s right. Out of your checking account.”
My remark is an outright lie. Mom barely has enough money in her account each month from retirement and Social Security to pay Shirley’s expenses and buy weekly groceries. If anyone will pay for her dental work, Paula and I will pay. I do not tell mom this, though, because she will refuse treatment — she’s too proud to take a handout — but she must have medical and dental care, regardless of who bears the cost.
“Look, mom. I know it’s embarrassing to owe money on the MasterCard when you can’t pay it. I’m going to try and negotiate some kind of resolution. Okay?”
She looks dubious. “Okay.”
“You just have to trust me.”
Mom stares off into space, probably thinking some of the things I am thinking. Time is short and life is dear. Better to spend whatever remaining time she has in productive endeavors rather than fretting over a debt she can never repay.
I wait to hear what else she will say on this delicate subject of our dwindling finances, but her breathing is deep and labored. Standing, I lean over the bed and look at her face under the lamplight. She is sound asleep.
Quietly, with as much stealth as I can muster, I step forward, remove the eyeglasses from her face, fold them up, and place them on her bedside table. Reaching for the remote control, I turn off the television. For a moment, she stirs, probably disturbed by the abrupt cessation of sound. When I am satisfied she will not awaken, I turn off the lights and trundle upstairs to call it a night.