Here is Chapter 23 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Paula has booked an appointment for our family dentist, Dr. Bob, to examine mom’s teeth at 10:00 this morning. The plan sounds simple enough, but as with many seemingly simple events in the world of fully-functioning adults, departing for health care appointments is no easy matter for the physically challenged. Shirley is frantically struggling to get mom dressed so we can leave the house in time to reach the dentist’s office by ten. The pre-stroke Laura prided herself on punctuality, but the post-stroke Laura can never seem to find her shoes, her cane, or her jacket when it is time to leave.
Mom remains lethargic and curiously passive in the wake of our California trip. With each passing day, my concern mounts, to say nothing of the guilt I feel for transporting my mother across the continent and dragging her to innumerable tourist attractions. What was I thinking when I arranged to push her wheelchair along the substandard avenues of Tijuana? If she has contracted a disease or succumbed to some heretofore unknown viral infection, I have no one to blame but myself. I have spoken with her several times to determine if we need to see Dr. Carr for a check-up, but she insists she will be fine if she is left alone to recuperate.
In the meantime, Shirley calls me on the phone while I am still upstairs to complain that something is wrong with the wheelchair. I am hardly a handyman, but Paula is at work and no one else is available to examine it. I will have to do what I can.
A few minutes after the call, stepping through the door to mom’s apartment, I sigh. The scene is all too familiar. The ironing board is set up in the kitchen and Shirley has strewn mom’s pants, blouses, and bibs all about the room. The television set, with the volume turned up so loud it is difficult to be heard over the roar, blares from mom’s bedroom. Dirty pots, pans, and dishes leftover from breakfast are stacked in the sink. Remnants of eggs and instant grits have hardened on several plates as they sit on the counter. A jar of jelly, its top nowhere to be found, is perched precariously atop the microwave oven. It looks as if a hurricane has blown through the apartment, leaving the interior in tatters.
Hortense is licking a plate in the corner. She looks up at me when I enter but is too preoccupied with the task at hand to greet me in anything but a perfunctory manner.
I take a deep breath. Some days I want to run away from home. “Okay, Shirley. What’s the problem?”
She points. “I can’t get that wheel. It’s real wobbly, Michael.”
Mom laughs. “It’s real wobbly, Michael.”
Shirley seems uncharacteristically out of sorts. “You hush up now, Miss Laura. This ain’t funny.”
Never one to suffer effrontery from the hired help, mom takes the bait. Jabbing her finger at Shirley, her anger is visible for all to see. “No, you hush up, Miss Laura. This ain’t funny yourself!”
“Now, Miss Laura, you ain’t got to be ugly. You be sweet.”
The finger swings back and forth like a spasmodic woodpecker digging bugs from a rotten log. “No, you be sweet.”
“Okay, now, Miss Laura. Okay. You the boss.”
Mom nods her head vigorously. “That’s right. That’s right.” She points to her chest. “You the boss, but you can say something for yourself.”
“I can say sumpin’ for myself, Miss Laura?”
“I mean, you can say. I mean.” She pauses. “I mean, you cannot say you have a chance to be my daddy.”
“Oh, Miss Laura. What you sayin’ now?”
“What’s up with you two? You both seem aggravated with each other.” I point at mom. “Are you still tired from the trip, mom? It was an exhausting week, wasn’t it?”
Mom shakes her head. “Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work.”
“Miss Laura givin’ me trouble today, Michael. She won’t be sweet. Karola tole me how she get, but it ain’t never been this bad before.”
My heart skips the beat at the mention of our former caregiver’s name. “You still talk to Karola?”
“She call me every now and then. You know, she tell me to watch out for Miss Laura.”
I feel the stirrings of anger in my own breast. The last thing I need is for Karola to interfere with our arrangement. Shirley may not be the perfect caregiver, but she is honest, hardworking, and she shows up. She is a considerable improvement over no one at all.
“But I just tell her Miss Laura is so sweet.” She pauses and glares at mom. “Most of the time.”
The finger strikes again, a cobra stalking its prey. “No, you most of the time. You most of the time.”
“Mom, can you get up out of the wheelchair so I can see what’s wrong with the wheel?”
“Here, I can help you, Miss Laura.”
As I lock the brakes and lift up the leg rests, mom struggles to her feet. She pulls away from Shirley.
“Now, Miss Laura, you gonna fall again. ‘Member when Miss Paula and me had to get you up that time? You had them dirty drawers to change. We don’t need to do that again!”
“You had them dirty drawers.” With that remark, mom steps back and half stumbles, half falls onto the corner of her bed. I am standing on the opposite side of the wheelchair, so I can do little to break her fall. I reach out, but it is too little, too late.
Fortunately, Shirley is there. She catches mom by the left arm and helps propel her toward the bed instead of onto the floor. Shirley may be a large woman, but she moves with surprising speed and agility. Were it not for Shirley, mom probably would have landed on the floor with a heavy thud. That, of course, is one of my great fears: That she will fall and break a leg, hip, or back.
“You gonna hurt yourself, Miss Laura. That time Miss Paula and I get you off the floor when Michael was gone was real hard on Miss Paula’s back.”
Mom is still highly agitated. Even lying half on, half off her bed, she swats at Shirley and spews forth a litany of gibberish, her voice more incomprehensible than usual. I cannot make out the words, but it is clear that mom is growing ever more enraged. Spittle flies from her mouth with every guttural utterance.
I shove the wheelchair away and step beside Shirley so we can push mom completely onto the mattress. We have avoided calamity by only the thinnest of margins. Together, Shirley and I strain and heave, sliding mom into the middle of her bed. She lies there panting, looking at both of us from beneath a furrowed brow.
“Mom, why are you so upset? You’re lucky Shirley was there to keep you from falling on the floor and breaking your damn neck!”
“She don’t wanna go to the dentist, Michael. She scared.”
Mom shakes her head, no. “She scared; she scared. No. You scared!”
Mom’s voice says one thing, but her body language says another. I think Shirley has pinpointed the source of this crisis.
“Before we do anything else, I need to figure out what’s going on with this wheel.” I point at the television set. “Can we turn that off, mom? It’s awfully loud, and I need to concentrate.”
She shakes her head. “I need to concentrate. I mean — I need to concentrate.”
Shirley grabs the remote control and reduces the volume. “Okay, Miss Laura, we can keep it on, but let’s at least turn down the sound so Michael can work.”
Mom does not look pleased with this compromise, but she says nothing.
I kneel onto the floor and turn the wheelchair on its side. Although my mechanical skills leave much to be desired, I instantly spot the trouble. The nut on a bolt that connects the wheel to the chair is missing. It probably fell off sometime recently, no doubt loosened by our bumping and maneuvering along the Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” I leave the apartment and climb the stairs to our house. Once inside, I exit through the back door into our garage. Pulling Paula’s toolbox from a shelf, I pick through the various wing nuts, screws, bolts, nails, and assorted tools until I find a screwdriver, a wrench, a pair of pliers, and a bag of assorted hardware.
Unfortunately, after I return I find that I do not have a nut the right size to fit the wheelchair. I rub my face. Looking at my watch, I see we have less than 30 minutes to make our dental appointment on time. We must leave in the next five minutes or we will be late.
“Well, mom, we’ll have to make do with a wobbly leg until after your dentist visit. We’ll stop at Ace Hardware or Home Depot on the way home and pick up a nut.”
She seems much calmer, almost serene. Lying on the bed, she points to the TV screen. “This one is the one. This one is the one.”
“What are you saying, mom?”
I look at the screen. It is an advertisement she and I have seen many times. The Scooter Store, an outfit that sells motorized scooters and wheelchairs to the infirm, is promising to help customers navigate the complex Medicare regulations that will permit government financial assistance in purchasing their product. All that is necessary is a doctor’s note saying the patient needs the scooter for medical purposes.
“You’re asking if we can get you a scooter?”
She seems excited. “Yes. Yes. Get you a scootch.”
“We’re been through this before, mom. Dr. Carr won’t sign a note saying you need one. Remember?”
Although we have discussed it many times, mom acts as though this information is breaking news. “Why not?”
“It seems like Miss Laura could use one of them, Michael. It’d be a lot better than the wheelchair with the broken wheel.”
Shirley does much to care for mom, but this comment is not helpful. I feel myself growing angry.
“The doctor is afraid that mom will become too dependent on a motorized scooter. He wants her to get as much exercise as possible.” I turn and address mom. “In fact, you’re not supposed to use the wheelchair as much as you do. You know Dr. Carr wants you to walk with your cane as much as you can when you’re inside the apartment.”
“Dr. Carr is a bitch hole!”
“Have you been watching Showtime or Cinemax again, mom? I told you about that.”
She swings her good arm around in a wide circle. “This one is good for the soul. Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work!”
“I agree with Dr. Carr. We can’t let you get too dependent on a motorized wheelchair.”
Mom rolls her eyes. “You cannot say you have a chance to be my daddy.”
“Look, mom, we’re not getting a scooter. Right now, let’s get you in your wheelchair and get over to Dr. Bob’s office.” I reach over and turn the wheelchair right side up.
She does not accept this news well. I can tell from her puffed up, pouty lips that she is displeased — displeased because she will not get the scooter the advertisers have told her she needs to have, displeased at the missing nut on her current, old-fashioned wheelchair, displeased because she has to go to the dentist. It is shaping up to be a lousy day in Laura Land.
We do not speak on our way to the car. I stand behind the wheelchair and grunt as I push her up the hill toward our driveway. Early in mom’s recuperation process, we were inundated with therapists who came to the house almost every day. The physical and occupational therapists insisted that exercise was the key to recovery and probably longevity. They urged me not to push her wheelchair up the hill in our backyard. Give her the cane and let her walk, they said. I was supposed to follow behind with the wheelchair in case mom felt overwhelmed. If she made it to the fence without assistance, I was instructed to praise her profusely and allow her to sit in the chair until I could roll her the rest of the way to the car.
As long as the physical therapy regimen lasted — an initial 13 weeks and an additional 13 weeks, after which Medicare would no longer fund the therapy visits — mom reluctantly walked the hill. She grumbled bitterly as she ambled along. Sweat broke out on her brow. She wobbled repeatedly as she took her frustratingly slow steps, although some of her unsteadiness may have been a deliberate attempt to elicit sympathy. She seemed exhausted by the time she collapsed into her wheelchair.
When the in-home therapy sessions ended, so did mom’s willingness to walk up the hill. If she could not be pushed in the wheelchair, she simply refused to leave her apartment. As the medical care providers working at the Joan Glancy Rehabilitation Center learned early on, my mother can be the most stubborn person in ten counties. No amount of cajoling or pleading can persuade her to walk up the hill. Mom wants to live in the aftermath of her stroke, but she wants to do it her way. The sedentary lifestyle is the path of least resistance, and throughout her life it has been her path of choice.
I grunt as I put my back into moving the wheelchair up the hill.
I share mom’s unhappiness with the day. I will have to pay for her dental work, whatever it is and however much it costs, from my own less-than-deep pocket. Before we get to that stage, I have to deposit her into the car, negotiate the traffic, find a parking spot, wheel her into the dentist’s office, and wait while he works on her tooth. I may be called upon to translate if he has questions. Afterward, I must reverse the process to get her home. This requires me to take a half day of vacation from work — what a way to spend my vacation time! — so I can take care of someone who is now pouting and angry because she cannot get her way.
It is almost more than I can take.
This is a familiar refrain, of course. Dealing with children and the elderly can be rewarding in the long run as we see the fruits of our labors, but day-to-day it can be enervating. As I have said before, I am the “good son.” I am fulfilling my obligations to my mother, and on most days I am pleased that I can repay, however modestly, the debt I have accrued throughout my life. But on some days — and this is one of those days — I am not satisfied to play the good son. I want to be selfish and reserve time for my own needs and desires. Let someone else deal with the pouting, needy monster living in the basement. As for me, I’m off to the beach! Keep me informed of what happens with mom! This sentiment sounds awfully callous, and it is callous, but it is also how I feel. Maybe my grandmother, Weeze, was right all those years ago. Beneath the public façade of the “good son,” maybe I really am a hateful child.
We are up the hill, through the gate, and standing next to my car. I grit my teeth. Like it or not, satisfied or dissatisfied, I have promised to transport my mother to Dr. Bob’s office, and I must do my duty. I to my pledged word am true.
“Okay, mom. You know the drill.”
“Yes. You know the drill. You know the drill, indeed.”
The drill is for me to park the wheelchair next to the front passenger door of my Taurus. After locking the brakes and removing the leg rests on the wheelchair, I open the car door. Standing behind mom while she tries to propel herself upward using her one good arm, I lean into her body and lend her my weight. Once she is on her feet, she grips the roof of the car with her left arm while I unlock the wheelchair and roll it out of the way. Supporting her weight, I help turn her around so her back is facing the interior of the Taurus. She then leans back while I protect her head from striking the car. Despite our best efforts, invariably she collapses the last few feet into the seat, thereby rocking the vehicle back and forth. It is a wonder she never collides with the emergency brake or strikes her head on the interior ceiling. After she is seated, it is a simple matter to lift and swing her legs into the car, fasten her seatbelt, and close the door. I pop the trunk, fold up the wheelchair, and slide it inside. Slamming the trunk, I run behind the vehicle toward the driver’s door, fling it open, and enter the car. When I am on my game, we can complete the process from start to finish in less than three minutes.
The process is cumbersome and tiring for mom, but gradually over the months, somehow, we perfect it until we can execute the moves with minimal effort or comment. The only wrinkle that occurs is when Paula tries to take mom grocery shopping and discovers the seat in her jeep is too high off the ground to grant easy access. They eventually maneuver her inside, but it is far more difficult than usual; afterward, mom avoids traveling in the jeep whenever possible.
As is so often the case when I am transporting mom somewhere, we are late. I cut in and around traffic as well as I can, but we will never make our appointment on time. I notice her leg jiggling as it often does when she mashes the imaginary brake pedal, but neither of us comments on this now all-too-familiar reaction.
I grow impatient with every passing minute, but I dare not voice a protest. In light of mom’s already foul mood, my grousing will send her into a fury. The only thing worse than dealing with a pouting, stroke-addled mother is dealing with a furious, pouting, stroke-addled mother.
We ride in silence. I don’t even turn on the radio or insert a CD in the car stereo for fear of provoking an argument. I had hoped to use our time in the car to chide mom for spitting out her potassium pills while we were in San Diego, but I realize the timing is awful. My lecture will have to wait for a more opportune time.
However irksome the day is shaping up to be, we are lucky to be seeing Dr. Robert Israel. He is one of those dentists from central casting who cares for his patients no matter how difficult the patient might be. I am possibly the world’s most squeamish girly-man when it comes to paying strange people to poke and prod inside my mouth with sharp metal instruments, but I have found his bedside manner to be invariably reassuring. Even when one of my back teeth broke off last year, he was careful to soothe my frazzled nerves before getting down to business. He calmly examined the pinky-nail-sized hunk of tooth I brought in for show-and-tell and shrugged. “This doesn’t look so bad.” Maybe it didn’t look so bad to him. To me, it looked horrific, incontrovertible evidence of my body’s all-too-rapid decay.
He operates as a sole practitioner in a strip mall in Duluth, Georgia, only a few miles from the Joan Glancy Rehabilitation Center. I must remember to travel an alternate route to his office lest we remind mom of unhappy times. I don’t know if she would remember the old route, but it is best not to tempt fate.
As I see the signs for the strip mall come into sight, I am pleased we are only 10 minutes late. Given all the obstacles we have encountered today, it is a minor miracle we have made it at all. I hit my blinker and turn the car off of Satellite Boulevard into the parking lot.
The strip mall is littered with an eclectic array of businesses: A State Farm Insurance Company agent’s office (“like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”), a Mexican restaurant, a Japanese steak house, and an electronics store surround the dentist’s office. Especially noteworthy is the Liberty Tax Service.
For much of the year, the Liberty Tax Service has very little business, which is hardly surprising since the period from January through April is the height of the tax preparation season. As the tax due date, April 15, draws closer, the tax service must find innovative ways to call attention to its location and capture new clients while it can. Sandwiched in the corner of the strip mall, the office is easy to miss.
Trading in on a patriotic image, the company frequently employs young people to dress in costumes, stand near the road holding a “Liberty Tax Service” placard, and wave at passing motorists in hopes of enticing them to turn into the strip mall with W-2s in hand. Today there is a young lady dancing on the sidewalk decked out as the Statue of Liberty, complete with a plastic crown, long, flowing robes, and her face painted green. (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit for all eligible children properly claimed as dependents.”) A young man dressed as Uncle Sam dances next to her. In addition to holding up the company’s signage, he wears a top hat, tails, and a red, white, and blue-striped suit. His chubby cheeks sport a scraggly white beard. (“I want you for the Liberty Tax Service! Come in today and you will receive your rapid refund in the next 48 hours!”)
I have no idea whether this attention-grabbing technique yields significant dividends for the company, but it certainly generates a buzz among motorists. People in the cars ahead of us blow their horns and wave to the handsome couple. Pleased with the attention, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam enthusiastically shake their groove things. They have quite the moves and, judging by their wild gyrations, they have found a successful aerobic workout routine.
Mom also takes note of the duo. She first spots them waving as we navigate through the parking lot, and her eyes grow wide. She points with her good hand and struggles to inform me of this unusual development. In her haste to share the startling news, she sputters worse than she normally does, causing spray to fly from her mouth and triggering a series of hiccups that become a new challenge in her already daunting repertoire of challenges.
I have been scanning the humongous asphalt jungle for a handicapped parking spot, so I have not paid attention to Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam. Besides, I have seen them previously and I find the spectacle underwhelming. Although I am not normally blasé about seeing people dressed in unusual costumes, I have experienced many such advertising feats, and the newness has worn off for me. I have seen people dressed in gorilla suits standing in front of apartment complexes trying to entice would-be tenants to stop and take a gander at their unbelievable special move-in introductory rates. Sometimes I see teenagers dressed as hot dogs standing in front of fast food restaurants waving at presumably hungry passersby in hopes of attracting customers. Once I encountered a young man dressed as a lobster handing out coupons for a seafood restaurant on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. When it comes to witnessing young people dressed as various icons and food products, I have been there and done that.
Because my priorities differ so radically from mom’s priorities, her stuttering and pointing surprise me. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
She slaps me on the shoulder and points through the windshield. “There. There. Dreaming out loud!” She punctuates her comments with a loud hiccup.
I follow her finger to the waving icons and, seeing their silly gyrations, I burst into laughter.
Mom seems perplexed. “This one is a raisin in the sun?”
“It’s just funny, mom, seeing the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam waving and dancing like that. Dreaming out loud, indeed.”
She laughs, too. “Yes. Dreaming out loud, indeed.” She emits another large hiccup.
I extend my hearty thanks to the Liberty Tax Service of Duluth, Georgia, for erasing my mother’s bad mood.
Pulling her out of a bad mood and ushering her into the dentist’s office are separate victories, both hard fought. Dr. Bob will need all of his skills and bedside manner to handle his new patient. I have warned his nurse about mom’s special needs but, like many things in life, seeing is believing.
It takes about five minutes to maneuver mom from the car to her wheelchair. After I slide into a parking spot and stick the specialty tag on the rear view mirror, I kill the engine, step from the car, and scurry over to the passenger’s door. We reverse our routine for entering the vehicle except that exiting is slightly more challenging because she finds it difficult to step up from the seat, which sits lower than is comfortable for her. At least Paula’s jeep, which is more difficult to enter, rides high enough off the ground that mom does not have to use abdominal strength to get out of the seat. The factors that make entering my Honda Accord easier than entering Paula’s jeep make the exit more difficult.
As we thread our way through the parking lot, mom hiccups repeatedly.
“Are you okay? It sounds like you’ve got a problem there.”
“Got a problem there?” Hiccup. “Got a problem there?”
“With the hiccups, I mean.”
She shrugs. “This one will be all right if the puppy will work.” She hiccups.
We enter the modest waiting room of Dr. Bob’s dental practice, and I apologize profusely for running late. The receptionist does not seem put-off by our tardiness, and I am most grateful. I have explained the situation previously, so we need not go through a long rigmarole about aphasia and mom’s difficulties with communications. I also hand the receptionist a photocopy of the Power of Attorney form I have prepared indicating that I can make decisions about mom’s medical and dental needs.
“Thank you, Mr. Martinez.” In return, she hands me a fistful of papers attached to a clipboard with a fountain pen chained to the end. “Please have a seat, fill out these forms, and someone will be with you shortly.”
Parking the wheelchair next to a long black couch, I slide into a seat and hunch over the clipboard. It is the usual request for information and data on the state of mom’s health. I should bring a folder of other forms with me wherever I go so I can simply copy the information without having to recall it each time. The list of medications always proves daunting; it takes me some time to remember the various types and dosages of pills mom consumes every day.
I can see she is growing progressively more nervous. Her good mood has quickly evaporated. She is no longer angry or pouting. She is scared — scared, and hiccupping. In fact, the hiccups seem to have increased in frequency since we entered the building.
“Do you want a magazine to look at?”
She shakes her head, no.
“It’s going to be okay, mom. You said you needed to get your tooth fixed, so that’s what we’re doing.”
She does not need to be reminded of what she said. She knows what she said. At the time, she wanted to see a dentist. Now that she is inside the dentist’s office, however, she has had a change of heart. She can envision the drill. The dental chair beckons. A woman wearing a white dental assistant’s uniform is walking toward her, and suddenly the entire episode has become overwhelming. The woman veers off behind the receptionist, picks up a chart, and disappears, but her presence has left mom more uneasy than ever.
“This one is something for another scootch.” Hiccup.
I recognize the classic signs of dental-phobia, for I, too, suffer from this malady. Perhaps it is hereditary. I do not know if Weeze and granddaddy ever suffered from its ill effects, but I strongly suspect they did. I cannot imagine Polly being afraid of anything but, if she is, I suspect the dentist is the thing she is afraid of. Even my uncle Bobby would not pronounce himself “near perfect” if he was sitting in the waiting room of his dentist.
The only way to conquer such fear is to stand up to it and simply move forward. “I know you’re scared, mom, but if we leave, we’ll just have to come back and it won’t be any better.”
She shakes her head at me, a clear sign she is unhappy with my unassailable logic. “This one is better than this one.”
Finishing up the stack of papers, I walk over to the receptionist and return the clipboard.
“Thank you, sir. We’ll be with you shortly.”
I return to my seat. “It won’t be long now, mom.”
Less than two minutes later, the door leading back into the interior of the dentist’s office pops open. Realizing that my mother is high maintenance when it comes to health care, the dental assistant, a perky young woman with big brunette hair, turns on all the fake charm that is taught in dental hygienists’ school. She breezes into the waiting room and kneels. “Hello, there. You must be Laura. My name is Karen.”
Karen appears to be somewhere in her early to late twenties. She is bright, eager, and optimistic that the world is her oyster. Her chipper attitude is a sign of her youth. Even as she comforts this old woman in the wheelchair, never in her wildest dreams can she imagine that one day she might end up as an invalid. I’m sure my mother felt that same way back in 1960. Karen will learn soon enough that life can throw you for a loop if you live to a ripe old age.
Mom stops panicking long enough to exchange pleasantries. It would be impolite not to acknowledge someone who has offered an introduction. Despite her stroke and its tendency to induce undue candor upon occasion, she recalls her mannerly southern upbringing in most social situations. Mom extends her left hand and Karen half-shakes the appendage.
“Now, Laura — can I call you Laura?”
Mom nods. “Yes, can I call you Laura?” She hiccups.
“My name is Karen. You can call me Karen.”
“Sorry about that. She just developed the hiccups in the parking lot about five minutes ago.”
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Martinez. Hiccups could be a sign of nervousness.” She smiles at mom. “You’re not nervous are you, Laura?”
Mom shakes her head. “Nervous, no, Laura. I mean, nervous, yes, Laura.” She hiccups.
“Well, we’ll help you with that.”
Karen sweeps her arm toward the dental chair, indicating that I should roll mom’s wheelchair into the examination area. It is not exactly a room; it is an alcove. I do as instructed.
“Now, Laura, I know many people don’t like to go to the dentist. They’re worried he’ll hurt them. Are you worried about that?”
Mom nods and hiccups. That’s definitely high on her list of worries.
She looks up at me. “Is this your first visit here?”
“I’ve been here before, but it’s her first time.”
Karen duck walks closer so she and mom are facing each other eye-to-eye. “I understand your worry. It’s only natural to worry when someone is working inside your mouth. But I want you to know that Dr. Bob is the best. He is very careful; he takes his time; he makes such you have plenty of Novocain so you don’t feel any pain at all. He’s been a dentist for a long time now, and he’s always done right by his patients. You don’t have anything to worry about. We’ll take extra special good care of you.”
Mom looks at me. “I don’t have anything to worry about?” The last word is partially lost thanks to a hiccup.
“That’s right, mom. Paula, Shelby, and I have been coming to Dr. Bob for years, and he’s never hurt us. It’ll be okay.”
Karen smiles and points. “Why don’t you wait out there for us? We can take care of Laura just fine.” She leans down and addresses mom. “Your son will be right next door in the waiting room. Is that okay with you?”
“Don’t you want me to help you get her out of the wheelchair and into the dentist’s chair?”
“That’s quite all right. The doctor and I can take care of it.”
Mom looks up at me with naked fear written across her face. She looks even more frightened than she did when she suffered the stroke or when she was flirting with dismissal from rehab or even when she was waiting to leave the Parkwood Nursing Home & Rehabilitation Center back in March. She hiccups.
“It’ll be okay, mom. I promise.”
No sooner do I speak than Dr. Bob saunters into the alcove.
Decked out in a white doctor’s smock, he is bespectacled, sports a completely bald head, and appears to be somewhere in his mid to latter fifties. He is a short man, not much taller than I am, but he carries himself as much taller men usually do. Dr. Bob has a quiet authority to him. He does not need to raise his voice to make his position known. Having been in practice for decades, he projects the easy, quiet confidence of a man who has seen it all.
He leans over a small desk on the corner as he slips a mask over his face and gloves on his hands. “So, what have we here?”
Before I can open my mouth to speak, Karen provides him with the most succinct, informative synopsis of mom’s situation I have ever heard. She clearly has grasped the essential challenges of their new patient’s personality. As if to highlight the task ahead, mom’s repeated hiccups serve as a crude backbeat to accentuate Karen’s narrative. All the while, Dr. Bob nods his head as he consults a clipboard on the small corner desk.
He finally looks up and makes eye contact with his patient for the first time. “Well, hello there, young lady.”
It is exactly the right thing to say, spoken in exactly the right tone.
Mom cackles in between hiccupping. “Well, hello there, young lady.” She looks at me to see if I get the joke. “Young lady. This one says the young lady!”
I nod. “I heard him. He’s quite the flatterer.”
Dr. Bob looks over at me. I don’t know if he recognizes me without my jaw cranked open wide enough to swallow a whole Boston Crème pie. In any case, he simply nods. “This is your mother?”
“Well, sir, we’ll take good care of her.”
He addresses Karen. “We have a POA on file?”
They look at me and I nod. “I handed a copy to the receptionist when we came inside.”
Dr. Bob nods. “Very good. Have a seat in the waiting room and I’ll be out to talk with you in a few minutes after I’ve had a chance to examine her.”
“Later, mom. It’ll be okay.”
She hiccups. “Later, mom.”
I slowly exit the alcove. As I trundle down the hallway, I hear Dr. Bob and my mom becoming acquainted.
“This one is a shiny dome!”
“What? Oh, yes. Sometimes people call me ‘Dr. Chrome Dome.’ Did you know that?”
I hear another cackle and a hiccup. “Dr. Chrome Dome. Dr. Chrome Dome, indeed!”
“That’s right, Dr. Chrome Dome. Now, Dr. Chrome Dome and Nurse Karen are going help you get out of that wheelchair and into our nice big, comfortable dental chair. We’ll even help you lean back in the dental chair once you’re safely strapped in.”
“Yes — safely strapped in for sure!”
The waiting room door swings shut and the rest of their conversation is muffled.
I sit quietly leafing through old copies of Childcraft magazine. I am the only person in the waiting room aside from a mother and what looks to be a five or six-year-old little girl who is probably waiting to have her teeth cleaned. The woman instructs the little girl to stop kicking the seat and stop humming. The little girl plays with a doll and nervously asks how many more minutes and if she can have ice cream afterward.
After about 10 minutes, the unnatural quiet is pierced by a scream. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute, now!”
I recognize the voice.
Instantly, I am on my feet and standing at the receptionist desk. “Is everything okay?”
The wide-eyed receptionist holds up a finger as if to say, one moment, sir. I need to consult Dr. Bob so I can get my story straight.
She does not return; instead, Dr. Bob swings open the door leading back to the dentist’s alcove. “Can you come back here for a moment, please?”
As I step through the door, I turn to glance back the woman and her little girl who are sitting in the waiting room. The look of terror plastered on their faces suggests that my mom has managed to spread our family’s irrational, abnormal fear of dentists to a new family and a younger generation of dental-phobes.
I follow Dr. Bob back to the alcove where my mom is lying in the dental chair. The wheelchair has been folded up and rolled into the corner near the desk.
“Hey, mom, to you, too.” Her words are slurred.
“I heard you scream. Are you okay?”
She points at the dentist. “This one is too scootch for me.”
Dr. Bob feigns injury. “Now, Ms. Martinez, I certainly did not hurt you on purpose. You need to keep still while I am examining you.” He turns to me. “I assure you we used Novocain in a sufficient quantity.”
I nod. He does not have to assure me of anything. I know the challenges he is facing with his new patient. I am the one who told him it would not be easy.
He reaches down and wipes drool from the corner of mom’s mouth. “She should be pretty numb right about now.”
Mom nods as if to confirm this news. “Pretty numb right about now. I know it.”
I notice her hiccups are gone, which is encouraging. I guess if being scared can cure hiccups, as I have heard it can, mom’s hiccups must have departed about the same time I did.
Dr. Bob points to an x-ray of mom’s teeth as though it means anything to me, which it does not. “Your mom has quite a few issues. She has eight cavities, a tooth that has partially broken off, and she needs a root canal in another tooth. She also needs a cleaning. I can tell it’s been awhile since she had her teeth cleaned.”
He must notice my pale complexion, because Dr. Bob reaches out and touches my elbow. “Are you okay? Do you want to sit down?”
“You know she doesn’t have any dental insurance.”
He nods. This crucial bit of information has been communicated to him. “Yes. I am aware you need a cash price.”
“And Medicare doesn’t cover it.”
“So what are we looking at here?”
He instinctively lowers his voice as if he realizes we must not unduly excite mom. The woman’s pride could complicate matters immensely. “That’s difficult to say until I assess the extent of the work needed.”
“Can you ballpark it?”
He pauses and looks up at the ceiling as if calculating figures in his head. “The basic work today is to repair the partially broken tooth with a crown. That’s what’s been causing her pain. We can accept a credit card for payment, you know.”
“That will run about eight fifty.”
I reach under my glasses and rub my eyes.
“As for the cavities and the root canal, we can hold off and do a little at a time. We can put you in touch with some lenders to work out financing. We’re certainly willing to work out some kind of payment schedule with you.”
“I appreciate that.”
“The cleaning can be postponed, but I wouldn’t let it go indefinitely. Otherwise, you compound other problems.”
I nod. “Go ahead and put on the crown today, like you said. I’ll charge it to a credit card. We’ll take the rest one step at a time.” “That sounds like a plan.”
“And I would like to contact the lenders so we can get the financing worked out.”
He nods. “I’ll have Linda provide you with a packet of information.”
Mom is aware that her son and her dentist are lurking somewhere behind her speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tones. She bats her head from side-to-side trying to figure out where we are standing. The way she is parked in the chair, however, prevents her from seeing us in the corner. She grows more agitated.
“Are you okay back there, mom?”
“This one and this one are rude together!”
Dr. Bob erupts into a hearty chuckle as he marches over to stand beside his patient. Again, he slips a mask over his face and starts putting on his gloves. “So you think Dr. Chrome Dome and your son are being rude together?”
Mom nods her head. “This one and this one are rude together.”
“Well, ma’am, I apologize if we were rude. We were trying to figure out what we need to do so you can get on the road and back home.”
“Yes. Get on the road and back home.”
“The good news is I need to perform a simple procedure and you’ll be out of here soon.”
She will not be taken in by this ham-fisted attempt at chicanery. “A simple procedure? A simple procedure is already taken up with this one.”
“No, ma’am. The procedure isn’t over. I haven’t even started it. I was performing a preliminary assessment earlier.”
Mom heaves an exaggerated sigh and looks at me beseechingly. “Michael, save this one for your soul.”
“I’m sorry, mom, but Dr. Bob needs to repair your broken tooth before we leave. Otherwise, your pain will just get worse and we’ll end up coming back another time.”
Mom’s face grows beat red. More drool slips from the corner of her mouth. “That okay.”
“No, mom. It’s not okay. We’re already here. The doctor has administered the Novocain. We need to get it done and then we can leave.”
“It will take about an hour.”
Dr. Bob is trying to be helpful, but the time seems unconscionably long to mom. “Take about an hour?” She turns to me and I see tears in her eyes. “Michael, this one is not good for your soul!”
“I’m sorry, mom. We are not leaving until he fixes your broken tooth.”
Now she erupts into a full-blown tantrum, unlike anything I have ever seen. Perhaps it is the weariness leftover from our trip combined with her fear of the dentist and the stress of our frenzied car ride from her apartment. Whatever it is, it leads to a meltdown.
“Michael, I can’t see this one is good for this one or this one! I can’t take the merciless bullshit of the scootch!”
She rambles on for close to a full minute, her voice growing louder and hoarser at the same time. The Novocain makes her speech slur worse than it usually does. I do not know if the woman and her daughter are still sitting in the waiting room, but if they are, they cannot help but hear the tirade. The child probably will never visit a dentist again if she can avoid it.
The performance reminds me of a sudden thunderstorm in the Deep South during the dog days of summer. A violent, torrential storm can spring seemingly out of nowhere, wreak enormous havoc, and disappear almost as quickly as it arises. This is what happens with mom.
She falls silent and leans back in the chair, staring up at the ceiling. She cries softly while the dentist and I look at each other. No doubt he will go home tonight and tell his wife about this episode. Honey, just when I thought I had seen it all, you will never believe what happened in the office today!
“I’m sorry, Dr. Bob.”
He seems shell-shocked. Also, from the way he looks at me, I think he empathizes with my difficult position. “What do you want to do?”
“I want you to put in the crown. Do it right now.”
He nods and turns his back on mom and me so he can prepare his instruments. I hear the clink-clink of metal objects striking other metal objects.
I step around the chair and look down at mom, touching her arm. She meets my gaze.
“Listen. I know you don’t want to do this, but you have to. You trust me, don’t you?”
“You have to trust me with this, mom. Your tooth has been giving you problems, and the problems are going to get worse unless you do this. It’ll be over in an hour or less. You just have to get through the next hour and then things will get better. Okay? Can you do that? Please. Do it for me.”
Mom shrugs and turns away. I take this gesture as permission to proceed. Looking over at Dr. Bob, I nod.
He leans around the corner. “Okay, Karen. We’re ready.”