Here is Chapter 24 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Polly Mead calls the next day shortly after noon. As usual, I have taken a break from work and trundled into the basement to fix lunch for mom. Shirley usually departs by 11:00 a.m. and does not return until 6:00 p.m., so I make sure all is well during the day while Paula is at work and Shelby attends school. It is one of the many advantages of working at home.
We are watching a “Law & Order” rerun when the phone shrieks. I cringe. Lifting the receiver to my ear, I silently pray it will not be John Wise of ARS calling about mom’s past due Chase MasterCard account. Nothing destroys a perfectly decent episode of “Law & Order” as much as epithets hurled by a determined bill collector.
Fortunately, I hear a familiar voice; it is far more sympathetic to our plight than John Wise will ever be. “Hello, Mike.”
I instantly recognize the speaker. “Well, isn’t this a welcome surprise. How are you, stranger?”
She chuckles. “I’m fine. I was just calling to see how Laura is doing. I know you go downstairs to eat lunch with her almost every day, so I wanted to call when I could catch you there.”
“Well, you caught me.”
Mom frowns. “Who is this one?”
I mouth the word “Polly,” but mom’s puzzled facial expression tells me she has failed to understand.
“It’s been a long time. I have been meaning to write, but with my macular degeneration and my hectic schedule, it just isn’t possible.”
“I understand. It’s not as though mom doesn’t have any communication with the outside world, though. Her friend Leila Jordan writes her a card at least once a week.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Leila has always been thoughtful that way.”
Mom’s voice grows louder. “Who is this one?”
“And Glenda DuBose calls every few weeks.”
“That’s wonderful. I worry about Laura being too isolated, trapped down in the basement.”
“Who is this one, Papa Doc?”
I cup the phone. “Polly, mom. It’s Polly.”
As I try to speak again, mom shouts. “Hello, Polly. How are you?”
“Mom says hello.”
“I want to speak to her in a moment. Before then, I want to talk to you.”
“Okay. But you don’t need to worry about mom being isolated.” I regale her with the tale of our San Diego trip, complete with embellished details about our journeys to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo and, of course, the Tijuana adventure. Mom titters in the background as I weave my story in and out of a narrow band called “truth.”
“My goodness, Mike. You’re very brave to take Laura on such an adventure.”
“Brave or stupid.”
“No. It was brave, very brave. The actions of a wonderful son.”
“Well, we all enjoyed ourselves. Thank you for that, though.”
“Speaking of trips, Loren and I thought, if it’s okay with you, that we’d come for a visit in the next couple of weeks. I wanted to check with you first to ensure it fits with your schedule before I tell Laura.”
“Absolutely, Polly. You’re always welcome. How are Loren and Billy, by the way?”
“Fine, fine. Loren has been traveling a lot lately, but he should be in town for most of the next month. And Billy…well. You know Billy. He’s still working on his latest novel and attending a writers’ workshop. There’s no news around here.”
“Well, we’ll certainly be happy to have you come for a visit.”
Mom understands my comment, and her eyes light up. “Polly is this one for the puppy?”
“Yes, mom, she and Loren want to come for a visit. Is Billy coming, too?”
“Not this time.”
Mom extends her arm to take the receiver from me.
“Hold on a second. Hey, Polly, mom wants to speak with you.”
“Okay, Mike. I’ll call you on your office phone later to talk about the details of our visit.”
Before I can respond, mom snatches the receiver from my hand and thrusts it to her face. “Hello, Polly. Good sats for the baking, scootch. How are you?”
I leave the room so the sisters can speak, such as it is.
After the call, mom snaps out the funk she has been in since we returned from our trip and Dr. Bob installed a crown on her broken tooth. Where she once pouted, now she grins. Polly and Loren’s plans have improved her morale in a way nothing else could.
Paula, as usual, offers a terrific suggestion when I tell her about the visit. She has raised two children and knows how to combat immaturity in its various and sundry forms; she lets me in on the secret. “You know how much she likes to have her hair done at that salon on Highway 78. It’s called Classic Cuts. That’s one of her favorite places in the world.”
She says this as a statement, not a question, so presumably mom’s affinity for Classic Cuts is well known. I don’t tell Paula, but it is not well known to me. I remember transporting mom there several times, but I do not remember the name of the salon until Paula reminds me, nor do I realize it is one of mom’s favorite places. I thought it was where she got her hair cut and that was that. Paula frequently complains that I don’t pay attention to things that are important to her and mom. I don’t choose to illustrate her point if I don’t have to do so. I nod and grin.
“I can call and ask if Patty will squeeze her in for an appointment this afternoon. If you can take her, drop her off for a few hours, and then go back and pick her up, it will make her day.”
“Maybe she’ll permanently snap out of her bad mood.”
“Exactly. Then, if you’ll take her shopping for groceries, she’ll be tickled pick.”
I may not know much about mom’s desire to have her hair fixed, but I know she loves to shop for groceries. She loves to look at food, handle food, think about food, and buy food. To make matters even more pleasurable, she gets to navigate her own electric scooter inside the store. By God, if Dr. Carr won’t approve Medicare funding for a scooter from the Scooter Store advertised on television, mom can still drive a senior citizen grocery “hog” at our friendly neighborhood Super Wal-Mart store.
“That’s a great idea, Paula. If you’ll call Classic Cuts and see if they can take her today, I’ll drive her over there.”
Paula reaches for the phone. “Okay, but let me call and make sure they can see her this afternoon before you tell her about it. There’s no point in bringing it up if she has to wait until later in the week.”
Fortunately, Patty has an opening at 3:00 p.m.
I march downstairs to fix mom’s wheelchair and inform her of the good news.
When I enter the apartment, she and Shirley are sitting at the table finishing breakfast. Mom is eying a glass of orange juice, apparently watching the pulp float through the liquid. She seems fascinated, transfixed by its meandering path.
“How’s your tooth today, mom?”
She sticks her finger in her mouth. “The dill pickle is in my pork chop.”
“She say it’s a little sore, but it don’t hurt no more like it did, Michael.” Shirley shakes her head. “Miss Laura sure don’t like the dentist. ‘Course I know how she feel. I don’t like the dentist, neither.”
Mom jiggles her finger at Shirley.
“C’mon now, darlin,’ you be sweet! We know you don’t like that dentist.”
I laugh. “You can say that again.”
Mom nods vigorously. “You can say that again.”
I hold up my pliers and screwdriver. “Could I get you to sit on your bed for a few minutes while I fix the wheel, mom? I finally got the nut I needed.”
She nods as she pushes herself away from the table. Turning with her feet, she propels herself across the linoleum and onto the carpet of her bedroom. I follow behind as Shirley packs the dishwasher. Hortense the lazy Beagle looks up at me dispassionately from the corner.
“Is she okay?”
Mom looks down at the dog and shrugs. “This one is the same as this one.”
Shirley chimes in from the kitchen. “Big Girl’s lazy, that’s all that’s wrong with her. I ain’t never seen a dog that lays around and begs for scraps like Big Girl. Daisy ain’t so bad, but Big Girl sure is greedy.” Shirley can never remember the name “Hortense”; she simply refers to mom’s dog as “Big Girl.” With the aging Beagle’s tendency toward corpulence, I suppose the nickname is apt.
Mom locks the brake on her wheelchair, stands, and turns her body so her back is pointed toward the bed. In an act if supreme faith, she bends at the knees and semi-sits, semi-falls onto the mattress. Every time I watch this ritual unfold, my heart leaps into my mouth. Fortunately, mom has performed the feat so often it has become rote. She does not think about it, which is probably all for the best.
When she is on the bed, groping for the remote control, I flip the wheelchair on its side, reach into my pocket, and remove the nut I purchased at Home Depot. I had intended to take care of this chore on our way home from Dr. Bob’s office, but mom did not want to stop. Her relief at fleeing the dentist’s office did not allow us to tarry on the way home.
Despite my lack of technical prowess, I am able to repair the wobbly wheel with minimal difficulty. We are ready to roll in about two minutes. I flip the wheelchair back upright and look at mom.
“There you go. It’s as good as new.”
“Good as new, yes. Thank you, Michael. Good as new.”
“You’re welcome.” I pause for dramatic effect. “By the way, Paula and I thought, as a reward for putting up with the dentist, it might be a nice treat to have your hair fixed at Classic Cuts.”
Mom’s eyes light up and her head snaps around. She looks at me as if to say, Did I hear you correctly? Are you offering to have my hair fixed?
“That’s right, mom. Patty has an opening at three this afternoon. I’ll drive you up there, drop you off, and pick you up after your hair appointment. How does that sound?”
She nods and smiles. “This one sounds like a good boy!”
“Miss Laura, you been sayin’ you need to get a permanent in your hair.”
“I know it.”
“'Specially with your sister comin’ an’ everythin.’ You gonna be queen of the walk.”
“Yes. Queen of the walk. Yes.”
Mom is thrilled to have Patty fix her hair. A big-haired country girl who seems to be in her early fifties but tries to hide it behind heavy makeup and tight-fitting skirts and blouses, Patty owns and operates Classic Cuts. She has lived a hard life, a virtual textbook of abuses and woeful experiences straight out of a country song. Far from leaving her embittered or dispirited, Patty’s life has transformed her into a pleasant, outgoing, empathetic woman from the “nobody-knows-the-troubles-I’ve-seen” school of hard knocks. She once cared for an aunt who was an invalid, so she knows exactly what to say and do around mom.
For her part, mom enjoys getting away from home for several hours without having Paula or me hover over her every move. Classic Cuts is always filled with patrons jockeying to keep each other up-to-date on the latest gossip. Although she does not know many of the people, mom loves hearing the juicy stories of extramarital trysts, run-ins with the law, dreams and schemes for striking it rich, and the peccadilloes of country relatives eking out a living with minimal skills and education. The setting reminds me of a scene from the movie “Steel Magnolias.”
The last time I dropped mom at Classic Cuts, Patty came out to greet her as we were emerging from the car. This was a nice, warm gesture, but it also interrupted our routine. It is always risky when a physically challenged person who depends on a routine is forced to improvise. Mom was so excited that she stood up from her wheelchair before I had a chance to lock her brakes. She took a step without her cane and went down on one knee as if she intended to propose to Patty, which may have been her intention all along. It was only sheer luck (and propitious timing) that allowed Patty to get on one side of mom while I got on the other side so we could lift her up onto her feet and ultimately back into the wheelchair. Had she fallen completely down into the parking lot, it would have been infinitely more challenging to get her up and safely situated.
After we rescued mom from the parking lot, Patty hugged her tightly, admonishing her to be careful when standing up. In response, mom kissed Patty on the neck. This action struck me as extremely intimate. I cannot think of many instances when it is appropriate to kiss one’s hairdresser on the neck. Perhaps I am naïve or cold-hearted.
In the following weeks, I joked with mom about her affection for Patty. I even went so far as to compose a little ditty:
C’mon, baby, won’t you say “oh, heck?”
C’mon, Patty, won’t you gimme some neck?
Mom usually laughs at the ditty and tells me to stop, but it gives us something to talk about other than our usual dreary topics of doctors, medication, and health concerns.
“Okay, then. It’s settled. Shirley, please make sure mom is ready to go before you leave this morning. About 2:30, I’ll be back down so we can get to your appointment on time at three. Afterward, we can pick up some groceries at Wal-Mart.”
Mom grins. Getting her hair fixed and shopping at Wal-Mart are treats. It is as though Christmas has arrived early this year.
She may have trouble getting ready for a dentist’s appointment on time, but mom does not have trouble preparing for a visit to Classic Cuts. When I arrive to pick her up shortly before the appointment, she is sitting in her wheelchair dressed in her favorite blouse and skirt. (Mom seldom wears a skirt except on formal occasions, preferring pants and loosely fitting garments.) Shirley has already departed, although she will return in the evening to cook dinner. For this special event, though, Shirley and mom have pulled out the stops.
“You’re all gussied up, mom.”
She smiles and nods. “Yes. All gussied up, mom.”
“Are you ready to get some neck from Patty?”
“Get some neck from Patty. Yes. Yes. I mean, no.” She laughs. “Get some neck from Patty?”
“Shirley did a nice job on your hair. Maybe we don’t need to go to Classic Cuts after all.”
Mom’s smile instantly evaporates and she glares at me. It is a frightening look, a malevolent stare I recall well from my childhood and adolescence. I am anxious to wipe it away.
“I’m kidding, mom. Kidding. You can take a joke, can’t you?”
She wags her finger in my face, not altogether sure I am kidding. “You can take a joke, can’t you? This one takes a joke. That’s the fact, Mr. Buster. This one takes a joke, yes.”
I laugh as I reach around to unlock her wheelchair brakes. Her good mood returns when I roll her through the kitchen, out the back door, and up the hill toward the car.
We pull into the handicapped parking space about 10 minutes before mom’s appointment time. The interior of the hair salon is all glass; the entrance faces the parking lot. The building resembles a large cylindrical wooden barn except it is painted gray, not barn-red. Nestled in a strip mall next to the Maxi Price Chevrolet dealership on one side and a Nextel mobile phone retail store on the other side, it is easy to miss while barreling along Highway 78. I have been careful to slow down before we turn into the driveway, much to the consternation of the drivers behind me.
We spy Patty teasing an elderly woman’s hair and chatting away as we exit the car. Judging by their animated facial expressions, the two women are engaged in a lively, enjoyable discussion. I gaze at mom’s face and notice her noticing them. She seems excited by the anticipation of the loads of gossip she is about to hear. It is so invitingly juicy.
Mom can barely wait for me to get her situated in the wheelchair and unlock the brakes before she is propelling herself forward with her feet. She looks back at me with a scowl as if to say, hurry up, boy! Get the lead out. There’s hardcore gossip being exchanged and I am not privy to it!
A woman stands outside the door, cigarette in hand, and watches us as I step behind the wheelchair and maneuver mom toward the entrance. She is the stereotypical hairdresser: blue eyeliner matches the color of her smock; she has that half-lidded look of a woman who has been much-abused during her forty-plus years on the planet, causing her to appear a decade older than she is despite her attempts to dress as she did in her twenties. She is fighting a rearguard battle against cellulite, and losing. Still, she refuses to cede the ground, which means she wears clothing too tight for her undeniably portly frame. Her hair is askew, although she has made an effort to pin it up behind her ears. In her youth, she reveled in the attention afforded a bad girl. Now, she longs for the day when every tattooed redneck in her eleventh grade class dreamed of riding his Harley and her, not necessarily in that order.
I nod when she makes eye contact. “Hi. How are you?”
She puffs on her cigarette and considers me and my mother from beneath one jaundiced eye while she squeezes the other one shut to block out the sun. “I can take you now. Patty’s tied up.”
Mom looks panicked. Her eyes grow wide and she juts her good arm out from the wheelchair. “But this one is good sats for the baking!”
Blowing a smoke ring from her “o”-shaped lips, the hair dresser squints down at mom. “How’s that, hon?”
“She wants Patty to fix her hair. She’d prefer to wait for Patty, if that’s okay with you.”
Mom shakes her head vigorously. She points through the glass to the salon interior. “This one is this one.”
The woman shrugs, completely indifferent. Without expressing any further interest in us, she resumes her weary scan of the traffic shooting along Highway 78. “Suit yourself.”
She does not move toward the door. When I realize she will offer no assistance, I reach over, yank it open, and turn my back into the jam so I can push the opening wider. Pulling the wheelchair in behind me, I glance at the woman. She is looking away as though she has forgotten about us. Maybe she has.
Patty sees us, though. “Well, hello there, young lady.”
Mom beams. “Hello there, young lady, yourself. This one is this one!”
“Long time no see.”
“Yes. Long time no see yourself.”
“Dana, this is Laura. I used to think her name was Maureen.”
Mom erupts into laughter. “Yes, Maureen. Maureen.” She enjoys a huge belly laugh at this remembrance.
When Paula first found Classic Cuts in the telephone book, she called and spoke to someone at the salon, although she did not speak to Patty. Later in the day, Paula dropped mom at the beauty shop and I agreed to pick her up after her hair was fixed. Patty apparently had been informed that her new customer was a stroke survivor who experienced difficulty speaking, but she either had not been told mom’s name, or else she had forgotten it. Needless to say, when she made inquiries, mom could not quite call up the name “Laura.” She blurted out “Maureen,” which was close, but no cigar.
When I arrived to pick her up, Patty greeted me at the door.
“You’re here to pick up your mama, right? I just want you to know how much all of us adore Maureen. She is the sweetest thing!”
“She said her name is Maureen.”
“No, her name is Laura.”
Patty looked shocked. Addressing mom, she feigned indignation. “And to think I’ve been calling you ‘Maureen’ all afternoon.”
Mom shrugged. “It all right.”
I looked at her. “So you’re using an alias now, is that it?”
That little episode occurred not long after we returned from the Parkwood Nursing Home. We have visited Classic Cuts three or four times since that inaugural session.
Patty tells this story to her friend, Dana, who cackles every bit as much as mom.
“Look, sugar, I’ll be finished here in a couple of minutes. If you wanna park your mama right there, I’ll get to her next. I just gotta finish up with Dana here.”
“Okay.” I turn to mom. “I’ll be back about, what, six or so? What time do you close?”
Patty winks at me. “We close at eight, but six’ll be fine, hon. We’ll get along fine ‘til then, right, Laura? I mean, Maureen.”
Mom laughs, almost a gleeful, girlish laugh. “Right, Laura! Right, Maureen!”
Sensing that I am not wanted or needed here, I bid mom farewell.
She absently raises her claw to wave goodbye, but she is so absorbed in the discussion I can tell she is not focused on my whereabouts. I beat a hasty retreat. Our friendly hair stylist with the cigarette watches me drive away with her patented, expressionless face.
When I return at the appointed time, mom is seated in her wheelchair still chatting amiably with her new-found friends. Dana has departed, but several new patrons have joined in the chat fest. Even the moody, cigarette-smoking hair stylist seems perky and animated by their choice of conversation.
Mom spots me as I step from the car. She is still wearing a smock and her hair is partially wet. The ringlets and curls indicate the permanent is more or less complete. She is beaming.
I swing open the door, and the ladies cease their conversation.
“Hey, mom. You look nice.”
Patty is leaning over the sink washing her hands. Turning to look over her shoulder at me, she smiles. “Your mama done so good! We just love her to death.”
Mom nods as she sweeps her finger around the beauty shop. “Yes. Love her to death, too.”
“I’m glad to hear that Maureen behaved herself.”
Patty and mom erupt into laughter in unison.
“That’s a good one. A good one.”
Mom confirms this opinion. “A good one, yes. A good one. This one is this one!” She waves her claw at me.
Patty marches over and runs her hands through mom’s hair. “Now, honey, we’re not quite finished. We still got to dry your hair before you can go and paint the town red.”
Mom grins. “Paint the town red, yes. That is right. Paint the town red. This one is this one!”
I had hoped we would be on our way soon. “Should I come back later?”
Mom answers with startling speed. “Yes!”
Patty is a half-beat behind her. “No, that’s fine. We’re almost finished. It’ll be five or ten minutes, max.”
Mom looks crestfallen.
“We’ve still got to buy groceries at Wal-Mart, mom. That’s something to think about.”
She nods, but I can see it is a half-hearted gesture. Normally, shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart is the highlight of any day, but after the excitement of having her hair fixed and listening to the juicy gossip that flies around Classic Cuts, all else is anti-climactic. Mom is trying not to pout, but it is a losing battle.
She is not the only person on the verge of pouting. I have not brought a book to read, much to my dismay, but there is no point in leaving. I settle into a corner chair with the latest issue of Big Hair magazine. I am here for the duration.
Gradually, the women in the salon resume their conversation, and mom throws herself into the thick of it. Her aphasia prevents her from sharing stories with the group, but they try to include her, anyway. Occasionally, one of the women turns to mom and exclaims, “You know what I’m talking about!” In response, mom nods. Yes, she has been there, sister.
Mom serves as a Greek chorus for the storytellers, providing moral support and encouragement as they spin their yarns. She seems to know exactly the right cliché (or a close approximation thereof) to exclaim at the right time to keep their stories flowing. When a put-upon wife explains why she walked out on her no-good, philandering husband, she seeks validation from the group that her decision was noble and just. Mom leads the pack in providing affirmation: “Lord, yes! This one is this one!”
Another woman describes the troubles she has experienced with her drug-addicted, good-for-nothing adult son who lives in the spare bedroom of her double-wide trailer. In a feat of linguistic acrobatics, mom blurts out, “that is a terrible shame!”
Later, in a voice choked with raw emotion, another lady is lamenting the passing of her beloved pet Cocker Spaniel. Perhaps recalling our old Cocker Spaniel, General Chaos, who died nine years earlier at the age of 16, mom shares the woman’s pain: “This one is the sad one for this one.”
We delay as long as we can, but inevitably we must leave the beauty shop. After I buckle mom’s seatbelt and load the wheelchair into the trunk for our journey to Wal-Mart, I notice she is surprisingly quiet and subdued.
“Are you okay? You’re awfully quiet. Your hair looks great, by the way.”
She gazes out the window as we pull into traffic and cars zip past us. I suppose she misses her gossip-buddies at Classic Cuts.
“Are you sad to be leaving the beauty shop?”
She nods. “This one is this one. Sad to be leaving forever.”
“Forever? No, mom, I’ll bring you back sometime. I’ll bring you back before your next visit to Dr. Bob, in fact. That’s a promise.”
She stares at me as though I am a naïve soul. She smiles, but it is a sad, wan expression. It sits crooked on her face. “This one is too late for this one.”
“You don’t think you’ll have a chance to go back?”
“Mom, you’re being melodramatic and silly. Of course, you’ll go back. I promise.”
“No. Michael. No.” She sighs. "This one is this one." She waves her good arm at her wrecked body.
“Did something happen? Are you angry with Patty? Did she hurt your feelings?”
“No. No.” She waves at me to be quiet.
“What is it, then?”
She shrugs. “What is it, then? Just a feeling. This one is this one.”
“Well, feelings are not always right, you know.”
But this feeling is right. Mom does not ever return to Classic Cuts.