Here is Chapter 30 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Mom never shows much emotion over the loss of Hortense. Whenever I try to talk with her about it, she ignores me. To a neutral observer, she might appear indifferent, simply too wrapped up in her television schedule to be bothered with a discussion of the Beagle’s death.
I am not a neutral observer, nor do I believe mom is indifferent. Quite the contrary. I believe she feels the loss deeply — so deeply she cannot directly confront it. It is far better to push it away and never think about it than to succumb to despair. Hortense was mom's loyal companion long before Mister Buster arrived.
Concerned about mom’s condition, Paula and I creep down to the apartment one evening and watch as she lies on her bed in front of the television. Although she faces the screen, her eyes are blank. She appears disengaged, far away. It is as though something is missing; a vital part of her center is gone.
Paula has great insight into people. “Look at her, Mike. She has aged enormously in the past few weeks. Look how thin her hair is now.”
As usual, Paula is correct. My mother is a large woman, and no one would ever describe her as “frail.” Yet lately she seems if not frail, then brittle, more vulnerable than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the stroke. Her hair is grayer and thinner than I remember. Her arms and legs twitch more often when she stands from the wheelchair to climb into bed or to sit on the toilet.
She also becomes lazier in her speech. Where she used to pronounce whole words, even if they did not always make sense in context, now she slurs her words. She falls back on “scootch” or a monosyllabic s-sounding phrase that is little more than gibberish. Her speech therapists told us never to allow her to get away with sloppy speech — we must keep her engaged with the mother tongue — but these days she seems not to care. When we correct her, she makes no effort to heed our admonitions, nor does she roll her eyes or fight us. She merely looks back at us impassively, her face utterly expressionless, as though she has given up.
Maybe she has.
I shuttle her back and forth to Dr. Carr for check-ups, but medically he finds nothing to explain her new-found lethargy. Her blood pressure is under control. Her muscle strength has never been very good, but it does not seem to have deteriorated markedly. Her vital signs remain more or less constant.
A new-found shortness of breath is worrisome. The doctor suggests we have her lungs tested with a specialist. She smoked for more than 40 years and often flirted with emphysema, so it is possible she has developed a respiratory ailment that requires attention. She also is a breast cancer survivor. In the back of my mind is the nagging fear of a recurrence. We resolve to arrange a round of tests at the hospital after the rapidly-approaching holidays are behind us.
I know she mourns the loss of a beloved pet, but mom’s reaction seems extreme. As much as she loved Hortense, even grief cannot account for this radical change. I long for something to break us out of the rut we have slipped into during the weeks following the Beagle’s death.
Needless to say, when Polly calls late one afternoon and asks if we would like to fly up to Washington, D.C. to visit our large extended family over the Christmas holidays, we readily agree. If anything can pull mom out of her depression, or whatever it is, a visit with her family will do it.
I am encouraged by her reaction after I tell her of our plans. “Yes, that is good for your soul!”
Minutes later, though, she sinks back into her stupor. The trip is three weeks away, I tell myself. She will snap out of it as the time draws near and anticipation builds.
When I was a child, Polly and Loren hosted Christmas visits to Washington, D.C., and they were large, activity-filled extravaganzas. As many as a dozen relatives would descend on their house for the festivities. Although I was raised as an only child of a single mother, I enjoyed a large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as long-time friends who were as close to our family as any blood relatives could be. David and Anne Johnson are dear friends of Polly’s, and we have known them as far back as I can remember. Diane Adams, Dani Kauffman, Lucy Thrower, and so many others have joined us in celebrations throughout the years.
Christmas at Polly’s house was a magical time for a child. Older relatives slept upstairs in one of the bedrooms of the three-story house, but the young males were banished to the nether regions. As the three youngest male children, my cousins Phil Mead and Robert Mellette joined me as temporary residents of the basement. Polly had set up three beds near the freezer. When we were not upstairs mingling with the adults, Phil, Robert, and I lounged in the basement, telling jokes, swapping apocryphal tales of sexual escapades, or raiding the freezer for Twinkies, ice cream, and anything else not nailed down or hidden away. We were masters of the deep.
Upstairs, we had many activities from which to choose. Sometimes Walter or Chris would transport a carload of children to climb on rocks at the Great Falls State Park on the Maryland-Virginia border. On other days, we would venture out to the local multiplex to enjoy the latest feature film. We might play kickball on the lawn, basketball at a neighbor’s house, or simply swap tall tales while sitting around the kitchen table. Polly always ensured a multitude of drinks and snacks were on hand. Every need within reason could and would be met.
Although I did not realize it at the time, I soaked up much about the adult world during these visits. Polly hosted dinner parties where wine was served, young men were expected to wear jackets and ties, public conviviality and verbal repartee were prized attributes, and adult topics and concepts were bandied about. Everyone in my family watched television news, read the newspaper, and discussed world events. When I was barely a teenager, our relatives transported us to the Gettysburg battlefield. Later we toured the major D.C. monuments. We spoke of the Founding Fathers, of the troubled legacy of American history, and of the endless possibilities available to someone of my generation who applied himself and acquired a first-class education.
I did not always relish those lessons -- I was young and dumb -- but I received an implicit message: A large, interesting world existed outside of me and my family. I could tune into that world, learn its intricacies and inner workings, and master my own corner of the universe. Nothing was beyond my capabilities if I visualized it and worked to make it a reality. Polly, Loren, and my extended family told me I was as gifted and talented as anyone on the planet. They gave me permission to fly into the world and travel as far as my talents and industry allowed.
They also taught me to love ideas, books, and conversation. For a shy, awkward boy, it was a life-changing revelation. I will always be grateful that I was born into this family. These wonderful people made me into who I am today.
As I grew older, the visits to Polly and Loren’s house became less magical. I missed my friends, especially my girlfriends. I entered adolescence and found my relatives were far more intolerable than they had been in earlier years. Family members got married, pumped out children, and changed the dynamics of the gathering as they introduced new characters and personalities into the mix. As a child, I was in the thick of things, an integral part of the family unit. By the time I entered my late teens, I felt shuffled off to the periphery as everyone focused on the next generation coming up behind me. In short, I grew up and looked outside of my family for intimacy.
By the mid-1980s, we no longer visited Polly and Loren during the holidays. Every now and then, Polly would call and ask us to join them. I seldom took her up on the offer. I was satisfied to remember the gatherings fondly from my youth, but I had no desire to try and reheat the soufflé. I have never been an aficionado of high school reunions, either. I enjoyed high school, but what has passed is past. I have no desire to resurrect memories and people from my early life.
When Polly extends the offer this time, however, I accept. It has been many years since we journeyed up to the nation’s capital. Mom has always loved the get-togethers. As we grow older and her health declines, I am mindful of the ticking clock.
The day before our flight to DC, while Shirley and I pack mom’s suitcase, I manufacture artificial good cheer. “Well, mom, are you getting excited? We leave tomorrow morning.”
She lies in the bed watching a rerun of “Murder, She Wrote” on television. Mister Buster slumbers on the pillow beside her. His little Chihuahua body is hidden beneath the covers, but his tiny rat head sticks up slightly above the bedspread.
She looks at me and nods, mumbling something so softly I cannot hear what she says.
“Are you out of breath, mom?”
She shakes her head, no, but I think she is lying.
“I told Miss Laura she need to take it easy, Michael. She be huffin’ and puffin’ ‘round the place today. I tell her, ‘now, Miss Laura, you gotta behave yourself so you can go on your trip.’”
“That’s good advice, Shirley.” I sit on the edge of the bed. “Maybe you can fly first class again. That was nice, wasn’t it? You got a little extra special attention.”
Mom nods. Yes, extra special attention is nice.
“If you ask me, I wouldn’t get on no airplane, huh-uh. No, sir.”
“It’s safe, Shirley. Like I told you before we went to California, it’s safer than a car.”
“Huh-uh. No way. Dr. Prokay try to get me on a airplane one time on account of he and his missus goin’ somewhere and they say, ‘now, Shirley, you gotta come wif us so you can take care of the kids.’ And I say, huh-uh, no way, Dr. Prokay. I ain’t gettin’ on no airplane.’ And I don’t get on none, neither.”
I do not appreciate the drift of this conversation. The last thing we need is for Shirley to stir up trouble where none exists. I glance at mom to gauge her reaction to this anti-aviation polemic, but she appears completely disinterested. In fact, she seems almost catatonic.
I snap my fingers. “Hey, mom. Are you there?”
She looks at me with a frown as if to say, what is wrong with you? Why are you snapping your fingers in my face like that? I am not some dog you can call whenever you want.
“You seem tired.”
She nods. She is tired.
“You still want to go, right?”
She points at Mister. “This one is the same as this one?”
“We’ve been through this before. Mister and Daisy can’t go with us, but Shirley’ll make sure they get fed.”
“Thass right, Miss Laura. Don’t you worry none, darlin.’ I take real good care of them dogs.” She laughs. “But if Mister don’t stop peein’ on the rug, I’m gonna get me a switch.”
This comment catches mom's attention. Her nostrils flare. “This one is not to be this one!”
Shirley looks at me. “Miss Laura don’t like it when I switch Mister. She just let him do whatever he wannna do. I go to switch him and he hide behind her wheelchair. If’n you ask me, he spoilt.”
Mom wags her finger. “He spoilt, yes. He spoilt.”
“But he ain’t gonna learn nuthin’ if we don’t make him do right. I use the switch on Missy, now, and I tell you what. She don’t be peein’ on my rug. But that Mister is a mess. He know he can get away with it.”
Mom wags her finger yet again. “But this one is to be with this one!”
“Now, you hush up, Miss Laura. You know I ain’t gonna do nothin’ to hurt Mister. I take real good care of him when you on your trip.”
Mom nods, satisfied her message has been received. “I take real good care of him when you on your trip, yes.”
I watch her for a few more minutes. She seems so weary I seriously consider walking upstairs, calling Polly, and canceling the trip. I remember how tired she was in California, and that was many months ago, back when Hortense seemed to be in good health, and mom was less fragile than she appears now. I am in a quandary.
As I usually do when I reach a crossroads, I head upstairs to talk with Paula. She is kneeling down in the laundry room loading clothes into the dryer.
“Where’s Shelby?” I point to the living room.
“I’m worried about mom. She seems exhausted.”
Paula nods and stops tossing clothes into the dryer. She has entertained this same thought. “Do you want to cancel the trip? It will cost something to change our flights, but that’s better than wearing her out.”
“I don’t know, Paula.” I launch into a lengthy summary of my dilemma. On one hand, if we cancel the trip, mom can rest at home. She will miss the festivities, but at least she will enjoy the comforts of her own bed, her little dog, and her stress-free life. She will conserve her strength. On the other hand, she always enjoys a trip to Polly’s house, especially when her family members are gathered for Christmas. She has been dispirited since Hortense’s death; a change of scenery may be what the doctor ordered to revitalize her.
Paula is usually authoritative and confident. To see her wracked with the same indecision that afflicts me is surprising. She sits on a stool and rubs her chin. “Did you ask her what she wants to do?”
“She’s worried about leaving Mister Buster, but she still wants to go.”
“Then we should go.”
And so we go. Mom rides in first class on the airplane again. We land at Reagan Washington National Airport without experiencing major problems. For the first time since we lost our Beagle, mom perks up. Despite her chronic shortness of breath, she becomes almost giddy with excitement as we pilot our rental car toward Polly and Loren’s house.
Recognizing a few landmarks — the Naval Observatory and the vice president’s home — mom points. “This one is close to this one.”
“Yep. We’re getting close, mom.”
We pull up to the curb and are greeted by a swarm of relatives. They seem genuinely pleased to see us. Mom is enveloped in their warmth and hospitality.
Polly and Loren’s house has three steps up from the walkway to the front door. Normally, I would expect mom to step out of the wheelchair and use her three-pronged cane, supported by one person on each side, to negotiate the stairs. We would then lift her wheelchair inside the house and allow her to sit down. She is exhausted from our journey, though, and so I ask if several young, strong, male relatives can lift her, wheelchair and all, from the walkway directly into the interior. Three of Polly’s strapping grandsons hoist mom and her wheelchair into the foyer with no discernible effort.
We stay in Washington for four days. Paula, Shelby, and I are relieved to have multiple relatives available to take turns with mom. They free us up to enjoy the local haunts. One day, a group of the under 50 crowd ventures over to Great Falls State Park to climb on the rocks. Another day, Paula, Shelby, Robert and I drive up to Annapolis and spend a lazy afternoon walking around the pier, eating seafood, and buying souvenirs. On another lazy day, a half dozen of us visit the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR monument, and several sites along the Washington Mall.
Each time I am around mom, I scrutinize her carefully. She smiles and laughs more than I have seen in many months. Obviously, she is enjoying her visit. At the same time, I worry about her exhaustion. She has bags under her eyes. No matter how early it is in the morning, she slouches in her wheelchair as if she has slogged through a long, difficult day of labor-intensive chores.
My cousin Barbara approaches me on the last afternoon of our visit. “I just helped your mama to the bathroom.”
I nod. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“She seems awfully tired.”
“I know. We have scheduled appointments to see her primary care doctor as well as a lung specialist when we get home.”
We are at Polly’s house on New Year’s Eve. When I realize mom will not make it until midnight, I offer to get her ready for bed. She initially appears reluctant, but eventually I have my way.
She knows we will depart early in the morning. Sweeping her head around the living room, she tries to take it all in. Walter, a cherished nephew, sits in a chair reading a book. Polly and Loren are discussing the church schedule for tomorrow. Barbara and her husband, Jim, are laying plans for their trip home to Durham, North Carolina. My cousin Robert, a resident of North Hollywood, is talking about a screenplay he hopes to sell to Universal Studios in January. Three of Polly’s grandsons are sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a board game that involves dice and movable pieces. Shelby ogles them from afar.
Mom looks up at me as I stand behind the wheelchair. “This one may be the last time.”
Normally, I argue with her when she utters apocalyptic pronouncements. My usual response is to say, “oh, c’mon now, mom. Don’t be silly. We’ll be back to visit Polly again. Don’t worry.”
For once, I say nothing. My gut tells me she is right. In my heart, I know we shall not pass this way again, and for that reason I feel almost unbearably sad.