Part 36. Hold Back the Night

“You had the power all along, my dear.’

Glinda the Good Witch said that to Dorothy back in Oz. I always imagined Dorothy losing her shit.

“Then why in the hell didn’t you tell me that back in Munchkinland?” she’d screech at this good-but-not-forthcoming witch. But then she’d calm down a bit and realize she wouldn’t have met the Scarecrow, the Woodman and the Lion. You know — made friends, understood the meaning of life and gotten a whole tribe of flying monkeys to switch teams.

So I learned that there was really no re-connect needed. Since my surgery in April, this new point of egress down south was already there, healing, getting ready to be re-trained and used. The re-training was something I didn’t really like to think about.

So Christian Corwin scheduled me for the reversal — a more accurate term than reconnection — in mid October, right in the middle of the semester. I might not be incapacitated so long, he said, but the recovery might be  . . . challenging was the word he used, I believe.

The hard part would be  re-training that pesky rectum.

I’d had accidents now and then but felt confident enough to finally make a trip. It had been more than a year — 14 months  — since I’d seen my mother. My brother lived in the same town as my mother and he saw her several times a week. His wife, Sharon, was there daily.

My sister, Suzanne, and her husband, John, lived in Virginia. But they went to Indiana once a month to look after my mother.

Everyone was aware of my cancer except, of course, my mother. We’d kept her in the dark.

My mother’s hospice nurse was trying to help us help my mother  let go. She needed to know her children were all right, so she could peacefully pass.

I asked Corwin if he thought I could handle a trip.

I’d had a trip planned the previous December, around the time I’d gotten my diagnosis. But my appointments and tests and pre-surgical procedures were coming so fast and furious then that I had to cancel that trip.

I made some telephoned excuse to my mother and promised to visit “soon.”

So now it was 10 months and a lifetime later, and it was nowhere in the vicinity of soon.

“Of course,” Corwin said. “You’re a pro with that thing now.” He glanced down, indicating where the ostomy bag lurked beneath my trousers. “You can handle a plane flight.”

“You sure?” I asked. “What if I get up there at 30,000 feet or something and the pressure turns out to be too much for the bag?”

He looked at me curiously, a sort of what-in-the-hell-are-you-talking-about kind of look.

“Well,” I gulped. “Will the bag explode?”

He laughed.

“You laugh now,” I said, “but how’d you like to be trapped in a fuselage and have some stranger’s shit rain down upon you?”

He was still laughing, at my stupid fantasy no doubt.

“I suppose it’s not nearly as comforting and having your own, familiar shit rain down on you,” I mused,

And I began to laugh, too.

So I sucked it up, made the flight reservation and readied for a trip. I booked it in mid-October, right after the Columbus Day holiday. Both of my classes were on Monday, so they were pre-empted that week and my colleagues, knowing I hadn’t seen my mother in over a year, covered some work obligations so that I could get away.

Sarah Kess had moved into the administrator role and she ran the department with an efficiency and skill that left me in awe.

I didn’t call my mother to tell her I was coming.  I was secretly afraid that something might happen to screw up the trip.

I also didn’t tell her because I didn’t know if she’d understand.

The whole time I’d been in treatment, I’d talked to her once or twice a week, with longer lapses here and there when I was in the hospital. I didn’t want her to hear those hospital noises in the background and figure out my scam.

In our conversations, I could hear her slipping. My mother had been rarely at a loss for words in her life. She had opinions about most everything and always wanted to know more — about me, or the kids, or my work, or the weather. She just wanted to know.

Now, it seemed whenever I talked to her, I was interrupting her strange, waking dream.

I made the flight and my bag of shit remained intact. I found that I was capable of independent action and thought. I rented a car. I drove the hour from the airport to Bloomington. Look at me, I thought. I’m an adult again, out on my own.

I got there too late to see her. She was asleep by seven o’clock every night, my sister in law told me. Don’t disturb her, Sharon advised. There will be time tomorrow.

Heading west on State Road 46, outside Bloomington, Indiana. Taken through the windshield.

I drove into the sunset toward my brother’s farm. I realized, again, how much I needed my family. I don’t think I knew it until I walked through their door.

It was hard, the next morning, to see my mother. She was so weakened and frail.

She was a hearty farm girl all her life — tall and strong, with no shortage of opinions or the vocabulary with which to express them. She was  charming and fiercely determined.

We were always close. Despite often being the subject of my big brother’s scorn while growing up, I felt lucky to be the baby. I got more time with my parents and, since my father died young, more time with my mother. I was her traveling companion.

She’d become a frequent flier after his death. Every June, she’d take a trip so she would not be at home on his birthday. She retreated into melancholy for their anniversary each August. Every October 7 — the day of his death — she disappeared. She was lost on her own for a couple of days, away from the  house, the place he died, on that day.

In those years, when she wanted to travel, she took me along. We marked — celebrated isn’t the right word — my father’s first post-death birthday in Hawaii.

She knew it was probably odd for me — as a randy, 20-year-old dude — to be traveling with his mother. But — she was my mother.

I’d moved home after my father’s death to take care of her and there was some tension now and then. But — she was my mother.

Now here she was, a frail charcoal drawing with indistinct lines, some strong pencil strokes but others tapering into unfinished thought. Still, when she saw me, she smiled, and I saw my mother inside.

I made a beer run into Ellettsville while staying at my brother’s house that week. I saw this horrifying sign and had to take this picture as evidence. Even *I* wouldn’t drink swill like Keystone Light.

My brother had five children and they had all gotten married and the family was enriched with new young men and women and children. My brother’s youngest daughter, Kerry, met a fellow student in culinary school named Jose Fuentes. After finishing school in Providence — alas, before I’d moved to New England — they’d moved back to Indiana. Jose had been the head chef at the country club but when my mother moved to Hearthstone, an assisted-living ‘facility’ (Lord, how I hate that word in this usage), Jose had gotten the head chef’s job there so that he could see her every day.

That’s the kind of man he is.

Luckily, he also bore a superficial resemblance to me. I was overweight and Jose merely stocky, but in a mother’s eyes, her son isn’t really fat. Luckily, Jose also wore glasses.

In the fourteen months since I’d seen her, my mother had faded in and out. Her vision was going, in pursuit of her lucidity.

Jose came to visit daily — maybe just for a minute or two, maybe just to say hello — mostly to check on her, so that she heard the voice of family in counterpoint to the voice of a nurse or a teen-age volunteer.

Sharon, my sister in law, told me that often, when she’d make her daily visit, my mother would say, “Oh, Bill was just here.”

Through her softened, weakened eyes, Jose was me. He’d bought me time.

She never seemed to reconcile the stocky man with the glasses, at the end of her bed, with that familiar long-distance voice on the phone. Perhaps she thought I was a shape shifter. I have no idea what she thought.

What mattered was that I was there, finally, talking to my mother.

Sharon and Suzanne had prepared me well. In the 14 months since I’d seen her, my mother had slipped down, getting lost in her mind’s thicket. She repeated herself. She’d ask a question. It would be answered, then she’d ask it again, as if expecting a different answer.

Her legs hurt, as they had during my last visit. But now she couldn’t even form the sentence to tell me this. I can be of use, I thought, and massaged my mother’s painful legs with BioFreeze, to numb the pain.

I fed her oatmeal from a spoon and remembered again that she fed me from her body as my life began; I now fed her as her life was ending.

Nothing had changed in the 14 months between visits. But a lot had happened.

She was falling.

I always have moments of slight panic each New Year’s Eve as I watch the television throng in Times Square, as we careen toward midnight and the dropping of the big ball. I always want to hold back the night, to hold onto the old year a little longer, not yet ready to say goodbye.

Martha Harlos McKeen in 1943.

That was my feeling that week with my mother. I sat there and watched her sleep, listening to her breathe. I didn’t want her life to end; I wanted to hold it back.

I panicked once, thinking she was gasping for air in her dreams. I ran to the nurse’s station and the chief nurse said she had had some issues with breathing, but that she did not sound out of the ordinary.

I began to think she might die while I was there. I wanted to be there and I didn’t want to be there. If it happened, I didn’t want her to be alone.

During my second day there, the nurses brought  a puppy. My mother was not allowed to have her dog with her. We had always had dogs. Growing up, our house had five humans and five dogs. It was hard to imagine my mother living without a dog. Though I appreciated the puppy therapy, I thought the better therapy might’ve been to allow her dog to sleep in the bed with her.

Still, she held the puppy and petted it and smiled. Then she fell asleep as the puppy napped in her lap.

That week with my mother.

She had a neck pillow — in the shape of a puppy — and that gave her some comfort. If we could relieve the pain in her legs with medication and massage, and she could lean back with her neck cushioned, we knew she was comfortable. Sharon and I would talk, and watch my mother sleep, and tell stories about her in the glory days.

The weekend came and I had to leave. I had class the following Monday and then, two days later, I’d have the surgery to put my intestine back inside my belly, where it belonged.

When I told my mother goodbye, I knew it could be the last time. Or I could see her in December. The boys were always up for a road trip. Two years before,  we’d gone to Indiana in the between-holidays week after Christmas. It was a great trip. I bet they’d love to see her one more time.

I’d always told my mother everything, but I hadn’t told her this. And now, it was almost over. I’d gotten through it, and once I was well, there was no reason for her to ever know.

I watched Indiana fade away behind me as the Delta Beast climbed through the clouds for my return to Boston. I could not recall if my mother and I had had a full conversation during my visit. There were fragments of lucid talk, a little bit of my mother’s old humor. But there was mostly that sound — the sigh of gratitude when I massaged her legs or the look in her eyes when I fed her.

Sharon and Suzanne had been doing that for a year. I’d parachuted in for a week and gotten a taste of what it was like here, near the end, on the precipice of the next chapter.

All I knew was that I wanted to come back and I wanted my mother to be there.

4 Replies to “Part 36. Hold Back the Night”

  1. Sweet words. I live at home to look after my mom, who is diabetic, still very much with it and stubborn as a bloody rock. It’s hard to see the changes time has made. As much as she drives me crazy, I know it’ll be over all too soon. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  2. After so many years in nursing and holding back tears, I now let them flow…perhaps too easily… sad tears and tears of happiness … tears when hearing beautiful music…and oh my so many tears while reading this, especially this last visit to your Mom. I’m back in the room where my Mom took her last breath as I held her hand and never felt so hurt and alone and sad. I’ll always want her back.
    Along with the tears you also make me laugh out loud, the humor that people who work in medicine and with patients like you who also find the humor in the darkest of places. Yes, even when the shit hits the …wherever! Thanks for writing this. Loving every word … and tear… and laugh.

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