Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Six months after my mother had a massive stroke in 1998, nine months after I had graduated college, I moved home to live with her and help care for her. I was 24 years old, and sometimes that alone astounds me. I was with her for almost nine months.
When I was home, I started showing her how to give herself the insulin shot that was due before breakfast. How to replace the insulin cartridges, how to set the needle onto the pen, how to turn the pen’s dial and read the barely magnified dosage numbers that rested beneath a plastic bubble on the side of the pen. I used to watch the concentration in her eyes, the alert focus. I watched her narrow fingers respond to the instructions in her head, move through each step with slow caution. Whatever fear was present in her own mind and in mine, I tried to ignore. After a while, she was giving herself the shot in the belly every morning. It was an accomplishment. Each time the shot had been given, she pulled the needle out of her skin, the slightest grin on her face. “Uh-huh,” she might comment. I did it. Let’s eat. Let’s relax. When she and I were together alone, I was generous with my praise for my mother’s accomplishments.
At first, once he was home from work, my father still tried to administer her evening shot. But I forbid him to do it. “She can do it herself.” My father, in his own discomfort, laughed off my insistence and placed upon me the nickname “lieutenant.” I had not had a family nickname since my toddler-hood, when I was called “honey bear,” an endearment I cannot even remember but for the retelling. “Okay. Okay. Lieutenant says you have to do it yourself.” He would laugh, I would laugh, my mother would laugh, and the tension – our fears that she could not do for herself, and that it would be painful to watch her do for herself without ease, would break.
There were other tensions as I pushed her to regain a semblance of self-sufficiency. Every other morning my mother took a bath. At first, I rose dutifully when she did. I helped her into the tub, helped run the water, helped scrub her arms and legs, shampoo her hair. With time, I started asking her to wash her own hair. “You do it,” I prodded. I would give her the shampoo bottle, watch her turn it upside down so that soap ran out into her weakened right hand. She raised the soap to her head and scrubbed one-handed, until I encouraged, “try using both hands.” Next, I wanted her to challenge her arms and shoulders to increase their limited range of motion. "Reach behind you. Reach for the sponge I am holding. Scrub your back."
My mother always refused at first. "I can't."
But I was convinced that she could. "Try."
Eventually, my mother did not need me to help her with the bath, except to place the chair into the tub if it had been moved. On those mornings when she did not need my help, those mornings at 7:30 a.m. when I pretended to still be sleeping, I always listened. I knew every sound. Her slippered feet walking toward the hallway bath, her cane clicking on every other step. Her clothing being placed onto the towel rack, her cane being leaned against the corner of the wall.
Only when it was time to get in her chair did she holler for me. I was always ready, waiting for the call. I helped her get situated, and then I left. Still, I listened to the echoed, clinical sound of my mother turning the faucet, sometimes releasing a shocked “ahh” when she’d run the water too hot. (When our everyday functions become challenging, intentional, somehow they are reduced to clinical acts.) During bath time, I held my breath. My heart pounded. I waited for her to get through her routine successfully, safely. Only when the door to the bathroom reopened could I allow my heart to relax. My mother had not dropped the soap bar out of her reach. She had not slipped getting out of the tub.
Bath time was only the first of two times during which I held my breath every morning. The second time was when, after she dressed, she emerged from her bedroom and walked down the stairs. I listened for every single creak on the steps, the metal cane clicking against itself when it landed on the carpet. When she was half way down, on mornings I was most frightened she may take a wrong step and fall, I crept quietly out of my bedroom and watched her descend until she landed the final step. Then I crept back into bed, pretended I’d been sleeping the entire time. Occasionally, I saw her head turn slightly over her shoulder. “Herpreet?” Sometimes I answered. Sometimes I did not.
I walked a delicate balance, as those nine months progressed, between doing for her and helping her do for herself. When she was adept at doing for herself, I walked the balance of trusting in her capability and restraining my fears of her failure to succeed in regaining yet another small piece of independence that the stroke had stolen.
I can still recall one of the most heartbreaking tasks I asked her to complete.
"Mom. Today, I want you to help me write a grocery list."
"What do you mean, 'no'?"
"I don’t want to. I can't."
I ignored her stubborn refusal. I set paper on the kitchen table in front of her. I placed a pencil on the paper. I don't know how long we sat at the table, both refusing to give in. Her expression contained anger, fear, frustration. She almost cried she was so hesitant to write - to witness her damaged ability. I bossed her into trying. Maybe it is because I had always been a writer in my heart, that it was so desperately vital to me that she write again. But now, as I still posses that one tiny grocery list, this moment has remained important because it provided me with a final sample of my mother’s handwriting. Post-stroke handwriting, a visual reminder of her difficult path.
Her struggle to recall the spelling of words, more than the spelling, the actual movements her hand had to make to push the pencil across the page and form the curves and lines and dots that make letters, was painful for us both. After that day, I tried to concentrate instead on helping her read again. I don’t think I ever asked her to write again. If I did, she refused, and I let it rest.
My eldest sister once revealed to me that her daughter, who was four when my mother had the stroke, had asked, “Mom, when is the old Mama coming back?” Sometimes it takes a child to accurately articulate our very own frustrations. “Lieutenant,” my dad joked with me. It always broke the tension, but only temporarily. I commanded my mother to do for herself as much for her wellbeing as for my own selfish daughterly need to make my mother become closer to the mother I had known before the stroke.
These memories, which include details such as the color of the carpet, its thickness revealed when her foot sank into it, the soft cotton of her pink and white nightgown folded over the towel bar, they return in moments when I least expect them. For instance, these memories I have shared poured back to me as I prepared my class syllabus this weekend. I feel surprised by the memories, stunned that they sit latent inside of me. In the instant that I remember, the emotions of the time rush back. Then I am confronted with one of my greatest fears, that I will forget when there is so much to remember.
In two days, my mother will be dead for three years. I am terrified of forgetting, and more terrified that if ever I commit to having my own children, I will never properly be able to give them memories of my mother. It is difficult enough to remember the nine years after her stroke, but what of all the healthy years before? I only witnessed 23 of them. So few, and how many of those 23 were consumed by adolescent angst instead of blooming mother-daughter understanding? How angry I have felt at the task my mother has left me with – to remember her. To remember when memory is fleeting and deceptive.