Issue 9 / Spring 2017
They said all she’d need was five, maybe six outfits. Laundry twice a week. This place, this “extended studio” that was actually only a long L-shaped room. The social worker at the hospital after Mom’s emergency said what counted now was the round-the-clock care the nursing home would provide.
Studio, guess they could call it that because the narrow main room, 235 square feet to be exact, had a sink and a kitchen cabinet stuffed in one corner. Two big rectangular windows on the outside wall let in light, the single rented hospital bed with its motorized metal frame under one of them. Off the short entry hall, the bathroom was so small that when you sat on the toilet your knees blocked the shower. There was only one closet, on the other side of the entryway. The kind with roller doors, the kind we got yelled at as kids for knocking off their tracks.
Still, five or six outfits, not me. Summertime and of course Mom had to have all her pull-on capri pants, the new white ones she liked so well. And the black ones and blue ones. And her favorite long pants, the faded nubby blue and white polyester checked ones, her first pair of trousers from the ‘60s, her index finger wagging “women’s lib” at Dad back then. Wore like iron. And all her t-shirts and blouses, the maroon and white checked one I’d picked out myself for Mother’s Day. The piles of clothing draped over my arms, so high I could just see over them, I made my way from my packed car at the entrance of the nursing home.
Mom’s room, one of forty in the home that sprawled single story across a hilltop in Portland, was halfway down the long hallway. Clang, clack metal and wooden hangers up and down. Past the staff, the black woman from Kenya with hair piled high, her dark brown eyes big at how much I was hauling in. The furnishings and move-in were solely up to the families.
That checked shirt starting to slide off the top of the pile, my arms moving underneath to keep it there, my whole body gyrating, a hanger buried at the bottom now digging into the front of my stomach. Everything back in balance, my chin planted on top, the smell of talcum rising from the clothes, the powder Mom always used. A burn started deep in my chest, resentment. No one to help. Deep breath. Keep going. Couldn’t let myself think any further. What the real issue was, what the doctors were saying.
Past the vintage dressers with old photos, props to make the place seem charming, even homelike. Back and forth until I emptied my car. My arms aching, my fingers picked pink in places from the tops of hangers. Over half the closet, only two doors wide, filled already.
Next day, I brought all her winter stuff. My mother, age 95, grew up in the Depression, never threw anything away if she could help it. She fought when we had to reduce her holdings to the little one-bedroom senior apartment where she’d lived the past seven years. My goal, I didn’t even stop to question why, my goal was to cram in all her clothes. Heavy, the granny patch bright yellow and blue and white sweater she’d knitted in the ‘70s that I didn’t recall ever seeing her wear. Her jackets, the blue one she’d knitted a cap to match. The purple one from my brother with the little jumping whale pin. And her shoes overflowing in the cardboard box. All the Medicare-provided old lady shoes that tied up black, the insoles custom-made, to help ease the pain of diabetic neural pain.
Until I couldn’t squeeze in one bit more, the closet wedged full. The sliding doors almost to the point of bulging off their tracks. But I got it all in there. The extent of my determination.
This place, no matter what the doctors said, that round-the-clock care, this was how I was going to keep my mother alive.
Now I could turn to the helpers I hired to finish the job. I was intent on creating a corner just like her apartment. Two guys from San Salvador with a truck loaded up her big screen television set, her favorite lamp with the shade made out of pearly shells she’d bought years before at the Sears outlet store, the doughboy maple end table that dated to my childhood. Her easy chair, the one she’d been so proud to buy right after Dad died. With its big white and blue check and pillows printed with covers in red and yellow flowers. Even the yellow hassock that sort of matched, her place to put her crocheting when she rested. She still made slippers for the family, to keep their feet warm. They called them “owski bowskis.”
The guys hauled in her big bureau, the one we’d painted eons before antique chartreuse green. On top, I placed the picture of her wedding to Dad, 73 years before.
The last of her small stuff. Her maroon walker with the little green frog she’d fashioned from sewing scraps and tied with a piece of purple yarn onto the handle bars to differentiate hers from all the others at her senior apartment building. She needed the walker to lean on just to get around inside her apartment. I rolled past the aides with the walker piled with Mom’s toaster oven on top of her microwave. Inside, the glass jar of dried cranberries, the round cardboard box of Quaker Oats, instant coffee and a giant jar of peanut butter. I could already see her in this new place, rising to make her breakfast, just like always, just like before.
Seventy years of having a mom, a mom who listened and supported me. Her joy at my triumphs, the time my newspaper sent me to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the disappointments, the promotions that didn’t go through, the men who always seemed to break my heart.
The time I needed surgery, way off in Eastern Europe freelancing. She’s the one who told me I could be just like Nancy Dickerson, that woman whose picture had hung in my journalism hall at university, the first woman correspondent at a network. The money Mom sent to get me home, get me well again. Mom driving up at arrivals at the airport in her 1990s blue Taurus. No questions asked, just, “Welcome home.”
Twenty years since Dad died, we’d been even more of a pair. So much we’d been through medically lately with her tired old body. Her round face, usually so pleasant, her jaw would go hard, her mouth a straight line. She called it her “hospital mode.” The determination that got her through heart bypass surgery and then a groin-to-ankle graft that saved her gangrenous foot. Hadn’t I just seen that look on her face?
What the doctors were saying, that word, “terminal.” Congestive heart failure that would only get worse. Intellectually, I got it, but emotionally, I couldn’t even begin to grasp the meaning. It was like a giant precipice with me standing on the edge, unable to go farther. Despite all the signs around me.
Her motorized scooter, the one thing that had made it possible for her to continue in her independent senior apartment. When the guys took it off their truck, I drove it in. Turned the key and sailed down that hallway. For the first time, I realized, no one else in this place had one. They were all in wheelchairs that they moved forward step by step, pushing with their feet. I parked the scooter in the studio, in the corner next to the kitchen cabinets.
The day I moved her in, Mom’s first comment was, “Sure is compact.” Always a quiet person, never a complainer, she had just one wish. “I would have liked to have chosen what came with me.” Most of all she regretted the loss of her sewing machine, part of the payment I gave the San Salvadoran movers. The rest of her furniture from her apartment I donated to charity, something she’d told me to do long before if it ever became necessary.
Even so, she soldiered on, the lone person driving herself to the lunchroom where the residents ate. She didn’t like the food, lots of processed frozen entrees heated by the cook, but she found a permanent place at a table with other nonagenarian ladies, whom she came to like. Always sharp, she said the thing I was so denying. “These poor old people, they’re all here to die. And they don’t even give them something good to eat.”
I took solace that she wasn’t including herself in that group.
But then the bleeding started. She never even got to make her own breakfast. Back to the hospital, to emergency. At first, doctors said it was just an old problem, hemorrhoids. They got the bleeding to stop. But they sent her home with oxygen, now required just to get by.
The pretty brown patterned quilt, the one they’d never used because she said Dad would sit on it and break the threads, the one that we’d hung on a special hanger next to the foot of the bed, was the first thing to go. To make room for the knee-high machine that burbled in its place, creating the oxygen that traveled in long clear plastic tubing up to her face.
Still, each night we’d gather in front of her television for her favorite show, Wheel of Fortune. We even entered her name in case it was chosen to win the $5,000 they gave some lucky viewer every night. She figured out the puzzles before the contestants and still could laugh at the host Pat Sajak. My brother came to visit, the baby in the family. He made fun of the peanut butter jar in her kitchen, the 48-ounce size. “Costco,” I said, but I knew it was more, the size of the jar almost a superstitious insurance against her future.
The bleeding recurred, despite all the medications. Another trip to the ER, this time they did more tests, an MRI. “No blockage,” the young doctor said. Mom and I were happy to hear that news. But there were masses, on her left ovary, her pancreas, and her spleen. Much more going on than doctors had feared. Probable metastasized ovarian cancer.
They sent her back to the nursing home. Her age, her condition, there was no treatment possible. Palliative care is what the doctors recommended. The shock, it took a few days to settle in. Mom asked, “Am I that bad?”
My denial now facing its greatest test. This sharpness in my chest. The only answer I could come up with, “No one knows for sure.”
That was true, wasn’t it? And that doctor, hadn’t he said, those masses probably had been there for some time.
Mom signed on for hospice. “I’ll go in style,” she said, after they promised her it would mean extra care, nurses, and even a guitar-playing pastor. And some people outlasted the six months, went off hospice. This could still be her home, I could still hang on.
Her scooter was the next to go. She was too weak, too dizzy to drive it, even with portable oxygen. We brought in her big wheelchair, the one we’d only used in her previous convalescences. Now she was just like all the other residents.
Then they had to take out her special chair, had to move in one that had a motorized automatic lift. The hospital bed had to be pulled away from the wall for aides to be able to reach on both sides to help her up. Her bedside table had to go.
An ache deep inside me that only grew deeper with each item removed. The closet still bursting with clothing, clothing even she now never expected to be able to wear. Nightgowns most of the time, meals to her bedside.
We developed a new ritual, right after Wheel. Before I left each night, I made sure she felt tidied up, in case the help was late in getting to her. I tucked her into her hospital bed and brought her favorite lavender soap and washcloth to her side.
The soap lather silky, the warm washcloth would glide across her forehead, easing deep lines. My mother, my rock, the home I always returned to. Words we never said, not the family way.
Then, right before her last night, my fingers trembling when I lifted the oxygen tubing and dabbed underneath on her cheek. She hadn’t eaten in three days and was even rejecting water. The scent was sweet, the French lavender. Then gentle on the other side, down to her chin, her open palms. That was when she gave me the gift, the gift to go on without her. Her eyes were moist when she looked up and said, “This makes me feel so secure.”
Those words, the ache in my chest, lifting as warmth instead spread inside me.
The next day she waved at me through her window. Pillows all around her. When I got inside, she asked me what time it was. I looked at her wrist at the big silver man’s watch, a Timex with metal expandable band that she had bought long before because the numbers were once big enough for her to read. “Five,” I said.
“Morning or night?” she asked.
My brother called and I told him how she was fading. And suffering now. Bubbling at the lips. More and more drugs to deaden pain. He said, “Tell her, if she wants to, to catch the bus.”
Still the nurses didn’t think she would go that night. Exhausted from weeks of this, I went home. The call at 3 a.m., the call no one ever wants to get.
My drive through the dark, I tried to prepare for what I would find but my mind wouldn’t go there. Cold, the steering wheel in my hands, the ride up and down the hills. The home was bright with lights. The caregiver met me at the door. The woman, I’d never seen her at the home before, had scraggly hair and was missing a tooth in front. Graveyard shift, obscene humor on my part.
Numb, I followed her down the long hallway, past the bureau with the old pictures on it. Finally, to Mom’s room.
We entered. The short hallway. I swallowed hard and looked toward the far corner and her bed. Quiet. The oxygen machine stilled. I walked over to her. No way I could have prepared for this. Mom gone, no color left to her face. Her body flat on the bed.
Her arms were still warm when I slid off the last thing for her to lose, the big silver Timex watch. I slipped it on my own wrist.
“They Said She’d Only Need Five or Six Outfits” also appeared on Senior Women Web.
Sonya Zalubowski is a journalist who has switched over to creative writing after a long career that included reporting on Eastern Europe. That work ran the gamut in the fall of Communism, from covering the birth of Solidarity in Poland to Tito’s Yugoslavia and the “third way” to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Zalubowski returned to the U.S. and her native Northwest to help out with family. She freelanced for Newsweek and the Oregonian but turned her attention to her lifelong dream of literary writing. She studied with Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writers in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the literary journal Alimentum, Bewildering Stories, VoiceCatcher, Bella Online, and e-Fiction.