Susan is the last of 8 children, has raised 2 children, and has spent 26 years teaching high school kids. She grew up with a strong mother.
"Do I smell?" My eighty-eight-year-old mother looked up at me from her chair.
"No, Mother. I smell your perfume—just like a pear." I smiled at her reassuringly, taking in her scent of fabric softener mixed with her unique blend of baked apple bread and Dove soap.
"I worry that I might smell when I go places," she sighed. "At my age I am afraid I will stink because I leak every time I get up…" As she rose to her feet with the help of her walker, she passed gas. "Oh my, I can't go anywhere. I can't stop it when it comes." She started to turn her walker to go down the hall to her bedroom.
Standing with her, I felt fortunate that she still lived independently in the same small house she raised me in. I gently put my hands on her shoulders. "Mother, we have to go. We need to be at the funeral home early because people are going to start showing up."
Her shoulders slumped. Until that moment, I had never realized how much she had shrunk in the past few years. I still expected her to always be stout and strong and to always be there when I needed her. I didn't expect weakness or frailty from her. Perhaps I wasn't being fair to her, but she was not supposed to change from what I was used to. I was the child and she was the mother – period.
"I can't stand it," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "I was afraid we would find her dead in that house. She locked herself up and refused to come out."
I nodded as she spoke, thinking of my oldest sister, Josey, who had smoked most of her adult life until she was diagnosed with emphysema. When she was forced to quit smoking because she couldn't breathe, she had started wearing oxygen. Not the typical necklace she was used to wearing as the life of the party. Josey and her doctor had experimented to get the right "cocktail" of drugs to help her maintain her breathing and anxiety level. For the past two years, she refused to come out of her house and hardly ever let anyone in because she was afraid she would catch something that would make her sick. Every day, Mother called her at least once, which irritated Josey. Josey would say, "I knew it was Mother's ring and was tempted not to answer."
Closing my eyes for a moment, I cleared those old images. "Mother, we can't think about that now. Josey is gone, and she chose to stay in her house."
My comforting words belied my own thoughts about Josey, who had social and anxiety disorders along with her emphysema. I felt angry that she had done this to herself, but I couldn't let Mother know that. She was mourning the loss of her oldest daughter—the daughter who resented her for not being all-knowing, for not being June Cleaver, for not being positive and encouraging.
No, our mother had been a 15-year-old girl who got married to escape her five younger brothers and sisters and her parents' farm where she had to work tirelessly. She jumped out of being the subservient daughter to starting her own family and repeating the same scenario. There was no time for niceties when there was milking and gardening then canning and slaughtering. Children were necessary farm hands and babysitters. There were eight of us, but, other than me and Josey, no one stayed. The others scattered and got as far away from farm life as possible.
I was the last of the eight, and I got to live in town with Mother after she finally divorced my violently alcoholic father, whose parents threw us out when I was too young to remember. The others used to tease me, telling me how spoiled I was compared to Mother's expectations for them. Saturday morning cleaning couldn't compare to taking care of a farm and helping raise the younger children like me. I was lucky not only with chores, but because I got to see a different Mother than the one they had known—especially Josey, who was my pseudo-mom.
When Josey got sick with pneumonia and went to the hospital, she didn't want Mother to be there. Instead, I stayed with her for four days while talking to Mother on the phone, listening to her telling me she should be there. But Josey seemed to be improving, so I told Mother I would bring her up on the weekend when I thought Josey would feel better and they could visit. Yet every day, Mother called and wanted me to come get her. I would motion to Josey that it was Mother, and Josey would wave me off, not wanting to talk to her. So, I would tell Mother that Josey was sleeping.
Josey was in an osteopath hospital, which was her doctor's specialty. Even though she had been admitted with pneumonia, she was lying on her back, which at the time didn't seem unusual to me. I didn't know it could be the difference between life and death. After all, I had assumed the doctors and nurses knew the correct treatment.
On the fourth day when Mother called, I told her that Josey was feeling bad that day and was not waking up very much.
"Well, are they giving her breathing treatments!" Mother barked at me like a drill sergeant.
Taken aback, I asked in shock, "Breathing treatments? What breathing treatments?"
"You mean to tell me that she is not receiving the six to ten breathing treatments that she has been prescribed every day for the last two years? How is she sitting?"
Confused, I explained that she wasn't sitting. She was lying on her back, snoring.
Just then I looked over and Josey opened her eyes and looked at me with desperation. She had been listening all along. I smiled at her, trying to be comforting.
"Lying down!" Mother yelled. "Get her up in a sitting position. She is not snoring, her lungs are filling up with fluid and she is drowning. What kind of po-dunk outfit are they running up there?"
Josey looked at me again: face pasty, eyes feverishly glazed and drooped, with a look of something like longing. I was on the verge of hysteria, but I didn't want her to know that. Something in her eyes told me she needed Mother – wanted Mother.
"I am going to go talk to the nurse, Mother. I will call you back."
"No, you will come get me." This was not a request. She was ordering me to come get her.
"All right, Mom. I will be right there after I talk to the nurse."
Josey closed her eyes. An aura of relief seemed to come over her.
I went to the nurses' station and sternly told the nurse that Josey should have been getting several daily breathing treatments and the staff should have known that if they had paid attention to her chart. I went on in an authoritative tone, repeating everything Mother had said: that Josey should be propped up because she had pneumonia.
"Why am I telling you this? Shouldn't you automatically look at a person's chart? Don't you know a pneumonia patient should be sitting and not lying so her lungs won't fill up? Don't you know that a person with chronic breathing problems should have specific care?" I was shaking inside and feeling guilty that I didn't know these things either. "Isn't that your job?"
The nurse tried to look confident, but I could tell she knew a case could be made against all of them and their derelict duties. I was afraid and furious, at them and at myself. Josey and I needed Mother.
I made sure the nurses had my cell number and left to bring Mother back with me. Just the thought of having her there lifted a weight from me. I had not liked telling her that she couldn't see Josey even though those were Josey's wishes. Now she would be there.
Picking Mother up was not quite as easy as going to her house, honking the horn, and waiting for her to get into the car. First, I had to go in and help her into her coat, get her large black patent leather double strapped purse, and retrieve her travel walker that simply folded up. Once Mother was in the car, I had to fasten her seat belt around her large stomach.
"Oh, I am so much trouble to go anywhere," she said with a sigh.
"Oh, Mother, stop. You have wanted to go see Josey, and now you are saying you are too much trouble?" I always became frustrated when she tried to use guilt, especially this time when I felt guilty about not allowing her to come sooner.
"I'm afraid this will be the last time I see Josey," she said with that interminable negativity that caused Josey and me to stay away from her, and that kept the other six from calling very often.
"Mother! Stop with the negativity. Josey needs us to be positive right now. Besides, people have pneumonia all the time and get over it. Hell, Josey has had pneumonia before, and she has always come out of it."
Mother looked straight ahead in silence.
When we arrived in Josey's room, I pulled a chair up to face the bed. I took Mother's walker and she sat down carefully holding the arms of the chair. She took Josey's hand.
Josey opened her eyes, and Mother smiled. "Hi Sugar," she said quiet, but cheerily, picking up her hand.
I loved it when Mother held my hand in her warm soft ones when I was sick. I was afraid Josey didn't feel the same and was going to pull back, but she didn't.
Josey tried to rasp out, "Hi Moth…"
"Shhh. Don't try to talk. Just rest."
A tear rolled down Josey's cheek. "I love you, Mother," she said in a slow, shaky whisper.
"I know you do." Mother patted her hand, then lifted it and kissed it.
Josey's rattled breathing became louder and then there was silence.
As the people filed passed us at the visitation, Mother shook hands with a sad smile and thanked everyone for coming. I did not know how she was able to hold up so well. She had to be exhausted.
At the end of that long, sad day, I was not surprised when I got her home and she was ready for bed immediately.
I stayed with Mother that night. I just needed to be near her. I was exhausted too, so I went to my old room and got into my old bed. Suddenly in the middle of the night I woke up. Something was missing. Something had left me. I was alone. The smell of fabric softener mixed with the essence of baked apple bread and Dove soap was gone.
© 2011 Susan Holland