Squeaky Wheel

About an hour after Mom’s bath, the first of many physicians examined her in her hospital room. I stood up from my chair, extended my hand, and made the cursory introductions. I learned he was a cardiologist, and he looked as if he were about my mom’s age, which comforted me. He read over her chart, taking note of her vital signs and other overnight developments, then decided to disconnect her from the heart monitor. “Well,”  I said to my mom, “that’s some good news, don’t you think?” She didn’t say anything but seemed to agree with me.

He began asking my mother now-familiar questions.  “Do you know where you are?” he asked.

“The hospital,” Mom whispered while Kelley and I looked at each other. At least she knew that much.

He jotted notations in her chart. “Where is the hospital?”

“Marietta, Ohio.”

“What time is it now?”

Mom paused, then said, “Sometime in the evening.  Around eight, I think.”  I looked out the window at the mid-morning sun, wondering how my mom could think it was so much later.

The doctor set down the chart on her bedside table and touched Mom’s shoulder.  He then described the catheter angiogram he had scheduled for her as soon as she became medically stable enough to endure it.

I scribbled the information in the notebook I brought, one that I would carry with me throughout my mother’s hospital stay and beyond.  Angiogram…minimally invasive…insert catheter into an artery via a small incision…check for disease, aneurysms in aorta…transport via ambulance to St. E. South. None of it made any sense to me, so I decided to trust this doctor who called me and my sister “girls.”

He also wrote an order for a swallowing evaluation to be performed on my mom later that afternoon or early the next morning.  I learned this is a common procedure performed on stroke patients because their swallowing abilities are usually diminished. During the procedure, a small, flexible camera of sorts is shoved down the nose and followed up with a barium swallow study to determine the liquid consistency that would prevent choking or aspiration pneumonia . Didn’t sound very pleasant to me, but if it needed to be done, so be it.

I also learned this meant Mom wouldn’t be able to eat, at least not until after the test was completed.  There is no way to describe my disappointment at knowing Mom would be deprived of the one small comfort measure that might help her regain some semblance of normalcy:  food.  And I couldn’t bear to imagine how she must have felt.

After the doctor left, I showed my mom three stuffed monkeys I’d found in a heap in my children’s bedroom, goofy looking yard sale finds I thought might cheer her up. I also unpacked a 5” x 7” framed portrait of the Virgin Mary cradling the child Jesus, which Mom kissed before placing on her bedside table next to the monkeys. Mom was always kissing crucifixes and other images dear to her devout Catholic heart; her pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had ChapStick kisses all over them.

Kelley and I stayed with Mom throughout the afternoon and early evening, waiting for the swallowing evaluation that didn’t happen on our watch.

On our way home, my sister and I picked up fast-food for my husband and children, and a twelve-pack of Miller High Life for us.  I knew I would need some “liquid courage” before calling our brother to tell him about Mom’s present situation.

It had been several years since he had spoken to Mom.  It had also been a few years since I had spoken to him.  Through the years, I had been privy to several he says/she says conversations with both of them, but I eventually concluded that the truth lay somewhere in the middle, in the unspoken details most of us leave out so we’re not cast in a negative light.  I don’t think this propensity toward masking the truth is necessarily immoral or even intentional; I believe it is one of the qualities that make all of us human.

I wasn’t mad at my brother. He is not an evil, villainous man.  However, even now, I have never thought him the victim, either, something with which I think he would readily disagree.  Maybe Mom asked him for money one too many times.  Maybe he was tired of her criticizing his wife.  I understood that type of frustration–Mom had done the same things to me many times throughout the years, and it contributed to bitter, angry feelings I had toward her.  Still, is that worthy of the rancor he had felt toward our mother for the last several years?  I didn’t really know.  I could only hope that, at least for now, he would ease up on the grudge a little.

Here goes nothing, I thought as I dialed his number, reinforced with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another.  I told him what I knew, noting the monotone tenor of his voice. “She even asked about you in the ER,” I said, “probably the only thing she said that made sense.”

“Keep me posted,” he said.

My heart sunk, and my normal, accepting demeanor dissolved into one of hostility and disbelief. “Would you like her number?” I asked, hoping. “I have it if you want to call her.”

“I think I’ll pass,” he said.

I was stunned. I honestly thought he would forgive her long enough to rally around the woman, slightly obnoxious and annoying at times, who raised us by herself.  Suddenly, I was cast in the role of saleswoman, and rapid-fire, I described how she had been found unconscious, covered in her own urine on her bathroom floor, alone.  How she was so confused, she thought it was 1991, or 1998, or 2004, depending on when you asked her.

How she was scared, which is something I had never seen before.

I didn’t tell him I was scared, too.  “Please don’t say that!  If you called her, maybe that would help her,” I said.  “I know it would help me.”

“I can’t do that,” he said.  “I’ll keep her in my prayers, though,” he said.

“So, that’s it?  That’s all you have to offer?” Big deal.  From the living room, my 10-year-old son listened to me arguing with my brother.  “Can you at least send her a card? Anything? For me? Please?”

“Probably not.”

I tried not to think about our mother after she realized her only son, her first-born, never bothered to care about her, at least not as far as I could tell.  And what about me and Kelley?  He is the oldest of the family, our only brother.  Didn’t that mean anything?  Or did that mean he didn’t care about us, either? Sobbing, I asked if I could at least buy a card and sign his goddamn name.

“Hell no,” he said.

I hung up on him.  From the couch in the next room, my son giggled.  “You go, Mom!”

During the months that followed, my brother never made that phone call or sent that card.  And Mom never asked about him again.  I wondered if she had faith that one day, her beloved son would break the silence long enough to tell her once more, “I love you, Mom.”  I wondered if she offered up the pain of her broken heart to the Good Lord Jesus hanging on a cross those times she bore her cross alone, never complaining, eternally complacent.

Of all the things she’d forgotten, maybe my brother would be one of them. But I knew that would never be true, and it broke my heart knowing hers would be ripped in half.

12 thoughts on “Squeaky Wheel

  1. I love how you carried a book around with you to record things. My sister and I figured that out way to late when we took care of my dad when he was sick. Well, we get sick every couple of years and then we find ourselves looking back in time wondering when which illness happened when. Good for you for writing it all down.

    As a mother I feel sad that your brother never came to see her. Anger was once described to me as being like an arrow shot in your heart. Do you want to leave the arrow there or get it out of you? I hope your brother eventually let go of his anger. Time will tell as we read your story:) Can’t wait!

    I absolutely love that you are writing this. There are so many of us that can relate or are going through it and can learn something, like carrying a book around and how to deal with family relations in a time like this. Thank you very much.

  2. Marlene,

    You have no idea how much I appreciate your comments. I actually began the journal for my mom and would write entries addressed to her as a chronicle of her stroke journey. After several weeks, it became clear she was damaged mentally and cognitively forever, so I took over her journal with my thoughts, the basis of this memoir.

    As far as my brother is concerned, I removed my arrow but must admit I don’t think I’ve spoken to him more than twice since Mom died. I found his inactions to be extremely hurtful, not only to my mom but to me (and my sister) as well. He chose not to be involved, and I’ll never know if he regrets it, so he’s not a central player in this story. And my mom never, ever asked about him again…I know for certain it’s not because she forgot him or about him. Very sad to me.

    Thanks again for reading and leaving such thoughtful comments, Marlene 🙂 Jane

  3. I found you after you checked in on my blog and oh my God: I just took care of my bed-ridden demetia laden Mom with a brother for four years. I hear you and I shared the experiences…you did good; you’re mom would be proud!

    • Thanks, Marian, I’m sure your Mom would be proud, too, though she couldn’t express it. Thanks for the comment; I look forward to reading more of your blog as well! 🙂 Jane

    • Isn’t it awful? My mom never mentioned my brother again after her only lucid comment about him in the ER after her stroke. Our brothers’ loss, though, right? Be well 🙂 Jane

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