I held her hand through the forty-five minute MRI scan of her brain and chest. We had not shared such extended proximity to one another in decades. That afternoon she had crumpled on the sidewalk outside the senior center. After refusing medical attention, she was eventually lured into the ambulance by my cousin, who lives locally. Her condition too dire for the island hospital, she was flown by helicopter to Boston, thus experiencing her first-ever air travel! By early evening she was sitting up in bed in the ER of Mass. General Hospital, applying Revlon #700 pink lipstick and demanding a root beer float.
Fast-forward six months. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the stroke, but other medical diagnoses that have wrestled her previous life to the ground. Reading was once her daily anchor, a primary occupation – albeit, with a 4”-handled magnifying glass. Cape Cod’s public radio programming was the backdrop for all her waking hours. She says that she no longer has the attention span for reading, that it is too hard to see the words, and then too hard to make sense of them. And she has no interest in what the radio has to impart. My mother’s loyalty to NPR and its classical music, thoughtful interviews, and civilized reflection about humanity is a resounding childhood memory.
Before the arthritis she was a painter. Her penmanship read like calligraphy. And she led the writing group at the senior center. Today we tell and retell treasured anecdotes. The crocheted red, white and blue coverlet she designed for Jackie Onassis, who gave it to Charles de Gaulle on his birthday, and Bunny Melon’s handwritten thank you note, sent by special air accompanied by a tabletop topiary, expounding upon the pleasure derived from napping beneath the coverlet crocheted in the colors of Nantucket seashells.
So as I grapple with this new definition of my mother, I wonder how I might help her to reclaim joy. Is it possible to create a new life meaningful enough to distract her from complaining about everything, from weeping over what’s been lost?
My How-to List (thus far):
- I read aloud to her. Not every book is a success. There are no rules about finishing one before starting another, although Pam Bullock’s biography of Nantucket Island physician Timothy Lepore (“Island Practice”) was a beginning-to-end winner. Ann Fadiman’s essay, “Insert a Caret Here,” is brief enough for a single-session read, with terrific vocabulary and sophisticated, layered writing. We’ve recently embarked on Julia Child’s memoir written with her nephew Alex Prud’homme, “My Life in France.” Mom’s happy recollections of Julia’s show on PBS have been reawakened with the book’s photos and narrative.
- Once a week I traipse down to the library and custom-select five movies for her to watch on an old VCR. Like the reading selections, not every pick is a winner. When I offered up Paul Newman’s “Hud,” she said, “Oh, no. I couldn’t bear to watch that – I’m still too mad that he married someone else.” (I kid you not.) Curiosity or perhaps necessity won out, and it turned out that this was a wonderful choice.
- Include her in my creative projects. She loves to see the photos of my blog posts and to hear me read the posts aloud. And we had quite a wonderful tea party with a show-and-tell of the crocheted African Flower hexagons for my variation on the Gypsy Rose Blanket.
I have a special documentary treat planned for viewing tomorrow. Can’t wait to see how that goes – I’ll let you know!