My mom is not the easiest of women. She’s cranky and demanding and self-centered. She’s not a “strong woman” who may be difficult but, ultimately, shows us the way. She’s a pain.
When I got the phone call at the beginning of February, I was inclined to ignore it. It was my cousin, and the voicemail said, “You better call your Mom. I think she’s worried about you.”
Since my Dad died the year before, I’d been trying to keep pretty regular tabs on my Mom, helping (from 800 miles away) with her chemotherapy. My first thought was, “Oh boy. Here comes the complaints for not being as attentive as I could be.”
So I hesitated in calling back. I was at work, after all. I had things to do. I packed up my desk and headed out, ostensibly to “work from home.” As soon as I got home, I gave Mom a call.
“Hi Mom! How are you?”
“Where are you?” in urgency and worry.”
My first thought was this was going to lead into a guilt-ridden journey: where are you? why don’t you call? are you so far away, you can’t speak with your mother?
“I’m in Seattle, Mom.”
“Why are you there?”
“I’ve lived here for nine years. Where else should I be?”
This one stopped me cold. Hillary? That’s me. Doesn’t she know? In recent years, her memory’s been failing, but she’s always recognized my voice.
“Mom, I’m Hillary.”
“Oh.” pause. “Where are you?”
“I’m in Seattle. Why? Where should I be?”
“I got up in the middle of the night to get food together for everyone. But in the morning, you were gone and Dad was gone.”
My father had been dead for a year.
Our conversation of confusion continued for sometime, until I had her convinced I was okay, Dad wasn’t around, and we’d be getting her to a doctor straight away.
Taking “care” of an aging parent is never anyone’s idea of a good time, but I imagine everyone would agree it’s twice as hard when the parent is a day away. I’m the closest in location of my three sisters, so the responsibility for some of the care falls on me. I don’t begrudge this responsibility, but it’s one no one can be prepared for.
As it turns out, and after a fruitless week in the hospital, Mom had had a stroke sometime Wednesday night. Previously, she was weak, but ambulatory and lucid (when you age, they use terms like “ambulatory” and “lucid” to describe how well you’re doing), but Thursday, she was neither.
We’re lucky: we have cousins living in town who will jump in when needed. They got Mom to the hospital where she was admitted and given some tests.
The tests determined she had a stroke in her basal ganglia. This isn’t your average stroke zone. This area doesn’t control speech or movement, but emotions and addictions. The typical stroke symptoms of slurred speech or paralysis simply weren’t there. Instead, she thought her oncologist kept a chicken in his kitchen and that the year was 1982.
Mom was a lifetime, four-packs-a-day smoker. And once she had her stroke, the allure of smoking was through for her. She didn’t think of it. The nurse in her ward offered her smoking breaks and nicotine patches, and Mom just looked at her as if she were crazy.
“Why would I want to smoke?” she’d ask me, confused. Then she’d shrug, grin, and go back to putting an invisible tissue back into her pocket.
My family and I had been trying—quite unsuccessfully—to get Mom to quit smoking for years and years. Mom wouldn’t mince words: “Shut up!” she’d say, “I can do what I want.”
Also, Mom was a woman who was in touch with her emotions and let them shine whenever it was beneficial for her, no matter where she was. She’s gotten into shouting matches in restaurants and cried in banks. She’s laughed from her belly in the middle of a church service. She was always the one to cry during movies—or even commercials on TV. For the last few years, every time I arrived for a visit, and every time I left, her eyes would tear up and she’d choke back a sob.
But as she lay in her rehab bed, after a week in the hospital, staring at an uncertain future, she was calm as she watched her youngest daughter sob in saying farewell. Her response: “I guess you’ll probably never see me again. Goodbye.”
Mom always knew how to make a powerful statement.