Journalcalling #8: Time with Mom

Journalcalling   •   October 6, 2020

They are flirting on the phone now, teasing each other and giggling. My mom and stepdad have been separated for 10 days — he is in the hospital with a broken hip and other complications and surgery has been postponed all of this time.

I drove the three hours from my home the day Bob fell in the driveway and was taken away in an ambulance. They were on their way out to lunch. My mom didn’t want me to “disrupt my life” and despite her protests, she admitted she was grateful I came. I carried my bag upstairs to the guest room as if it was a regular visit in the home where I grew up, but it is far from it. We were stunned to learn he tested positive for Covid when he arrived at the hospital, and the congestive heart failure he has been rallying against had again filled part of his lung with fluid. 

The hip surgery is risky for an 86-year-old man with these issues, and if he survives the surgery, the rehabilitation will be long and arduous. “I want him home no matter what,” my mom says. She asks me to sit in his recliner because she doesn’t want to see it empty, and insists I eat nightly ice cream with her. 

I’m worried about her stamina, too. It was demanding to nurse my stepdad back to health this summer after he was hospitalized for heart challenges, but they did it. After many rounds of visiting nurses, physical therapy, and machine monitoring, he was again making his soups on Sundays and his signature French Toast with Challah bread when family visited. Now, they will be starting over. 

When she speaks to Bob on the phone and the news is challenging — his blood oxygen level has dipped or he is short of breath —  her palm rests on the side of her face as if to hold up her head. When they fail to deliver his meals on time because cafeteria staff cannot enter his room, her body stiffens in outrage.

As mother and daughter, we’ve never had such a long period of time alone together to just talk and be, or maybe we did, but I was insecure and indignant a lot with little desire for such conversation. Suddenly, the space between us is rich with listening and story. 

She tells me of her trips to Manhattan with her father — my jolly grandfather — who worked as a retailer for Bohan & Landorf in New Haven and the eye-popping visits to luxurious department stores and manufacturing centers where he selected furs, luggage and women’s clothing. She was his only daughter, and I knew the puffed-up feeling of being with this loving man as his first grandchild.

She explains how her faith has sustained her all of these years. She doesn’t ask for miracles, she said, but strength, and it has always been granted. She talks about my dad’s death 47 years ago, and how alone she was. When a nurse called her and said, “you better get here,” and a friend drove her to the hospital, she was not allowed to see him. He was already dead. Now, with no way to visit her husband in the era of Covid, it feels eerily similar. 

When my brother was seriously ill with AIDS, she steadied his tall, thin frame as he shuffled around the house trying to keep his medication down, and she prayed and prayed. Twenty years later, he is healthy with a viral load that is undetectable.

Even though she had three children to raise alone — ages 7, 11 and 12, she recalls her decision not to let her parents move in with us. She remembers her anger and helpless feeling when she could not get a phone installed in our new home. It was 1973, and only men could have phone accounts, she was told. She banged the phone receiver back on the wall at my uncle’s house and soon got a friend who worked for the phone company to intervene and get us a phone.

Last week, I was about to select one of the well-worn family photo albums on the den shelf, when I noticed a large envelope filled with class photos from my mom’s teaching career. Her students had all signed their names in cursive on the backs. Though we had shared the same career, I knew little of hers. 

She reminded me how she had struggled to get a full-time teaching job, and had to work as a substitute teacher for six years. She was the long-term sub teachers favored, but had to ask a school board member to step in when others were being hired full-time ahead of her. 

When she finally did get a contract in October, 1979, all of the fourth grade teachers were asked to send her three students for the new class. “Can you imagine the bunch I received?” She laughingly recalled her basement classroom where some of those fourth graders climbed out of the windows. 

I never heard these stories because I was in high school then and out of the house as much as possible. Now, sitting across from her, I apologize for being such a jerk during those rebel years. “I’m sorry, Mom” is not really enough for the way I treated her, often screaming hurtful names and characterizations I cringe to recall as I slammed out of the house, defying her and playing into her every fear of how I — a girl without a father — would turn out.

Over the years, I came around. As I had my own children, I understood she was only trying to protect me from my raw, hurt self. Now that I am a grandmother, she tells me she is grateful for the daughter I have become. Despite my shrieking teenage mantra — “I will NEVER EVER be like you!” — of course, I am just like her.

Last week, she took me to the gardens at the red brick building on Main Street owned by the Historical Society where she meets her Garden Club friends every Tuesday morning. Together, they care for the lush perennials that flow in colorful beds around the house. The women in capris and loose shirts with clippers in hand stopped and formed a circle around my mom as she shared the news of her ill husband. 

One took me aside to be sure I understood my mom also needed care, and another handed me an oversized ripe tomato from her garden. A third clipped me a rose at the end of the morning to send us on our way.

Afterwards, my mom and I stopped for fruit smoothies and sat by the docks overlooking Long Island Sound talking quietly while watching two swans in the water. She smiled at the memory of my oldest son who had howled and bolted from an aggressive bird duo 30 years before.

We stared at our mortality together as we waited for our Covid tests, speaking matter-of-factly, but not of our fears as we drove to the pharmacy drive-up and then kept checking the online portal and finally seeing “negative” for both of us. 

We have shared every meal together, and it is a thrill to cook for her because she is so surprised. “How did you learn to cook like this?” she asks. “Certainly not from me.” Together, we fixed the clunking dishwasher tray and took apart and put together her new cordless vacuum and high-fived our girl power.

My chores as a kid were the typical ones — to dust and vacuum and clean the bathrooms, and now I have to sneak to do them. “What are you doing?” my mom will call from the other room when she hears me rev up the vacuum. “Oh, Eileen!” Dusting the same maple china cabinet, I am transported back more than 40 years, finding weird comfort in it. 

When I am helping out like this, my mom sometimes sighs and says she never wanted to be a burden to her children. Instead, I am reminded how much I have learned from her perseverance.