Mother’s Day: The Priveleged Few
Sunday, May 8, 2011
My Grandma Shipman used to install 20-foot inflatable reindeer on her roof, wrap our gifts in velvet bows, and bake and hand decorate hundreds of Santa Claus cookies, whipping and dying the icing so that Santa’s coat looked red and velveteen, his beard white as snow, his eyes glistening from just that little extra coating of sugar.
Birthdays meant homemade cakes with mile-high frosting and colorful balloons filling the kitchen; Halloween meant carving pumpkins and laughing at witches that had flown directly into my grandma’s lightpole outside her home.
But when my grandmother became ill, and her health slowly and methodically began to decline, our holidays became more minimalistic.
It was too difficult for me to see my grandmother as some sort of ghost of Christmas past, so I began to stay away more and more during the holidays while she lived in a nursing home. What I missed during this absense, I would later discover, was the fact that my mom had taken on my grandma’s role. In fact, my mother spent inordinate amounts of time in my grandma’s nursing home room recreating those cherished holidays for her: She lavishly decorated her tree, she helped my grandma carve a pumpkin, and she walked into her room – ignoring all codes and regulations – with sparklers ablaze on the 4th of July.
One spring evening, after I had not visited home in a particularly long time, my mother called and said, simply but directly, “I think it’s time you visited your grandmother in the nursing home. I expect to see you here on Mother’s Day.”
“But …” I started.
“No ‘but’s,’” my mom said.
“But, she’s not my mother, mother.”
And then my mom hung up on me.
I cussed my entire five-hour drive home, lamenting a lost weekend.
As a young man, I had so many better things to do than visit my grandmother in a nursing home. I had more important things to think about, other things to occupy my time and mind than the very real fact that my grandmother was dying and that youth was fleeting and that, sooner, or later, this would eventually be my fate.
When I returned home that Mother’s Day, I walked in to find my mother a changed woman.
She seemed harder, tougher, but more resilient. She didn’t gush over my return, like usual. She said, very directly, “It’s about time.”
That Sunday, my mother and I went to visit my grandmother on Mother’s Day, bringing her a vase of hand-picked peonies from her garden, a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a stack of elaborately wrapped gifts – ones that looked as if they might be photographed for a style magazine – hauling them into the very nice nursing home and past a few patients, some of whom sat motionless, wheelchair-bound, in the throes of dementia.
As we made our way past, a couple of the patients began to wail and flail, just like babies, unable to convey their emotions that visitors had come to call.
When I passed an ancient woman with a shock of white hair who was eating her lunch off the tray of her wheelchair, she suddenly stuck an arthritic hand into her compartment of corn and tossed a handful of kernels at me and said, in a disturbingly matter-of-fact way, “Well, look who the dog dragged in. If it ain’t Sonny, home from the war.”
And, just as quickly, she began screaming.
Yelling, “Sonny, my baby!”
She was coughing up corn and ghosts from deep within her body.
I crumpled against my mother, and we made our way to my grandma’s room, which was marked simply and sweetly – like a kindergarten teacher might designate her room on the opening day of school – with only her first name – “Viola” – drawn in purple Crayon, just like her floral namesake.
“I’ll go in first,” my mom said, taking all the presents. “I want to prepare her. It’ll be easier this way, OK?”
There was something about the word “prepare” – prepare my grandma for what, I thought – that made me highly uncomfortable, made my teeth begin to chatter, which I tried to blame on the chill in the nursing home.
I waited outside the door a minute or two, until my curiosity got the best of me, and then I peeked my head around the frame, and saw not my grandma, but a nearly unrecognizable version of her – bloated, pale, a mass of white, brushed-out perm’ed hair, no make-up, no dentures.
My mother was hugging a ghost.
I retreated, standing flat against the blandly cheery wallpaper in the hallway. I tried to grip something to keep myself from falling, and finally managed to grab the safety bar that served as the home’s functional dsaachair rail before I slid all the way to the linoleum floor.
I shut my eyes, to stop the spinning, and tried to remember my grandmother as she had been.
My grandma’s sole dream in life was to be a mother and a grandmother. Happiness pulsed from her body, joy radiated from her soul, when she engaged in the simplest of daily pleasures, the ones that made her family smile: Frosting a towering, three-layer cherry chip cake; making homemade pie crusts; pulling sugar cookies out of her oven; giving hugs; decorating for the holidays; simply listening to her family tell the tales of their lives.
My grandma was a simple woman, and – as I grew older and more bitter about my course in life, the fact I was gay, the belief I might never find happiness – I equated her simpleness with naivete.
That was a mistake.
And when I longed to tell her the story of my life – to have her sit and listen to me around her Formica dining room table like she did when I was young – it was too late.
“Wade?” I heard my mother say. “Wade, do you want to come in?”
I stood, rounded the corner, and my grandma looked at me, rather blankly, like a babysitter might look at a child they once cared for, with vague familiarity but no emotional ties.
“Mom? It’s Wade? It’s James Wade. Remember?”
I approached her bed gingerly – as if I were walking around landmines – and she looked at me, trying to fit the pieces together somewhere in her head, and when she did, she began to bawl, to caress my face like it was a baby rabbit, as if I were the most tender and precious and beautiful thing she had ever seen.
And then she started screaming.
Always an emotional woman, my grandmother’s illness had made her even more emotionally vulnerable, and my mother told me she would now start crying without reason at any minute of the day, unable to put into words her feelings of loss or fear or happiness.
I took a seat in one of those nursing home chairs that looks inviting but is not comfortable, that beg you to sit but not stay, and listened to the roar of the TV infomercial my grandma had going.
My grandmother never watched TV.
I stared out the window, and watched it rain, watched the wrens collect at the little feeder my mother had hung just outside of her window. My grandma’s world was now this window.
My mom clicked off the TV, silencing the incessant noise and bringing blissful quiet to the room. A sense of calm seemed to envelope not only me but also my grandmother.
And then, out of the blue, my grandma began pointing at pictures on her wall and nightstand, at a photo of her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren, of those who had died before her, or those who rarely came to visit, and my mom would give one to her, and she’d hold it closely, hugging the picture like it was the person, closing her eyes and remembering something from long ago.
My grandma would look at my mom, struggling to lift her hand to her mouth, and then point at the picture she was holding. She was asking my mom to speak for her. We sat for hours that Mother’s Day, my mom telling stories of our family, for my grandmother, and, then, at the very end, my grandma pointed at me and then at a picture of me she had beside her bed, one of me when I was very little, dressed in a tiny bow tie.
“My baby!” she moaned, managing to find words – from somewhere deep inside – words which I thought she had lost long ago. “My baby Wade!”
And then it was me who began to cry, to bawl, my false bravado shattering, my gasps causing the wrens at the window to stop eating and take notice of the commotion.
My grandma lifted her fists and dabbed at my face, wiping tears, and then put her hands to her mouth, asking me to talk.
I scooched my chair up to her bed and held her hands, and it was then I knew that she knew me, truly knew me, because she just stared at me, smiling, like a baby at its mom, watching my every move, listening intently to my every word, like she did when I was young and we sat at her little kitchen table.
So I sat for an hour and finally told my grandmother about my life.
When we left her that day, I asked my mom on the ride home, “How do you do it? How can you do it? Every day? It’s such an obligation.”
“The question is,” my mom answered, “‘How can I not do it?’”
Her voice got a little shaky, and she said, “Do you know I visit nearly every person there? Their families and friends no longer come, because everyone is too busy to be bothered. Your grandmother spent her whole life sacrificing for me, so I could be the first to go to college, the first to have a career, so I could have an easier life than she ever had.”
And then my mom slowed the car, her hands trembling on the wheel.
“And it’s not an obligation, Wade. It’s a privelege.”
There was an awkward moment of silence. I looked down at the speedometer and noticed my mom was driving 20 mph. Joggers were passing us.
And then my mom, the lifelong nurse who retired and became a hospice nurse, said, “When parents and grandparents age and become infirmed, families no longer want to deal with it. They visit in the beginning, out of guilt, and then it becomes a hassle, something they have to do between soccer lessons and work. People see these as ‘the bad years,’ but this is simply our time to take care of our elders, just like my mother cared for me when I was a baby. Those weren’t such great years for her, I’m sure. She struggled to put food on the table. And I certainly couldn’t talk. I could only tell her what I was thinking or feeling through my emotions. This is the same thing. She is the baby now. And I am the mother. It is my time to care for her, let her pass onto God with dignity and love, let her know during every single moment I spend with her these final days that it has been my privelege to be her daughter.”
It would be the last Mother’s Day of my grandmother’s life.
And, as I learned that day, it was my privilege – not obligation – to spend it with her.