I sat in a chair, the one without armrests, in Mom’s room, waiting for her to awaken. Light spilled in from the hall and brightened the linoleum tiles near the doorway and lightened the darkness in her room. Outside the window behind me, late afternoon had turned the November sky to a smudged sort of grey. Occasionally, out in the hall, staff walked by the room purposefully. None looked in nor seemed to acknowledge my presence.
The door to Mom’s room, wide enough to accommodate a wheel chair, was opened all the way. As with the other residents’ doors, it remained that way nearly all the time. Fragments of conversations from other rooms drifted in through the doorway.
Midway between me and the light that seeped in from the hall, the bed, with its rails up, held Mom, her head elevated slightly. Mom slept quietly, dreamlessly in the semi darkness. Occasionally, a toe would move under the sheets. My gaze drifted from her feet directly in front of me to the head of her bed off to my right. She lie quite still, arms at her side, mouth slightly open, breathing softly. As I watched her quiet, gentle, sleeping face in the dimness of the room, a crucifix on the wall above the head of her bed caught my attention. Was that a new addition or was that there last time I visited or had it, in fact, even been there the whole time, the years that she’s been a resident at The Manor? It occurred to me that I did not know for sure.
The bed adjuster and call button, combined into a single hand-held unit with its long, thick cable waited next to Mom on the bed.
Medical equipment, unused at the moment but always at the ready, waited its turn up near the head of the bed in the corner of the room. For Mom, it stood out of sight and out of mind.
On the other side of the bed, between Mom and the light of the hallway, a sheer curtain hung from its metal track on the ceiling, drawn back fully open, as it usually was.
A bed table, on wheels which fit under the bed so the top can extend over Mom, stood between the head of Mom’s bed and the pulled-back curtain hanging from the ceiling. She still almost always takes her meals in the dining room with the other residents. Although designed to hold meals, the table instead serves as the appointed location for the television remote control. As a matter of unwritten policy, the remote control for the television is purposely kept away from the control for the bed, with its call button. Many of the residents live in a fog of confusion and it would be far too easy for them to mistake the call button on the bed control for one of the buttons on the TV remote.
To my left, across the room from Mom, the television monitor, attached high on the wall, looked down on the bed where Mom slept. Focused on her, it seemed to ignore me. A dresser stood beneath the television monitor. Atop the dresser were arrayed pictures of various family members and friends. Reminders.
A bathroom door, also wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, stretched between the dresser and a double-door closet. The closet attached itself to the wall near where I sat. One side served as a coat closet, the other side as shelved pantry type storage.
Two other chairs, in addition to the one holding me, two chairs with armrests, sat, one in each corner of the room, opposite from me at the ends of the wall. The wall with the door out to the hallway filled with light. Three chairs. About as far apart as possible. Conveniently, one chair each for Cindy and Tom and one for me.
As the oldest of us three children, it has fallen on my shoulders to act as the referee between Cindy and Tom. I’m the one who keeps the playing field level. I’m who ensures that neither of those two roughs up the other too much or suffers too much at the hands of the other. I’m the one who smooths things over when emotions get too far out of hand.
Yes, even at our age, we’re still children and the fact that the two chairs remained empty removed a certain amount of tension from my visit.
A bouquet of flowers looked up at me from my lap. Not a bouquet, really, just flowers from the grocery store, wrapped in their sheet of clear plastic. The grocery store was still open when I arrived in town, the florists had all closed for the day.
Upon my arrival at The Manor that evening, I went, as usual, to the main desk. There is no formal check in at the facility but a stop by the desk provides me the opportunity to ask how Mom has been doing and to find out if there are any updates to her condition I should know before I visit with her. This gives me a picture of Mom’s status that hasn’t been filtered through Cindy, who sees Mom on most days. Cindy has her own motives for what she tells me.
Also, when I visit, especially if my arrival happens in the afternoon, a stop at the desk allows me to find Mom without searching the facility to look for her. Mom might be at lunch or at some activity or maybe out in the garden. She tolerates the crafts and other activities that the place has for her to do with the other residents, although in reality she would rather not participate. Simply sitting in the garden at The Manor, if weather permits, fills her with a peaceful serenity. Or maybe she just sleeps.
At the desk, on this particular visit, the charge nurse answered my questions tersely, as usual. After she fielded my questions she paused for a moment. She then told me that Mom has her good days and her not so good days. That seemed vague to me so I pressed her for more details. She hedged a bit and then said that Mom’s condition had left her more frustrated as of late and then she said again that Mom has her good days and her not so good days.
This matched what Cindy had mentioned increasingly over the past few months. That Mom has her good days and her not so good days.
Last week Cindy called me as she usually does each week. On the call last week, Cindy let it slip out that Mom sometimes forgets that she has three offspring, that when people ask her about her kids, she will only remember Cindy and usually Tom but oftentimes she has forgotten me lately. She sighed and paused after telling me this, her way of emphasizing the point. Cindy’s recriminations don’t come to the surface very often but they are there. They usually simmer just out of sight. Generally she reins them in so as not to drive me to Tom’s side. Sometimes they break through. This was one of those times. Some days she is able to deal with it better than others.
It seems that Cindy has her good days and her not so good days, too.
As that conversation replayed itself in my head, the flowers looked up at me from my lap and quietly suggested that the time spent waiting for Mom to wake up could be used in finding something to put them in.
A scan around the room, though, revealed no vase.
A quick glance over each of my shoulders at the windowsill behind me turned up no vase, either.
A more thorough search was called for.
Perhaps on the floor by the dresser. From my chair none was visible to me on the floor on either side of the dresser. Nor was one on top of the dresser, covered, as it was, with those of pictures to remind Mom of loved ones.
No vase on the wheeled dinner table holding the television remote.
No empty vase on any other flat surface, either. Space was used carefully in Mom’s room and each square inch was occupied by something more essential than an empty flower vase.
Nor, for that matter, sat any vase with flowers past their prime already in it, ready to be replaced. No vase and no flowers, new or old, at all, in fact, anywhere in the room.
I looked around again to be sure.
This called for a visit to the charge nurse at the main desk.
Holding the flowers in my right hand, I put my left hand on the edge of the seat of the chair and quietly pushed myself up to stand. The cellophane around the flowers crinkled but Mom did not stir. A few tiptoe steps took me around Mom’s bed and few more out into the brightly lit hallway.
At the front desk, the charge nurse appeared to be busy writing. Was this really work she was doing or was she working out a crossword puzzle? I stepped up to the desk and peered over the chest-high counter top. She was writing notes on a resident.
“May I help you, Mr. Bradford?” she asked without looking up. When did she sneak the glance that told her it was me?
I waited until she finished writing and looked up at me. She raised her eyebrows as if to ask the question again.
I lifted the flowers high enough for her to see over the counter top and tilted my head towards them. I said I was looking for a vase.
“Oh, you didn’t need to walk all the way up here, Mr. Bradford,” she replied with false solicitude. “There is one in the closet in your mother’s room, in the left side of the closet, on the bottom.”
“Message noted,” the thought flashed through my mind like a neon sign. “Ok, you are much more familiar with my mother and her room and what’s where. Got it.”
I thanked her with a slight nod of my head as I turned away.
Back in Mom’s room, I heard Mom breathe ever so slightly as she continued her dreamless sleep.
I set the flowers on the seat of the chair by the window and cautiously opened the left door of the closet. I crouched down and there was the vase, on its side, atop a large shoe box.
Something about the box, perhaps its large size or its neon orange color, intrigued me. I stood the vase on the floor and glanced at the end of the box. Men’s size thirteen and a half basketball shoes.
I wondered. Was this something else the staff knew about Mom that I didn’t? My imagination rushed through a number of wild scenarios, Mom playing basketball or dating Big Foot.
I tilted the end of the box upward to inspect it. The sight of the shoe brand and the size and the thought of Mom hyped up enough to dunk a basketball brought a wry smile to my face. As I tilted the box, the contents shifted slightly. The box felt almost full of something that slid around inside.
I shook it slightly back and forth.
Setting it on the floor before me, I lifted its lid. Envelopes neatly filled the box. The scores of envelopes were all in order, oldest postmark first, newest at the back. Thumbing through them, starting from the front, I recognized my own name and address written in my own hand on the upper left corner of each. The return addresses on the first bunch of envelopes was from an old house. Two years ago, though, Helen and I had decided to down size. Empty nesters, we moved from our old four bedroom colonial to the townhouse where we now live. After that first slew of envelopes, our new address took the place of our old address.
The box held letters, only letters, no Mother’s Day cards nor birthday cards nor cards of any sort, except one postcard from Paris, where Helen and the kids and I went as a family to celebrate Stephen’s graduation. Many of the postmark dates brought back memories of much that had happened during the past several years. For some of the dates I could remember exactly what I had written.
Then I noticed.
None of the envelopes were opened.
I started from the front of the stack and thumbed through them in bunches.
My smile evaporated.
I thumbed through them again, from the beginning, this time one by one.
None were opened.
None were read.
I turned my head and stared out the window.
The cold, dark, grey November sky stared right back at me from outside.
Mom’s continued her quiet breathing in the bed behind me.
Again I looked at the open box before me. The nearly full box became blurry and I had to wipe my eyes.
A squeaky sound of rubber soled footsteps in the hallway jolted me. I carefully straightened out the envelopes and patted them down so that none were sticking up.
A quick glance toward the open door brought relief. Nobody was watching.
I placed the lid back on the shoe box and gently pressed down each corner, then slid the box back into its place in the bottom of the closet, the big sticker with the brand and the model of the shoes and the big bold thirteen point five on it facing outwards.
I grabbed the vase, stood, quietly picked up the flowers from the seat of the chair and took them into Mom’s bathroom.
The cold November gloom followed me home after my visit.
At the airport after the short flight home overcast skies made the evening seem even darker, later than it really was. The visit with Mom had left me feeling hurt, embarrassed, tired, befuddled. The somber skies only added to my own sullenness.
Outside the baggage claim, at the curbside, pairs of headlights came at me from the darkness. Approaching cars, indistinguishable from each other. Presently, a pair of headlights approached, slowed, and flashed twice at me to announce Helen’s arrival.
She slowed to a stop. The car door locks clicked open.
As I opened the car door and started to sit in the passenger seat, Helen asked how my trip was and how Mom was faring. I wasn’t even in the car yet and the conversation was already discomforting.
“It was fine. Mom was fine.”
I just didn’t want to talk about it. Fortunately, I thought, we would be home in under fifteen minutes with light Sunday evening traffic.
Helen waited for me to say more. She was not going to let me off that easy.
“It was fine. Mom was fine,” I repeated.
Helen frowned disapprovingly as she pulled away from the curbside into traffic.
“She has her good days and her not so good days,” I cringed inside as I said it.
The ends of Helen’s mouth arched downwards. It was her way of telling me that I was not finished.
Traffic came to a stop at the exit from the airport. The line of cars before us led to flashing red and blue lights ahead.
“Who gets in an accident on a Sunday night?” I said, irritated but also relieved to change the subject.
Our car slowly crawled forward till we made it past the mishap.
Helen resumed, “You were saying?”
After a bit of silence, I related the events, the basic facts: my arrival at the airport, the cab ride, the flowers at the grocery store, my front desk briefing, waiting for Mom to wake up. I left out the part about the shoebox. No, Mom didn’t wake up then but she was up and looking rested this morning when I went back to see her. Yes, she remembered me (sort of) and yes, we had a good visit, although she seemed to tire of it fairly quickly. The cab ride back to the airport and the flight home were both fine. My carefully edited story came out in a rushed, rehearsed, monotone.
Helen looked at me skeptically. “Are you okay?”
I half nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.” I looked out the side window, away from her.
“Look, I know you’re upset about your mom and how she’s been sliding downhill for a while.”
The shoebox loomed in my mind. “It hurts,” I let out.
“I know it hurts,” Helen jumped right in and agreed. Then paused. “What hurts?”
“She hasn’t read any of my frickin’ letters,” I thought. “Nobody has.”
Instead, “seeing her slide,” came out in a mumble. It was the only answer I could think of.
I didn’t hear much of Helen’s consolation the rest of the way home. The ride seemed to take forever. Occasionally, Helen would pause and I would fill in the silence with an answer or an agreement, anything to let the topic end.
Mercifully, we finally made it into our garage. I thanked Helen, climbed out of the car and led the way into our townhouse.
Helen followed and closed the door from the garage. She turned, stepped toward me, hugged me, and gave me a pat on the back.
“I understand what you’re going through,” she added.
I turned away and walked down the hall.
The study welcomed me with a cold silence. I dropped into the chair at my desk and thought about the weekend behind me and the rest of the evening ahead of me. An urge to do absolutely nothing came over me.
Instead, pulling out paper and a pen, I began to write, “Dear Mom,”
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