It's difficult to describe my shock as my mother opens the front door and ushers me into the house of my youth. She's aged-shrunken, with poorly dyed blond hair and the familiar rigidity in her hands and body. Her once beautifully straight teeth are crooked, and one tooth is missing.
She hugs me—a desperate, clutching hug that I know so well. Her small body vibrates with high blood pressure, badly managed fear, need, and expectation. Her eyes are overbright, and she smells stale through her floral cologne.
Everything in me wants to flee.
I walk through the entryway into the kitchen and feel faint. Every square inch of space—on the floor, counters, and chairs—is covered in boxes, piles of papers, stacks of plastic gadgets, and household items, topped with various thicknesses of dust. My mother navigates the narrow path through the towering madness, as if leading a guest through an unfamiliar garden. The once-white curtains are grey, on their way to charcoal. The kitchen sink drips steadily, and there are water-soaked paper towels stuffed under the refrigerator.
My old room is so full that I can't get in. The bed is stacked with teetering piles of old quilts, pillows, and more boxes, many of which are labeled "United States Purchasing Exchange." When I suggest to my mother that I need to clear the bed so I'll have a place to sleep, she insists on helping me. I drag garbage bags into my brother's old room. His bed is surrounded by piles and boxes, so I have to aim and throw. As a result of her "helping" me, my mother's breathing becomes more labored. By the time I've cleared a path to the bed, she's having a full-blown asthma attack. The wheezing, coughing, and desperate struggle to breathe worsens. She sits on the edge of a dusty box and gasps, "I'm sorry, Honey, but I can't help you right now." My heart sinks. I know this place.
She uses two different inhalers and takes several pills. I suggest that she use the oxygen tank I noticed when I first arrived. She protests that it's "almost empty," and she's saving the last of the oxygen for when she "really needs it." When I shift into gear to get the tank refilled, I learn that it'll require a doctor's order. I call the contact number on the tank's label to see whether an order is on file, and find that the company is out of business.
My mother sighs, insisting she "only got it several months ago." I plead with her for her doctor's name and number. With a long suffering sigh, she pulls out a business card from her worn wallet. On the top of the card she's written, "My Doctor." I finally reach Dr. Russell after several confused conversations with her nurse. As I am trying to talk, my mother pleads through her gasps, "It's nothing, it will be better soon. We shouldn't bother the doctor."
I take her to the urgent care facility, although she doesn't want to go. After an hour and fifteen minutes of waiting, a young doctor checks her vitals—blood pressure up, oxygen level down. He prescribes Prednisone, but later my mother refuses to let me fill the prescription. As we get into the car, she declares that I'm the source of her suffering and states for the record, "I just can't take any more tonight. I've got to get home."
Once there, I make dinner, which she eats sullenly with frequent comments. Not only was the evening worse than what she'd hoped—it was actually one of the worst times she'd ever had. She goes on about how she never wants to "bother people" and she never "cries wolf." "What will happen if I really need the doctor?" she asks.
When it's finally time for bed, I return to the project of finding a place to sleep. My mother told me my bed was just as I left it, which turns out to be literally true. A small cloud of dust rises as I pull back the comforter and recognize the sheets that have waited for me since my last visit eight years ago. Once my bed is "made," I squeeze through the 12-inch opening of the door to my mother's bedroom. An 8-inch-wide path surrounds the bed, which is also piled high with stacks of old magazines, leaving a narrow sleeping space more or less in the middle. When I say goodnight, I add, "Let's get some sleep and we'll think about having fun tomorrow."
I get into bed gingerly, hoping to raise as little dust as possible. I pray. I wait. I sleep.
The next morning, I notice that my mother has carefully set the breakfast table with mismatched, clean dishes. The letter I sent her several weeks ago announcing my visit has been carefully placed in the center of the table. It's clear she shopped for my arrival. Covering the table are a two-pound tray of brownies, a family-size package of Oreo cookies, and a large tray of cinnamon rolls. The refrigerator is crammed with mysterious packages, dishes, and uncovered saucepans. In the front, are pints of coleslaw, potato salad, Jello, and four six packs of Diet Coke. I eat an apple.
I announce that I'll take her anywhere she wants to go, if she feels up to it. Using skills hard won through innumerable childhood skirmishes, I eventually steer her toward the Miniatures Museum across from the Los Angeles Museum of Art. She seems to really enjoy the miniatures. I'm relieved. She's happy, she's on her feet, and we're in the world, for once, together. I hold her hand and we keep a sharp lookout for little ceramic cats in various tableau. Cats become the safest topic of conversation for the rest of my stay.
By the time we've taken a drive through Beverly Hills, she's in another full-blown asthma attack. She takes more pills and uses her little inhalers. When I suggest again that she use the new oxygen compressor that was delivered the night before, she refuses.
We later watch Wheel of Fortune on the television and I venture gentle inquiries during the commercials. "What's in the boxes? Where did all these plastic utensils and knickknacks come from?" My mother brightens up and explains to me that she's about to win $3.5 million dollars from the United States Purchasing Exchange. She buys $40 of merchandise from their catalogue each month, and she's now one of the next in line to be a big winner. They've even called to ask her what menu she wants for her celebration banquet.
Nothing is really new here, only magnified. The little girl who carries wounds and terrors from the Great Depression (overlooked by an overworked mother in a home-turned-boarding house filled with transient strangers) is living on in this surreal and overcrowded house, unable to let go of anything—whether it's a TV Guide or a daughter. I have no gift to offer her that I haven't offered a hundred times before. I can't save this sick, fragile, iron-willed asthmatic from the world she's created for herself.
The next day, she opts for Knott's Berry Farm. Following an early dinner, we walk around looking at shops and trinkets--tiny treasures to delight a child. She seems to move slowly, and when I suggest leaving, she makes no argument.
That night, when I squeeze into her bedroom to watch TV with her, I see that her foot is twice its normal size, with several enormous blood blisters on the big toe. "What's this?!" I cry.
My mother responds, "Oh, it's nothing. I just tripped a little last night and banged up my toe."
"And you walked around Knott's Berry Farm like that without telling me?!" I ask feeling alarmed and internally apoplectic.
"Well, Honey, I wanted you to have a nice day. It's your vacation."
A significant part of the last night of my visit involves a series of suggestions and refusals of care, ending with her acceptance of a dilapidated bag of frozen corn to ice her foot.
As we eat a small breakfast the next morning, my mother bites her lip and says to me, "I guess I have to turn you loose." I can't help but think about her choice of words. When I hug her good-bye, I hear myself say, "I love you" and realize, in that moment, I mean it. I know, too, that her love for me is as real as she knows how to give it.
I drive to the airport, return the rental car, find my gate, and marvel at how grown up I feel. I then feel a stab of pain for a mother who can't comprehend what an achievement it is that I can function out in a world I find both beautiful and complex. If she could understand, I like to think she'd be proud.
Jeanne Folks, D.Min., L.P.C., has been a psychotherapist, professional counselor, and adjunct professor of psychology, clinical medicine, and complimentary and alternative medicine for more than 25 years. She lives in Avon, Connecticut.
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