Yesterday, November 29, 2008, my mother turned 64. Quite young, really. But I looked at her, sitting in that wheelchair, knowing neuropathy had taken the strength from her legs, and how her hands were beginning to contracture with neuropathy. Hands that had once drawn beautiful pictures to entertain us as kids, and played the piano so beautifully. I watched her, at times, stare off into space, off in her own world, and wondered where she’d gone. Yet I remember who she was.
My mother was born Rebecca Blair, on November 29, 1944. The middle child of W.O. and Agnes Blair. Born to strict, but loving Christian parents. Into a home that knew only love. The middle child of five. A sister and brother older, and a sister and brother younger. She was slap-dab in the middle. And a daddy’s girl, at that. From the things I learned of her growing-up years, she was always stubborn and emotionally withdrawn. My grandmother told me of the stories Mom wrote, when she was a teenager, but never published. Those stories are long-gone, now. I wish I’d been able to read them. I know my talent for writing came from my mother.
But she had other talents, as well. My youngest brother inherited her artistic abilities and her music. Mom could listen to a song on the radio, and within minutes, she could play that song on the piano, though she’d never really learned to read music. She played mainly by ear. As my brother does, now, on guitar. She could draw cartoon caricatures beautifully. I remember some of my favorite coloring-books, as a child didn’t come from any store. Mom would spend hours drawing cartoon figures in funny poses, using many sheets of typing paper. Then she’d spend just as long punching holes along the edges. Out of different colored construction paper, she created book covers. And tied the pages together with yarn.
My early childhood was not one to be envied. There was much abuse in our home, until my mother divorced my dad, when I was 13. Her first month as a single-mom, we spent in an apartment with no electricity. An electric stove, electric water heater-an all-electric apartment. And us with no electricity. That first night there, I remember Mom dancing and singing, because we were free. That’s the only time I ever saw her dance. We had an ice chest and many cans of Vienna sausages and potted meat. We lived on those sandwiches, Kool-aid, and instant tea. Mom would get up and get us ready for school by candlelight. When we’d leave on the bus, she’d run the bathtub full of water. Cold water, for we had no way to heat it. By the time we’d come home from school, it was room temperature. Jon and David-seven and six, at the time, bathed together, first. When they were done, I took my bath, in the same water. I always tried to be quick. Because Mom took her bath last. She often joked, “I don’t think I really got clean. The water was too dirty, by the time I got in there.” We did our homework, and ate supper by candlelight and kerosene lanterns. We pretty much were camping out in that apartment. Truly roughing it. We had very little. But we were happy.
Things got both better and worse, after that. My relationship with her changed. I was teenager and a victim of abuse from my father. My grandmother often told me, “Rebecca just don’t know how to deal with teenagers.” And she couldn’t deal with a daughter trying to recover from what I’d been through, since I was three.
During my teen years, Mom and I had our worst fights. We became more like sisters in the midst of sibling rivalry, than mother and daughter. My Aunt Charlotte, Mom’s older sister, became my mother-figure. We understood each other, both being not only the oldest daughter, but also the oldest child. At times, I would complain to my friends about my mom, and our latest argument. But, of course, I had the right to say what I wanted. She was my mom. If anyone dared even to agree with me, my hot-tempered response was, “Don’t you talk about my mama that way!”
Mom did her best by us. I know this. How many times did her measly minimum-wage income buy second-hand clothes for me and my two brothers, while she merely patched up her own clothes? How many times did we eat, and she went hungry?
Mom worked swing-shifts and many double-shifts in nursing homes, through those years. Not able to afford a sitter, she made me the watcher of my two younger brothers. I handled more responsibility than I needed. I learned to cook simple meals. And I wasn’t allowed to get a job at 16, like all my friends in school. Mom still couldn’t afford for anyone else to take care of Jon and David. At times, I resented them, and her, because I felt I didn’t have a normal life. There were times I believed my mother hated me and was seeking revenge on me, for ruining her marriage to my father. I shouldered the blame and hated myself.
I married my first husband when I was 19, to get away from my mother. I felt was too overbearing. “Controlling”, I called her. Grandma always said, “Y’all don’t get along, ’cause you’re too much alike!”Yet, after a year and a half of an abusive marriage, who took me in, to save my life? My mother. Again, I was the caretaker of my brothers. I was 21. They were 15 and 14. Teenaged boys. Mom worked graveyard shifts, then, and I was working in the local water department in the mornings, while they were in school. Mom and I still argued, but not as much. And not quite so many hateful words. That was the year Mom got her first account with Blair, Inc., and bought her first brand-new outfit, for as long as I could remember. My brothers were angry that she hadn’t spent that money on something for them. I argued with them: “Mom hasn’t bought herself any new clothes in forever! She earned that money. Let her enjoy it!”
I got with my second husband, when I was 24. Through all my problems with him, again, who took me in? My mother. As many problems as we had, as much as we argued and fought, she was still there, when I needed her. And still stood strong as an oak.
That was the year Mom had her back injury, while on the job. Transferring a patient. She messed up her back so bad, the X-Rays looked like someone had taken a gun to one side of her lower back and blown out the other side. That was also when we found out Mom’s diabetes had gotten worse. She went on insulin, then. Worker’s Comp tried to screw her, on the back injury. She’d really needed surgery. She didn’t get it. Instead, after a year of fighting in the courts, she got tired of it all, and accepted their settlement: $2000. And she had to sign a paper stating that she’d never come back on that injury again.
When I was 28 and divorced from my second husband, Mom’s back got worse. She’d begun to develop neuropathy in her extremities. Unable to grip a steering wheel, she could no longer drive. Unable to stand for very long, she was unable to work. She filed for disability. The doctors who looked over her case said she should’ve gotten more compensation for the back injury. Because that was the injury her diabetes had been looking for. As one doctor put it, “The diabetes saw a major injury and attacked it.” I took Mom in, and took care of her, while she waited for disability to go through. I was 30 and a new mother, myself, when she finally got that disability. By then, she needed a caregiver to come into her home, to help her around the house.
When I was 34, Mom was using a walker. But even that got too much for her, after a time. It became harder for her to grip the handles. That’s the year I went into home-health and began being her caregiver, myself. I worked, taking care of her, during mornings, and worked an outside job, in the evenings. After work, I was back at Mom’s, doing her care, off-the-clock. As I told many people, “She took care of me, all those years, now I’m giving back.” Yes, we still argued. But she’s my mom.
One major argument, that’s between family only, drove me to leave her, and come back to Texarkana. Her younger sister took her in, at that point. It was a few months before I could forgive and forget. But, like I said, she’s my mom. And I love her. By this time, not quite two years ago, she was in a nursing home. Her legs to the point that she had a Rascal scooter to toodle around in.
A year and a half ago, physical therapists were still hopeful they could get her to walk. And they worked with her. But an ulcer on her left heel stopped that. An ulcer that still hasn’t healed. An ulcer that’s down to the bone, now. She’s been in and out of the hospital so many times, since September of last year, because of that heel. And because of urinary tract infections that have set up toxins so bad that dementia began to set in. The neuropathy hit her intestines three years ago. Now it’s in her urinary tract, as well. A Foley catheter ensures her bladder empties, because she can’t empty it on her own. This last trip to the hospital was for the infection in her heel. It’s in the bone. She was on IV antibiotics for 6 weeks, and the doctors debated for a week, about amputating the foot. But, when her doctor told her it wasn’t yet necessary, she told him, “I know it’ll have to come off, eventually. But you say it doesn’t have to, yet. I came into this hospital with two feet, I’m leaving with two feet.”
I looked at that doctor and said, “There’s your answer.”
I think about how much my mother has suffered, over the years. I think of all she went through to take care of us, as a single mom. I remember the day she faced down some people that tried to down-talk me, when I was 15. She was like a wild tigress, protecting her cub. I remember the days when we would get in front of the church and sing our Sunday specials together. Her on the piano, me on the microphone. I remember my mother, strong as an ox and stubborn as a mule. A woman who suffered much, yet never complained. And I look at how she’s weakened, in such a short time.
It’s hard to watch her slowly fall apart. Yet, still, she never complains. Always wears a smile. And the people who take care of her in that nursing home love her like family. She has a male friend there who is everything she ever looked for in the three failed marriages she went through. J. A. is a companion, a friend, a “coffee-drinkin’ buddy”, and he looks out for her. When her scooter was working, you never saw one of them without the other. They toodle around those halls together.
She just turned 64. Too young to be in that wheelchair. Too young to live in a nursing home. Yet unable to take care of herself. A woman who took care of me, through so many years. My grandfather, whom I wrote about in “An Unknown Saint”, her father, died at the age my mother is now. Her older brother died, nearly two years ago, at that same age. I see her drift off in her unclear moments, and tell people, “My sons are coming home this weekend. They spent the summer with their daddy.” Drifting back to the days when my brothers were so much younger, and we were a closer-knit family. One brother became someone the family cannot tolerate. The other travels so much we barely see him. Only I have stayed close to Mom, in all these years.
In many ways, I know Mom is happy. But I can’t imagine what goes through her head most of the time. I remember, at the beginning of this year, when a worker there, tried to get Mom to play their piano. They wanted her to do something to strengthen her hands. But she couldn’t play. I sat there behind her, where she couldn’t see me, and cried. I remember those hands playing pianos, over the years, and playing beautifully. But those days are gone. I wonder, when I look at her, now, how much longer my mother will be with me. I get over there every chance I get, because my little girl is the center of my mother’s world. And she perks up, when Sedona comes around. But I fear the day she forgets who her granddaughter is.