Assisted living & Birthday call
[ poetry - august 12 ]
In the fall, my mother moves to Assisted Living.
It’s not her idea, or mine, but it is what happens.
And now, her husband six months dead, surrounded
by strangers, she’s staying several towns away
from where she’d spent the last half century,
knew all the neighbors. In this sad place everyone’s old,
dying slowly, or quickly, or waiting till they get
sick enough that “assistance” is insufficient
and a nursing home becomes their last earthly address.
At Christmas I visit and bring along from her house
some bits and pieces to render the room more homey.
When I ask how she’s doing, she says: Better me than
your father. He would have hated to end up in here.
If it had to happen to one of us, better to me.
I wish it could be different, I tell her. But we
both know it is what it is, and the only change coming
is the one where she moves to the nursing home or the grave.
On Christmas itself, my brother brings her to his house,
where my sister, the bad one, shows up late with no gift,
claiming she’s forgotten it at home. This sends my brother
into a rage at her thoughtlessness, though it’s nothing new.
Back at the little room, where I’ve returned her in
my brother’s car, she struggles to hold back tears.
And then she’s weeping, begging me to go, not wanting
for me to see her like this. But how can I leave her?
Why can’t we all get along, she wants to know, meaning
the siblings. I don’t know, I tell her, though that’s a lie.
I know intimately everything that divides us.
But it’s not your fault, I say, you and Dad did your best.
You didn’t do anything wrong. I hold her hand tight
till she stops weeping. And we talk, in the end, about
happier times, and I tell her how grateful I am
to have had such good parents. Then I leave her, not in
her own but the assisted living room where she
lives now, after a fashion, sitting in her old blue chair.
Summer comes around again. And I’m back
again teaching in Ireland. The program
I’d created before my father died
seeming now like one more bad idea,
since it keeps me abroad for much too long.
The middle of the year, almost exactly,
and my birthday - the day I turn 45.
Knowing that to remember and call me
may both be well beyond her at this point,
I decide to call my mother so she
can wish me a happy birthday, hoping
the gesture will seem not self-regarding
but kind, a reaching out from far away
now that I mostly can’t call, with no phone
of my own and an ocean between us.
In the year since my father died, I’ve called
nearly every day, talking only for
a minute or two sometimes, sometimes more,
depending on the time of day, her mood,
how much I can think to ask her, or tell.
I’m standing in a kind of tunnel now
at the bottom of two facing stairways,
a sort of echo chamber, using a public phone.
I insert a calling card that’s worth ten
call units, not knowing how long that is.
I tap in numbers. After seven rings
she finally picks up. “Hello,” her voice small
and uncertain. “Hi, Mom, it’s me. Just thought
I’d call so we could talk on my birthday.
Is that OK?” “Oh, yes, I’m glad you did.”
We chat for a bit, or I do at least.
I hear myself thanking her for giving
me life, telling her I miss her, and my
plans for my birthday tonight. Afternoon
here already, I tell her, almost night.
The wrong note to strike. She sounds confused now
about the time, the day. So then I say:
Thank you for having me. Meant as a kind
and vaguely compensatory remark
- for the time confusion, her labor pains,
the struggle to raise me well, to be a
good mother, whatever that means, to be
patient with me as I struggled to find
my own way through my world, a way and world
that she so often failed to understand.
Now that card phone is clicking down, so I
say, “Mom, I have to go, but I love you
and I’ll talk to you again.” “I love you,
too,” she says. “And happy birthday.” “Thanks, Mom.
OK, bye.” Then all the minutes are gone.
And she is too, too suddenly. And I
hope she understands what just happened, that
I didn’t just hang up on her. To call
her back and explain, I’d need to go buy
another card. By which time she might well
have forgotten the whole call, my birthday,
where I am exactly. It’s the first time
ever that I’ve called her on my birthday
and the last one on which we’ll converse.
One year on, she won’t be gone—or talking.
A stroke will have taken her tongue away.
She’ll have a new bed in a nursing home.
And I’ll be back in L.A. Uncertain
how long she has, how best I might observe
the day, now that she has nothing to say.