I could have chosen the same nursing home if we had needed a two-week rehab stint or a replacement long-term home. The Sunshine Convalescent Care facility had rooms and wings with those designations – busy aides helping patients in bathrobes learn to use walkers, patients in normal clothes and shoes making their way to a community room for lunch or music or card games. But my mother was in a room at the end of a different wing, a short, quiet hall where phones rarely hummed and the air was thick and stiff. The patients in beds over here were just waiting to die.
No one was more surprised than I had been, driving away from the Alvarado acute care hospital two weeks earlier with a list of possible SNFs , a packet of information about hospice care and 24 hours to find a place that would take her: she had a husband, and I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in several years. But unless Pete was asleep, he was drunk, and Carmeda had refused to go home, adamant that she would not spend her final hours in any building he occupied. The uncivil war that was their 30-year marriage would have no truce, no white flag, not even to remove the body. My brothers lived many states away. Geography, a deadline, and I was It.
It was Thursday, September 13, 2001, and she had lain for fifteen days of the hospice-qualified six months at Sunshine on a bed made of scarred brown metal, rails up, head lifted. It had a thin mattress covered in wipeable plastic, limp sheets and a cotton blanket folded at the foot. It was two days after the American and United Airlines flights had flown into the World Trade Center towers at the beginning of a blue sky morning and upended the world. It was hot as Hades in eastern San Diego County – where Carmeda had insisted the nursing facility be so it would be convenient for her husband to visit her which she knew he would only sporadically do. Which was the point. I had explained, when it happened, about the terrorists and the destruction and chaos in New York, but I wasn’t sure she quite got it. It was hard enough to understand it myself, and she seemed to listen as if I were telling a fairy tale. We watched the planes crash and the towers fall and the people run, covered in ash, as the film played on a continuous loop. Her eyes showed no more astonishment than if she were seeing Wile E. Coyote land at the bottom of a cliff in a puff of desert dust.
My mother had end-stage COPD from smoking at least two packs of cigarettes every day for sixty years. Her lungs were stiff grey sacs, and no amount of steroids could squeeze enough oxygen through them now to do much but keep her heart barely beating. She didn’t have enough strength to lift her knees or turn on her side. Her hair, the vanity that had been tended to by a hairdresser every Friday since I was seven years old, had been washed with Prell and rinsed with a handheld spray as she sat, naked and strapped to a plastic chair, in a wheelchair shower, then combed straight back and left to dry flat as a pelt, exposing her widow’s peak. She looked like the evil queen in Snow White. Who is the fairest, after all?
I had spent a few hours in her room on that Thursday morning, same as every other day, checking with the nurses and waiting for the medication cart and sometimes the young woman from hospice to come. I’d left to run a couple errands and had come back to stay until dinner, though Carmeda hadn’t eaten more than two or three bites of yogurt or applesauce or ice cream since Monday. I took the pitcher down to the kitchen and filled it with ice and water, got a clean plastic cup with a lid, bent a straw into the opening.
I was back and setting them on the tray table when her eyes, ice blue like her Swedish father’s, opened and looked up at me. “Hi,” I said. “Hi,” she croaked, a rusted pipe. She turned to watch the television, and I sat down in a chair next to the bed. “Is it okay if I put my feet up here,” I asked, my shoes already off and my hot toes heading for the cool metal rail. She glanced, “Sure.”
The volume was so low we couldn’t hear Brian Williams saying again whatever he had said every hour for the last several days. The pictures rolled by: photographs of Mohammed Atta and the eight others, the burning Pentagon, debris flying, firemen. Again and again and again. I thought she had nodded off; I opened a paperback in my lap.
“I cut you out,” she said.
Looking up, I saw her eyes again, that steady, reptile challenge. The blue I Dare You.
“I know,” I said.
“How do you know?” A little wobbly, puzzled.
“You told me in a letter. Or you wrote the boys and told them to show me the letter – I don’t remember which it was – but you made sure I knew.” A little smile. Neutral.
“Oh,” she said and looked back at the colors flashing across the TV. A clock ticked.
“It’s too late to change it now,” she said, not looking at me.
“No matter,” I said, looking at her.
“It wasn’t even very much money,” she said, turning back to me, watching.
“I know that,” I said. Softly.
“You probably don’t even care,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s only five thousand dollars, not very much money,” she said.
She was out of words.
I smiled, a quick, soft exhale of a smile, a plea. “It’s all right, Mom.”
She shrugged with one shoulder, tilting her ear toward it the way she did, and looked back at the television to watch the building flying apart again.
* * * * *