Distinction in the Darkness
by Mike Madison
part 1 of 2
“Someone thought I was a man today,” my mother told me as she stared out of the window. Her blank gaze took in nothing beyond the glass.
“Oh?” I asked, careful to keep my voice neutral. I watched her face in the reflection. Grey, streaked-red hair was close-cropped across her forehead and above her ears. Her green eyes blended almost seamlessly into the grass and trees that surrounded the nursing home.
“I went into the store after work, and I was still wearing my jump suit,” she explained, referring to the uniform of a FedEx driver. “This man walked up behind me and asked if there was anything he could do to help me, ‘sir’. The little twerp.” She twisted the word “twerp” as she said it. She didn’t use language stronger than “twerp,” but in that moment I could tell she really wanted to. She fell silent after that, still staring.
“What happened?” I urged.
She blinked and then looked at me. For a split second the remainder of our conversation hung in the balance. I could see the confusion in her eyes, the unspoken question. Then the light came back, and she remembered. She went on as if she hadn’t missed a beat. “Well I turned around, and you should’ve seen the look on his face.” She smirked. “The little twerp just about fell over himself apologizing and trying to get away from me at the same time.”
I have heard this story dozens of times, maybe hundreds, since the actual event happened twenty-five years ago. My mother has three days that she relives. This is one of them.
I have learned over the years that neutral, almost indifferent curiosity is the best response on this day. My outrage spawns outrage, sympathy leads to embarrassment, and reminding her that we have had the very same discussion leads down a road that never ends well.
Some days, she remembers that we have in fact talked about this event many times since it happened all those years ago. Most days, she does not remember. In either case, she shuts down and won’t talk for the rest of my visit.
“Are you taking me to lunch?” she asked, checking her wrist for the watch she no longer wore. She didn’t seem to notice the lack of watch and she was oblivious to the fact that it was nine in the morning.
“We just had breakfast, Mom,” I reminded her gently. “Are you still hungry?”
“No,” she said at once. And maybe she wasn’t. “And don’t call me that, only my son gets to call me that.”
I sighed, rubbing my temples. “It’s me, Mom; it’s Alex.”
She turned away from the window, the light gone from her eyes. She searched my face, trying to recognize any feature that might identify me as the son she knew. A memory of a son that was decades younger than the man sitting with her know.
“Would you like me to go see if they have anything left in the lunch room?” I asked, trying to distract her. I hate that discussion. Proving to my mother that I am her son is about the worst conversation I’ve ever had, and I get to have it at least once a week.
“OK,” she said, still frowning and staring at my face.
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked, but she turned back to the window and didn’t answer. This, too, was normal.
I grabbed the wheels of my wheelchair, and began slowly to make my way down the hall towards the lunchroom. She is always hungry on the days where she remembers the mix-up at the store. She was on the way home to make dinner when the mix-up happened, so I guess that is only natural.
Some days, I remember to bring her extra food, but it always seems that the days I remember aren’t the days she has the mix-up. If I don’t have food with me, sometimes I get lucky and there would be a leftover apple, or a package of crackers, that the nurses would let me take for Mom. If this was a lucid day, she would call me inconsiderate for having to beg for extra food for her. So far, it seemed that I was going to be spared any tongue-lashings for not providing. It was not a lucid day.
Mom only had three days: the mix-up, Sunday, and the day my father died. My visits at the nursing home on the outskirts of Redmond, Washington, always hinged on what day of my mother’s life it was.
The day of the mix-up usually made her hungry at odd times. The day my dad died left her sad, and almost impossible to talk to. She was in a constant panic about getting to the hospital in time to see him before he went into surgery. He had died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital the week before his eighty-fifth birthday, after an aneurism burst in his stomach. My mother, always practical, had driven to the hospital instead of riding in the ambulance and had not been there when he died.
“Sunday” was perhaps the easiest day to visit my mom, as she was mostly relaxed, and usually wanted to read the bible and talk about the service she had either just attended or would be attending. Somehow, she never seemed to remember the same service, so this actually added some variety to our discussion. Sunday was also the toughest day for me personally, because it was the day I had finally admitted to myself that it was time to bring her to a nursing home.
Mom’s Sunday had actually happened on a Tuesday afternoon several years after my father died. She had woken up from a nap, taken a shower, gotten dressed, and decided that she had overslept and was running late for Sunday services at her church.
We had been talking for weeks about her not driving, but I hadn’t made the drive to Spokane to relieve her of her keys yet. So, she got in her car in a hurry to not be too late, and she had driven through her still-closed garage door. She had arrived at church with pieces of the door still on her car and couldn’t understand why all the doors were locked.
After that Sunday on a Tuesday afternoon, I had to sell her house, her car, and just about everything she owned. Then she moved to Redmond and into the nursing home. Thankfully, she didn’t ever remember the day she moved. It hadn’t been pleasant, and I’m not sure I ever want to relive it.
“Hello?” I asked as I rolled into the lunch room.
“Yes?” a woman’s voice answered from around the corner. As she came into view, I saw that her name tag said “Amanda.” She smiled at me. The nurses on my mother’s floor all wore light yellow scrubs. Different units of the nursing home had slightly different color schemes for some reason.
“Well, Mr. Raynes,” she said. All of the nurses on my mother’s unit knew me. “What can I do for you?” She was holding a towel and was drying her hands. She must have been working on the dishes.
“My mom’s still hungry,” I told her, glancing around the room. It was empty except for the two of us and the empty tables and chairs. “Are there any leftovers from breakfast by chance?”
“You know I’m not supposed to give you extra food, Mr. Raynes,” she said.
“I know.” Even though I’ve never met Amanda, I have had this conversation before. “It’s just that my mother is still hungry. Can you help us out? Please?”
She sighed, and then walked back around the corner. “Just a moment,” she called. She reappeared a few minutes later with a couple of small packages of saltines. “You didn’t get these from me,” she said covertly as she held them out to me.
“Thank you,” I said, and turned around and rolled back down the hall to where my mother was waiting.
The wheelchair had taken some getting used to. I was in a car accident a decade ago and haven’t been able to walk reliably since. I tried crutches, but I never developed the balance to get around safely on my own. The chair was the best and safest solution.
My mother, at almost ninety, was still shuffling around on her own power. This was a point of contention between us, or it was on days when she was lucid enough to realize that she was walking and I wasn’t.
She would have made snide comments, as she did about everything when she was younger. Somehow, knowing that she would have made these comments if she had been able made me upset. Not sad that she didn’t make them, but upset as if she had. Upset, because I knew she would have if she could have. Upset because my knowledge of her intent was as good as her action. And, if I was being brutally honest with myself, upset that she was no longer able.
“Crackers?” she asked when I finally got her attention back in the lounge. “I don’t want to spoil my lunch, Alex. Thanks all the same.” Just like that, she knew who I was. I swallowed in relief.
“We’re not going to lunch, Mom,” I explained patiently. “We just had breakfast. But I got you these crackers.”
“Oh,” she said, looking back out the window again. “Right.” She glanced back at me. “But didn’t you come to take me to lunch?” The light was there, but it was flickering, and she was confused. We would talk about lunch for the rest of the visit. If I was lucky, she would at least be able to remember who I was.
She ate the crackers and, as expected, asked about lunch several more times. She told me the story of the mix-up several more times, and eventually she said she was tired.
I took her back to her room. She shuffled down the hall with one hand on the rail and the other on the back of my chair. I stopped her from going into the wrong room three times, before we got to the right room.
She lay down and was asleep before I said my goodbyes. I headed towards the exit from her unit. As I reached for the door, a young woman with two children in tow walked through. I had seen her before, the granddaughter of my mother’s neighbor. I smiled at her, and she held the door open for me as I wheeled myself through.
The elevator ride down to the parking lot was uneventful. Some days, if you got in with the wrong resident, the three-floor ride down could be a fairly miserable experience. Or an incredibly uncomfortable one. These of course varied resident by resident, and I usually prefer not to dwell on the insane conversations, uncomfortable smells, and other general awkwardness that could occur in the cramped space. I was alone today. Thankfully.
Once out of the elevator, I made my way out of the front door. It was time to get to work. I work at a small software company no one’s ever heard of.
Sometimes I just tell people I work at Microsoft; it’s just around the corner and easier than trying to explain where I really work. “Oh, you live in Redmond? Do you work at Microsoft?” That’s the question I get 90 percent of the time. It’s so much easier to just say, “Yes.”
“Mr. Raynes,” a woman called as I wheeled myself through the parking lot towards the bus stop. I almost always take public transportation now. It’s slower, but I find it easier than trying to drive in Seattle traffic with my legs the way they are.
“Yes?” I asked, slowing and turning.
“Where are you off to on this fine day?” It really was a nice day out. It was mid-summer, and the clouds had finally burned off. The weather report had said the temperature would be almost eighty, and I felt it was already getting close.
“Oh, just for a stroll,” I said to my mother’s general practitioner. She was in plain clothes today; she must have had to come and visit another patient. The days she spent at the nursing home, she wore the same scrubs that the nurses do.
“The bus should be here in half an hour or so, and I thought I would just enjoy the grounds until then.” The nursing home I had found for Mom was beautiful. It had a magnificent view of the Cascade Mountains to the east. There was still snow visible on a few of the taller peaks, despite the temperature here.
“Why don’t you come back inside?” Dr. Thane said calmly. “I wanted to talk to you while I was here anyway.”
“All right,” I said. I liked Dr. Thane; I’d known her a long time. Together we crossed the parking lot back into the nursing home. We rode the elevator back to my mother’s floor and made our way back down the hall.
“How are things going, Alex?” she asked as we walked. Well, as she walked. I still say the wrong verb sometimes.
“Oh, as well as I can hope for, I suppose. Still thinking about retiring,” I admitted slyly.
“How many years have you been with Microsoft now?” she asked as we walked into my mother’s room. Dr. Thane was one of the people I had told I worked at Microsoft.
There were pictures of our family in front of the door, of me as a kid, of my parents throughout their lives, of my wedding, and my children. They were living with their mother now in San Francisco. I didn’t get to see them as often as I would have liked.
“Going on fifteen,” I answered. “It was supposed to be a temp job, just a year, and they made me a great offer. Never could tear myself away after that.”
She nodded, a serious look on her face. She opened her notebook and wrote down a few things. “And your mother? How was she today?”
I shrugged. “She was all right. Not Sunday, or my dad’s day, so less uncomfortable than it might have been. Very interested in lunch, as always during the mix-up.”
She smiled reassuringly. “That’s good. Did you try to talk to her about anything else?”
I shrugged again, uncomfortably. “Not really, you know it never goes very well.”
“I know,” she said calmly, “but remember last time we talked about how important that is? She isn’t going to be able to move on until you’re both able to come to terms with other facets of your relationship.”
This is what Dr. Thane told me every time we talked. She wasn’t Mom’s psychologist, but she sure seemed to know her stuff. She wanted to know what my mother and I spoke about. She urged me, constantly not to let my mom autopilot through the conversation but to try and engage her on specific topics. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Not for me anyway, and not for Mom.
“So, any big plans for today?” she asked cheerily.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Dr. Thane nodded. “All right, Alex,” she said, closing the notebook. “I’ll be by again in a couple of days. You behave yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, my usual response to her usual goodbye.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike Madison