Michelle Rogge Gannon
We'd all like to picture a good death for ourselves. But few of us get to choose the way we go into that good night.
Right now I'm lying under the dining room table, trying to rest. It's the only space available where Dad won't step on me when he gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
It's not a bad place, as long as I remember I'm not in a bed and don't sit up straight and smack my head. From here I can watch the television in the living room, even though all that's on is a grade-B western, the kind stations run at one in the morning.
Somehow I find that bad western comforting. The good guys are gonna win. We're talkin' a happy ending, most definitely. I'd like to see some old episodes of Perry Mason, though -- Perry Mason with his gut instincts about a client's innocence. But Dad, even though he is asleep in his favorite living room chair, has first dibs on the television. I learned long ago I couldn't just tiptoe into the living room and switch channels. He would always wake up and, trying to be gruff, say, "Hey! Turn back to that western." Or that basketball game. Or whatever he happened to have been watching.
From under this table, I'm close enough to hear my 18-month-old son Jamie if he should wake up and cry. He is asleep in Mom's bedroom on her bed. I'm nervous because the bed is kind of high off the floor, and I have to tuck pillows all around to try to prevent his rolling off.
Most importantly, from under this table, I'm close to Mom. She is sleeping her troubled sleep about five feet away from me.
Her hospital bed takes up most of the dining room. We set it up in here because it's warmer and easier to take care of her, and she's not isolated in a bedroom. I hope she doesn't feel like she's on display. Actually, I don't think she gives a damn.
Dad is snoring. He's not watching that western at all. "How many times do we have to endure John Wayne?" I grumble. At least there's no sign of Gabby Hayes or Glenn Ford.
Dare I risk it? Being careful not to bump my head on the underside of the table, I steal into the living room, glancing guiltily at Dad. He's asleep in his easy chair, bent slightly forward, his head hanging down. It is the only position Dad can sleep in without going into an coughing fit. Sooner or later, he leans further forward, jerks himself awake, and catches himself from falling out of the chair. I wonder if he dreams in that position.
As quietly as possible, I change the channel. The light on the television flickers noticeably. Dad snorts and sits up, blinking. His glasses are still propped on his nose.
"I'm changing back to your show. I just wanted to see what else was on."
Dad nods and closes his eyes for a moment. Then he stands and totters off to the bathroom. Shuffling along in his sweatsock-covered feet, he glances at his sleeping wife as he passes her bed.
Sighing, I slip back into my place under the dining room table. The floor is carpeted, yet, even with Mom's lady long johns on, I'm still cold. I pull one of Mom's hand-crocheted afghans over me. I'm not fond of polyester yarn or the strange purple and green combination Mom chose for this afghan, but it's something she made that I can wrap around me. We already piled the heavy quilts on top of Mom and Jamie, so they wouldn't be cold. After all, it is the middle of January.
Dad shuffles back to his chair. He peers at me through his bifocals, looking at me as if I'm some kind of a nut. "Why don't you go to bed, Amy?"
"This is my bed," I say. "I want to be close to Mom in case she needs me."
"Don't look too comfortable to me." He closes his eyes after a moment and bends slightly forward, returning to his Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa sleep.
I must have dozed off for a little bit. Suddenly I'm aware Mom is trying to ring the bell.
"Mom, I'm right here." Forgetting about the table, I sit up and crack my head. Wincing and rubbing my crown, I hurry over to Mom.
"I gotta go to the bathroom," she says.
"Okay." Mom was a big woman, and it's awkward to help her onto the port-a-potty next to the bed. I strain to support her until she sits down. Once she's seated, I steady her because she's dizzy from her medication.
I hear a thump and a cry in Mom's bedroom. Jamie.
"Oh, great." I stand there, unable to leave Mom. If she falls, she might fracture some of her fragile bones. "Jamie, come out here. Mommy's out here with Grandma. Commere, sweetie."
He stumbles out, wailing, holding one arm out to me, his bottom lip stuck out. "Ma-ma. Ma-ma."
"I know, sweetie, I know." Mom is almost done. After a few moments, I help Mom clean herself and help her back into the bed. Jamie is holding onto my leg, crying.
There's nothing like being needed.
"Sweet little thing." Mom's tiny bird eyes, dulled by cataracts, manage to locate Jamie. She holds out one shaky hand to him. "The little thing."
Picking up Jamie, I place him within Mom's reach. She pats his chubby left arm gently. "Don't cry, Joey, don't cry."
Joey is my second brother's name, but I don't bother to correct her. Tucking the quilt under Mom's chin, I notice the frightening, alien way she looks at me. But I know she can't help it.
I slowly lull Jamie back to sleep in the rocking chair next to Mom's bed. Mom watches us. She shifts, trying to find a comfortable position. That must be hard to do when you have a tumor as big as a basketball rising out of your stomach.
"How are you feeling, Mom? Are you in pain?"
She sighs. "I always have pain."
Being careful not to bump Jamie, I glance at my watch. "It's almost time for your medication."
"Don't give me the full dosage. I don't want to be too doped up."
I nod. Gently rising, I carry my sleeping son back to Mom's bedroom. This time I pile pillows and blankets higher, creating a mountainous barrier. Jamie doesn't wake up.
Returning to the kitchen, I get Mom's pills. One kind is a pain pill, and the other is a tranquilizer she's taken for more than forty years, since her breakdown. I count out the dosages, recording the time and number, then bring them to Mom with a glass of water.
She can barely push the pills from her tongue to her throat. I dread seeing her struggle to swallow, knowing we'll have to resort to liquid morphine if it gets worse. "Mom, is there anything else you need?"
She shakes her head slightly, watching me.
"Is -- is there anything you want to talk about?"
She draws a very audible breath. "No, not really."
I sit down on the edge of the rocking chair, feeling pressure to say something significant since she's wide awake. The doctor's prognosis hangs over everything: your mother has two weeks left to live, three at best.
But I have never been strong under pressure. I think of the time I choked in a high-school basketball game when we were one point ahead and I threw the ball to a girl on the other team, who turned and made a basket with ten seconds left in the game.
I keep twisting the gold tiger's eye ring on my right hand. It's Mom's class ring, 1934. She gave it to me years ago after I lost my own.
"Did I tell you, Mom, that the Twin Cities Women's Club asked me to speak at one of their dinners? I'm so nervous."
Mom stares at me but doesn't respond. It's as if she's off somewhere, contemplating something a lot bigger than the stuff I'm talking about. This isn't like Mom -- usually, she's interested in the mundane doings of her youngest child.
But then, usually, she's sitting at the kitchen table, crocheting, smoking a cigarette, slugging down coffee, listening to the confessions, boasts, and amusing tales of her children, grandchildren, and old-lady friends.
I miss seeing her sit at that table.
I fumble around for something else to say. "Well, Mom, I haven't talked to Jamie's dad in quite some time. But I'm applying for child support. Hennepin County says I'll have to prove he's the father, since we weren't married -- "
A look of complete distaste settles like a terrible weight on Mom's wizened face. I'd better shut up now or I'll have to slap myself.
"Guess I'll get some sleep," I mumble as I slide under the table. Mom's lying wide awake, a few feet away from me, but I know anything I say is going to sound inane in the face of death.
Only two days ago I was in minneapolis, unaware of the struggle going on in Iowa, inside my mother's body.
When my sister Louella told me over the phone that Mom had two or three weeks left to live, I laughed -- a short, nervous, disbelieving laugh.
"What do you mean?"
"It's complicated, Amy. But that's what Dr. Nichols told us. Mom's known for a long time that something was wrong. She just refused to go to the doctor."
My sister's voice began to tremble. I sat with the phone to my ear, stupefied. In front of me was a pile of papers: forms to be signed, notes to myself, a draft of a speech. I made a mental note: cancel all your appointments for the next month.
First Dad got lung cancer. My brother Rocky and my sister took turns driving fifty miles to Sioux City every day with Dad, until the radiation treatments destroyed the tumor. So, just when we think we can breathe a sigh of relief...this happens.
"How could she keep this a secret?"
"Amy, you haven't been around. You haven't seen what's been going on."
"I was home at Christmas," I said. "That was only three weeks ago!" She'd seemed fine then -- just the usual aches and pains. "She fixed chili on Christmas Eve. And she had plates of sugar cookies, all the usual -- "
"I know, I know," Louella said. "She made Christmas as normal as possible. She kept it a secret from all of us."
Neither of us spoke for several seconds.
"Sis," I said at last, "I should come home right away."
"It's a good idea. Actually, we need you to -- to help take care of Mom."
"I don't understand -- isn't she in the hospital?"
"Right now she is," Louella said. "But there's no point in keeping her there. She wants to spend her last days at home. That means we'll have to take care of her around the clock. I can be there during the day, but at night..."
I understood. Louella has a husband and family. My brothers have families too. I only have my infant son.
"I'll be there tonight."
During the six-hour drive to Battle Creek I had plenty of time to think, and the more I thought, the angrier I became. This was so typical! Knowing something was wrong and refusing to go to the doctor, believing she could control and conquer this disease herself. Maybe she thought the tumor would go away on its own, or if she didn't acknowledge its presence it simply would not exist. God knows what she thought.
But I wasn't surprised. For the last three years, Mom had suffered from cataracts. Instead of having an operation, she kept getting new glasses, trying different prescriptions. She wanted new eyeglasses to solve the problem. But, of course, they didn't.
Finally, not long ago, Mom permed a customer's hair at the beauty shop, and she wasn't sure she'd done a good job. Since it was affecting her work, she decided to have the eye operation.
When the nurses gave her a physical, however, they discovered her blood was too thin for an operation of any kind -- she'd taken nine aspirin that morning to dull her pain from the ailment she'd told no one about.
The Battle Creek doctor knew what was wrong almost immediately. He could feel the tumor just by pressing on her abdomen.
One thing led to another, with my sister Louella dragging Mom to the hospital in Sioux City. Mom was told her days on this planet were finite. There was nothing the doctors could do.
I wake up -- or do I just dream that I wake up? All I know is that the moments I'm about to describe seem like a dream.
Getting up from under the table, I look at my mother. She is wide awake, and her eyes don't seem so filmy, so blind. I can talk to her straight.
Sitting down next to her, I savor the warmth of her crumpled body. Still alive. I clutch her right hand a little tighter than I should.
"Amy," she says.
"Mom -- " Frantically, I search my mind for anything that will make her keep fighting. "I won't be able to bear it if you go. Minneapolis is so stressful. The only way I cope is knowing you're here, carrying on. It keeps me sane -- "
"I know," she says. And she does seem to know. She really does.
"You can't let this beat you, Mom. You gotta keep going -- "
She nods and takes one of her deep, shaky breaths. "I'll try." She means it. She won't let this disease take her away from us. Something in her still believes she can lick this thing, just as she has conquered so many other problems in her life.
For the moment, I believe it too. I hug her, just as if I were a little child. And then I go back to bed, to my under-table nook. In my sleep, I embrace the seeming reality of my dream.
What wakes me up is not the sunlight or Dad's snoring. It's the television.
I can imagine all sorts of things being on at 6 a.m. -- an old movie, a Lucille Ball rerun, a religious meditation, or news, maybe. But looking past Mom's frail body in her hospital bed, past Dad snoring fitfully in his Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa stance, I see a blond, pink-cheeked woman in a skimpy aerobics outfit saying, "Energy! Energy! Let's show some energy this morning! Up and down, and up and down...stretch, stretch, stretch!"
"Stretch all you like, honey. You've got enough energy for me and this entire household. And then some."
I sound cranky, but I'm feeling better -- although "better" is a relative term. Better than rock bottom?
Regardless, I prefer daytime. Everything seems more upbeat. In an hour or so, my oldest brother, Rocky, will check on us before he goes to work. Then my sister Louella will come to relieve me. And, no doubt, there will be other visitors, coming to say good-bye.
When my sister arrives, I greet her with a hug. She gives Mom her medicine and talks to her briefly. We both coax Mom into trying a can of Ensure -- this high-calorie, nutritional milk shake. When she drinks half of the can's contents, we cheer up, making jokes. We even talk about mundane things in front of Mom, and I don't feel stupid. Jamie's new word, "Cowabunga." Whether or not it will snow. That beautiful purple and green afghan.
I walk out to the kitchen, smiling. practically giddy. It feels good to feel good. I can only feel bad for so long.
Louella is right on my heels. She puts Mom's medicine away and turns to me. A smile lingers on her lips, but there is something else in her eyes. Shaking her head, she glances at Mom. "How can this be?" she says. It is not really a question.
The phone rings; it is my aunt Judith. I am relieved to hear the healthy, energetic sound of my aunt's voice. As a child, I always looked forward to her visits. She was so much fun.
Today, however, she sounds strained. Mom is Aunt Judith's big sister.
"Can I speak to your mother, dear?"
I turn the phone over to Mom, holding it to her ear. Mom's eyes become brighter for a few minutes. She listens intently, responding to Aunt Judith in monosyllables. There is death in her voice, and I know the sound of it must carry over the wires. Gradually, Mom retreats into that limbo place, a time-out. The enlivened look in her eyes fades, and she stops speaking.
I take the phone from Mom to speak to Aunt Judith. All I can hear is this choking sound -- inarticulate grief. Wordless, I hand the phone to my big sister.
I go to the living room and sit in Dad's easy chair. Staring at the television, I can't laugh, although what's on seems damned funny just now -- the soap opera, One Life to Live.
As the days go by, I notice a change in Mom. Because she has trouble swallowing the pain pills, we switch to liquid morphine. She appears sleepy all the time and has difficulty forming sentences. I don't know if it's the medicine affecting her mind, or the disease. She strains, searching for ways to finish what she wants to say.
Watching her struggle, I imagine the way death should be: easy, without pain, the mind lucid, the body allowing you to accomplish whatever you want in your last, glorious moments. Everyone should get to make that final basket before the buzzer goes off, winning the game by one point.
Instead death is wasting away in bed, cancer destroying your body, organs shutting down one by one, someone cleaning your bottom for you, your final words distorted.
I call the nurse from the hospice program in Sioux City. "Can we lessen the dosage? Mom can barely communicate with us. She hates that."
The nurse advises: "Try cutting the dosage in half."
I do so, and it isn't long before I see a change. Mom becomes paranoid.
The nurse comes, but Mom refuses her bath. Mom never refuses anything, is never rude. But today she tells the nurse, "Go away!" And she looks at me with suspicion as I give her the morphine. She is certainly not sleepy now.
My family is milling about. My brother Joey came at high speed from a business trip in New York with his wife Elisha. This traveling salesman of a brother can put everything he wants to say in a few magic words. He's the kind of basketball player who can travel in a basketball game without the referee blowing the whistle.
Last night, I saw Joey holding Mom's hand and telling her things. The right things to say at a time like this, the things I would never think to say. Afterwards, I know he has said everything he needed. I envy him the peace that is in his eyes.
My dad turns the radio on in the kitchen, and the familiar sounds of a high school girls basketball game drift into the dining room. It's tournament time. My sports-minded brothers lean against the counters and listen. Smith passes to Uhl. Uhl dribbles, passes to Wright. Wright goes in for the lay-up and makes it!
"That Wright girl is a pistol," Dad says.
My sister puts one arm around my shoulder. "You were a darned good basketball player."
"I was just a substitute my last year -- don't you remember?"
Louella shakes her head. "You were a good basketball player," she repeats.
I shrug. Coach Baumgarter had thought otherwise. I warmed the bench my senior year because I choked in key moments. I stuck it out until the end of the season, although the coach probably wished I would quit. I lost my passion for the game. It bothered me that somebody always had to lose.
Hope Sorensen, a neighbor lady, comes to visit. She is elderly and delicate, but healthy. I try not to look at her resentfully. She is bearing a plate of Rice Crispies bars. "I thought your mother might like a sweet treat," she says. She holds onto the bars, evidently worried the rest of us might eat them before Mom can try one.
If we could get Mom to eat anything, I would do handstands. We've tried everything, from favorite foods to new foods, but I could only cajole her into drinking a little more Ensure. She's almost finished a second eight-ounce can. It's only taken her three days.
I told the hospice nurse about it on the phone. "I'm not sure if it's the cancer that's killing her," I said, my voice cracking, "or if she's starving to death."
The nurse answered gently, "Your mother's body is giving her a message."
"I don't think I like that message."
Hope Sorensen sits in the kitchen -- where Mom always used to sit and visit -- and chats with my brothers and me before she talks to Mom. Hope's gossipy ways tended to annoy Mom, but Mom was always polite to her.
Rising from my chair, I go into the dining room when I hear Mom talking with Louella in an angry, alien voice.
"Send her away," Mom says. "I don't want to talk to her. Get rid of her!"
I look at Louella. "Get rid of Hope?"
Louella is smiling behind her hands. "Yes -- we have to kick her out."
This is going to be awkward. But before we can stop her, Hope walks into the dining room to speak with Mom. "Elizabeth, I brought you some Rice Crispies bars. How are you feeling?"
Surprising us, Mom puts a smile on her face. "Better," she says. There is a lot of orneriness in that one word.
"Wonderful!" Hope looks at us as if to say: you're wrong, she's not dying, you silly children. Fortunately, Hope only stays a few more minutes, without hearing Mom be rude to her even once. She leaves, convinced that she has put Mom on the road to recovery.
Louella's husband calls and asks her to come home to help with the chores on the farm. So I tend to Mom while my brothers hover around somewhat helplessly, discussing the local high school's chances of making it to the state girls' basketball tournament.
It is time for Mom's medicine again, and I'm dreading it. Mom stares at me, not with suspicion anymore, but, it seems to me, with...hatred.
"I won't take it. You're trying to poison me."
I stand there, flabbergasted. Can this angry old woman be my mother? "Mom, I would never hurt you. This medicine takes away the pain."
"You're trying to poison me," she repeats. She slaps the cup with surprising strength, and the morphine spills on her blanket.
"Boys," I call out, "I need your help."
My brothers surround me almost before the words are out of my mouth.
"Mom," Rocky says soothingly, "what's the matter?"
"You're trying to kill me," the old woman insists.
"No, Mom, we love you. We would never hurt you," Joey says.
"You don't love me. And I don't love you."
The words rise up out of me in a sob: "Oh, Mom." I turn away.
This is not my mother.
Somehow Rocky and Joey manage get this woman to take the morphine. They settle her down.
I sit holding my head, which feels quite hot, thinking about the speech I have to give for the Twin Cities Women's Club. It's supposed to be about the influence our mothers have had on our careers, the inspiration they have provided. Thinking about it calms me. And then I remember: I'm supposed to give that speech tomorrow in Minneapolis.
After waiting until things have calmed down, I tell my brothers I have to go. I can't cancel -- it's too important to my career. It will only take one day. I'll go there, give the speech, and turn right around and come home.
Rocky and Joey stare at me but say nothing. They understand -- work comes first. Mom set that standard for us. Immediately, my brothers start to figure out schedules for tending Mom and Jamie.
Mom sinks into sleep before I leave. I can't go near her bed, afraid that those eyes will open and look at me accusingly. Part of me wants to hold her hand, at least, but I can't. I tell myself I'll do it when I get back. Instead, I hug my son a little too tightly. He wriggles out of my good-bye embrace.
On the way to Minneapolis, I go over my speech, reinventing my mother, erasing what I've witnessed:
My mother had graduated from high school, attended beauty school, and started her own business at the tender age of eighteen. She supported her immigrant mother and five younger siblings with her earnings. Later, when she married, she supported her own family. She was the town's oldest original owner of a business, running her beauty shop for over fifty years. Elizabeth Cooke was still working up until one month before her illness.
An uninvited memory rises up: Mom, fifteen years ago, when she fell in the living room and broke bones in her right foot. She never went to the doctor, afraid that he would put her foot in a cast and she wouldn't be able to work. She would lose her customers. Mom worked in spite of the pain, standing for hours at a stretch. Over time, she developed a huge lump on one side of her foot. One toe twisted and curled on top of another. She had to wear shoes specially made for her feet because no others would fit. Mom complained about the price of those shoes -- over $400.
At first, I do not see the state patrolman behind me, his lights flashing. He has to turn on his siren for me to notice him. I pull over.
I am developing an elaborate story about why I am speeding when he says, "You should go home, Miss. We got a call from your brother -- they asked us to keep an eye out for you, to send you back."
It's late when I get home. The family members who live nearby have gone home. Dad, of course, is there, and so is my brother Joey and his wife Elisha.
When I walk in the dining room, I see that Mom is gone. The hospital bed has been taken away. The dining room is just a dining room again.
It doesn't register. I stand there in the space where I would have stood next to Mom's bed holding her hand. I'm digging my nails into my palms.
Tonight my dreams will try to convince me that Mom is still alive. Part of me won't know Mom is dead for a long time to come. Every day, for months, I'll wake up, thinking for a few sweet moments: she's alive. Then I'll remember.
Joey greets me, breaking off my reverie. He is not a salesman now. He hugs me and asks, "Amy, can you make some hot fudge sauce for ice cream?"
I nod, relieved and not surprised at all. I find Mom's recipe easily. Searching through the cupboards, I find that Mom has all the ingredients we need -- unsweetened chocolate, sugar, flour, evaporated milk, vanilla, and Oleo. I make sauce, measuring, stirring, and pouring ingredients, performing a ritual.
Joey and Dad are the only ones still up. They sit at the kitchen table, talking about little pieces of nothing. I'm glad they haven't mentioned the funeral preparations. Just now, I can't think about a funeral.
They watch me make the sauce, and I realize I'm more of a comfort to them than any episode of Perry Mason could be. I hand Dad and Joey bowls of ice cream and let them to help themselves to the hot fudge sauce.
Joey looks at me gratefully. "Just like Mom's." He drowns his vanilla ice cream, creating a mud-and-milk lake. I smile and am about to make a dish myself when I look at Dad. He is eating without enthusiasm.
"Forty-nine years ago," he says, "Your Ma and I got married. We eloped 'cause your Grandma Ellis didn't approve of me. I didn't have a job. We drove to Nebraska in a car that leaked oil the whole way. We'd have to stop every once in a while to dump in a can of oil. I was surprised we made it. Nebraska...maybe we were married in South Dakota." He laughs shortly. "I can't recollect."
He continues to eat, almost as if he's not really tasting the ice cream. With each swallow, it seems to me I can see a tumor growing in his chest, one the radiation treatments didn't check.
And I keep thinking, maybe, just this once, the referee will stop the clock, to show a little mercy.
Michelle Rogge Gannon (email@example.com) is an adjunct instructor in the English Department at the University of South Dakota, and volunteer webmaster for the English Department web site. She has published an article in The South Dakota Review, and wrote the biography Ceaseless Explorer: Conversations with Joseph Spies (USD Press). She lives in Vermillion, South Dakota with her husband and eight-year-old son.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Michelle Rogge Gannon.