A week later and back on the road, I headed for Wymore in New Blue. Several conversations with the nursing staff throughout the week assured me Mother was doing as well as expected. They had her out of bed and going to meals. She wasn’t eating much, but she was eating. I’d only talked directly to her once and the conversation rambled.
“That big ice storm on the farm, one of the ewes had twins. Your father wrapped the babies in his coat and brought them to up to the house.” Confused by her reference, I didn’t say anything. We didn’t have sheep on the farm. “Little Joe was a baby, so I had bottles.” Oh. The first farm when my father and my brother were still alive. Before me, before any of the rest of us. “I had a new White stove and I’d fixed dinner, so the coals were still hot. He opened the oven door and made a nest out of his coat, put the babies there. He’d go down every couple of hours and milk the ewe. Bring back the milk and we’d feed those babies from the bottles. He took them back down in the morning. Those babies were fine.”
Tell me about the white stove,” I said, thinking color, not brand. “The White had a double oven, new style. Still used wood but it cooked good. I loved that stove. Brand new, but we had to leave it behind when we moved to San Francisco. Too big. But he took my wringer washer apart and we packed dishes inside the tub. We took that.”
I treasured the new stories I heard, even the old ones. “I’m coming up in a couple of days. Michael has music lessons tomorrow.” She said that was fine. And then she hung up the phone, clattering it in the cradle as she tried to replace it. I heard a dial tone.
Light snow melted on the windshield in occasional flakes when I parked at the nursing home. More snow. The almost-February sky sullen in the fading light. When I went inside, I saw Mom just past the nurses’ station, in a wheelchair, facing the closed dining room doors. A few other residents, some in wheelchairs, some sitting on the orange plastic chairs lined up against the wall, waited for the buzzer to announce the last meal of the day.
I came up behind her and leaned around her head to kiss her cheek. “Hi, Ma.”
“Oh, Janet,” she said, and lifted a hand to cup my cheek before pointing to the brown fiber broom closet door some few paces ahead in the wall. “Let’s get out of here.”
And before I could answer, before I could explain it was a closet, her lips began the rhythmic smacking, indicating a Petit Mal seizure coming on. I’d seen those seizures for years. They’d come on in times of stress or sometimes just because. Her hands began twitching. Still leaning over, I gave her one of my hands to grab and laid my other arm over her shoulder to brace her head. Twisting behind me as much as I could, I saw two of the staff. “Help me get her to her room!”
We trundled down the hallway, a nurse pushing the wheelchair, me walking alongside, my hand still clasped by Mom, the aid rushing ahead to open the door and be ready to help at the bedside. We moved her into bed, covered her feet and legs with a blanket, her lips still smacking and her head twitching.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” the nurse said.
I couldn’t send her back to the hospital. I couldn’t! She’d told me she was ready…I had to let it be…I had to trust her. I didn’t know what to do. Either she’d pull out of it or she wouldn’t. The smacking lips quieted. The twitching stopped. The nurse brought a chair to the bed and I sat, holding Mother’s hand. Her breathing ragged and slow. The nurse flipped off the light as she left.
The next hour crept by on silent feet. The wall clock ticked. I prayed. Sometimes silently, “help me help me help me.” I brushed back her bangs, saw again the deep dent in her forehead that had been there since the car accident when Little Joe died. I held her hand. Said, “shhhhhhh….” when she twitched or gurgled. “It’s okay. You can go,” I said over and over. Once I said, “Take Jesus hand…he’s there…” And she whispered the last words I’d hear, “I can’t see him…..” I was drowning in tears. But I wouldn’t sob. When I unclenched my teeth, I said, “Then take Dad’s. He’s waiting….” What did I know. I didn’t know anything. All I could do was hold her hand, say inane things, wanted to help. A snow gust shook the window. I didn’t know what to do. One hand holding Mom’s hands, the other picked up the phone and called Cliff in Santa Fe. He was still at work.
“Mom’s dying, Cliff…I can’t do this….I don’t know what to do…I can’t help her…I’ve told her it’s okay….I’ve told her to take Dad’s hand…please help me!”
“Shhhhhhh…” I heard. “You’re doing the right thing. You know what to do. Breathe.” I took a deep breath. My neck relaxed and my jaw unclenched. “Sometimes, it’s hard for someone to leave if a person they love is right there. Your mother loves you.” The tears began again. I clenched my jaw to keep from sobbing. “Just back up. Give her the space she needs…”
“Please pray with me,” I said. And he prayed, my ever-constant protector, the priest in him with the right words, always, for my mother, for me. “Now just back up,” he said. “That’s all you have to do now. Just move your chair back from the bed a little.”
“Okay,” I said and hung up the phone. I pushed back and saw someone in the hallway light, framed in the open door, sitting in a wheelchair. Laverne, Mom’s oldest friend from church. I got up and went to the door.
“How is she?” Laverne asked. “Mom’s dying, Laverne. I’m sorry.”
She nodded and backed up her chair to turn down the hall. At that moment, I heard the wall clock sing. My mother loved birds, had watched them all her life, on the farm, when traveling with Dad, and she had a wall clock of birds, each different one singing on the hour. The Nightingale sang. I turned back to the bed. Mother no longer breathed.
It was just like her to go so quietly, no bother at all. I sat beside her for a while. Just sat. Then I got up, filled her basin with warm water in the bathroom, brought back a towel and washcloth, and I bathed my mother. Gently. No trouble at all. I covered her with a blanket and called the front desk. Two nurses came down and did what they had to do. I sat and waited until the mortician came with a gurney and a big black body bag. I couldn’t watch. I went outside through whipping snow to wait.
Tonight, after you died, a nor’easter blew in.
You didn’t know—you’d slipped out
early on a nightingale’s song.
Now I sit in the car, blasted
into childhood, no stop for my fear.
Prairie storms were never unexpected.
Dad stood at the fence, smelled ruin
in the wind’s icy claw. He called us outside
(you tied bandanas over our faces) to secure
barn doors and chicken coop against the fury.
We stamped into the kitchen—popcorn, hot
chocolate—and stood our turn on the floor grate.
I played checkers with Grandpa—worried
my red plastic chip (he always played black)
until he growled, “Can’t get there thinking about it.”
If a door slammed open, Dad took care of it.
No preparation for this storm—didn’t know
it was coming. Snow batters the windshield,
tugs at wiper blades struggling to clear my view.
The nursing home door opens; they wheel you
to the hearse. Someone closes the door.
Remember the year it snowed so much
we couldn’t reach the barn? You and Dad
off in Florida. Kenny Divorak tramped up
the hill. We dug tunnels through soaring drifts
high as the grain bins. We were safe; you were safe.
The hearse pulls away.
Wind blasts my car. I turn up the heater, thaw
my cold feet, think about the calls I must make
from my cousin’s warm kitchen. Can’t
get there thinking about it. I put the car in gear,
inch forward into prairie winter.
Postscript: a happy (almost) ending: I returned to my Kansas City apartment two days later, drained. The apartment in chaos because of a leak in the bedroom ceiling, no bed to go to, so I pulled out a bedroll and lay in on the office floor. While nowhere near finished with grief, exhaustion pulled me into sleep. Just as I drifted off, I felt a touch on my cheek, light as a mother brushing away a sleeping child’s tears. That night, I dreamed I was at a gas station, filling up my car, and at the pump across from me, my mother, getting into a newly gassed up car. Once seated, she looked at me and smiled. She lifted a hand and waved as she drove off. And beside her in the passenger seat, I saw a young boy. Little Joe had come to travel with her. I woke, sobbed and smiled.