The bathroom door opened, and my mom stepped out. Her face lit up when she saw me.
“I didn’t know you were here!” she said with excitement and affection. She stepped closer and hugged me, resting her head against my chest.
I blinked for a moment, mildly perplexed. And then I let it go.
Our visit had started more than 90 minutes before, when I found her in the TV room, furiously angry.
When she saw me enter then, she gave me a look that told me I’d better get my ass over there. I sat in the empty chair next to her.
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
“I’m going to kill them,” she said, ignoring my greeting and gesturing with her head toward two women sitting a couple of seats away.
“That seems a little extreme, Mom.”
“No,” she said. “They’re old enough…. they should know… not to do this!”
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” she said. “They’re just … blah blah blah.”
She was angry that these two women were talking nonstop.
“Let’s go, Mom,” I said.
“Go? Go where?”
“To your room.”
“My room? I have a room?!”
I led her out of her chair and she glared at the ladies. We left the TV room and started to walk down the hall.
“I’m going to blow… blow their heads off,” she said. “Ooh, I’m so mad.”
I kissed her head. She didn’t respond.
She was still holding onto the anger when we entered her room and got onto her bed. Then we called Kathy and told her.
It’s been more than a year, maybe two, since I’ve seen my mom carry a thought from the TV room down the hallway and into her bedroom, holding onto it all the way. She’ll drop her granddaughter’s names well before a clock’s second hand can make a full rotation. But this anger: she couldn’t let it go.
Kathy and I joked with her about it.
“You’re acting like a five-year-old,” I said, laughing.
“Sounds like a three-year-old to me,” Kathy said.
She had a look of mock surprise on her face, and then she laughed. But she was looking away from me, her eyes settling on the wall.
“You weren’t even happy to see me when I got here,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said, not only like she meant it, but as if the sentiment was absolutely correct.
Then she laughed, and Kathy and I joined in. But she didn’t soften completely.
When we ended the call, I opened the YouTube app on my iPhone and played a song sung by Engelbert Humperdinck. My mom has an MP3 player in her drawer with several of his songs on it, but she doesn’t know it’s there. Or even what it is, let alone how to use it. So we used my device.
She used to listen to Engelbert in the 1970s, when I was growing up.
“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”
He sang and she hummed along.
“You know this one,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, and relaxed a little.
I let YouTube choose the next one and the next and the next, and we heard Engelbert sing about a man without love and a man and a woman and blue Spanish eyes.
Then she closed her eyes and got a little sleepy.
“Do you know this one?” I asked, as I switched from Engelbert to Tom Jones. She didn’t, but she seemed happy to listen.
She just took it all in.
“Ooh, I think I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
My ears perked up as if I were a dog hearing a whistle. I remembered the week before, when she’d waited too long and peed in her pants.
“Okay, Mom,” I said. “Let’s get you up so you can go.”
I helped her lift herself off the bed, and she shuffled into the bathroom.
She was in the bathroom a long time, long enough for me to listen to two Leonard Cohen songs.
At one point I turned the music down, thinking I might need to hear her in case she had any problems. Sometimes she’ll have trouble with the light, or she’ll tell me she sees blood, and I’ll go in and check. Or she’ll need help flushing the toilet.
But the moment I turned down the volume on my iPhone I could hear her humming away. She was totally engrossed in her bathroom ritual. So I turned the music back up, not all the way, and the chords of “Hallelujah” harmonized with her humming.
When she was finishing up, I was at the bathroom door. She opened it, and her hair was neat. She had probably used her toothbrush to comb it. I’d noticed earlier that there was no comb in the bathroom.
“Oh, Beth,” she said. “I didn’t know you were here!”
It broke my heart a little that in that moment, just before I was getting ready to leave, my mom was light and happy and wanting to see me. But I was glad, too.
I walked her back down to the dining room, where I led her to believe I would join her for dinner. But of course I didn’t; I had to go home.
“No… don’t go. Please don’t go,” she said.
I promised I would be back very soon.
It must be so goddamned hard to live in a nursing home some days.
Thank you so much, Beth! I can really see and feel the visit from your writing, and it’s sad and beautiful at the same time.
So beautiful, Beth. There are so many moments that break your heart just a little.
But I will be honest, as time goes by there will be less of those moments, because she will no longer understand what leaving means, and it won’t upset her. If my mom’s experience is typical, she will still light up with delight when she sees you, but not get upset when you leave. At least until the next stage…