Following protocol, the nurses in the post-op rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills had tied my mother to the wheelchair with a bedsheet that circled her waist and crossed her chest like a makeshift toga. The restraint was knotted in the back of the chair, leaving her arms free, though her pale veiny arms had no purpose. They couldn’t hold anything. They didn’t push anything away. They weren’t used to put on makeup. They didn’t stir, or pick up things, or bend. Nothing more than drooping wings.
My mother’s expression was that of a forgotten wall: olive green eyes set back in their sockets. Eyes that saw nothing or something for which the words have not yet been invented. Lips that did not move, a slack tongue, and a face still held taut against the tiny sloping bones in her cheeks.
As I got closer, I saw her elegant ghost, dressed in a suede maxi coat and woolen crocheted hat, ease into the chair. I felt us speeding through the crushhh of the snow in the long wooden sled, shifting our weight as one. Down and down and …down to the bottom of Dog Hill, my mother’s cold cheek pressed against mine. Her leather gloves holding my tiny mitten hands. Our cottony breath circling our woolen scarves.
Prisoner of the chair, tied like a feral creature, less alive than not. The legs of the dancer who could no longer dance.
The nurses, bless them, each of their voices like the cut of a scissor: she fell out of the bed, found on the floor. She goes too fast. Found before the nurses changed their shift. No one – no one with a head in a sign-in sheet, a med jar, a linen closet, a hand on a dial, a hand on a chest, or a lung, or a back or a lip – no one heard the bed alarm sound. No one heard the bleeep.
An object in free fall in a vacuum will accelerate at approximately 9.8 m/s2, independent of its mass. With air resistance acting on an object that has been dropped, the object will eventually reach a terminal velocity, which is around 53 m/s (195 km/h or 122 mph) for a human skydiver.
Somehow it was my mother’s fault for getting up after the operation that happened just two days ago, her fault for trying to act on the most basic of two-legged instincts, her fault for being, well, demented and helpless. Perhaps she had ignored the low-pitched alarm as if she’d heard a taxi honking in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. Maybe she had pivoted on her newly minted robot hip, before stepping down on her once muscular leg. Her lips kissed the tiled floor.
Someone must have blamed me. Blame must be placed. It’s the American way! The tone with which the harried nurse mentioned the fall again and again, making sure I knew why Pat needed the bedsheet restraint. Maybe it was my fault for attending a party for my son’s high school graduation while Pat attempted a dangerous escape from her bed. Perhaps it was the way the sun and stars were aligned that caused the second fall. Mercury in retrograde, a super moon on the rise. And all that jazz.
There were few words exchanged between us during those visits at the rehab. Words were fast becoming obsolete, beside the point. Touching her, feeling her, helping her move in small ways, smiling back at her with love, encouraging the belief that there were still things worthy of smiling about: these were my goals.
The untying of her bedsheet restraint was sad to watch. Powerlessness is sad to watch.
I made sure the staff knew of me. I exist: she exists. After five weeks the insurance coverage ran out. By then, many knew my name and that I lived close enough to be a regular visitor. Her only visitor. They told me what she ate and didn’t eat. They told me about the drawings she made in arts and crafts. One nurse insisted that my mother had drawn a portrait of me. When I held it up, I thought the drawing looked more like my mother. I thought it was a self-portrait. But I was never sure.
When I arrived late afternoon, I watched as the bathing nurse wiped and preened, and smoothed my mother’s body with lightly scented soaps and goopy lotions. She brushed my mother’s feathery hair, pinned the front wisps with a barrette, and slipped a nightgown over her long forgotten frame. A dancer’s frame.
In the bed next to my mother lived Sibuy, a 90-year-old with a thick Armenian accent, a lash of grey hair, and faraway eyes. Sibuy tossed in her bed, afflicted by a pain that could not be soothed. She cried out in a voice that was as tender as a child’s and as ancient as the shell that contained her.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!” she repeated, despite the shooshing from the overworked nurses.
“Mamaaahh” she cried again. Mamamamahh. Rhythmically. Quivering lips and toes. Hands curling to fists.
The sleep meds were easing my mother out of her misery, so I turned off the light beside her bed and kissed her forehead.
I looked for a nurse but could find none. For a few minutes, the ward was dark and quiet, except for the clinking sound of metal trays and the occasional squeak of sluggish feet across the floor.
I sat for a few moments next to Sibuy, who held to her mantra. I tried to quiet her by touching her cheek, offering a sip of water, and pulling the sheets up around her neck.
Mama mama mammm, Sibuy said, slowing the words in her throat until the syllables melted. That’s when I slipped away. I escaped in my car, drove home across the city, made a simple dinner, called a friend, listened to the news. I was afraid of something unseen, unknowable. But I could no longer hide from it. The future was on its way. The future was a woman, nine decades old, calling all day, calling with a singular mission, calling until her throat was hoarse and sleep took possession.