After the fall and the surgery and the two-week stay at a rehab in Glendale that had a dastardly circus atmosphere, after the subsequent falls and contusions, and after the guilt about making bad decisions on her behalf and trusting the wrong people, and after the pain and suffering and anguish of not being able to do much as she slipped further and further down the sinkhole into a kind of torment that cannot be captured in words. After my Internet searches and attempts at acceptance and prayer and meditation and consultations with doctors and nurses and more doctors who spoke in neutral tones about matters so important to me that my body shook with grief. After the frustrating phone calls to the state-financed hospice caregivers and the long chats with the friends who’d lived through it, and the dear friends who seemed to know what they would do if… I realized I was the only one who could make a decision. I was her only child. I was The Decider.
So, I moved my mother to a board and care in Atwater Village, a craftsman house with five residents, presided over by Lena, a greedy woman who wore Armani pantsuits and berated the indentured Russian-Armenian staff for infractions like leaving the sheets in the dryer overnight or cooking the same soup two days in a row. It had been a decade of illness and suffering. This had to be the last stop. She would die in a board and care facility, far from Greenwich Village and the Leroy Street pool where she swam her laps as a teen, far from the piano in our living room where she took singing lessons from her dear friend Barry K., (defying the nuns who said she was tone deaf), and far from the arms of her husband of 46 years, whose name she repeated in her restless dreams.
In the shared room with its muted decor and the photos of her smiling grandchildren on the dresser. This is where the end comes, as it does, as it will, as it must. This is where she spoiled, depleted and lonely in every bone and circuit, the way an abandoned nest exposed to extreme weather becomes a relic, a tangle, a hieroglyph, a symbol of home, but not home itself.
Despite the months of costly rehab, my mother never learned to walk again after the fall she suffered at the previous facility. As a result of being lame, she was regarded as a wilted plant, shuttled from a chair to a bed, for nearly two years. When I arrived in the early months of her stay there, I found her barricaded inside a geriatric “geri” chair, restrained around the waist with a starchy white bedsheet, watching mindless game shows or one of the Armenian language dramas involving sexy saboteurs.
The morning of the second day she moved in, Ava found her on the wood floor of her room, pinned between the wall and her twin bed. She’d been there for hours.
The new contusion on her head was the size of an orange and her eyes looked like demons’ eyes for months after that. In fact, she went inside herself and refused to speak, or couldn’t speak. I don’t know which.
I won’t tell you about that trip to the emergency room in detail. I’ll just say that I wept loudly as they tortured my demented mother with needles and catheters and x-rays and restraints, only to find that she had fallen and needed pain relief. I wept in the arms of a stranger, Bohdan, a burly biker man and former mathematician from the Ukraine, who Lena had hired at the facility only days before.
Ava told me how guilty she felt about my mother’s fall. I never held it against her because you always have a choice about blame. She was my mother’s first and favorite caregiver at the Atwater place, a jovial woman with a child’s face and hands, who was studying online to be a pharmacist. Ava’s interest in medicine gave me hope that she might give my mother the right medications twice a day. She was kind, a good cook, and a good listener. I brought her some handbooks for learning English and a book of poems by an Armenian poet, a colleague who taught at Glendale College with me. Ava and I used to sound out words together when she was on a cigarette break. Ava sometimes lied to make me feel good by saying my mother asked about me. I could count on Ava for a daily report of what my mother ate, how many hours she slept, and how her mood had been. I would nod and offer an eclair or a cookie or make a silly joke. One time Ava cried behind her glasses because she missed the sounds of her own children’s voices.
I went unannounced to the board and care. I’d heard that was the best way to know what was really going on. When I arrived, my mother would perk up slightly. Perhaps she had a vague awareness of a new person’s arrival. Perhaps I was a kind person, someone she once knew. Someone who appeared out of nowhere, like a strange apparition.
There was a time–chronology seems minor now–when my mother cried for hours each day and nothing could console her. That’s when her roommate, Feisty Barbara, who wore Christmas pajamas all year long, complained that my mother was too damn noisy.
That woman should look on the bright side sometimes, she said.
On Sundays, I often go to the farmer’s market in Atwater with my daughter and her boyfriend. Carrot stalks, avocados, and leafy greens wedged in our market bags, we unite in long embraces with our L.A. tribe. The kids are no longer kids, but young adults finding their path, trying out jobs, making their own lives in a city that privileges the new over the old, a city of sprawl and mini-malls and glamour, shamed by a homeless crisis, a city that I adopted in 1988, thinking I would stay for six months to see what happens.
We unite under the shady stands at the farmer’s market with friends and families whose lives have shaped our own. Our shared history of east side schools and soccer games, potlucks, taco stands, gun control and women’s marches, holiday parties, tree plantings, and children’s theatre groups, the stuff that got us all through marriages, affairs, and divorces, illness, recovery, and career moves. These are the women and children imbedded in our lives, and even if our encounters are brief, we pause because we can, we must, and we are better for having done so.
One Sunday, I parted ways with my daughter and packed my market bags into the car and sat staring off into the distance. I realized I was parked on the street where my mother had lived. The purple house with the white gate was only a few feet away. I thought of all the afternoons I stopped in after work, and all the Saturdays I dragged myself there and knocked on the door, never announcing that I was coming, hoping to see the scene as it was, hoping to interrupt, or distract, to catch a glimpse of the routines and rituals. Weeping at the sight of her. Weeping at the thought of her. Wishing I could free her. Cut her loose. Forever.
I remember the sighs of the harried caregivers who took Ava’s place when she went back to her country. The large male workers from the Ukraine, the women like, Mean Lucy, with their thick hair and taut faces, struggling to say the right thing in a new language. I thought of the smells of the baking chicken and the oniony soup wafting from the kitchen, the scent of the antiseptic soap, and the remnant cigarette butts hidden behind a tire in the driveway. I thought, of the days stolen from my mother and from me in that Atwater house, the mornings when the sun blazed through the June gloom, and the day started out hopeful and new. The days I didn’t go to the beach, or go on a hike, or meet a friend.
I flashed on images of my mother in her late stage — her gaunt face, her brittle legs folded like chicken wings, her eyes searching for heaven — and held my breath. I sifted through the contents of the house: the hieroglyphs, the rubble left by a community of sorrow. Then I thought of why or how or if only — and had no answers. I just knew that we were released. I didn’t have to knock on the door of the purple house. And instead of shame, I was overcome with gratitude and relief.
It was the relief found in impermanence.
How strange and good and sad it is that nothing, nothing lasts.