by Bella Rum
Mrs. A turned 97 on her last birthday. She has shared many stories with me about my grandmother, grandfather and my mother and father when they were young. Like Dad, she has an excellent memory. When I recently thanked her daughter for sending a birthday card to Dad, she said, “Mother reminded me.”
Dad has only truly liked about a half dozen people in his lifetime, and Mrs. A is one of them. He tolerated the rest and sometimes not even that. Our families go back a long way. Mr. and Mrs. A had the distinction of owning the first television in the neighborhood. It was an exciting thing. They invited my parents to watch it with them until Dad bought one. They still talk about the fun that was had.
Mrs. A’s daughter sent an email the other day to let me know that her mother had been hospitalized. I stuck some of my mother’s hydrangeas in a mason jar and took them to her. Her tiny frame and slight 85 pounds spoke volumes about her condition. She was very frail, and one could be easily led to believe that only a watered down version of her former self remained. I was disabused of this notion the moment she spoke. “Bella Ann, your brother hasn’t brought me a single soft crab this summer.”
We chatted while she ignored her lunch with the exception of the Ensure. The hospital food held no allure for her, but she sure felt like she could eat a fried soft crab. She told me another story about my family as we sat there. Her hands trembled, and her shrunken head bobbled on her narrow shoulders as she spoke about a horrible day in our family history. Though I’d heard about it many times, I was only a year old when it happened.
She started by telling me that Mr. A came running into the house, panting and talking frantically at the same time. “Lorraine needs you. Go! Go!”
She said it was a day she would never forget. The Brother was only four years old. Dad had been mending the haul seine nets all morning. The Brother had been pestering him without letup about the knife he was using. The Brother was uncommonly good at pestering, but Dad was uncommonly good at ignoring. Mama came out to tell them that lunch was ready. A large dogwood stood beside the porch door. Dad reached up and embedded the knife in the tree as he entered the house – well out of The Brother’s reach. The Brother found a rope and lassoed the knife. Once it released its grip on the tree, it found purchase in his eye. My father managed to get him to a doctor, but only my mother was able to stay by his side. Once he was in a doctor’s care, my father fainted. This is pretty much the version that I remember. Sometimes there is a mention about The Brother eating collards after he returned home and vomiting, and that’s why he never ate collards again, or so the story goes.
These are the stories that families tell over and over again. Mrs. A holds the history of her family and ours.
When her daughter arrived, we helped Mrs. A get into her bed. She needed to sleep. The half hour visit and the recounting of the story had exhausted her. I glimpsed the slightness of her body as her hospital gown fell away, exposing her back. Her legs were covered with the splotches of blackness that mar the skin of the very old. Her chest was flat after battles with cancer. She carried the scars of the ancient. I stood over her thinking how she was all shiny and new 97 years ago. The world was a different place then.
She had to sleep, so I took her small, cold hand and held it for minute. I promised her that I would see to it that she received some soft crabs, and I told her that I had enjoyed the visit. That was the truth, right as rain.
Her daughter and I went out to a waiting area and talked. She looked exhausted and so much older than three years ago when I first came here to live with Dad. I knew she was thinking the same of me. She talked for awhile about her weariness. We confided about our stubborn and difficult parents, knowing full well that they would not still be here if they were lightweights. Still, it’s easier to say the truth of it when you know you’re not being judged.
These are two powerful people we care for, and they never make it easy. I told her Dad is still mad at me for throwing out his kidney stone, and he never fails to tell anyone who walks through the door. She told me that after she does a hundred things for her mother, Mrs. A tells her, “You know I could have done that myself.”
Some days it feels like we’re the enemy. It’s the side of care giving that children of the elderly seldom talk about. We hear a lot about what others would do if it were their parent, or what they will do when it’s time to care for their parent. It’s human nature. We’re all the heroes of our own story at some time or other, but real life is never quite so neat. I’m always aware that others have done this and many have done it better.
I won’t go on and on about this anymore, but I will tell you that, though it was not the easiest day, I’m so very glad that I went to see Mrs. A, and it was my good fortune that I ran into her daughter, too. I felt lighter as I walked to the car.