I am tired: achingly, bone-crushed tired, of visiting and making small talk for a week with people I barely know.
I took my elderly mother to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Rushville. We left on a Sunday morning and were there a week. We stayed at a Comfort Inn, and this kills me: before I left I was thinking of finding a “camp” where I could go for a few days, a week, to meditate, to figure out my present reality. I didn’t feel I was “here” enough, not mindful enough.
What a joke! Anybody who needs meditation camp should do what I did: although I am in my middle forties, I lived with ailing senior citizens for a week. In fact, I lived like an ailing senior. This was the pattern of our days: up at seven-thirty for a Continental breakfast at the hotel, then hours of light conversation punctuated by a senior lunch at noon followed by a nap. During naptime I’d explore country roads around Rushville, snapping morose black and whites of winter-stripped trees and lonely farmhouses. Sometimes I’d just go back to the hotel to read and try to get control over my cement-filled head and runny nose, a cold that landed when I did, our first evening in Indianapolis.
After the naps we had dinner at six, Wheel of Fortune at seven and Jeopardy at seven-thirty. Then back to the room, where Mom and I watched TV until about ten and then crashed in our double beds.
This was our routine every day. The first few days were sunny and mild. Thereafter, it rained.
Mom and I were roommates, together twenty-four/seven for a week, but she works so hard to be agreeable, and is so kind-hearted and sensitive that only a weirdo would mind being with her. But living like this for a week removed me from myself. In Indiana, I was in service to others and my own needs were almost completely sublimated, except for the short period each day that I’d go off alone. Except for that I smiled, I encouraged, I listened, I fetched, I carried. I ignored hunger pangs. I enjoyed fried chicken three nights out of the six, one of which was at the Elks Lodge in downtown Rushville, where it was okay to smoke in the dining room.
Did I mention I got a bad cold? I didn’t want to scare the old folks, so the whole time I was hiding from them the fact that my nose was running even though it was cemented shut, and I was on high alert that a tickle didn’t result in a sneeze, and if it did, it was one of those closed-mouthed ones. You’ve had that, haven’t you? Where the sneeze just goes back down your lungs, and then your head gets all thick and your nose runs even more, although your nose is now even more stuffed up? And each time you touch a tissue to your face you hurry to the bathroom to scrub with soap or waterless cleanser to protect the seniors from your germs? Because you’re there to help them, not kill them.
In Indiana, I lived part-time in my Aunt Katherine’s house. I say it that way because I spent enough time there to feel like I was living her life. I was pulled into the culture of a senior citizen. Meals were a source of anxiety for Mom and I because Katherine was ill and had good days and bad. We didn’t want her to feed us, to make extra work for her, but she simply said, “Well, I was going to fix it anyway,” or some such, with her irrefutable Midwestern logic. One night Mom and I tried to assuage our guilt by bringing take-out, but the restaurants in this town of five thousand souls are mostly limited to burger joints. After a couple of tries, Mom and I gave up and did it Katherine’s way, except that Mom would putter in the kitchen with her, helping prepare the meal (a precious sight. I hope that will be me and my sister, one day). My job every night was to do the dishes by hand. There is no dishwasher.
Katherine and Bob have some really old stuff in their kitchen, and I’m not talking about fussy priceless antiques. I’m talking the last big yellow Pyrex bowl from Grandma Ulschak’s kitchen, and a set of tin salt/pepper shakers that are over half a century old. Her cooking is a part of that simple richness: Swiss steak smothered in tomato gravy with a hint of barbeque sauce and scalloped potatoes; pork chops and mashed; the best fried chicken ever
The very old varnished wood cabinets look new, because she wipes and waxes them regularly, although probably not lately. To know that she and Bob have lived in this one-bathroom house for three years shy of a half-century makes me want to establish rituals in my own beloved home.
I feel so privileged to be able to move around easily. Katherine is in her early eighties, and she’s so infirm right now that she can’t drive to the next town, although she does go to the grocery store and the hospital where they monitor the toll on her heart from caring for Uncle Bob. He is so weak, he can barely manage the trip between his recliner and the chair next to the phone, about seven feet away. He can’t breathe very well now, even with oxygen.
Mom is an Olympian by comparison, but her limitations are growing. The only reason I went in the first place was because the trip would have been too difficult for her to do solo. By contrast, I am Super Woman. When we arrived late into Dallas-Fort Worth, we had to hustle to make our connection. I pushed Mom’s wheelchair at a fast run for a good quarter-mile through the airport. No shin splints, no hip problems. I was even able to breathe. The whole week, I carried our bags up and down stairs, opened doors, and endured discomfort and mental privation with a smile. It was so much easier for me than for them, that even with a bad cold, I realized I was blessed.
Katherine and Bob will only be together for a few more weeks, if not days. He’s still sharp, but he’s hurting so bad that he drifts off from the morphine. One day Katherine felt a little better and climbed up onto his hospital bed, there in the living room. I could see how strong and limber she used to be. She curled up next to him. He made a wisecrack and she smiled. I thought her face showed a lot more than just an appreciation of his humor. I’m probably projecting, but it seemed she was seeing all that was going away from her, more than fifty years of toughing out the hard times. I found out they lived on government commodities years ago while his union went on strike. The boys were only five and six. Another time, he wrecked his eighteen-wheeler on black ice and almost died. Katherine had to go to work, and at the same time keep the house together, raise their sons and help Bob heal. He was a WWII pilot. Loved to golf with his brother Bill, a funny, nice man who lived three doors away. The town is full of their extended family.
One day when Katherine felt really weak and tired, she looked at me and said, “There isn’t anything to look forward to.” No adornment, just those simple, plain words. Her honesty encouraged my own. I said, “I wish I could say something to fix it, but I can’t.” Then we just looked at each other with these grim little smiles on our faces.
So now I am home, back in Palm Desert, California. I slept in my own bed with what seemed like perfect pillows. Bliss. My room was silent, I was alone. I didn’t have to worry or serve. I could look forward to a full day of fulfilling my own whims.
This morning I juiced four tangerines from my back yard tree, which thrives under the palms and next to the pool in our desert paradise. The juice was a shot of pure, heavenly vitamin C for my health and the perfect blend of tart and sweet for my palate.
Then I put on my swimsuit and slipped into the hot tub, sighing as my tired, sore muscles relaxed and my bones warmed. It meant everything in the universe to feel just that. Just that.
Then I got the paper and my coffee, and savored the classical CD that my kids gave me last Mothers’ Day. I marveled that I have them, and they are so good and love me. I am so blessed.
Indiana taught me this: if I ever again get so self-absorbed that I worry about not being alive in my own skin, I’ll kick myself in the behind and go volunteer somewhere, preferably with seniors. Maybe in Rushville.