Sunday, February 12, 2006

Love and Spirits

Some people have the year of living dangerously. Apparently I am having the Year of the Emergency Room.

A couple of weeks ago, m’daughter Daisy was hospitalized, and then Friday morning my sister called to say my mother had fallen and they were taking her to the emergency room.

I drove to Sibley Hospital, which always opens a Pandora’s Box of emotions—it’s where my father was first diagnosed with cancer, it’s where Moira’s mother and brother were treated, it’s where my two babies were born—Ian and Daisy.

Birth School Work Death.

“Winter” by the Rolling Stones was playing on my CD player. Sometimes I want to wrap my coat around you…It’s funny how we take comfort in the long dormant words of a song. I am glad Mick Jagger wanted to wrap a virtual coat around me.

I don’t know what I am facing. Will my mother die this weekend? That is the big bad horrible thought. That mortality question. I am driving, and it’s over long-traversed terrain—the upper skirted layer of DC, Bethesda, Westmoreland Circle, Dalecarlia Parkway (which we used to sail down backwards as teens—daft).

I arrive at Sibley—the unintentional harbor of so many events and emotions. They have no record of my mother’s admittance of course. Because that is The Way Things Go these days—this arbitrary painful indifference—a mélange of crapped-up details and false starts and no accountability.

I did not waiver. I knew she was there—the grand piano tinkled in the lobby, played by the white-haired, red-coated volunteer—the place is manned by older sophisticates in that way, a pleasing comforting atmosphere.

I find my mother in one of the shower curtained-off booths of the emergency room—she is somehow regal, elegant, even in her hospital gown. What my mother possesses is this absolutely artless joie de vie—which she pronounces precisely like the Oklahoman that she is, no pretense, all bad French, which makes the statement, in its way, even more lovely.

My mother is gallant. The ultimate optimist. All pumped fist greatness and just a slight patrician gentility—without a trace of ostentation. My mother has lived all around the world—Singapore, Japan, Australia, and India—and in DC in between, since 1948, AND YET if you ask my mother, to this day, “Where are you from?” She will say, proudly, unabashedly, “A small town in Okalahoma called Ada.” I thought about naming Daisy Ada. Maybe I should have.

I walked into the ER booth and my mother’s face lit up, “Oh, Lele, you came!” Is what she said. “You didn’t have to come! How did you get away?” I looked at her, over the metal barricade of the semi-stretcher, and the tears just started to fall—I knew I shouldn’t but I just couldn’t stop—and this is what kills me about my mother—she knew, she just knew that I was heartbroken to see her, the strongest person in the world, so vulnerable and so she did not say one single word about the tears. So I wouldn’t feel bad about crying. As in, “We’ll just brush it off! Right-o!”

The physician’s assistant leaned over my mother’s bed gurney and said, right in front of her, “Is she baseline?” And I just looked at her, like, I’m sorry did you just speak to me, right over my mother, without acknowledging her presence? And, you know, I could not just refer to my mother as this inanimate marginalized human being, right there in front of her. And I said, “Baseline?” And she said something about –is she always like this is this normal?

I dealt with it somehow but then I went up to the woman later and I said, “You know, it’s kind of weird to talk about my mother like she’s not even there.”

That seemed to hit some long forgotten chord of humanity in her. And she wasn’t a bitch at all—she was really nice and professional, but there is always time to learn bad habits of desensitation and unconscious callousness. Isn’t there?

My mother had fallen and had lain on the floor of her well-appointed apartment for an undetermined amount of time. So they needed to do tests—X-ray, CAT scan, blood work—to determine if the fall was organic or not. Or something.

They came to take her for X-rays and I asked if I could come and they said no and they rolled her off and she said, “Oh please let her come!” And I stood there.

She came back and we had the nicest time. She said, “Tell me about the little people.” And so, relieved, I started telling her a phalanx of stories about my kids and she threw back her head—deeper into the rubberized hospital pillow—and laughed these great life affirming optimistic thrilled laughs and I stood there looking at her in wonder—like, Oh my God, I have this person in my life who loves me and loves my children so much.

MZA has been my guide in all of this older parent agony because he lost his mother just before Ian was born. He tells me over and over again, but in the most beautiful, subtle and distilled way, that no one will ever love you like your mother and once she is gone, that is it. You can have children, a husband, siblings, but you will never experience the love you receive from your mother, never.

Which is good to hear because, as Americans I think, we all too often become consumed with moving on to the next chapter and closing off before we should.

I don’t know, my mother’s spirit really infused me with hope yesterday. Just watching her talk to the nurses—old Foreign Service hat tricks that might as well be Sanskrit they are such lost arts—drawing people out and getting them to talk about themselves.

The nurses were lovely, but they kept calling her “hon” and “sweetie” and “darlin',” which my parents would be the first to tell you is better than “Late to dinner,” or other epithets, but for some reason when you’re in a hospital watching this one-time fabulous person be trivialized by people who don’t even mean it—all the old saws come out—attention must be paid!

Let’s not forget that this person, with the gray hair and the slipped off tie-on gown, was once a horseback riding girl with her own airplane who flew WWII fighter planes and met dignitaries all over the world and voted Democrat all her life and read books and made people laugh and threw dinner parties and made people feel lovely and at home in her luscious house for more years than any of us can recall.

My father used to say to her, “Margo, you are generous to a fault.” And these are the stories that get lost and buried in the misconceptions and sound bitten conveniences of life.

She kept asking questions and no one in the room got to know about her—and all her life had encompassed. I stood there as a silent, but respectful, witness.


Cynicism is another word for reality

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