When Mom went missing late one night, my kid sister Fran got worried. She called me first thing the next morning. She and her hubby, Trip, had found her all the way down the hill at the end of the drive, trying to thumb a ride to Hope. Still in her nightgown, clutching a pillow, Mom looked like a bent-over question mark when the headlights caught her. She told them in that low, steely voice of hers that she had to get to Bill Clinton’s birthplace to deliver an important message to him.
“What message is that?” asked Trip through the rolled-down window of his pickup.
“That he needs to stay away from that woman, that Monica whoever.”
Fran scooped her up beside her in the front seat and promised her they’d go there tomorrow if she still wanted to. That settled her down, and she had conked out by the time they rolled into the yard.
Of course, Mom had no recollection of the whole event over Special K in the morning. She gulped down the flakes soggy with milk, but every time she put down her spoon she forgot what she was doing and sat there, watching sunlight bounce off the crystal wind chime outside. Fran told me she’d have to dip Mom’s spoon back in the bowl to remind her.
Fran just had a couple of minutes with me on the phone while Mom dozed off in the TV room to the Waltons. She had to get into her job as a receptionist at Baptist Health in Little Rock.
“It’s getting worse,” Fran said. “I have to tell her when to eat lunch, when to take her pills, when to go to sleep. Sometimes I find her sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night, waiting for it to get light.”
“How often does the aide from Medicare come over?”
“Only three mornings a week. And Trip can’t do that much with his bad back, plus he’s zonked out most days from painkillers. I told myself if it ever gets too hard, we have to find somewhere for her. My son-in-law, Troy, works at a real nice facility, and he could keep an eye on her. It tears me up, but I just can’t do it all myself.”
I knew Fran was right, but I hated to admit it. I felt helpless, watching from a distance in Chicago.
Mom had finally let go of our family home in Towanda, Illinois, five years ago to move in with Fran and Trip in Arkansas. I drove down, and Fran and I helped pack the U-Haul with as much as we could of sixty years. Fran took the pile of photo albums, and I took one suitcase stuffed with odds and ends like my high school trophies and a few reels of my dad’s Super 8 home movies. I didn’t have any extra closet space in the condo. The rest of the stuff went to a guy with a truck we paid $300 to clear everything out, sell what he could, and take the rest to the dump. I knew the house I grew up in would vanish, and I tried not to be too sad.
It was time. At 90, she had still been driving a beat-up Fiesta, but just barely. She’d begun to sideswipe cars and banged right into the just-opened door of a BMW. State Farm almost kicked her off, but she insisted it was never her fault.
Even though I paid her bills and tracked her Chase account, the house had become too much for her. There were the loose roof tiles and the leaky washing machine and the teenager next door she had to nag to trim the lawn or shovel out the drive, plus squirrels in the attic and the elm’s big branch that threatened to crash into the gutter. One day in July, when I drove down to see her, I found her on a ladder with a hand saw, hacking away at the limb in 93-degree heat.
“Mom, Mom, get down! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Well, I have to do it if nobody else will.”
“Get down before you fall off and kill yourself.”
“That would be a pretty sight, wouldn’t it?” she giggled.
Three weeks later, Fran called me at the River North gallery I manage. She was upset. “I’m at the Baptist ER with Mom. When I woke her up this morning the sheets were damp with blood. Trip drove us here. We’re still waiting for a bed.”
“How is she?”
“She’s sleeping now. Her head is slumped on my shoulder. She looks so peaceful. The nurses cleaned her up and gave her a gown.”
“You think she’ll be okay?”
“It’s hard to tell. On the way to Little Rock, she kept moaning that she wants to go home. I thought she meant back to my and Trip’s place. I told her, we’ll go back home real soon. But she mumbled, no, no — home, home to Allen Street. She wanted to go home to Towanda.”
I hadn’t been to see Mom in two years because of Covid. I’d only FaceTimed with her and Fran, Mom’s pinched face floating there. She’d gotten so old. The last time in Arkansas, she had crushed me and Fran in Scrabble, going out with a triple word score.
I looked out the big windows at the Chicago River, where a yellow crane was heaving a girder into the air. Through the phone, I could hear a hospital TV, the jangly banjo and fiddle in that ad for assisted living where a woman’s soothing voice talks about finding a place for Mom. I thought, a place, right, a final place. I’m ashamed to admit it, but suddenly I found it hysterically funny. I couldn’t stop laughing, I had to press the phone to my chest, and Fran kept saying, “What, what?”
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