By Tara Munjee - Plano, Texas, USA - 1 March 2017
Walk worthy of the calling you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another in love.
I need to find some breath and balance. Life demands that I switch roles quickly, and yoga practice helps me make transitions with grace. In preparation for practice, I pour my body down to the hallway floor. The sheltered cove made by the stairway and bookcases provides a perfect island of peace -- a respite from the sea of daily activities. Now lying on the cool tile floor, I close my eyes and focus inward.
All at once I hear a deliberate thunk-a, thunk-a, announcing Thomas’s left/right, left/right descent down the staircase. I feel my body tighten and wince. This intrusion into my moment of quietude is frustrating but typical. Time with Thomas is the opposite of quiet: it can be energizing, exasperating, hilarious, but it is never, ever quiet. The staccato rhythm of his steps breaks when he reaches the last and highest step off the landing. He sees me, so he announces with bravado, “Here’s the biggest, bestest jump of all, Mama!” Then, I feel the mild earthquake as shockwaves travel through the floor, and glass rattles in the hallway bookshelves like loose teeth in a skull. Thomas turns the corner from the stairway landing and enters the long hallway, and I sink deeper into a composed stillness, hoping to signal that I want to inhabit my own personal space.
I hear the approaching soft slap of his bare feet. He stops and hovers over me so I can smell his gentle animal breath and sense his elongated shadow -- my towering preschool giant. In calculated trust I keep my eyes closed; mercifully, he no longer free-falls onto my face and chest as he did when he was a toddler. He scrambles down to the floor next to me, channeling his whole body into a stage-whisper delivered directly into my ear, “Mama, it’s time to get up. W-a-a-a-k-e-u-u-u-u-p l-o-o-o-o-vie Mama.”
The air currents against my eardrum are both annoying and endearing. I weigh two sides in my psychic tug of war: personal versus maternal time. Stirrings activated by his babyish appeal decide the outcome. Opening my eyes, I behold him, his cherubic brown bed-head hair highlighted in the morning light. I extend my legs, scoop my arms out sideways: a welcoming invitation to him. He smiles his guileless three-year-old smile, and then with care drops down on top of me. Completely enfolding him, I take delight in the remaining few soft pads of baby fat that protect him. I stroke his messy hair, and together we revel in ancient familial comfort. After a moment Thomas seems to remember his burgeoning desire for “big boy” status. Cuddling with Mama is not something the older boys do, so he recoils back to his haunches, and then pushes his body along the floor into a separate space. Now more than a body’s length away, he regards me critically, but then lovingly places a sloppy kiss on my forehead. He makes a mature pronouncement, influenced, no doubt, by social lessons learned at preschool, “It’s okay Mama, you can nap some more. I’ll wait for you to finish.”
Her room is the last one at the end of a hallway wide enough to accommodate the extra berth of wheelchairs, walkers and hospital beds. The composite floor is shiny and clean: scuffs and secretions are routinely erased by the maintenance crew. For the ambulatory few, there is a metal hand rail on both sides of the hallway that extends just below the waist-level faux wainscoting. Eye-level, to the side of each door is an erasable marker board listing the current occupant’s name, and cheery “Welcome” doormats are placed on the floor in front of the doorways. I walk down the hallway to her room alone. Thomas is frightened by the specter of the aged, so he is absolved from this corporal act of mercy.
As with most of the rooms, her door is left wide open, allowing the staff easy access. I pause before entering, say a short prayer, and prepare to act unflappably matter-of-fact when greeted with her daily diminishment. I propel myself into her room with an upbeat, “Hi Mom, I’m here,” speaking over the wall-mounted television set perpetually tuned to the Travel Channel. Side-lying in the hospital bed, she is turned away from the door and towards the window. Her utter stillness is a frightening harbinger of what is to come, and I inwardly panic, thinking, I will be the one to find her.
I both know her and don’t, this horrifically sad old woman in the hospital bed. She is at once my beloved mother -- the source of all good things -- and a beleaguered octogenarian departing on her final journey. I have witnessed many of her small demises: her once thick and lustrous hair now stingily crowns her transparent scalp, her cloudy, cataract eyes -- unfocused in this world -- sink back into her skull, her colorless, cracked lips barely differentiated from the rest of her facial skin. No words pass through those lips anymore, and while the hospice nurse assures me that she is comfortable, I would give anything to hear her say that for herself.
I climb into bed with her, careful of her fragile body as though I were lying next to an infant. Drawing close to her, I flash back to scrambling into her bed as a child; a privilege reserved for when I had occasional nightmares or illnesses. Then, as now, I don’t ask for permission to join her -- I intuit that it is acceptable -- but it is an open question as to who receives more solace. I tug on the bed sheet to create an intimate familial tent, recalling the childhood bedtime game in which she would snap the sheet, making it float in the air before it softly landed on me. Now there are no childish games, no discussion of earlier, happier times. To mention them is a cruelty underscoring all we have lost.
I spoon my body around her, embracing her completely but delicately as best I can. While she is disappearing, I try to fasten her to this world by providing some human warmth. I don’t know that she enjoys our role reversal, but this physical connection is the only comfort I can think to offer. She stopped speaking to me a week ago; I am not sure if it is because she can no longer speak, or because it is impossible for words to relay her bitter defeat. I am so sorry for her many life’s disappointments, but realize that sympathy is now beside-the-point. It is far better to say nothing.
Her once plush body is now desiccated -- little meat is left on her fragile bones. I note that her earthy and complex scents along with her words are gone -- stripped away -- in anticipation and preparation. As I jointly adjust our bodies, creating more skin-to-skin contact, she does not recoil; she is patient as I search for the means to best embrace her and, at this late stage, care for her in any way I can. I interpret this to mean that she appreciates my sickbed efforts, and I find a manic/tragic happiness in the notion that I can offer her tangible comfort.
She is sleeping now -- dozing more than slumbering. Her resting these days is near constant, but her sleep is fitful, not deep. Her erratic breathing and sporadic twitching remind me of Thomas’s nursing as an infant: little contractions pulsated all through his body as he greedily slurped up the thin foremilk, but a deep relaxation overtook him when he began to gulp the creamy hind milk. Her connection to life is so tenuous, as if it is only drops of foremilk sustain her. As an antidote to her shallow breath, I subconsciously deepen my breath cycle, as if that could bring her back to robust health and the person I already mourn. I softly, slowly, stroke her remaining fine hair, and together we wait.
“We’ve been waiting for you f-o-r-e-e-e-v-v-v-v-e-e-r-r-r-r! What took you so long?!” Thomas’s corkscrewed, red face and wound-up body howl at me before I can even open the car door. As I drove into the garage, the adjoining kitchen door flew open, and out he popped like a demented jack-in-the box. Thomas is hungry, overwrought by his five-year-old kindergarten day, and agitated by the disruption of our evening routine. He senses something besides our family nest preoccupies me, and he is resentful. I am often removed these days -- psychically and physically -- and his reaction is primal. He wants his lovie Mama back.
In response to his recriminations, and accepting that I am guilty as charged, I fall back into the driver’s seat. I am suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. While unable to motor on, I feel the shackles of obligations tightening around my body. I imagine starring in a nightmare: I am the captive passenger on a “Magic School Bus” episode, and am endlessly transported between home, hospice and work in an unbreakable loop.
Thomas and I are in a standoff as I remain in the car and he at the door. He aggressively fiddles with the door handle, jiggling it back and forth, as if this action could speed my transition back into the house. His eyes resentfully avert mine, and instead, focusing on the door handle, he blurts out, “What are you making for dinner tonight?” a veiled accusation, but also a plea.
His question completely undoes me, and I release my leaden body into the seat. Any pretense I have of capability, efficiency, or compartmentalization falls away. My long-stifled sob sounds grotesque and punched out, and its unearthly quality startles Thomas. He stops agitating the door handle and looks up, staring intently at me.
When I find my voice it is flat and empty as I make a pathetic attempt to explain my primitive grief. “Thomas, do you think I can worry about making dinner the minute I get back from visiting my dying mother?” I hadn’t said the word “dying” out loud to anyone before. Its clarity rang clear, and uttering this heinous truth is both frightening and cleansing. Holding on to the steering wheel for leverage as my head and neck fall forward, I give in to the unimpeded rain of tears. I can stop the flow about as well as I can stop a thunder shower.
Thomas understands that my question is both rhetorical and sarcastic. It bespeaks a smug smartness, a defensive familial tactic. He is beginning to comprehend this multi-generational legacy, and he wants to participate, but at five-going-on-six, he is not yet fluent in this sort of banter. When confronted with sarcasm, he typically sticks his chin out and puffs up his chest, buying time to muster up a witty rejoinder, responds with a long, drawn out, “W-e-e-e-l-l-l-l….”
Today though, he freezes. Sensing the deep sadness stitched to the underside of my comment, he takes time out from the game. He is confused; this is an unprecedented scenario. He observes me carefully since his mother usually does not become unglued in the midst of this rhetorical sport, and alarm flashes across his face. A primitive reflex in him wants to find a plug for my tears, for if I am defeated, I can’t take care of him. On the other hand, I threw down the gauntlet with a sarcastic comment, and he is primed to show that he can man-up to the challenge. He does not know what to do: should he respond with a smart remark, or should he go back into the house and ignore me -- as he does when encountering difficult emotional territory? His confusion makes him vulnerable.
He is tender-hearted by nature though, and far better at compassion than sarcasm. Relying on wisdom he can’t explain, he takes a chance, trusting it may be the game-changer, or at least the best and kindest move he can manage. He withdraws behind the door, making his body smaller, and slowly begins to close it, ceding me the territory of the garage as a place to momentarily grieve before I re-enter the house and my home obligations. As he condenses his body behind the door, wishing to make himself and what just occurred disappear, he says softly in a babyish voice I haven’t heard in a while, “It’s okay Mama, take your time, we can wait.”