Each time I leave my mother’s home, I must become a bit like steel. She starts to cry when I reach for my coat. I button my coat and tell her I love her. “I will see you soon!” I say brightly. I pick up my handbag and I open the door. Hug her one more time. Shut the door. I hear her childlike sobs as I walk down the hallway. She is shouting through the door, “Good bye, Rachel! I love you!” If I didn’t turn hard at that moment of “Goodbye,” if I looked back, I wouldn’t have the strength to leave. It is how I return to a life. My life. The one I am trying to make, despite the constant feeling that I am failing; that I am just treading water to not drown in my mother’s bills and pills and co-pays, phone calls from nurses and aides with questions I don’t have answers to, but must provide.
How can I change, fix, soften the feeling in my gut when I leave her room and walk out into the lobby where the loud television blares Wheel of Fortune, and the aides from Sierra Leone and Kenya and Colombia who don’t speak much English (yet, who are ostensibly responsible for my mother’s care) smile at me politely? How do I quiet the guilt that seizes me as I push the elevator button that takes me to the main floor, where I pass people dozing in wheelchairs – people who don’t want to live any more, too sick and tired to care about living? And again as I walk out through the automatic sliding glass doors and into the cab that is waiting for me, driven by a man from Ecuador. “Nice. You visit your grandma. Ci, mama?” No, “My mother,” I say. I look out the window. I am tired. I have spent much of this visit cleaning blood off the walls.
My mother has bloody noses and no matter how many emails I write or calls I make, no one there cleans it up. I cleaned around the toilet. Whether her bladder can’t hold or she can’t see, I am not sure. I styled her hair, in a fun makeover moment whereby she walked into the bathroom, asked me, “Where is the bathroom?” and proceeded to take a plastic cup full of water and dump it on her head. “I needed moisture.” she says. My mother, who once quoted poets and intellectuals at dinnertime and wouldn’t let a Sunday pass without reading the Times from cover to cover now finds making ornaments out of pipe cleaners her proudest accomplishment. My friends’ mothers are enjoying their new retirement: traveling, running marathons, helping them choose their wedding gowns or giving advice how to soothe their new babies. My mother, who at age 59 spent every dime she had until Medicaid stepped in is trying desperately to remember where she put her glasses, her phone, the name of the person she just spoke to, the day off the week. Just five minutes more and the driver will drop me off at the bus stop on the side of Route 32 somewhere in Jersey, which is where my mother now lives in assisted living. A bus will pick me up and take me back to New York. Back to a life.
At brunch or parties friends ask, “How are you?” I can’t exactly say over my mimosa (in between discussion on Keith Olberman’s last rant or my feelings on Occupy Wall Street) that I wish I could live in a padded suit. One where no one could see me. One where, maybe, I could close my eyes and collapse for just a moment and the padded suit would catch me, its warm foamy, flannel fabric hugging my every curve, supporting me so that finally, I could rest. Instead I say, “I’m good. Busy, but good.” The other reason I don’t admit this desire is that I wish to rise above it. Transform it. Work through it. Get to the other side. And so, I practice yoga.
The other day after class, a man came up to me. “You were in front of me.” he says. “You’ve got an incredible practice. Some people move through the postures, but you dance.”
But, I cannot say all this as I zip up my black boots. Instead, I say thank you. Ask his name. Tell him mine. And walk down the steps and out into the spilling crowd.