Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Greatest Hamburger
I find my thoughts on Mom a lot lately. Maybe it’s because it was about this time of year – the spring of 2001 – that she died. She began sharing she was feeling sick just before Thanksgiving, just a few months prior, and her family doc began to think there was something really wrong. That’s when we began that terrible, but all too short road to her death in that spring. She was so weak that autumn, too weak to rake the leaves in her huge yard that bordered a woods and a forested park, so we kids came down to do it for her. I remember her watching from the window as my sister Kathy and her husband, Jay, my brother, Terry, and I, and some of my young nephews, too, raked a ton of leaves. We were all laughing and joking, and she was smiling, with tears, to see us all together. I felt if we all stayed together, we could face anything, so strong was the feeling of love and bonding.
Later, I remember sitting with her in the pulmonologist’s office, after being dragged hither and yon through the hospital, getting x-rays, blood tests, this scan and that. Because I am a nurse, Mom always looked to me to make things better, easier, and I never could. I felt the weight of that, even if it might of been self-imposed. I felt the hospital staff always treated her poorly, never did the little things to make it easier for her, and nothing I could do really helped. Still she always looked to me to make some difference. It was always some sort of crappy rule or bureaucracy that made things difficult, or some small tenderness that was withheld that could have made things so much easier, and it was the withholding what upset me the most. I hoped I never practiced my job like that for people in need, I was sure I usually didn't, and it drove me nuts when I thought they treated her like she was just some job, just one more patient to finish before they could go home for the day. Couldn’t they see that my mother was IMPORTANT? Anyway, they kept talking about this “spot” on her lung, blah, blah, blah, and I could see she didn’t understand. We were finally in the pulmonologist's office (lung doctor) when I couldn't take it any more. I felt, for goodness sake, TALK TO HER! Yet I managed to politely interrupt and said, “Excuse me, I don’t think this has been made clear to my mother. By ‘spot’, we are saying ‘malignancy’, aren't we?”
The man looked at us over his glasses and says “Oh, yes, of course.” Mom looks at me with a questioning, almost panicked look, and I say gently, “Mom, ‘malignancy’ means ‘cancer’.” “Oh,” she says, and while the doctor is shuffling papers in embarrassment, or annoyance, I don’t know which, she begins to cry, and he stands up and leaves. I move next to her and rub her shoulders, hold her hand, and typically, in her fashion, she gathers herself together, wipes her eyes, and she says, “Well, I beat it once, maybe I can again.” I, myself, am feeling a bit shaky, but agree. “You bet,” softly, hoarsely. Fifteen years before she'd had a melanoma. Turned out later this was a new cancer, not related to that one. Talk about the luck of the Irish, she sure had it! Or didn't.
In truth, she really only ever was well enough to get one chemo treatment. I don’t want to talk about the complications, what I feel was the doctors' mistreatment of her, time after time, their blindness to her mental state, their refusal to hear me, and her oncologist’s boorish behavior right up to the end.
No. What I was crying about in the car this morning was my regret about our relationship. I so wanted to be close to her. Once, before she was staying with me, I drove down after work one night to visit. She was sitting on the couch watching TV. Her back used to hurt quite a bit, then, and sometimes I’d rub it a little as she sat there. That night she said, “Feel this,” and there was a mass on her lower back about the size of a large softball, protruding from under the subcutaneous tissue. We both knew this was not good, but we said little. It was painful, so I gently massaged there for a long time. She said – “OK, that’s enough, it’s a little better, and that must be exhausting.” I said that if more massaging would help, I was not tired, and she let me continue.
I kept at it until my arm was nearly dead, because it was a rare time she would ever let me be that close to her. All I wanted was for the two of us to sit and hold each other, be close, and talk in the little time we had left together before she was gone. Is that abnormal? She’s my Mom, and I wanted to be held like her child again, even though, at the time, I was nearly 50. It would be all I would have for so many years. I just wanted to be close to her.
The Bible records that God wanted to draw the Israelites to Himself like a hen draws in her chicks, “but they would not”, and my mother also “would not”. She never wanted to be held, or to hold me, never wanted to be close. She would, when my sister or I were leaving to go home, take a brief, loose hug and a quick, “I love you,” but nothing like what I was needing, wanting from her. What was it that was so hard to give? And she never let me in to talk about what was inside her, her thoughts, though I tried to let everything that was in me ‘hang out,’ full disclosure, so that she would know it was safe to do the same.
Once, she spoke to me with some of her guard down, but it took delirium from medication. She rang me once in the middle of the night, when she was living with me, using a call bell system I arranged with a wireless doorbell. Medication had made her disoriented and confused. She sing-songed about ‘little angels’ she’d seen in the air, and said there’d been dead animals in her bed (a farm pattern on her sheets). As we talked she became aware of who I was. She said she ‘didn’t know how God could ever love her. She’d been so desperately wicked. ‘ As she rambled on, she stayed fixated on her wickedness, confessing to me her sins, none of which were very surprising to me, as I’d lived with her for years! But I was so moved with compassion and love for her. We all shared her wickedness, I told her, but as I cried with her, no deep theological wisdom came to mind, nor was wanted. I just tried to tell her how we had all done things we regretted, were ashamed of, how much God loved her, how great His mercy, how much Jesus loved her to die for her, to pay for her sin on the cross. I prayed and prayed, and unknown to me, Christine in the living room could hear our conversation, and was praying as well. Before long, she calmed, crawled over the bed to the top of the sheets on all fours like a child, and got into bed. I covered her, but the moment was over. She wanted no tenderness from me. But she did say, “Good night, honey.” We take what we can get!
Whenever she would catch me looking at her with any sort of tenderness, she’d give me a cross ‘What are you looking at?’ After a couple of those, I was careful to avoid a tender look, or to think too much of my love for her, or my impending loss, lest any thought should show in my face. Maybe that’s why I still grieve, I don’t know.
Once, in the hospital, we were dealing with one of those annoying radiographic experiences. She needed a CT scan, and for the contrast drink they gave her banana-flavored drink. Now, I know they try to palm that off all the time, because no one likes it – but Mom DETESTS banana-flavored stuff. I asked for something different. “Oh,” the young ditz-brain said, “This is already mixed up, and I’m not sure we have another flavor…” I’m thinking, bull!! but Mom, of course, does not want to make trouble and will not allow me to push the issue. She actually gags as she finally gets it down. The test takes hours and hours. Mom is sitting in a hard and uncomfortable wheelchair. They say she can eat whatever she wants now, but all they have is some dry saltines. Mom is hungry, she eats them. Wonderful! Dry saltines and banana contrast dye! I go to the cafeteria and get her a GREAT hamburger. God is good. I have had hamburgers before and since at that hospital, but none have EVER been as good as that day, and though Mom has not been eating well in weeks, she eats the whole thing and LOVES it. Her back hurts, and I have her stand with her arms around my neck (we are in the back hall of x-ray), which she actually does, as she can’t stand unassisted, and I rub her back. The x-ray tech straightens the blankets on her wheelchair while she’s standing, and when she sits down she looks happy and relaxed. I feel happier, too.
My mom had a good hamburger. She got her back rubbed. And I got to hold her close for just a little while. And I will remember it the rest of my life.