Iraq receives all the headlines these days. But the truth is there is a war being waged in the homeland, a battleground in nursing homes across the country. In the past five months my mother has been in three of them as her health and self-reliance deteriorate. The latest is a 13-floor monolith where those who can still stagger make their slow, confused way in helmets. Others lie stretched out on movable cots, their mouths gaping caverns. Some thief came in the night and stole their brains, their lungs, their legs, their spirits. Now they sit parked in front of elevators they cannot board, before televisions they can neither see nor hear. These are the forgotten. Not many come to visit.
The chaplain to these casualties served in Vietnam and knows battlegrounds well. He jokes, “It’s just like Nam here, except for the swearing.” The chaplain returned home with limbs intact and went on to serve in parishes. Now he himself is confined to a wheelchair. He offers the liturgy in a room full of nodding, groaning, hurt people whom the aides roll in. A low, makeshift altar conceals the fact the priest has lost a leg in this latest battle.
My brother and I wheel our mother front and center and introduce her to the celebrant. Our mother holds a cheap, pink, plastic rosary she got from the basket on the way in. From a side bunker someone shouts, “Nobody died this week!”
As we wait for the liturgy to start, a short, capable woman walks in hugging a rather large wooden box as if it were the Ark of the Covenant she is gripping, or the kitchen breadbox she has brought from home. Inside the box the consecrated hosts slide from side to side, until the woman plunks the box down on a stand behind the celebrant. She promptly lights a candle to signal the divine arrival. I look over at our mother, who is napping under my brother’s baseball cap.
After Mass, my brother kisses our mother goodbye, and I wheel her out into the unusually warm and sunny fall air. I steer our mother slowly through the changing trees and down to a small gazebo. Across town there is a sign outside her house announcing an estate sale. My sister is emptying our mother’s house, selling her furniture off to strangers, one by one the small remembrances. And soon the house itself and all the rooms we grew up in will be gone. My sister has chosen the painful, necessary part; I, the better.
I park the wheelchair and sit close on a bench. I try to memorize my mother’s gestures, the lift of her head, proud, regal, as even now in the wheelchair she looks down on me with eyes that reveal nothing of what is on her mind. Her lips stay closed. In her lap her hands have hardened, the left over the terribly bruised right, immovable, rigid, as if she’s practicing for the last laying out. There is no relaxing them, so I resort to lotion, putting a dab on the back of her hand, until some inner mechanism tells her the proper place for lotion is palms. She opens her hands and I pour the balm, which she rubs front and back with such familiar movements, and I see that my own hands open and fold in exactly the same way. I have inherited her bone structure, her steady gaze, her secret heart.
In the eyes of us both, the “rage against the dying of the light” has left, gone in the same direction as the house. In my heart I pray that when the time comes, she will “go gentle into that good night.”
Many have observed the similarities between our first age and our last: the puréed food spooned into our mouths, the bibs and diapers, the strollers become wheelchairs, the utter dependence on someone else’s care. But the comparisons are superficial, because between the two ages there is a rich history written on each day’s slowly turned page, “one wild and precious life.”
At the gazebo table I open a thick photo album for my mother, one of 20 such albums she has accumulated. We look at the house where she was born soon after Christmas. We marvel how her mother wrapped her in a blanket and placed her on a chair in front of a warm stove. My mother’s face softens as her lively 10-year-old self appears with a brother and sister. Slowly we turn to the young woman under a startling hat, the new bride, the slim, flamboyant mother with a child perched on her hip. In between pictures, I look into her eyes and tell her I love you, Mom. You’re the dearest mother ever.
Then I turn the page. Silently, there in the season of change, I keep saying the same prayer, over and over. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my mother.