Epic Bravery

My eyes fill with tears. I had gone upstairs to check on Mama after she got up from her nap. I was headed out for dinner and a lecture with my sister—a rare attempt to have a night life—and everything was going wrong for Mama.

Earlier in the day her tape recorder, carefully chosen—to be most like her previous one—from Radio Shack  before they went out of business and for which I recently bought cassettes from Amazon because you can’t buy them in stores anymore, died. She is recording the epic story of her life in three parts: her mother’s story before she married, her mother’s story with her children, and her own story. She is on part three. My Virginia sister is courageously attempting to transcribe them, and I promised to try to weave it into a story. I guess it will be her 100th birthday present.

Dan the Handy Man is helping Mama. I think she thought I would do it—me being a writer and all—but it’s not the story I want to tell. My curiosity lies in the present, not in the past. Now she won’t let me touch the recorder. It’s not that I’m uninterested in the story, but I know it. And I have written episodes down, apparently not to her satisfaction. But she promised her mother she would write it, and she hadn’t done it yet. She’s running out of time. The promise was most likely to make amends for my mother’s perceived failure to care well for my grandmother in her old age. I suspect it was made after my grandmother died.

Anyway, she doesn’t have strength enough to push the play/record buttons. Dan managed to teach her to pause and unpause it, leaving the record button on all the time. It must have worn its little engine out being at the ready 24/7 for months.

She says now, maybe she should try to write it. My eyebrows went up, but I said nothing. Her always beautiful handwriting has become spidery and nearly illegible. She can’t see what she’s writing, so I know it’s exhausting.

“Maybe,” she says quietly, shoulders slumped, “it’s not important and no one cares.” Whether or not anyone cares is not the point. “It is important,” I tell her, “because it’s important to you.” I don’t know what the tapes are like, but the one page she wrote the next day is tedious in its detail; the weaving will be challenging.

But, back to my tears. I go upstairs after her nap and she tells me she had successfully poured a Boost into a plastic cup, then promptly knocked it off the counter. All down her front, including her dry-clean-only wool pants, and onto her socks and into her shoes and all over the floor. Dan had just gone outside to meet his ride and she didn’t want to call him back in to help her.

“Why didn’t you call me?” I ask, frustrated, remorseful, sad.
“I didn’t think you were here,” she says.
“But I was in the kitchen ten minutes before you went to bed!”
“I thought you said you were leaving.”
“No,” I sigh. It’s so hard to help her when I don’t know she is going to mishear what I tell her.

I feel so bad for her, and like I somehow failed her. Of course, she doesn’t ever express emotions, and she seems, if not in good humor about it, to take it in stride. I don’t want to project something she doesn’t feel, so I absorb it for her and it makes my chest tight. But oh my god! What is it like not to be able even to pour a drink? (Not the drink I would be pouring, I assure you.) And to know, as soon as the glass goes over, that the rest of your energy for the day will be sapped by the task of changing clothes, washing your body, and cleaning the floor? All alone.

And then there was dinner. Early in the day, she told me she wanted a frozen Amy’s non-meat meatballs and pasta for her dinner, and that she had been meaning to buy one to have on hand. She buys frozen dinners for when I’m out, but never eats them. Because I’m seldom out. When I am, there are usually leftovers for her to eat. And, she doesn’t remember that she really doesn’t like frozen dinners.

There was an Amy’s in the freezer. I could hear the ice when I shook it. I should have thrown it out. I should have. I told her she had it, but I didn’t know if it would be good, and I would be happy to get another for her. No, she had said, it will be fine.

Before I leave at 5:30, I ask her what she needs me to do about her dinner.

“Nothing,” she says, “Dan read the directions to me. Slit the plastic and cook it for 4-6 minutes.” (Somehow she had in her head that I was abandoning her hours before I was. I never, ever do that without arranging for someone to be here at dinnertime.)
“You have had trouble in the past getting the timer on the microwave right,” I remind her.
“I have?” she asks, clearly not believing me.

I open the box, remove the plastic, dump out the ice. Dammit, I should have gotten a new one. I cover it with saran wrap, slit it, set the microwave for 5 minutes and tell her she just needs to transfer it from freezer to microwave and push start.

“Is that the button on the right?” she asks.
“Yes, with the bump sticker on it,” I say.
“Okay!” she says brightly.

It’s going to be a disaster.

The next morning, remembering I hadn’t measured her hot cereal and water before I went to bed, as I usually do, I go upstairs to help her get her breakfast.
“How was the evening?” I ask.
“I thought you were going to ask how dinner was,” she says.
“Well, that’s part of it,” I say with a sinking feeling.
“It was AWFUL!” she exclaims.

Really, I don’t know how she keeps going. She aggravates me, and I grumble. She complains about health issues ad nauseum and I want to tear my hair out. But she is so damn brave.

P.S. A new tape recorder is on its way from E-bay, after rejecting alternatives for current technology. She asks every day when it will arrive.

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7 thoughts on “Epic Bravery

  1. Hi Gretchen,

    I almost exclusively use fountain pens to write with and I would be happy to send one to you if you think it might help your mom’s writing should she want to continue telling her story on paper. They are far less tiring to use than almost anything else and might even feel familiar to her.

    Marc York

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    • Thank you, Marc. The problem is she can’t see what she’s written. She used to use 20/20 pens (felt tip, sort of), but now she can’t see what she’s written even them, and no one can read it. So she uses her other familiar pens now, along with a grid so the lines don’t run into each other (much); but she is writing almost blindly.

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  2. I so enjoy reading these posts, Gretchen! Your devotion to capturing them is truely remarkable. While I appreciate their uniqueness to your everyday experience, I hope you realize and find some kind of satisfaction/ support in managing to express a universal aspect to caring for our parents. Thanks for sharing it all!

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    • Thank you, Lynn. Comments from others caring for parents and experiencing some of the same things is the best part of writing this blog. I hope we all feel less alone, for it can be an isolating life. I am so lucky that my mom is able to be somewhat independent, and has resources to hire help. There are so many who are consumed by caregiving. Thank you for reading.

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  3. The story brings tears to my eyes too. For mama, and for you because I know it is so so hard to really want and wish for things to be better and at the same time feel so incapable of making it so.

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