“Mrs. Cushman? Is this Effie Johnson’s daughter?” the weekend nurse was calling me on my cell phone from my mother’s assisted living home in Jackson, just as Katherine and Daphne and I were enjoying our last hour together in the car on the drive home from the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop in Oxford.
“Yes, this is Susan Cushman. Is something wrong?”
“Yes, ma’am. Your mother is real upset with me and I don’t know what to do.”
“Just a minute, please.” I turned to Daphne and Katherine, who were continuing to break down all the juicy details of the weekend, and said, “Please wait ‘til this phone call is over. I really don’t want to miss a word!”
Silence fell over the car and I continued to talk with the nurse.
“Her eyes are red and itchy something awful, and even her cheeks are red and patchy and irritated. One of the other residents tried to give Miss Effie some of her prescription eye drops and I told her, “No, ma’am, those are yours and could hurt Miss Effie’s eyes and I could lose my license!”
“Is Bobbye there?” I’ve become friends with the regular nurse, butI didn’t recognize this voice.
“No, ma’am, just me.”
“And what’s your name?”
“Okay, well hi, Mary. I think you’re doing everything you can. Do you think I should call Mother’s doctor this afternoon and get her to call in some drops, or do you think she’ll be okay if we wait until tomorrow, since today’s Sunday and it’s already 5 p.m.?”
“Oh, I think she’ll be fine until tomorrow. I’ll leave a note for Bobbye to call you in the morning.”
“Thanks, Mary. Oh, and you can tell Mother that you talked to her daughter and we’re going to get her some drops.”
“Yes ma’am. She and the other lady are really mad at me.”
“Well, the good news is that she won’t remember that she’s mad at you tomorrow, or even later today. She might not even remember who you are.”
My mother has Alzheimer’s. She’s been in assisted living for over two years, but they rarely call me, so I was afraid it was a real emergency. Once I realized that nothing needed to be done until tomorrow, I joined back into the conversation with my friends.
We had only about an hour left to decompress a three-day workshop! Funny how “real life” seems to intrude on our creative efforts….
Three days later I drove back down to Jackson to see Mom… after talking with the nurse on Monday and learning that she got the drops from Mom’s doctor and was already administering them, along with a special cream for her face. Mom’s friends are always glad to see me when I walk in the door, though. I’m greeted with, “Oh, Susan, I’m so glad you’re here. Your mother won’t quit rubbing her eyes and her face is all broken out and her eyes are itching and burning and….”
Like I can control Mother’s behavior. Over the next five or six hours, as we visited in her apartment, at Starbucks, and eventually at LeNails, I probably reminded her fifty times to quit licking her fingers and rubbing her eyes and her cheeks with her spit. Bless her heart, they are bright red and burning.
“Oooooooh,” she whined like a child, “please don’t fuss at me. They itch.”
“I know they itch, Mother, but you are making them worse licking your fingers and rubbing off the medicine from your cheeks with your spit and then rubbing it into your eyes.”
“I am NOT doing that.”
So I got a plan: I’d take her to get a manicure, so her fingers would be “busy” for at least a half hour or so… and once we got to LeNails, I decided to let her get a pedicure as well, while I got my nails done at another chair.
Mom climbed up onto the over-sized lazy-boy chair and put her feet into the hot, bubbly water. Like a queen on her throne, she had a view of everyone in the room:
Three Vienamese women and one man were working on four to six clients, with two more waiting.
Mom surveyed the room, looked at me, then swept the room with a loud voice as she said, “This is my little girl. She lives in Memphis.”
One or two people glanced in my direction and I smiled, subtly.
“She doesn’t come to see me very often,” was Mother’s next proclamation.
With that, I received several sympathetic looks, especially from the nail techs, who knew us from previous (and frequent) visits. But one woman who missed the nod to me following the first comment looked at my mother and said, “Oh, how often does she come and visit you?”
Mother hesitated, a confused, glazed look covered her face, and before she could speak, I raised my hand from across the room to get the woman’s attention.
“Uhm, that would be me—I’m the daughter.” I said, meekly, and then added, “I visit about once a month.”
I spared the woman the back story… that I also do all of Mom’s finances, file her income taxes, buy all her clothes and personal items for her, and send her handwritten cards, letters and photos between my monthly visits. I am a good daughter.
So, why do I feel guilty, no matter how much I “do” for Mother?
Before I could finish that thought, Mom started back up again.
“Yes, she’s my little girl. But she ate too much, and now she’s my big girl.”
I felt a dozen eyes on my hips and thighs at that moment, and I thought about explaining that I had foot surgery in January and haven’t been able to exercise and I’ve gained some weight but I plan to get back to exercise soon and hope to lose it because, well, because I’m a good daughter.
Earlier that day we had been in line at Starbucks behind a rather large black woman when Mother pointed to the woman’s butt, puffed her cheeks up with air and raised her eyebrows. I put my finger to my lips to shush her and prayed that she wouldn’t say anything aloud.
I repeated the prayer later at LeNails, when a chubby young teenage girl walked in with her dad. They arrived in time to hear the comment about my eating too much and getting big. I hope no one ever tells that little girl that she is fat. She knows, and she’ll deal with it how and when and if she wants to or is able to at some point. I just hope someone loves her unconditionally. It looks like she’s got a sweet daddy, who brought her in for a manicure and pedicure. And got one himself—yes, he was a manly man, too!
So here I am at LeMuria Bookstore, writing and writing and writing all day, working on upping the volume on the scenes in my memoir and silencing the watcher at the gate. And freeing my inner artist by doing another pen and ink and watercolor sketch in the journal Beth gave me for Mother’s Day. And waiting for Delaune Michel to show up at Lemuria for her 5 o’clock book signing and reading from her new novel, The Safety of Secrets. I picked the book up at Square Books in Oxford this past weekend and read the first five chapters pretty quickly. It’s about two girls with dysfunctional mothers—one abusive, and one neglectful. Imagine that. I can’t wait to meet the author and tell her how the scenes in her book inspire me… and how universal some of them are. (Several of my chapters follow similar themes.) She was an actor before she started writing, so she uses her acting skills to help her create compelling scenes. She started Spoken Interludes in 1996, and made it a nonprofit arts organization in 2001, through which she runs outreach writing programs for at-risk teenagers in the Los Angeles public high schools. Makes me think of the Freedom Writers.
I’d love to hear her read from her work, but I might just make the signing… I’m off to the hospital to be with a friend who had surgery this morning. If I miss it, I noticed that she’s also reading and signing at Davis Kidd in Memphis at 6 pm on Monday night… but I love to support independent book stores, like Lemuria. Of course, I certainly hope that the big chains will sell my books some day, too!
I was reading the interview with the author in the back of the book, and one of her comments struck a chord:
I try to make the story that I am writing more important than how I feel about writing it.
Wow. Sounds like what Scott Morris said to us at the writers workshop last weekend—that we have to “get up above it” … and distance ourselves from the parts of it we might have lived, and “spin a good yarn.”
The Safety of Secrets is a Good Yarn. (And don’t you love the book cover?) Okay, the author will be here in a few minute to sign and read. Time to close up shop. Oh here she is! We've met, shared a quick story, and she signed my book. What a gracious lady. I definitely want to hear her read... Monday in Memphis. Thanks, Delaune!