My mom had a stroke 7 years ago.
We all converged on the hospital around the same time. She looked so old to me. Her hair was whiter than I remembered and she had lost the ability to move the right side of her body. The doctor had warned us that she couldn’t speak and may not understand what we said to her.
Often in college she would try to talk to me about current events. I was always much closer to my father and I think she wanted to develop a friendlier relationship. She would comment on this movie or that article, but I rarely had anything to say. She even tried literature, in consideration of my studies, but I was never very interested in Danielle Steele or Stephen King. I doubted if she had read Foucault or Angela Carter (from my Feminist lit days). Sometimes she would say, “You know your father loved this book,” or “I read that so and so was a very good writer”. That day in the hospital I dreaded every moment of silence that ever passed between us.
Finally she did speak but the words were just a jumble of syllables. Oddly, she spoke the same jumble of syllables over and over in response to every question. “Ayeleepahlo” is what we heard. Increasingly over about a weeks time she gained more control over her lips and tongue and perfected her mantra. Her blue eyes would fill with tears every time she would speak to one of us. My niece trying to decipher her words repeated the syllables as Mom did the same this exercise went on and on until finally we heard “I sleep alone”. The doctor theorized that this might be a verbal imprint left in her memory from when she tried to check into the hospital. To me it was an indictment.
Weeks later we moved her in with my sister, so I traveled to Tennessee to pack up her belongings. Her home was always neatly kept. Everything had a place. Tables and shelves had tiny dust outlines of knick-knacks and picture frames. Her bed was still made with the sheets pulled so tight they formed tiny trampolines over the buttons on the mattress.
Now, 7 years later, she still can’t speak and gets around my sister’s home in a wheelchair. She is a creature of routine: wake up at 5 AM, get insulin shot and eat
breakfast, get shoes put on, watch TV, 10:30 AM nap, eat lunch, watch TV, 4:30 PM get shoes taken off, go to bed. Her shoes have to be tied perfectly, even though she will never walk a step in them. Her bed still has to be made perfectly, with the sheets pulled tight and when in bed her feet have to be covered, even though she can’t feel them. She will insist, watching the foot of the bed intently until she sees the two pyramids sticking up in the air. Then she’ll sleep arms at her side, without the slightest shift all night.
One night when I was left to care for my mom, my sister and her husband had decided to take a rare vacation, I was watching TV in my sister’s living room when I heard a frantic rustling of sheets and creaking bed springs. I followed the sounds into my mom’s room and saw her fighting with her bed sheets. Startled I asked her what was wrong and she replied in a ferocious tone…”Ayeleepalo…Aleepalo…!” Obviously I was unable to understand so I became frustrated also. I raised my voice, “Now hold on Mom, what is the problem.” She gestured frantically to the foot of the bed and after fiddling with the bed sheets I realized she wanted her feet covered. I had upset her with my impatience, and once I covered her feet she waved me out of the room, her eyes again filled with tears.
My son was born 2 and a half years ago. I watch him develop and am amazed at his ability to learn. He is in perfect health and is generally a pleasant kid.
The other night it was very late and I heard him crying. I walked into his room and saw him fighting with his blanket with his eyes closed. After a closer look I saw that the corner of his blanket had folded under and he couldn’t get his feet covered.
He heard me come in and started slamming his arms and legs around violently. I started to scold him but thought better of it as I approached his crib. “You just have to cover your feet buddy,” I said smiling down at him. He rolled over on his stomach and giggled in affirmation. He pulled his hands under his chest and closed his eyes as I pulled the folded blanket over his feet. He had a smile on his face, the kind of smile only small children have, because they know they are secure and will never be alone.
As I closed the door it occurred to me that I had to become a parent in order to be a better son. My mom has since passed away and I wish I would have worked harder to understand her. Too often we want our relationships to work like romantic comedies, with poignant one liners to sum up all of our feelings. Too often the reality is that there are significant barriers between us and the ones we love. As I learned with my son, the rewards are great when we show some patience and try to break through the walls that separate us.
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