By Beverly Stohl
On my fortieth birthday I made a personal pledge to connect more emotionally with my mother, Charlotte. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I promised myself I wouldn’t end up at her grave with irreversible regrets. So when she called me at work a few days before a scheduled kidney stone removal to tell me that a pre-op chest ex-ray had revealed a spot on her lung, I decided to go through it all at her side. We met with a surgeon who said that since she had been a smoker, there was a 70% chance that the spot was malignant, and surgery was the only way to find out.
Other tests and visits followed. I decided at the last minute to join her at the hospital the day of her CT scan. When she saw me appear in the waiting room, she smiled, and said, “My body guard!” She didn’t show affection due to a tough upbringing, so her reaction touched me. Health scares could break down personal barriers.
The morning of her surgery when my partner and I showed up at her house, she called out, “Here’s my honor guard.” Her skin was pale and her eyes wide as Bob drove us to the hospital for check-in. Before they wheeled her away, she handed me her raincoat, which bore a stringed nametag resembling a cadaver’s toe tag. I shook the thought away and kept my face down for an extra moment before kissing her goodbye. Bob, hating anything hospital-related went off to work.
My brother Ron drove in from New Jersey to join us, and we waited together, suspended in a sense of dread. Finally, the doctor came out to talk with us. In her ICU room, Ron tried to tell her the surgery’s outcome, but she waved him away. I leaned over and touched her arm. “Ma,” I said, “good news. There’s no cancer. The spot turned out to be a childhood Pleurisy scar.”
“Really? Are you telling me the truth?” she asked, unable to shake off her fear.
“Yup. The surgeon made a small incision, took a look, and sewed you back up,” I said, hoping she could believe the relief on my face in her drugged stupor. We went home, leaving her to rest.
I got a phone call around midnight. It was my mother’s voice, but her speech was thick and slow. “Beverly,” she said, “have I ever lied to you? Have I ever lied to you?” She slurred on in an effort to be heard over the night sounds of beeping equipment and nurses talking in the hallway. “They’ve made a mistake on my medication, and they’re trying to cover it up. Come right away, before it’s too late. They’re planning to kill me.”
My mother had been moved from ICU to a shared room with another woman, and was able to self-medicate with a morphine drip. Added to the anesthesia still in her system, she was quite drugged. I spent that first night trying to convince her that she was safe. “Be careful, ‘Charlie and his gang’ have been in and out of here, making their plans,” she warned. “Watch out for the nurse named Maura,” she whispered. “You can tell her by her face – it moves around like a bowl of jello. Maura can’t be trusted.”
‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘a person with a jello face is always trouble.’
I mentioned my concerns to the nurse, who said many older patients experience sun downing in a hospital, medicated and away from home. My mother was only 66, and looked a decade younger, so this didn’t sit well with my siblings and me. We would wait it out, hoping the anesthesia would wear off soon. Her paranoia persisted through the day.
When Maura came into the room and took a pen out of her pocket, her motor skills shone. She literally popped out of bed like a gymnast, gave me a wink, and pretended to dust a window ledge with the side of her hand, miming and mouthing to me, “Maura is trying to stick me with a poison needle.” Her slow wink told me, “I’m on top of this woman. She won’t get me!” I nodded back with feigned daughterly pride, wondering how long she would remain suspended beyond reality.
Later that day, a nurse’s aide offered her some juice. “Here you are, Charlotte, fresh orange juice to soothe your throat,” she said cheerily. She passed the juice glass under her nose several times, looked at me sideways through squinting eyes, then turned to the nurse with a mock smile, and pretended to take a sip. “Thank you a-ny-way,” she said, as she set the juice down on the table, winking and nodding at me. We were bonding.
The woman in the next bed was thirsty, and said, “I’ll have some orange juice, please.” My mother looked at me, at the woman, then back to me again, and said “Fool!” in a stage whisper. “Don’t turn your back on these people,” she warned, always the protective mother.
The roommate, whom my mother called, “The fool who drank the orange juice,” was on a respirator. With each series of hisses, my mother insisted I cover my mouth. “Do it, Beverly! The poison is seeping in through the curtain! Or we won’t get out alive!” I covered my mouth, as did she, her eye winking conspiratorially at me from above her sheet. We were a team.
She wasn’t improving mentally, but was physically, so would be discharged in two days. My brother Ron and I were worried about sending her home in this state, and asked to meet with her doctor, who would come by the next morning.
I told my brother to go to my mother’s house and get some sleep while I waited her out. She asked me to hold her hand while she rested, to make sure I didn’t leave. I pulled the hard hospital chair close to the bed, resting my hand on her commode, and took her hand. She was not a hand holder, and the sensation was strange. She napped off and on, my cramped and tingling arm outstretched, my hand holding hers.
How many nights had she stayed up with me as a baby, rocking me to sleep, nursing me through childhood illness. My tears fell onto my sweater in the still darkness. With the self-consciousness of our relationship put aside, I asked myself, who was Charlotte as a little girl? I knew that when she was ten, her parents had a late night fight. In the morning, her mother was gone. Her father, a country musician and paperhanger, instructed her and her sister and brother to never talk about their mother again. A mother who could walk out on her children, I imagined, had probably never held their hands. For a long time, my mother thought her mother was dead. I imagined she had a lot bottled up inside her, and I wondered at the difference between strength and denial.
Around midnight she opened her eyes to check that I was still there, and I whispered that I was going home to change my clothes. At home, I fell asleep in fresh clothing. At 1:30 am, my phone rang.
“I thought you were coming back,” she cried. “You’d better hurry. Charlie and his gang are outside my room again, and they’re making plans. If something happens to me, let the authorities know. I’ve called hospital security, but they won’t come. They’ve moved the other lady out of the room so nobody will witness it,” she said.
I walked into her room a half hour later, unprepared for what I found. She was standing stark still by the bed, holding the compact lung machine like a suitcase, the draining tube in her back still intact. She had tied a large bow at the front of her robe. Bouquets of flowers from my cousins, Bob, and my siblings and me, lay in bunches on their sides across the window sills. The water from the flowers had been carefully poured into a dozen dixie cups, which were lined up on a long ledge, and three glass vases stood empty on a side table. I tried to make sense of the strange scene.
“Beverly, are you strong? Can you fight?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Can you fight?”
“Well, I don’t know…maybe,” I said, not wanting to commit.
“Ok, good. Now, when that nurse with the jello face comes in here, we’ll each grab a vase and hit her over the head, and then we’ll run out of here. Promise me you will do that! Promise me, and I will suffer the consequences. Don’t you worry. Are you with me?”
“So – you want to attack the nurse.”
“It’s the only way to get out of here alive. Do you promise me?”
First I said nothing. Then, “Sure Ma, I’ll do it.” I waited a beat. “But don’t you think we will be suspicious, running out of here at two a.m., you in your robe, carrying a lung machine?” She didn’t think so.
I somehow managed to get her back into bed, where she dozed, her mind quiet. Thinking about how scared my family had been a week before, and how my mother would do anything for us, I sang a song from our childhood softly into the room.
Hush little baby, don’t say a word
Mama’s gonna buy you a mocking bird.
If that mocking bird don’t sing,
Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…
The next morning the doctor told her she had been delirious from what they finally recognized as morphine sensitivity. Apparently the surgeon had looked at her young face and prescribed too strong a dose. Her last night, my lucky sister at her side, was uneventful. Bob took her home in the morning.
My mother didn’t seem to remember most of what had gone on those few days. As I tell this story, I’m 66, the same age as she was then. I warn my family that if I’m ever hospitalized, they should limit my morphine. And hide the flower vases.
About Beverly Stohl: I enjoy writing with a quirky point of view, and have dabbled in stand-up comedy and performance. I spent twenty-four years as Noam Chomsky’s gatekeeper, which I swear had nothing to do with my “talent” of fluent backwards talking. Stohl lives in Massachusetts and is currently working on her first book about her life with Noam Chomsky.