COLETTE AND HER MOTHER, ANNETTE
Colette speaking …
It almost seems like––I can’t bet my life on this––but it almost seems like my mother died a long time ago. That role reversal happened a long time ago. I can remember in high school doing the things that the woman of the house would do, like going to the laundromat, coming home from school and cooking supper, cleaning house. My older sisters were married at that point and I was the oldest girl at home.
Also at that point, I went to college after high school and I was living at home, and then I went to Canada. When I got back from Canada, my mother could hardly walk at all, and she was in pain all the time. It was then it was decided she was going to have her hips replaced. Arthritis. This was going to mean a minimum of six weeks to two months in the hospital. I was nineteen. So I basically stayed home and took care of the house and took care of her when she got home from the hospital. It was about a year or a year-and-a-half later that I decided to go back to school and finish. I switched colleges and finished in art.
The first semester at school I lived at home, and then someone offered to share an apartment rent-free two blocks from the campus, so I moved away from home at that point. I was twenty-one. After that I lived away from home for the next ten years. I shared apartments and I had my own apartment in Providence, and then I moved to Maine. From there I went to Ireland for not quite a year. All that time there was still a very close communication with home and especially with my mother in particular. And at that point I decided to become a nurse, and it made more sense to me financially to live at home while I went to school, and then most probably I’d move back to Maine.
It was by this time that my mother’s condition included diabetes, cirrhosis, high blood pressure and obesity. The cirrhosis was from too much chemical intake, a result of taking so much pain killer over thirty odd years to kill the pain of arthritis. She was not wise about taking the medication. She also had a weak heart, which she had had all her life. At one point, when she gave birth to one of us, her heart stopped. She had to be given five minutes of heart massage to get her going again.
When I came back from Ireland, most debilitating after a number of years was the cirrhosis. The liver shuts down and cannot process protein anymore and cannot process medication well. She’s limited as to what kind of medication she can take. If she eats the wrong thing or too much of the wrong thing, she would vomit and get violently ill. She also had a hiatal hernia. So what happens is that the liver can’t process the stuff, so everything she takes in becomes toxic to her system. What that does is throw off her blood gases, and the whole chemical balance that has to be maintained in the human system is thrown completely out of whack and then the brain doesn’t function.
When I was growing up, it was not that unusual for my mother to have to go to the emergency room for one reason or another. I can remember one Christmas before my younger sister Diane got married. She and I had gone visiting aunts and uncles and we came back around 7:30 or so, and the furniture had all been moved around and my mother’s crutches were on the floor. I called my brother. He didn’t know anything. I called my other sister. No answer. We deduced we should call the hospital. Sure enough, that’s where she was.
So, all that to say that it was not that unusual that in this last stage, when the cirrhosis was pretty advanced, she would behave abnormally and we would have to take her to the hospital and have the rescue come and flush out her system again.
As the disease progressed, these incidents increased. You never knew when it would be. It was kind of cyclic, but I can’t really say how often. The last time we took her to the hospital in an emergency situation, she almost died because she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get enough oxygen. She wound up going to the hospital and being admitted, and at that point we realized she could not come back home. My father held on to the idea for a long time that she was going to get better and come home. The rest of us did for a short time, but it became pretty obvious pretty soon that she was not going to get better. We were hoping she would make it for their fiftieth anniversary.
We were lucky for a good day when we would go in and she would recognize us. She stayed in the hospital for over a year, and the reason for that was because no nursing home wanted to take her because she was state pay, that is, she was on Blue Cross, plan 65, Medicaid. If she had been––this is what kills me about the health care system we have––a private paying patient, she would have been admitted anywhere. The state pays a portion. They don’t pay the full cost that the nursing home says it is.
They also didn’t want to take her because she was considered a heavy patient, that is, the work involved in taking care of her. Finally a nursing home agreed to take her and she was transferred. She was in the nursing home in April until she died in August.
Someone from my family was in to see her all the time she was in the hospital and nursing home. Every day. Once in a while there was a day that nobody was in, but that was very rare. We used to try to go at suppertime so one of us could feed her. She was like half with it. Most of the time she could not respond to us. She certainly couldn’t talk, and this is an issue that makes me really angry, not so much at the hospital but at the nursing home. My mother was often restless and noisy with gibberish, and it was all disease-related. So they would over-medicate her to shut her up in the times when she may have been lucid enough, when we could have communicated with her. It was just my family was robbed of that kind of time with her. I’m sure the nurses deemed it much more necessary than it was because they were tired of hearing her.
So anyway, we’re going every day; we were feeding her, and I myself was working as an aide at the time. So I would feed her and offer to wash her up and get her ready for the night. One time I went in and I was helping this girl take care of my mother. By this time she had no muscle tone and her skin was paper thin. Part of it has to do with a certain degree of dehydration. She bruised very easily, and her circulation was so poor from her elbows down, her arms were purple. There was not enough oxygen to heal it. So this girl was always saying that she knew what she was doing. But she was so rough. She flipped my mother over to wash her bottom and her hand hit the side rail and split the skin, and I was holding her, and her blood was dripping on my foot and I said, like, “Oh, Jesus.”
After that, through May and June, I just didn’t care about the administration and much of the help. There were some people who took very good care of her and were very gentle too. But I just decided when I was in there that I was going to take care of her, wash her up, lotion her, rub her hands, rub her feet, comb her hair––the things they don’t have time to do. Her hands were constricted, closed all the time, and it was rare that anyone washed inside her hands and between her fingers. I would go and that’s what I would do: I would take care of her and fix her up for the night.
One time I went in and it was the middle of July. It was a sweltering hot day. It was late afternoon. Her window was open, but she was facing the sun. She had a flannel johnny on and a sheet and a wool blanket up to her neck. The Foley bag was so full it had obviously not been emptied the shift before. Not only had it not been emptied, but it was red with blood. I went nuts. I was fuming. My brother was there and he told the administrator. When the money’s not there, you just don’t get the care.
Once at the nursing home, I bent down at the side of her bed to get something, and she was looking at me, consciously. I said, “Hi,” and she said, “Hi.” That was the most communication there had been for a long time.
In the meantime, every so often, we would get a call that she wasn’t doing well, and maybe we would want to come out. Everybody would drop everything and we would go out. We would think, This is it. That happened around three times. A couple of times when we thought it was the end, I stayed all night. She was notorious for coming within an inch of death’s door and pulling out of it. I think on some level she knew we were all around and she desperately wanted to stay. She should have been dead two years ago, but she was still carrying on. For someone in as bad condition and as physically weak as she was, it was unheard of to carry on.
My oldest sister and I, for the last month or so, would go every night to take care of her, even to the point of having to wash her hair. I would even say, “Give me the basin and I’ll do it.” I’d comb her hair and there would be so much stuff in it, dead skin, etcetera.
Finally, two or three weeks before she died, she lost her gag reflex which meant she just couldn’t eat. I was legal guardian for her, so I had signed a paper to make her what they call DNR. Do not resuscitate. That is, if she were to go into arrest, not to let any kind of … basically, to let her go. I expected something like that was going to happen. I did not expect that she would just not be able to eat. And that was ultimately a million times harder to watch.
I don’t know what she was aware of. I expect that her mind was in and out at times, almost comatose. So one night finally, they said she wasn’t good. She hadn’t eaten in so long and she was dehydrated. So we expected she was going to go anytime, so my oldest sister E. and I figured this was going to be it, so we stayed til 3 a.m. E. was on one side of the bed. She held her hand. And I was on the other side of the bed, and I wanted to be as close to her as I could get, to be next to her, so, like I was holding her hand with my left hand, and I put my right arm around her head, and I put my head down on the pillow next to her, and about every three hours the aides would come in to reposition her. At that point they told us we should go home and get some sleep because she was cheyne stokes breathing, and with her history, she could last for another week doing that. So we should go home and go to bed. So we did that, deciding we would come back later at about 8 or 9 a.m.
At about 6:30 the nursing home called E. and told her my mother had taken a turn for the worse and that we should get there as soon as we could. So we did that, and the nursing home was about a half hour’s ride away, and we got there a few minutes past seven. By this time we knew most of the staff and they knew us. It was always, “Hi, how y’ doin’ Colette?” This time I took the stairs and I came flying through the doors and nobody would look at me. I kind of thought, this is odd.
As I approached my mother’s room, I could see that the curtain had been drawn around her bed. So I opened the curtain and she had died. We had missed her by ten minutes. She had died at ten past seven. I kind of knew it when E. picked me up. I had this feeling, she’s gonna be dead when we get there. That was a big thing for me; I didn’t want her to be alone when she died. I asked the nurses about that. They said there had been three people with her, holding her hand and soothing her when she died.
When I first saw her when I opened the curtain, it took a couple of minutes to realize, to acknowledge she was dead. She was just like she had been when we left her. It bothered me because her eyes were not closed and I wanted her eyes to be closed, and I tried to close them but I couldn’t.
I remember thinking, my mother’s not here anymore. It was like, this is over. Ma’s not here. Go home and do what you have to do. I kissed her head. She was still warm. She hadn’t gone cold. I was screaming inside my head for a second or two then. My sister came in and she started crying. We were just like hugging each other ‘n’ stuff. I mean, what are you gonna do? I realized that the nurses had drawn the curtain to allow for privacy when we first arrived. They shut the door and made sure my mother’s roommate was out of the room. The women there were so sensitive and very good.
So then we left. We went home. I think that––for me anyway––it was something I had anticipated for so long and had come close to so many times that I guess I did things quicker than I would have otherwise. I would have stayed longer, but I knew there was no reason to stay there.
We made arrangements for the funeral. I think for my whole family it had been something we had anticipated for so long that we thought, let’s not linger over this now. Let’s do what we have to do and get on with it. In retrospect I kind of regret that. She died one day, we had a wake the next day and buried her the next day. I wish we had taken a day in between before we had the wake just to take out time and go slow about it. I wish we had done that.
I had already bought one of those burial contracts from a funeral parlor near home, and we all went to see that funeral director and decided what we were gonna do, how we were gonna do it, and how much each thing was gonna cost. Then we had to pick out a casket, and we had a disagreement in our family over the casket. The choices are your basic wooden box; then you have your next basic casket with a regular seal. Then you have a deluxe casket with a rubber, air-tight, water-tight gasket seal. Then you have your super deluxe, hermetically sealed, air-tight, water-tight guaranteed vault, which the casket goes into and then goes into the ground.
Well, I wanted the sort of pink casket, kind of a dusty rose because I thought it was the one my mother would have liked. Your basic simple but tasteful. By chance this happened to have the deluxe gasket seal. The issue arose between my brother and us. My brother thought to set his mind at ease, we had to have the vault. That started the great debate. E., as practical and realistic as she is, says, “Well, if you’re gonna have the super seal on the casket, which is supposed to be waterproof, then you don’t need the vault.” So, my brother wound up paying for it himself. That’s what we did and why we did it.
All the way in the car to the church and to the funeral parlor especially, my sister A. was so funny. There was this little old French guy driving the limo. There was E., A., my father and me. A. was talking about how her husband tries to conserve fuel by putting the air conditioner up. The driver was laughing. A. is good at telling stories.
We had the funeral at her church. The priests there had gone to see her in the hospital and had brought her communion at home for years. For me the highlight of the Mass was after communion. By luck the organist happened to know this French song, “J’iral la voire unjour” [“Someday My Soul Will See”]. It’s a real old-time Canadian song. That was the high point for me when we sang that song. It was neat because I knew she would like it, but also because my uncle, her brother who’s the priest, who belongs to a predominantly French order, he and about three or four of them came with him to celebrate the Mass and they were all singing it with him.
Then we went to the cemetery. After the cemetery, my sister E. had refreshments and that was that.
In some ways it was a relief to my father. His life revolved around going to the nursing home to see Annie, and when he called one of her friends, Aunt V., it was the only time I saw him really break down at all and cry. He was like that about everything in his life. He was very accepting of things. My father was lost for a while, but it’s not as if they’d been living together for a long while. In a way it was an easier way of breaking away rather than a sudden traumatic thing. The whole role reversal became evident again; it kinda resurfaced, and it was for him now. Before, for all intents and purposes, I felt like I had become my mother’s mother, and so now, my father started to see me as a kind of caretaker.
There were so many mixed feelings about how I saw her and how I felt about her. I had a hard time remembering how it was when she was my mother. She had been depressed for so long before the reality and the gravity of her condition was really clear and obvious to everyone, that it was really hard to remember how she was when she was just herself.
All I could remember for a while, or the only way I thought of her, was just how she was when I saw her in bed after she had died, when I went in and pulled back the curtain. Her bones were sticking out. How she had been when I would go and take care of her. How she was. That’s all. I guess it bothered me. I guess I was afraid I wouldn’t remember the way she used to laugh, the things she used to laugh at. She was really friendly. She knew how to make people feel at home and at ease. I couldn’t remember and I still can’t remember if I ever sat down to have a heart-to-heart talk with her.
It wasn’t until some time later I went to my nephew’s shop to have him cut my hair, and he started to talk about her. He and his friend would come to play Parcheesi with my mother and father quite often. My parents were always partners together, and J. and his friend were partners together. J. remembered one game in particular when my father was taking his time to make his play. My father would take a sip of his wine or beer and look at the board and take a piece of candy. My mother was getting aggravated. So finally she threw back her arms and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Play!” I could see her doing that and I could see her laughing at herself.That was the first time I could touch something else about her besides the sickness.
I went to visit a friend of mine a month or so after she died, and she asked me how I was doing about my mother, and I don’t remember exactly, but I think I started to cry. F. said, “How wonderful that she is free from that sick body! She is happy and you can talk to her now.” She was so certain, so convicted that it was as if a light went on. It was the first time I could connect with that whole notion of hope in death. She told me I could talk to her and tell her anything I wanted. I can’t do that now. That may become a reality for me in the future. I don’t know.
Things that make me think of her … I’ve had a flash here or there where I could see or hear or smell something that would make me think of her. I cooked this steak one night for my father. I’m not a big steak eater, but for the first time in a long time it smelled how it would smell when my mother would cook for my father. I could see her in my mind’s eye fussing around the stove and what her housedresses used to look like.
Also, when my father had been in the hospital and both of them came to stay with me, I made oatmeal with cinnamon, apples and raisins. She liked it like that. Now I can hear her saying, “Gee, I like the way you make that.” Whenever I make oatmeal now, that’s what I think of.
At one point we had a blue and white DeSoto and she liked that car. There was a commercial with a blue and white DeSoto in it. I remember what she looked like then, and how she was at that time.
There’s other stuff I remember too. It’s not happy stuff or good stuff. I have a sense of her being very insecure about herself, low, low self-esteem. She saw her role in life to be a mother. I don’t know what priority being a wife was for her. When the kids were up and gone, I don’t remember her having a very strong sense of self. She always wanted people to stay around, just to hang out with her. And she loved that. We always had a big porch. In the summertime after supper, we’d sit out on the porch until the mosquitoes got too bad. We’d play games. It went from Parcheesi when I was a real little girl, to Life, to Monopoly, to whist for the older people. Scrabble was a big game for a while, then back to Parcheesi. It was a ritual every night. They were either in the middle of, beginning, or ending a game of Parcheesi.
Colette was 35 when her mother died and was 35 at the time of the interview.