“I fell,” said Mom on our semi-weekly phone call. Her voice strained as if in pain and sounded thick as if I had awakened her from sleep. “I’m okay. It’s nothing.”
The next day, my older sister Kelly said, “She broke a few bones in her foot. She refused to use the alarm call button and dragged herself to the phone. She called me and I had to get the rescue team up to lift her onto her chair. Took me 24 hours to convince her that she had to go to the freakin’ hospital. Stubborn.”
I drove the two hours from my summer house in Roscoe, N.Y., to Utica.
Mom sat up in her hospital bed, her right foot bandaged. A large blue gown draped over her soft shoulders and covered her heavy body. At home she always dressed with care, but here with no bra or pretty knit shirt, she seemed looser and more spread out. She removed her reading glasses and put down the newspaper as I walked in.
“I brought you some blueberries,” I said, and placed a cupful onto the rolling table that hovered over her stomach. The berries were still cool from my refrigerator and points of humidity dappled their skins. She smiled and began to eat them one at a time.
“Delicious,” she murmured. “It’s the best time of summer. Lots of fruits and vegetables just getting ripe. Here I am stuck in the hospital.” She chewed. “How I spent my summer vacation.”
“My garden’s better than ever. Four years and I’ve finally discovered that manure magic you used to brag about,” I said. Gardening, food, house repairs, and cats were safe topics, unlikely to cause her upset. Politics, my future plans, missing Dad, and an unpredictable host of other things were not. I pressed cheerfully on. “I’ve got lettuce, radishes, raspberries, and cucumbers already.”
“You’ll be overwhelmed soon,” she said.
“I’m thinking of learning how to can this year. I’ll make you some pickled beans.”
“Dilly beans are yummy, but canning is too much work,” she said.
As a rule, my mother rejected the role of the domestic goddess portrayed in pre-feminism television shows. She worked and organized and raged while raising three children. But when my mother used to can, she transformed our kitchen into an operating theater. Dangerous forces were marshaled in the fight against bacteria. I remember sitting at the breakfast table watching her monitor the huge aluminum canner, complete with a pressure gauge and wing nuts to secure the top. She pulled a stool in front of the range and adjusted the burner to keep the interior of the chamber under the prescribed force. She filled jars with hot pasta sauce and bathed them in boiling water. Dad, my sister Kelly and I cheered when, with specially made tongs, she lifted each freshly boiled container out of the hot water, and we heard the click of the lid sealing. Our family spent the rest of the year savoring that food one jar at a time.
But by the summer of 2008, gardening and canning were three decades behind Mom, now 80 years old. During the last 16 years since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, her movements had slowed considerably. Even before the fall, she had trouble moving from one seat to the next, but she had her process. Her motorized booster chair picked her up, rose and tilted, until she was almost standing. She then jerked her wheelchair close. Only one leg could support her weight, the other, long weakened by the relentless nerve damage that comes with MS, barely touched the ground and served as an oar for balance and momentum. She slowly turned, her hands searching behind her, trying to locate the wheelchair. Once positioned correctly, her strong knee buckled and she fell back with a groan and a whoosh of air.
Over the next few weeks, as she seemed to improve and was transferred from the hospital to a rehab center, my garden thrived. I moved broad leaves aside to see chunky green and white striped Kirby cucumbers scattered on the ground. They were covered with prickly little thorns that scratched the tips of my fingers as I held them to cut their stems. I decided to try to make refrigerator dill pickles and pulled out one of my used-bookstore cookbooks for a recipe. I drove to the grocery store two towns away and bought a gallon jug of vinegar so I could begin the preservation process the next day.
Kelly contacted me late that night. “Something’s wrong. Mom just called me to insist that I bring down her Do Not Resuscitate order. She’s getting sicker and the staff seems to think that she’s a complainer.” The anger built in Kelly’s voice, “I told these jerks that babying pain isn’t like her, so it’s serious and they ought to pay attention. But they don’t see it that way.”
“Should I come back?”
Kelly’s voice dropped. I pressed the receiver to my ear, “Deirdre, she said she wants to die and please don’t let her have a lingering death. I can’t be at the rehab tomorrow morning. I’ve gotta work.”
Mom never talked like that. I promised to come early and tried to sleep, but my brain flittered around various versions of Mom’s funeral and visions of my future grief.
Early the next morning, before the sun had a chance to peek over the mountains and burn off the fog that gathered in our little valley, my husband and I got ready to drive to Utica. In the middle of the rush, Charles found me in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” he asked. I poured a cup of kosher salt into a bowl of red wine vinegar and began to furiously cut cucumbers, stuffing the slices into glass containers along with cloves of garlic and heads of dill.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back. These have to sit in this brine for at least five days then be refrigerated. If I can get these made into pickles they’ll be fine for a year. If I don’t they’ll rot.”
“So?” he said.
* * *
At the rehab center, we found Mom lying in a darkened room, her arms cocked at sharp angles. The skin on her forearms sagged, looking empty and newly wrinkled. Her mouth gaped as she snored, the breath rushing in, the sound filling the room. I stood at the side of her bed studying her. Charles brought in chairs.
When her eyes opened, she said, “Deirdre. Thank god you’re here. I want water, but I can’t hold the glass.” I jumped up, grabbed her cup and pointed the straw toward her dry, peeling lips. She raised her hand to take the cup. I let go.
“No, keep holding it,” she said with a weak, crackly voice, “or I’ll spill it on myself.” Halfway through her sip her hand fell away and hit her side with a thump. She stopped sucking on the straw and appeared to fall back asleep. I retreated to the chair, still holding the water, still staring at her face. Charles took the water and held my hand as we watched her.
A nurse came in, woke Mom up and took some of her blood for testing.
“It always comes back fine,” Mom whispered, her eyes down and head moving from side to side. “I wish it wouldn’t. I wish it wouldn’t. I wish it wouldn’t.”
A doctor finally appeared, pronounced her dehydrated and ordered IV fluids. After a few hours, we left so that Charles could catch the eastbound train to New York City for work the next week. Alone and with nothing else to do, I drove back to the rehab and spent a quiet afternoon at Mom’s bedside before returning to her home for the night.
A completely changed mother greeted me in the morning. Alert but in agony, she could hold down neither food nor pills. Relentless, I complained to the harried head nurse until he reluctantly re-beeped the doctor to get a prescription for pain medication.
As I watched, Mom rubbed her hand over a spot on her rib cage, just under her right breast, massaging her insides. Pain moved through her and she tensed as each new dagger pressed and receded.
“I don’t know what more to do, Mom.” I stood by the bed with my hand on her shoulder biting my tongue, trying not to cry.
“I know. Don’t worry,” she said.
Finally a nurse arrived carrying a pill, some water, and a sticky patch of pain medicine.
Fifteen minutes after Mom forced down the pill and let the nurse smooth on the Fentanyl-laced bandage, her hand relaxed, fingers curled, and shoulder drooped. She fell into a deep sleep.
Kelly arrived after working at the animal hospital where she sat behind a desk and registered dogs to be washed — thirteen that morning. Kelly’s long gray and black ponytail dangled over the bed as she bent to look at Mom.
“It was very bad,” I said. “They couldn’t do anything. The doctor didn’t answer his beeps. I almost called for an ambulance.”
“She’s too sick to be here,” said Kelly.
Once we finally got her to the emergency room, we learned that part of Mom’s bowel had closed down, a very serious problem.
“I’ve got to get back to Roscoe to feed my cats,” I said to Kelly. “They can do a few days alone, but I’ve got to spend a night or two with them.” Packing up at Mom’s, it occurred to me that there was a very good grocery store near the entrance to the highway.
I pushed a cart past the rough tile floor of the produce department. Produce wasn’t my problem; I had plenty of produce in the garden. I needed more stable goods. Five pounds of all-purpose flour. Five pounds of whole wheat flour. Five pounds of bread flour. One pound of sugar. One jug of Crisco. One jar of yeast. Make that two jars of yeast. One box of wheat gluten. Three packs of strike-anywhere matches. Two sets of Sterno cans. Two giant cans of olive oil. Baking soda. Baking powder. Lasagna noodles. Three types of rice.
I had to be sure that I had enough. Powdered milk. What if we got rained in and couldn’t get more than a quarter mile from the house again? Two large jars of peanut butter. What if the snow got too wild? Soup. What if the economy tanked? Oatmeal. What if the electricity failed as it had five years before? Dried black beans. What would happen if, for some reason, there was no food? Barley. Three month’s worth of calories, that seemed like a bottom line kind of goal. More pasta. What if a bomb went off in New York? Six cans of chick peas. I read an article that the food system in the U.S. would collapse in just nine days if there were a disruption in electricity and gasoline. Six cans of chili. As I loaded the groceries into my car, I told myself that these were completely reasonable precautions. I needed these things just in case.
* * *
Back in Roscoe, I woke up early and walked out to the garden. Green beans, peppers, cucumbers, yellow squash, blackberries, and zucchini all needed to be harvested before they grew too large and unmanageable or died on the vine. The tops of my potatoes had browned which meant that the earth held a bounty for me to dig up. The purple heads of turnips peeped from the ground while their wild-looking greens smothered the parsnips. And my soybeans were heavy with small pods, waiting to be cooked in boiling salt water.
At Agway, I contemplated the $120 price tag on the pressure canner to preserve the harvest. This one implement could take care of all my problems. It killed bacteria. It stopped time inside a jar. The hot water bath canner was a more reasonable twenty bucks. I pictured my army-strong metal shelves in the basement filled with neat jars of canned homemade food. The idea of a full pantry and a well-stocked larder calmed me. I loaded the two canners, eight boxes of canning jars, jam-making pectin, and a new canning book into my car. I wanted to be fully self-sufficient. I needed this.
One morning, on one of her good days, we sat across from each other in the rehab’s day room. I had, moments earlier, noticed a car in the parking lot, same make and model as mine. Deep treads in its tires put my shallow ones to shame.
“I’m going over to that tire place on Genesee Street,” I said. “I need a new set to get me through the winter.”
“Why the hell are you doing that here? Do it in New York,” she snapped.
“That’s the mother I recognize,” I said. “Welcome back.”
She shook the newspaper at me and pretended to read.
Without warning, Mom’s heart began beating irregularly. Once treated, she seemed to be headed for another bout with bowel closure. Fluid was drained from around her heart with a long needle. Pneumonia developed. She bounced from hospital to rehab and back again. I drove up every few days, covering the rural roads fast, speeding past anyone who drove too slowly.
When I wasn’t at the hospital, I went on compulsive, food-related, shopping adventures. Sometimes I explored local stores looking for canning supplies. I gathered airtight storage bins. I scoured public parks, river banks, and cemeteries, looking for fruit trees and berry bushes. Stepping around headstones, I gathered apples by the bag and pulled bright orange crabapples off low branches with plans to preserve jelly.
I found a local farmer who had tomatoes at the right price and pictured red sauce filling freshly sealed quart jars. I tested each fruit for softness, avoiding the ones with dark bruises, trying to figure how much I’d need to make eight quarts of sauce. Once back in Roscoe, I set the kitchen up for the task.
One burner held the large water-bath canner where I planned to blanch the tomatoes in boiling water. One burner held a small pot of water to heat the waxy rubbery seals on the lids of cans.
I told myself that Mom didn’t have a terminal illness.
The third burner was for simmering the freshly washed canning jars, keeping them hot and sanitized. A large saucepan waited for the tomatoes.
We had no dire predictions about her future.
I washed the first juicy red fruit.
The doctor called Mom’s case “complicated.”
The skin, so thin and warm to the touch, the only thing that held the pulp in place, had to be removed by blanching and peeling. After the soft tissue was exposed, I cut the tomato in quarters, removed the seeds, dropped it into the pot and crushed it with a potato masher.
I knew that a closed bowel could kill her.
As the mash came to a boil, I added a second, repeating the process, blanching and peeling, cutting and crushing, boiling and stirring, until all of the tomatoes were bubbling in the vat.
Heart arrhythmias could kill her.
The pop, pop, pop, the hiss of steam, and the mellow smell of Italian cooking filled the kitchen, reminding me of childhood dinners.
Pneumonia could kill her.
I filled the jars with steaming tomato sauce and wiped the rims clean. Using a magnet tied to a string, I pulled flat lids out of the hot water in the second pot and placed them on the jars before twisting on the ring-like screw tops.
Fluid around the heart could kill her.
A wire rack hung from the top of the canner, waiting to be loaded with hot jars and lowered into the bubbling caldron. Eventually, inside the canner, the tomato sauce would boil and burp out all of the oxygen, creating a vacuum that pulled on the lid and kept bacteria out.
Multiple Sclerosis could kill her.
Mom could live another five years or she could go suddenly. Her day-to-day existence might improve. She might go back home, and with help, get strong enough to return to the life that had been suspended in July, puttering around in her house, cooking her own meals, and yelling at the cat. I might get my old mother back.
My basement shelves filled. New larger air-tight containers were stuffed and labeled. The space held homemade quarts of tomato sauce, dilly beans, sweet watermelon rind pickles, crushed blueberries, apple sauce, blackberry jelly, wild blueberry jam, bright pink crabapple jelly, Concord grape jelly, and open containers of freshly-dug potatoes. The freezer almost overflowed with green beans, sharp cheeses, vegetable soup, strawberries, blueberries, chicken soup, butternut squash soup, zucchini, and individually-wrapped slices of two different lasagnas that looked like little aluminum bricks frozen inside zip-lock bags.
I stood Charles in front of the shelves to show him all that I had gathered. He stepped back and squinted. His brow tightened. He turned to me. “Tell me again why we need all this?” he asked. I had no good answer.
I filled myself as well. I made fruit crisps and apple pies. I ate roasted peppers with local smoked mozzarella on homemade bread. I bought bags of chocolate and popped one piece in my mouth whenever I passed the counter where they lay. I overfilled my belly at every meal and wondered why my baggiest shorts felt tight. In the mornings, I replaced my usual walk to town for the newspaper with manufactured car trips to the grocery store for more food and canning supplies.
Mom melted away. I had been bringing various fruits into her room. One sunny afternoon, we shared a container of cold watermelon. She moaned with pleasure as she ate each cool juicy cube. The next morning, I learned that she had been sick all night. All the time we spend tasting summer produce ended with me afraid I might harm her. After that, every raspberry I picked, every moment weeding or harvesting or shopping reminded me of her.
Soon, she couldn’t hold down any of her meals and was ordered onto a thickened-liquid diet. Her dinner arrived at her table in the new rehab looking like pudding. Kelly asked me to take Mom to a swallow test to see if she was aspirating some food when she ate. The doctor believed that it was the cause of the repeated bouts of pneumonia.
We rode from the rehab to the hospital for the test in a creaky ambulette, Mom’s wheelchair strapped in the back of the glorified van, me bundled into the passenger seat. Mom hadn’t been outside for more than two and a half months. We buzzed by an outcropping of suburban houses, each landscaped with a small garden.
“Isn’t that one beautiful?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the roaring motor. Mom turned her head to see an elaborate mix of late-blooming September flowers decorating the long lawn of a former farmhouse.
She smiled. “I’m sure my lilies have all gone past and I missed them.”
“The only thing that’s flowering in your garden right now is the white phlox.”
She sighed. “Your grandmother told me that she got depressed when the phlox came out. It meant the end of summer.” Mom turned back to look out the window. “Now I know what she means.”
At the hospital, we were taken to the basement where the staff of the radiology department donned heavy lead aprons. Mom sat before a round white screen with a video x-ray machine pointed at her. Her skeleton, with her soft tissue a mere shadow, appeared on two televisions, one for the therapists, one for the family members who sat apart in a reinforced monitor station. The therapist fed Mom barium-laced soft food that could be seen on the X-ray. I watched the monitor as a dark blob of food appeared in her mouth. Her tongue swished around. She worked the blob to the back of her throat. Suddenly a flap of soft tissue flipped up and flushed the food down her gullet. But not all of it went the right way. A few dark wisps lingered around an opening above the food pathway, the windpipe. Mom coughed. I noticed some of the food was back in her mouth.
The therapist said, “What’s the matter, Wilma? Was that hard?”
As the staff discussed a different eating technique, I realized that I’d been swallowing each time she did, helping her, willing her to be okay, as if I could influence the outcome with my own epiglottis.
On the screen I saw the ghostly silhouette of Mom, all sharp bones, teeth, vertebrae. Her nose, lips, chin, and double chin were just outlines. There, but not there.
I had no way to preserve her.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/danbruell