She begins to count. Rhythmically. Softly. “One, two, three,” until she reaches thirty or so. Her eyes scan the room, trace ceiling edges. My eyes follow her sing-songy breaths. I wonder what she sees that needs counting. I cradle my mom’s bruised and blue-tinged hand and she taps a finger to mine in time with growing numbers, some skipped, some repeated. She smells salty and I’m sure she’s soiled her pants. When I’m given a gown for her overnight stay I ask the nurse for help changing her, cleaning her up.
Bodily fluids make me uneasy. But I’ve done this before — toileted my mother. Cleaned her vomit. Washed her body. Mercifully. Dutifully. Even now, in the hospital. Just as I do when I visit her in her warm bedroom in the renovated former monastery. Just as I did when she lived with me, after the diagnosis three years ago.
I imagined her facility wouldn’t send anything along; probably just saw her off, watched her load into the back of a rural ambulance. Alone. On my way to the emergency room, I stopped and bought a pack of underwear. I don’t know if an emergency room visit comes with clean underwear. I won’t use the word diapers. Especially in front of her. They’re pull-ups, anyway. And she will need them. Adult pull-ups, size small.
“Can you keep the rails up? She’ll forget where she is and get up in the middle of the night and wander around,” I urge this of everyone who comes into her room, even if they tell me they are not scheduled for the night shift. One of the nurses gets a butterfly needle in on the first try. “She’ll pull the tubes out of her arm. Can you add more tape?”
At the nurse’s station, I make sure I haven’t missed the doctor’s early morning rounds. “He’ll be in around 7:30.” My mom’s room is still, dark. A night light behind her bed halos her, warming her face. She is sleeping, snoring. An oxygen tube snugs her nostrils. Her now-pink cheeks puff on exhale. Her head has fallen far off her pillow but antibiotic-filled IV drip lines on each side of her bed keep her otherwise centered. The bedrails are up. The waste basket is filled with bloodied gauze pads and strands of tape and blue elastic bands. Her tubes are taped twice over. She is wearing giant mittens. Bulbous. Like boxing gloves. Solid white. Puffy. Cartoonish. She has cotton clouds for hands.
A full breakfast tray sits on a table near her feet. “Mom.” My hand envelopes her bony shoulder. Each word, a gentle squeeze, “Mom, wake up.” I open the blinds to rolling hills and sunrise. “Hey, Lee,” her soothing recognition comes with a waving cloud hand. A cloud in the shape of my name. My name. It calms me. “You ready for breakfast, mom?” I stab a plastic straw into a carton of orange juice and splash a little milk into cool coffee. She’s always taken her coffee the color of pralines. “You brought over breakfast?!” I cut french toast slices into tiny cubes and dunk each piece into a cup of syrup before forking it into her mouth. “Mmmm. That’s good.”
Lights brighten with my every step toward the nurse’s station. Retracing the way, I dodge nurses with medicine carts and X-ray technicians with mobile machines. I palm tears and stifle hiccuping cries when I reach the elevator. I don’t remember the floor I came in on so I choose at random and exit left to see a sign for coffee and a gift shop. I buy myself a large coffee and spike it with hazelnut creamer, til it’s the color of pralines. I pick out an overpriced bear wearing a T-shirt that reads get well soon. My mom is comforted by the stuffed animals I’ve given her — she has three on her bed back at the facility and she talks to them, tucks them in at night. Now she needs this bear, with the green T-shirt. To get well. Soon.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Sergio Santos