Margaret Egger Belisle was her name. Loyal wife, loving mother of five, dedicated nurse, rheumatoid arthritic. She suffered from her illness from just after my birth in the mid 1950s until her death in 1975 at the age of 53.
While I was growing up, I was oblivious to the harsh reality of her condition. It was just was the normal state of affairs. By the time my memories began to stick, she already relied on a cane. Then crutches. When the first wheelchair appeared, it was a hoot to take it for a spin down the hallway of our ranch-style home. Apart from those aids, she was like other working mothers I knew. Off she went to care for her geriatric patients every morning at the nursing home she had established with my father in 1967.
Mother’s disease followed its due trajectory through my high school years, reaching its pitch just as freedom sounded its shrill whistle most insistently in my ear. I was a freshman in college by then, commuting to class from home. I longed to move away. But Mother was still at home, deteriorating in front of our eyes. Not that RA takes a person quickly; it dawdles, inflaming another knuckle here, twisting another joint there, conspiring with a wicked cocktail of drugs to render the body a desiccated skeleton draped in swollen, mottled flesh.
It was the first stroke that put her out of commission. It hit her at dinner. One moment she was hunched at the end of the table forcing down spaghetti. The next, the left side of her body went slack, she slumped, and food fell from her open mouth. Two more strokes followed, successively robbing her of her few remaining comforts: reading, speaking, sharing meals. Like the first two, the third one cruelly refused to deliver the merciful coup de grace.
She languished in the family nursing home through the long summer before my sophomore year at college. I grew accustomed to her limbo state. Like the rest of the family, I visited, but I grew careless, even callous. I wanted to be out in the world, not sitting in that sterile room watching the arthritis tighten the screws, watching her wince with every small shift, trying to decipher her garbled speech. After one visit, I sat in my car in the parking lot raging at God for his abject cruelty. Why, why, why wouldn’t he take her?
The last time I saw her alive may have been the visit that coincided with my brother Jack’s janitorial shift at the nursing home. Jack was the big man of the family. He had been Mother’s arms and legs for several years, lifting her in and out of her wheelchair and bed, in and out of the car. Jack made sure to see her everyday, stopping in several times on his rounds. When he saw me sitting there, he lit in. “Where have you been?” he said angrily. “When was the last time you came down to see her? Your mother’s dying and you can’t be bothered to get your ass down here?”
I think I shot up and went at him, lobbing fervid excuses in my defense, my fervor growing in proportion to my guilt. Then we both heard a distressed, even indignant, sound coming from her bed. I turned. Her hand was raised, her finger pointing at me. Her eyes flashed the old spirited anger. Clearly articulating the words, she said, “I like you.”
Jack got his reward though. The only one down at the nursing home the morning she died, he was the last to see her alive. But even he wasn’t at her side when she breathed her last; he had slipped out to mop another floor. It breaks my heart that she died without Dad or any of her children at her bedside, but it would be even sadder if it weren’t for one small detail. Once we’d all assembled there, it was plain to see. Gone were the traces of pain that had gripped her face for so long. Instead, a peaceful smile graced her lips.
It’s too late now to make amends to my mother. How I wish I could sit by her side now, read to her, play music for her, take her mottled, broken dove of a hand in my own and hold it. But I can’t. I can only roll the memories and regrets around in my head. I can only belatedly offer apologies to the air.
This post was prompted by Charli Mills’s May 13, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows a hard place and a connection.
A Dawn Concert
Four a.m. The pain a staccato knock. No going back to sleep. She pushed up on gnarled hands, scooted, let the sharp ache push her into the wheelchair.
She followed the grooves in the carpet, pushed past the girls’ rooms, imagined their young bodies. They looked like her, thirty years ago, before the arthritis made a crippled birch of her.
She parked at the kitchen table. No coffee until Dan rose to percolate it. She waited.
At last a pale lemony light washed through the window. The familiar room emerged. And the concert began.
The robins never forsook her.