Empathy

One Saturday afternoon I drove from Omaha, Nebraska,  to Council Bluffs, Iowa,  to pick up my aunt Bobby and take her to visit her husband, my mother’s brother, in a nursing home on the Bluffs’ east side.   I had geared myself for a visit.  I dislike very much the walk towards the glass doors of a nursing home and the inordinate strength it seems to take to open them. There the desolate furnishings in the waiting room reinforced my lack of willingness to engage with those sitting in vinyl chairs around the perimeter, at tables playing solitaire, or in corners watching television.  I’m sure that after they have endured years and months of being ignored, as old ones usually are, their attitudes towards visitors like me are ones of indifference.

It’s not the residents themselves that bother me, or the sickening mix of medication, Pine-Sol and bleach that arches the nostrils as soon as the door opens; but the warehousing of people, what it says about this stage of life, what it demands of a couple who have been married so many years–separate and then fade into death, what it will say about my own latter years, the lack of a spouse who might have or might not have visited, children, who like me, reluctant to come, drive by without stopping.  It takes courage and a certain faith in something beyond.

On one of the many weekends as my parents aged that I spent in Manilla, Iowa, visiting the folks, my father at this time a resident of Manilla Manor, I took my mother somewhere.   I don’t remember exactly where or why.  Maybe it was to  Elkhorn to visit Aunt Beulah, my father’s sister, who was beginning to lose her sight, as were my father and mother.  My father’s lazy eye growing stronger as his other eye lost vision; my mother’s ever-present use of eye drops to treat glaucoma.  I’m not looking forward to my cataracts being removed next year, for when Mom’s were, the anesthesia had worn off by the time the doctor began cleaving.

As we headed back through Harlen on Hwy. 44, my mother asked me to stop at the nursing home so she could visit a friend.  We parked on the south side and entered the main door.  No one to greet us, as if there should have been.   Mom knew where she wanted to go, heading straight down the hallways, excited about seeing an old friend.  After a little jog, clear down one long beige corridor, turn right, then down another beige corridor.  Finally to a room on the left. But the bedcovers were snapped tight, the chairs empty, no television running, her friend, absent.  We tracked down a caretaker who said Mom’s friend was visiting family.  On the way back through the long corridors, we saw a small women dressed in shades of gray and brown, thin but not skeletal, wiry, her hands frantically wheeling her wheelchair, aiming for mother.  She grabbed my mother’s hand and pulled Mom towards her, begging, “Tell me who I am.  Tell me who I am. Please tell me who I am.”  Mom tried to extricate herself from the woman’s grip by caressing her hands to calm her.  The woman’s wheelchair erratic as the woman pulled my mom closer to her.  I remember the woman’s brown loafers and white ankle socks as she scurried her feet along the floor, the rests for the feet bumping into mother’s legs.  We were by a lounge, so Mom maneuvered the woman and herself there, while I tried to rescue my mother from the woman’s grasp; but no one came to our aid.  All the while, the woman frantically begged for her name.

That incident unnerved me.  My fear of having only senses but no knowledge of my history, for as I age, memory is my only comfort.  For now at least, I know I have a past, I had dreams, and squandered some, if not most.

From the little of what I overheard about Roy and Bobby, their married life was not always pleasant; the family life, as are most, fraught with those struggling to extricate with those who control.  From what I suspect, Roy demanded and Bobby responded passively.  But in gatherings of relatives there was little evidence of discord.  At the end of their lives, Bobby could not take care of Roy anymore in their home.  As is often with those with ill spouses, she desired a little peace, time enough to sleep until she woke up, not to be in the kitchen preparing a meal, not be at demand, for she too needed care.

It was in the spring of my junior year of high school, when I had enough sense to count backwards and realize that my mother was one month pregnant with me when the folks married.  I know my ignorance sounds improbable; but I never even considered that my mother and father had to get married, and I never doubted the love they had for each other.  I only remember one argument, if three days of silence can be called an argument.  Recently, however, my older sister told me that she came across a note Mom had hidden under the oil tablecloth, one that indicated that Mom was upset with Dad.  If disagreements were more than those sporadic, like many couples I know, I never felt as if my world was falling apart because of the way they treated each other, as I’m sure my children did during my divorcing their father.

Improbable or not, I never knew that my mother was pregnant with my little brother, who is fifteen years younger than I, until a classmate told me that she heard my mother was going to have a baby.  I remember saying, “She is?”  I’m absolutely sure that my classmate thought I had the brains of a gnat.  My youngest brother, the youngest of five children, was born a month later.

I suppose it was in the spring of my junior year, for I didn’t have on a coat, and the house was warm.  For some reason, as there usually is between mothers and teenage daughters, Mom and I were having some difficulties.  I don’t remember what for.  Stuck on that farm with my dad refusing to teach me to drive, and being someone who struggled to fit in a new school, not driving meant I was at the mercy of my parents.  When I stepped inside the kitchen after walking up the lane from the bus, Mom was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, at times a daily task for her considering how much mud can be tracked in on a farm.  Cleaning staved off memories for her, I believe, for she often said it kept her from thinking.  When I confronted her about her and Dad having to get married, she never rose up off her knees.  But when she raised her head to look at me and sat back on her heels, the rag in her hand, ready to rinse and ring it out in the wash water and scrub another patch, she was crying.  All she said was, “Wait until your dad gets home.”  A good threat then.

After Aunt Bobby’s and my visit to see Uncle Roy, Aunt Bobby and I sat in her living room and drank coffee.  We talked about cousins, about Larry who is one month older than I, Bobby and Mom pregnant at the same time.  Both Roy and my dad were in the service.  Dad never left the states because of his lazy eye; Roy served in Italy for sure, and most likely other places. When Bobby went into labor, various Bargenquast women would take turns sitting with her.  Labor then was not like it is now with classes on relaxation and the drugs for pain.  Not even oxygen.  But when mother’s turn came to sit, my mom cried so much during Bobby’s contractions that Bobby had to comfort my mother.

When Bobby told me that, I thought about all the times I saw my mother’s tears as she read letters, as she listened to sad tales, even mine.  And I thought about what it meant to be a pregnant woman in 1943 and have to get married, the feeling of being imperfect, the fear of being ostracized.  I thought about my mother having lost her first husband and having a child age 11 when I was born and giving birth to me in a nursing home without my father around.

 

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