“Shitty! What do you think?” she said exhaling another plume of smoke into the always hazy room. Looking over her shoulder I could see where varying streams of caramel colored nicotine were working their way down the wall in the foyer like some sort of alien goo.
“Geeze, Ma, it’s always so dark in here,” I said as I leaned over and flipped the light switch on the wall next to her curio cabinet that was within my reach. The cabinet that was filled with souvenir bells I had given her from so many of the places I’d traveled around the world. They hadn’t been touched in years by the looks of them just sitting there dusty and silent. There was the Waterford crystal one I’d sent from a trip to Ireland and next to it a porcelain one with the Pope’s smiling image I’d picked up for her in Rome at a shop near the Vatican.
It was a humid day and the house was buttoned up as it always was, and between the thick stench of cigarette smoke and somewhat moldy odor that permeated the place, it had the institutional smell of a nursing home. In spite of the heat, Ma was dressed in her standard garb, wrapped in a ratty pink terry cloth robe over flannel pajamas with tattered baby blue fur lined slippers covering her swollen feet. The robe was a Mother’s Day present, and although just a month old, it was dotted with cigarette burns. But of course I didn’t give her a birthday card to go along with the gift since I’d long since stopped trying to find just the right one with the right kind of words inside.
I used to spend an hour at the Hallmark store looking them over, trying to find something generic, but all of them seemed to have sentiments that just weren’t consistent with the truth about how I felt about her. They said things like; “A mother’s love is unlike any other, and I’m so glad you’ve given me yours.” Or one that read; “Thank you mother for always being there, guiding, protecting, loving…” Yuk. Talk about not applicable. Of course the same problem applied to finding a card that wasn’t as nauseating for any other holiday as well, so I just gave it up.
I could see she was neglecting her chin hairs again too. She had visits twice a week from the city’s senior services to help her with hygiene and to take care of such things. The woman had just been there the day before but I could see Ma hadn’t been helped to thoroughly bathe and groom. Not that this was ever important to her. Her siblings used to call her “Dirty Gerty” when she was growing up because of her unimpressive grooming habits. I made a mental note to call the agency on Monday, but I was sure they’d tell me they’d tried to do their job but she wouldn’t cooperate. With such little family willing to help, I made sure I researched and acquired any and all available outside assistance I could since we lived over an hour away. So between the visiting nurses, the housekeeper, and the senior services agency, I felt that at least she was getting the highest level of care she could afford and to which she was entitled.
She looked haggard even beyond her eighty-one years and seemed to like it that way as it enhanced her victimized appearance, one that she worked very hard at sustaining so all the world could see just how “sick,” neglected, and lonesome she really was. All a byproduct of her being abandoned and shunned by most of her children, even after all that she’d done for them she’d tell anyone who’d listen. Her eyes were red, with puffy bags beneath, and the pale skin on her forearms was specked with random red and scaly blotches, different from the one’s she’d had before from the bed bug bites. We had to throw practically everything out when getting rid of those creatures and spent two full days at the Laundromat in East Dedham after emptying all of the dresser drawers and closets and washing every stitch of clothing in scalding hot water and drying them on the highest heat setting. We must have pumped over one-hundred dollars in quarters into the slots of those machines to get the job done, and of course we had to replace her mattress and box spring.
That bed bug episode had been yet another unpleasant reminder of childhood and the years of living with those damn omnipresent cockroaches that stood among nature’s hardiest survivors over the millennium. We’d all learned to freeze for a moment whenever turning on the kitchen light in the morning before the sun came up to give them a moment to scuttle back into the floorboards and cupboards or under the refrigerator to avoid the most unpleasant sensation of stepping on one with a bare foot. They were just a disgusting part of life that I’d put out of my mind. But when I’d seen those garish welts all over my mother’s arms I investigated her bedroom and in turning over her mattress was horrified to see a massive colony of moving brown dots that made my skin crawl as much as the cockroaches had. Although we did the best we could and they’d been no sign as yet they’d returned, I knew they’d be back sometime.
Ma was starting to become a bit more stooped over these days, her height having slipped all the way down to five foot, one inch, according to her last doctor’s visit. Her essentially unnecessary walker was in its perpetual position facing her chair, serving as a one stop shop for all things dear in her small world. An oversized purse hung from one of the grips, and the basket in front was full of pill bottles, half-drunken liters of diet ginger ale, and adult diapers. She always wore those in case she couldn’t make it down the hall she said to do her “cuckies.”
Her most prized possession, however, was on the walker’s seat, easily within reach—her plastic bottle of diabetic test strips. No matter that she wasn’t diabetic nor did she really need to check her glucose at all. The doctor had mentioned to her some fifteen years back that she had “elevated” blood sugar, and that it might be a good idea to check it once in a while as she monitored her diet.
There was no way he could have known that his simple instructions would morph into a finger-pricking obsession that now dominated my mother’s waking moments. Her regimen called for her to check her blood sugar twice a day. Once in the morning after fasting all night, and the other in the middle of the afternoon after eating, so the prescription was doled out by the doctor one hundred strips at a time intended to last fifty days, then it was to be refilled. These days it wasn’t uncommon for her to prick her finger at least ten to fifteen times a day, so she was always running short. Panic would set in as her supply dwindled, knowing that the pharmacy wouldn’t refill it earlier than scheduled. So she’d scheme a way to convince Diane to go and buy them over the counter without telling Mighty Mike, offering her gas money or cigarettes as a bribe. Diane would not always keep me in the loop, but I didn’t care much at this point.
She’d even bother the neighbors from time to time if she got desperate enough. That was a daily double for her as she could then use the opportunity to tell them just how much her children neglected her and how she was so alone and abandoned. Fortunately, they were wise to her as I’d chat with them from time to time in the driveway and they were well aware of the comings and goings between myself, a couple of my sisters, and all the home care services that made their regular visits. They were all very gracious after I’d apologized to each of them at one time or another, but I still gave them my business card urging them to give me a call if she became too much of a nuisance.
Ma was on a very fixed income, so I brought her a limited amount of spending money along with the groceries I brought every other week, and she hoarded the cash to make sure she could get her “fix” once the prescription of those diabetic test strips started to run out. I couldn’t stand to see her waste her money on fulfilling her obsession, but just stopped trying to reason with her. I had to take away her check book months earlier to prevent her from bouncing checks as she had been in an attempt to stockpile the strips. As stupid as it was, she could jab herself like a deranged mosquito a hundred times a day as far as I was concerned as long as she didn’t spend more than her allowance. Besides, I knew it made her feel good to be sneaky.
To be continued….