Sometimes, it’s hard to believe.
You know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes…as individuals, as groups, as nations, we find ourselves in situations where the notion of an Overseeing Power just…can’t…be. We’re shaken. This happens. That happens. Things aren’t as comfortable as we’d like them to be. Things are, in fact, dreadful, unmanageable, inconceivably horrible. How can…He…let that happen? How can He…exist…in a world where…
Fill in the blank.
I direct plays. It's one of the things I do to make a living. It's an oftentimes stressful occupation, sculpting a group of amateur or professional actors into a theatrical framework that tells a story conceived by a playwright, usually in a very limited period of time, always with a highly expectant audience (and critics) awaiting you and your finished product on opening night. The axis around which a galaxy of designers, technicians, administrators
and performers hover and hope as they strive toward a stage worthy presentation. The job demands, above all else, focus.
Life doesn't always make focus all that easy to achieve.
On Saturday, November 15, 2003, I had completed a long day directing 78 energized children and 15 barely patient adults in my own adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Foothills Theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had a lot on my mind that day--a lot more than wondering whether the casters on Scrooge's fireplace would hold up as it traveled from stage right to stage left, or whether the women dancing in the Fezziwig scene would be able to see over their Victorian bustles and avoid falling into the orchestra pit. As I navigated the maelstrom of Dickensian pyrotechnics and Americanized British dialects, my mother, who in the previous five years had braved the onslaught of heart and kidney disease, bypass surgery and dialysis, not to mention a few strokes and a couple of mildly debilitating tumbles, and who was now in a nursing home, occupied a good portion of my mind. She had been acting a bit strangely lately. Her most recent stroke, suffered
about a year and a half earlier, had, in addition to depriving her of the use of the left side of her body, played some fancy tricks on her brain as well. Her memory, always sharp, became limited to either the here and now ("I had a Pop Tart for breakfast."), or to the long gone past ("Let me tell you about the Flood of '36!"). Details from the last ten years or so had fallen through the cracks of her still active mind, prompting that mind to play games with reality. For instance, she sincerely believed, at times, that her mother, long dead, was living in the nursing home with her. She was also convinced that many of the nurses and aides were friends from her old neighborhood. And, oddest of all, she had a very difficult time distinguishing what was fact and what was fiction on television. She began to think that people from her life--actual living, breathing people--were now characters on TV shows because they resembled each other. Needless to say, some of the treacherous situations TV characters experienced became all the more frightening when they were happening, as she believed, to Susie Whoever, Gladys Whoever's little daughter from down the street. It had reached the point where I had to post a little cardboard
notice on the side of the TV in her room to make sure no visitors left the set tuned into the Lifetime Channel. Those Lifetime shows are gut-wrenching enough to try to handle when you know they're just make-believe. When you think they're real and actually happening to your friends--forget about it. The nursing home dance--making sure Ma was comfortable and safe and…well, I can't say happy but…as content as possible…was a challenging dance, to say the least.
The stroke also made her funnier. She had always been relatively fast with the one-liners, but now a stroke-induced lack of editing took the one-liners a lot closer to the edge. Let's face it, you know and I know that Senior senior citizens (let's call the "Senior senior" 85 years plus) can get away with a lot more than the rest of us can, and when the Senior senior citizen is a stroke victim, all bets are off. My mother reeled off some zingers. One time, my brother Jim walked into her room and asked her if she wanted to go the social hall to see the Elvis Impersonator performing that afternoon. She said no. He asked why. "I didn't want to see him in 1956," she said, "why would I want to see him now?"
In any case, this subtle step from reality had begun to manifest itself much more vividly in the past two weeks, and on this particular Saturday I couldn't kick my mother's condition from my mind as I shuffled my CHRISTMAS CAROL masses from Scrooge's Office to Marley's door knocker; from Fred's Living Room to Old Joe's decrepit den. I had already visited my mother at Palm Manor in Chelmsford earlier in the day. Palm had featured a Christmas Fair that afternoon, and my sister Claire and my niece Lauren had taken my mother to the fair where she had purchased the only gift she would buy that year--a sweater for my sister Tricia. When I arrived, the shopping was finished, my mother was quite happy and content that she had shopped well, and we left her with the aides, who were preparing to put her in bed for an afternoon nap. There had been no reference to anybody in the neighborhood on trial for murder, or pregnant out of wedlock. I figured she hadn't been watching Lifetime, and that was a good thing.
My rehearsal ended at 6:30. The show seemed to be in decent shape with a week left to go before the paying customers would show up. Not close to ready of course, but…getting there. One more rehearsal scheduled on Sunday
before the anxiously anticipated Monday day off. All things considered, our Worcester, Massachusetts attempt at recreating Dickens' London was rolling along according to schedule.
As I drove home after my rehearsal, it occurred to me that I had made my Palm visit for the day, that I had left my mother with both of us feeling good, and I knew I could drop by on Sunday morning on my way back to Worcester. Claire, Trish, Jim and I had all been there over the course of the week, and I told myself it was time to relax, have something to eat, maybe even catch a movie. It was the end of the kind of day--and week--when things like that needed to be done.
I approached the Solomon Pond Mall exit on Interstate route 290, and eased my Sentra to the right lane, prepared to take the exit, find a restaurant, have dinner, then let some moviemaker tell me a story to end my day. I was there, at the exit, ready to veer off to the ramp.
But I didn’t take the exit. I kept driving. 290 to 495 to 4 to Parkhurst Street to Palm Manor. I'm not saying I made the trip involuntarily, I'm just saying I made the
trip. I just…did. I didn't go to the mall. I went to the nursing home.
I entered the building, crossed the evening-quiet living room where the few night owl residents sat listening to the McGuire Sisters on the soft stereo, walked down the corridor to my mother’s C-Wing room, and stepped inside. It was about 7:30. (7:30 p.m. is late-night in nursing home time.)
She was in bed, as she usually was at that time of night, her head turned toward the window to her left. I walked to the right side of her bed. She turned her head, saw me, and the tears flowed.
This had been happening a lot in recent days. Weeping. Mostly out of worry for her kids. Which included not only me, my brother and my sisters, but also her own brother Alan, her grandchildren, her son-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Lately, she’d been inordinately frightened that something bad might happen to us. That things weren’t going to be all right. You could not convince her otherwise. Try as you might to assuage this fear, she would not listen. Maybe she was projecting us through TV teleplays. I don't know. This worry consumed
her. It was out of the ordinary. Something was happening inside her head, placing her in a state of almost constant concern. Lots of worry. Lots of crying.
As she turned and saw me she said, “You’re the answer to my prayer.”
“Why?” I said.
“I just wanted to see you,” she said. “I wanted to know you were all right.”
Then I held her hand, and we talked for about ten minutes. What we said to each other is ours, and will stay with me for the rest of my life. One of the things she said to me was, "You're gonna be okay. I know it." To me, this was not a cavalier statement. With all the wild and wooly thoughts on rampage in her head after the stroke, she never lost sight of the fact that my life was the most precarious of all her kids' lives, that the sustenance of the freelance artist is a virtual hourly challenge. She always worried about me, but never discouraged me. And now, on this night, for some reason, she definitively told me that I was going to be fine.
Then, it was my turn to offer assurance to her. And since she truly believed my appearance at the nursing home was the answer to her prayer, on that night, she listened. Finally. I was able to convince her that we all were, in fact, all right, that she had done an especially magnificent job raising her four kids, loving us, keeping us close after our father died when we were all very little. That the best part of who and what we had become was attributable to her. That the best part of who and what we are was who and what she made us to be.
She said, “Really?” A little surprised. A bit taken aback.
I said yes. Really.
I asked if she believed me.
“I do now,” she said. After days and days of having to be convinced. “I do now. Now I can sleep.”
So I said goodbye, and left. It was my last conversation with her.
The next night, Sunday night, as I drove back from Worcester after the final rehearsal of the long week, my cell phone rang. My sister Claire, who had been visiting
my mother, asked me if I planned on dropping by the nursing home that night. I told her yes, that's where I was headed.
"Good," she said. "Ma's not herself."
By the time I arrived at Palm about twenty minutes later, Claire had called Trish and Jim. Within an hour, we were all at the nursing home. Ma's eyes were open, but she wasn't responding to us or to the nursing staff. She looked scared, almost panicked. But there was no connection to anything or anyone in the room. I've chosen to believe, unlikely though it may be, that her open eyes could see us, the four of us, together, with her. She was suffering a massive stroke. She was rushed to Saints Memorial Hospital in Lowell.
Eight hours later, early on Monday morning, she slipped away, in our arms.
Sometimes…it’s hard to believe.
And other times…
I could easily have taken that off ramp on Saturday night, eaten that dinner, seen that movie, enjoyed a night off from the nursing home.
But I didn't.
And I don't remember deciding not to go to the movies. I don't remember choosing to go to the nursing home. I don't remember anything but continuing my drive to see my mother for a moment that turned out to be the last we would share.
290 to 495 to 4 to Parkhurst to Palm.
Sometimes…it’s hard to believe.
And other times…
You tell me.
Jack Neary, August, 2006