—an excerpt of a non-fiction something I’m writing about being the child of someone who has suffered a massive stroke, and how it morphs one’s relationship to parents, grief, and mourning. I am thinking about my Mama for Mother’s day, as hard as it is, has been.
I know what grief is, how to comprehend a loved one that is full gone: I go to the funeral. I read the obituary. I go to the gravesite. Run my fingers through the crevices of the engraved letters on the headstone. Place flowers at the grave, say I should probably visit more often. Say the name. Say a prayer. Visit the house, bring ice and sweet tea and sweet rolls. Sit with family and friends. Cry. Laugh. Put the obituary in the curio with the fancy china. Take bereavement time from work. I get six days and a sympathy card mailed to my house waiting for me when I return from burying my gone.
When someone dies, there is a universal expectation, understanding even, that the still-living will go into a deep, dark sadness, and eventually emerge on the other side, into the light. A universal wait to return to the living. An incubation time that is generally agreed upon at which your outward self should be “back to normal” after you have traveled through the stages of grief and returned to the world.
Everyone, everywhere knows what it is like to lose a loved one to death. At times, I believed I had advanced degrees in it. A Master of Fine Art in grief. A Master of Fine Art in knowing that eventually I won’t want to cry at the mention of someone’s name, that at some point the piercing pain will be more like a dull ache, and then, nothing. I would say, “Everyone I have ever been truly close to has died.” I said it with pride. I had overcome. Look, I was a functioning human in the world.
The first time I recognized grief was like a mountain I could climb over, it was when my best friend Gloria died. I was in class with her older Irish-twin sister, and still on the track team with many of our mutual friends. Because I went to watch her play JV basketball and then we’d sit together and watch the varsity games, I knew her basketball friends. I am positive she had closer friends than me, but she was my closest friend. We’d talk about God and sing Christian and Gospel songs together. Then we’d sing R & B songs and pretend to be in a girl group. Because she was one of the fastest young runners on the track team and because I was one of the strongest in the throws, we were the young ones who went on the out of state meets together. Everyone knew us. Together. And then she was gone.
When I got the news, I screamed and cried and fell out on the floor and Mama came running to me and held me. Rocked me. Prayed for peace and understanding. I just cried and cried.
At school, because I now had to navigate grief in the public and private space, teachers and coaches asked if I was OK? I shrugged. Friends who saw me leave the funeral early kept checking in here and there. Everyone would do this for a few weeks—i guess an appropriate amount of time past the funeral—and then they stopped.
I promised myself that I would never forget Gloria, the way she called my name, the timbre of her voice. I promised myself in the early throws of grief that I would never approach a day that I didn’t think about her, or forget. And then I did. And then her birthday would pass and I would forget. The anniversary of her death would pass, and then I’d forget. No one asked me about her anymore, and I guess I had gotten over that mountainous grief obstacle and started living again.
No one really knows what to do with a stroke victim. Mattie, my grandmother’s neighbor and great family friend, picked up a notebook and put it on the table next to my mother’s bed. The notebook became her sympathy? Get well? What kind of cards do you get?—trophy stand. Her idea was probably that maybe, when Mama was better (this was when we all believed in a “better”, a “get well”), she could see who visited and left little notes. The notes were a mix between the guest book at funerals and wakes, high school year books, and visitors’ guest books at Bed & Breakfasts: attendance tracking; for the family of the gone; remember the good times. Maybe I read some of the notes to Mama in that first week I went home, the first week after the stroke. Maybe Mattie did.
Eventually, it became a place I took notes of the Doctors’ flash-quick assessment of Mama’s current state.
“Wait,” I’d say. “Say that slower and spell it out so that I can write it down.”
I had started keeping track of their assessments when the rehab facility looked at my mother and then looked at us and asked quite frankly why she was here.
“We don’t take sub-acute stroke patients,” the doctor said, as if we should know that there were levels of degrees of strokes and levels of degrees of rehab. There was stroke, and there was rehab. We simply told him what the doctors in the hospitals told us, and let them review the charts, which all suggested Mama was an acute stroke victim and was in fact in the right place. So they treated her as such, according to the charts, and not according to her presenting symptoms / abilities / disabilities.
Workers in the center would swing in and drop off a plate of food for breakfast. Mama would look at it, study it, then close her eyes and go to sleep.
Workers in the center would swing in and switch out the breakfast tray for the lunch tray. Mama would look at the new tray, lift her left hand, study the spoon like a specimen. Then go to sleep.
Because the worker delivering and clearing food was not the person checking vitals, when the vitals-checking woman came and checked Mama’s sugar (because yes, she had late onset diabetes like her mother and her grandmother) it was so low the woman remarked, “No wonder she is sleeping so much. She hasn’t eaten.” I would say from the guest chair where I had sat most of the day with my laptop doing remote work that “No one even stopped to feed her.”
The woman looked at me and looked at Mama who nodded her head. I probably could have / should have picked up the spoon and fed her, but too, I was watching to see how the nurses and staff cared or didn’t for her, because Mama couldn’t speak for herself. I wrote down in the notebook: “Mama didn’t eat until dinner. Chicken tetrazini. I fed her. And Ensure.”
I tell Daddy we need to make sure someone feeds Mama if family isn’t there because I saw what happened. Daddy tells me that he doesn’t want to make a fuss and get the nurses upset “because they are caring for her right now.” I tell him this is part of care, and that if Mama can’t feed herself then they need to step in and do that to make sure her blood sugar is regulated. “Or else—” I say and trail off.
“OK,” Daddy says in a way that means he wants to end the conversation. There is precedent, I know. A haunting precedent. Three years prior, when Grandma was in a similar facility, she complained often—because she could speak and was clear of mind—about how she was mistreated in there. She cycled through bouts of UTI and yeast infections which she never had before and we attributed it to the ‘schedule’ of diaper change, and not one that fit when she needed because she had soiled herself and did so more than usual because she was on fluid pills, meant to extract fluid from the body. Once, because her health insurance dictated she spend time at home before issuing approval for another stay at the care center, she came home to us with what was effectively diaper rash and bed sores.
“I don’t want them to do anything wrong to your mother,” Daddy said.
“Daddy, they are doing her wrong by not feeding her,” I countered. He asked me to just drop it.
I spoke to the nurses when I got there—on her birthday—to make sure she ate today, because no one did yesterday, and I used my New York language, not my Southern one, and let them know “And that is unacceptable.” I knew not to say it to the women who did hand-to-hand combat with the patients, the black ones who looked like they could be my cousins, Mama’s nieces, my aunts, and so on. Yes, they could use their hands for good or evil—the ones who turned the bedsheets and changed the diapers. The women who picked her up and washed her. No. I dared not make them upset lest history continue to repeat and cycle its way onto and through Mama’s body.
Instead, I found the white woman with the clipboard. I lodged my complaints, and read directly from my Mama’s notebook, which was now my activity log and asked her to tell me how “we can be assured my mother actually eats all her meals while she is a resident in your care?”
I look the woman straight in the eye. I didn’t flinch. I played the incorrigible New Yorker my family had grown to despise in their own small ways and probably not the expected ‘thankful’ black girl (she was a woman who, I’m sure, in the retelling of this story to other white folks will call me ‘girl’), happy just to have Mama in the proximity of receipt of services.
I left to pick up a coffee and lunch. When I came back, Crystal was putting a napkin in the collar of Mama’s sweatshirt and cutting up the Salisbury steak into bite sized pieces and waiting while Mama chewed before putting the spoon back to her lips. I picked up the notebook.
“12:30pm: lunch. Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Chocolate Milk. Crystal fed her.”
Reader, I swear to you Mama smiled at me. She knew.