Saturday, May 8, 2010

My mother's last days

I was not used to my mother being sick.  No matter how old you are, your mother's the one in charge, the one who takes care of everything.  My mother lay in a damned  hospital bed looking small and helpless, relying on me--and I felt damned insignificant and incompetent.  My mother wasn't used to dependency, and I wasn't used to seeing her dependent.  

Truth is, I loved no one in the world like I did her.  It's a cliche to say your mother's your best friend, but mine really was.  Since my father died, it had just been Mama and I.  She always made me feel safe, even as an adult.  When my mother was ill, I had to be the strong one, and I felt woefully inadequate.  I've never inspired confidence like she did.  When she told me I could learn those lines for that damned kindergarten play, I did learn them--and knew every line in the whole production.  When school was lousy(which it often was), I'd sit on the sofa with Mama while she read to me.  Daddy would start the fireplace(yes, in southeast Louisiana), and sit near us in  huge easy chair.  Mama would hold me tight as she read  novel or a tale by the Brothers Grimm.  I'll always love Little Women because I can't even hear the title without thinking of her.  On rainy days, we played a game called "Steps."  The rules are only vague in my memory, but the game consisted of guessing the right letters and filling them in a puzzle.  The game always managed to cheer me up, and when I was a kid, I always needed cheering up.  

Mama always was there.  I couldn't have earned three degrees without her confidence in me.  She told me that the only person who lacked faith in me was myself.  Mama gave me faith and love.  She also willingly sacrificed for me.  She took a thankless job so that she could be home with Grandma and me at night.  She was wasted in that job, but she persevered--coming home bone tired and hurt.  She initially had to endure undue rudeness from her male co-workers.  Though they eventually came to respect her, these men actively made her life miserable during the first year of her time there.  My mother worked hard so that she wouldn't have to use the little money my father had left for my future.  

The woman who once looked out for my well-being lay helpless in a hospital bed.  With the help of physical therapists and nurses, I almost carried her to a bedside commode, but the heroic effort was too late.  Her backside was full of her own dirt, and sadly, she hadn't even felt the evacuation of her bowels.  My mother became the child.  I, her daughter, became the mother.  I wiped her rear and threw the soiled wipes into the trash.  I bathed her, gently passing a cloth under her breath and over her buttocks.  

Doctors made objective projections about her possible recovery, but their hearts didn't lurch for her as mine did.  The clinical observations did nothing to assuage the sickening fear I felt as she suffered  loss of dignity and purpose.  One night, she told me that she would rather die than live as she was.  She felt glued t her bed, a prisoner in her own body.  

Mama eventually lost her fight with old age and illness.  Hospice workers came to the house to help me and her sitters with her care.  Most days, she lay in a hospital bed that occupied half of the living room.  She slept for hours.  Only strong medicine controlled her pain.  She would call out for the Virgin Mary.  She cried for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to help her.  The Sunday before she died, Mama told me I had to let her go.  It was the anniversary of my father's death, and I couldn't say those words.  

During the coming work, my mother lived in a hazy, surreal world.  Drugs kept the pain at bay, and she still managed to smile at me.  She drank water and broth from a straw, and I didn't leave  her as she existed in that limbo.  Relatives visited, but no one really said  why they were there-- to say goodbye.  The sitters and the visitors joined me in the sad vigil.  I took care of my mother.  Everyone else tried to take care of me.  Barbara and Valerie, her wonderful sitters, brought me coffee and coaxed me to eat.  My fabulous relatives brought me food I barely ate and couldn't taste.  They were trying to take care of the living while waiting for a death.  

Mama died on Good Friday, 2008.  My aunt and my cousin Trudy were there.  I'll never forget her labored breathing.  Each breath sent a needle into my chest.  I stroked her hair and held her hand.  I whispered to her.  My cousin, a nurse, monitored her pulse.  Eventually, we could no longer hear her breathing.  A hospice nurse arrived, pronouncing her dead.  More relatives arrived.  Two people came from the morgue to take her away.  They gave me a rose.  I didn't see them take her body.  The nurse tactfully asked if I'd witness her dispose of my mother's meds.  I watched through tears as she flushed them down the john.  

I eulogized my mother at her funeral.  I followed my cousin Charlotte.  She was a hard act to follow. During the funeral, I was in a grief-induced fog, but I cried endlessly in the coming months.  Two years later, I sometimes still do.  Since I was twelve, I've only communicated with my father by putting a bouquet on his grave.  It was my way of saying I still thought of him and that I missed him.  Now, I visit the same grave and place bouquets in two vases.  I wish that I'd had them longer.  

Sunday, May 2, 2010

When the Words Stopped

When I think of men like Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux, I think of my father and all  those people who have found salvation, even redemption, through horse racing.  Training and guiding those magnificent beasts to the finish line is an exhilarating, totally absorbing experience.  Sam, my father, was a horse trainer.  . . .

When I was eight-years-years old, my father stopped speaking.  He had a heart attack and massive stroke while racing horses in Chicago.  When he returned home, his emaciated physique, confused stare, and inarticulate mutterings baffled and embarrassed me.  My father aged fifty years in a few short weeks.  I dreaded the ridiculing comments of the rich, snobby brats infesting the bowels of the suburban school I attended.  

My father, Sam, was undoubtedly more angry and humiliated than I, his only daughter, could ever have been.  Sam was a healthy man, and  no one expected the heart attack and stroke that felled him while he was racing horses in Chicago in 1971.  He returned to us a changed man.  He could no longer say my mother's name or mine.  He couldn't articulate even the simplest ideas, and the frustration level at home was high.  Once, consumed with anger, he bellowed, "I ca--an--'t say what I wa--nt to--"

Sam had been a man's man.  He'd done everything in his life and lived to tell about it.  When the Depression robbed people of their lives and homes, he sold liquor and kept his family alive during the lean years when no one had a dime.  His second son died in infancy.  His first wife succumbed to tuberculosis during those hungry years.  She died a painful, lingering death.  Sam and Emile, the man who would be his business partner for life, made the hooch and sold it.  Sam and Emile's teenaged sons helped pack the stuff.  

Leah, his mother, crossed herself and said, "Your father would roll over in his grave if he knew you were doing anything illegal."  

My father responded, "He'd roll over in his grave if he knew we were starving, too."  

Leah shook her head in horror but cooked the food the liquor bought without further comment.  Sam and Emile were sometimes arrested, but they never spent a night in jail.  Most of the New Orleans Police Department were customers.  

When Prohibition ended, Sam and Emile opened a bar on Canal and Broad.  They worked in it day and night, providing lunches for downtown businessmen during the day and drinks for many of the same men after work.  Politicians and cops frequented their establishment.  On the side, Sam and Emile trained and owned prize fighters.  Images of my father standing beside many of the Italian-American boxers grace the walls of the Italian-American Cultural Society.  One of their fighters went on to win the Feather Weight Champion of the World.  

Sam eventually developed a hobby of his own--horse racing, and a business that paid well for some time, booking. He was a natural at both.  Sam acquired three more wives after the death of his first wife.  My mother was his fourth wife.  At thirty-eight, she was one year younger than his surviving son.  My cousins remember my mother telling them, "Never answer the phone! Never!" When he became a father again at fifty-seven, Sam told my mother, "I'm shutting this operation down.  We have a little girl now.  I don't want her disgraced if the place is raided."  He sold his elaborate phone system and concentrated full-time on raising and racing thoroughbreds.  

The horses respected him and heeded his commands.  Other men willingly rode his horses and accepted his direction. In a time of rampant racism and discrimination, Sam didn't care if a jockey was black or white, country or city.  The animals that bucked, reared, and kicked others walked passively beside my father as he led them with the flimsiest of halters.   I walked by his side, feeding the horses carrots and sugar as he stroked their mane and brushed their coats.  My father lived for the sound of the starting gate opening and for the smell of fresh hay in a stable.  

When he first became ill, the doctors were uncertain if he would even be able to walk.  He did.  My father was the most stubborn man in the world.  Determined to race again, he reapplied for his trainer's license and passed muster.  His clients stayed with him.  Jockeys were still willing to ride his horses.  My father was not given to whining or quitting. 

Men like my father, Borel, and Desormeaux find beauty in horses and in racing.  The sport offers them the opportunity to greatness.  . .  .

On the morning he died, I saw the light shining in the bathroom. Sam, as usual, was awake at dawn so he could go to the track.   I was tired and turned over, shielding my eyes from the crack of light coming from the bathroom.  We were having our last cold spell in March, and the bed felt snug.  Only a few hours later, my half-brother pounded on the door, screaming that Sam was dead.  At the time, I only felt hollow.  I remember a fern blowing in the dying March wind.  I've hated fern to this day.