Jana Richman Utah Writer

Getting Old

Getting Old

by Jana Richman

Featured in Quarterly West

Every Sunday for the past five weeks, my mother has fainted in church. The doctor’s advice: stop going to church. The first time it happened, an ambulance was summoned and most of the congregation gathered around reverently and moved as one with the gurney as two attendants wheeled her out the door and into the wagon. Upon my mother’s instructions, this procession was not to be repeated. The last time it happened, the bishop arranged her comfortably on the floor, stacked three Books of Mormon under her feet (a directive from her doctor to put her feet higher than her head), and went on with the lesson.

The diagnoses are plentiful and complex: congestive heart failure causing lack of blood flowing to the brain; side effects from a myriad of pills swallowed each morning to control pain and inflammation of aggressive rheumatoid arthritis, more to keep the swelling of the ankles down, still more to make the heart pump enough blood to keep her alive although her pulse beats three times faster than it should. But the diagnosis is simple: my mother is getting old.

I am caught completely off guard and unprepared. I visualized it this way: One day my mother would call and tell me my father had dropped dead of a heart attack face down in a pile of cow shit while attempting to separate that “nasty sonofabitchin” bull from the rest of the herd. I would fly home for the funeral, devote a week or two to sorting through my father’s papers, sell those damn cows that never produced anything but a foul smell, and leave my mother settled in her newfound peace and quiet with potpourri in every room of the house. She would live at least ten more years, driving to church on Sundays, luxuriating in long afternoons spent reading and writing poetry, receiving me for periodic visits, spending months at a time with me in Tucson, and making trips to the city to shop and see movies with her sister. The Relief Society women would miss her at church one day, and send someone to check on her who would find her dead, peacefully dead, in her bed.

It could have been so simple, but instead, my mother has decided to get old (before my father although I am convinced now that he will do the same). And she is doing it in the most annoying way—in a series of little life-disrupting, panic-producing moments.

It started a couple of years ago with a fall—nothing to trip over, flat ground, walking straight ahead—she fell flat on her face on a concrete slab. Didn’t even stick a hand out to break the fall. No scuffed elbows or palms—the things easily mended—instead an upper lip shredded by teeth, which shattered like an old pop bottle and lodged into an upper jaw. Awful mess, which took six months to fix. Then, six months later, a stroll down the walk to the mailbox, and on the way back—instant replay. No arms flailing, nothing but face and concrete. Back to the dentist to start the same process all over.

A few months after that, she cannot get out of bed; she cannot swing her legs over the side or push herself up with her arms. Aggressive rheumatoid arthritis, like a vulgar houseguest, had taken up residency in her body. Her hands are now permanently cupped and when she holds one out to me, I think she is constantly asking for small change. I’m not there to see most of these episodes, but the phone rings and I fly 1,000 miles north. Not one of these events happens at a good time; they happen just as I am starting a new job, when I’m involved in a class, or when I don’t have enough money to pay bills let alone buy a plane ticket. But the worst was this: by luck I had arranged to spend a month isolated in a cabin in the woods with no phones, no family, no job—nothing to do but read and write. Pure indulgence. Two weeks before my departure, my mother began gasping for air. And on my journey to her bedside, I force myself to remember the touch of her hands rubbing Calamine lotion over my chicken-poxed back and her gentle insistence that the itch that made me scream in frustration would be gone soon. But these memories are continually shoved aside by an insistent indignation that my mother should get old when I have plans for the month.

I have a brother and sister who could step in, but they are not called. I am the good daughter, the reliable daughter, the rational daughter. For 20 years, I have reveled in my perceived role as the favorite child, taking trips with my mother, confiding in her over plates of food, laughing and walking with her hand in mine. Now I find out the role comes with a price.

Tooele, Utah, 1999—I tell my mother that the 200 foot-long cord that provides her with oxygen comes in handy for me—that I can pick it up anywhere in the house and follow it to the end to find her. I try to talk her into a movie, and she asks how I would like sitting in front of someone emitting the rhythmic sound pish-pish-pish-pish. I agree we should rent a movie instead.

“I hate this damn thing!” She plops down in a kitchen chair and rests her forehead on the balls of her hands, and her fingers curl to meet her silky, gray hairline. Her voice reaches an exasperated pitch. “I don’t understand why this should happen to me. I’ve always taken care of myself, always eaten right.”

I sit beside her absently fingering the oxygen cord—squeezing it and releasing it. She gently tugs it from my hands. My mind is stuck on her last statement. I want to remind her of shared tubs of buttered popcorn in darkened movie theaters, of full pans of walnut fudge devoured between the two of us, of two pounds of fresh roasted pinenuts gobbled in one sitting. I want her to admit that we should have walked more and watched television less. I want to shake her and say “don’t you see what we’ve done?”

I talk her into going out for dinner, and I lift the portable tank out of the car for her and put it on a little set of wheels. I try to act as if it’s no big deal, but what if she runs out of air before we get home? What if it malfunctions? I ask her to please not embarrass me by dropping dead with her face in her plate and she says she’s making no promises.

Tooele, Utah, 1983—My father, a short, slim man who has lost a good deal of his black hair, but has forfeited none of it to grayness, sits down to breakfast: four Pillsbury poppin-fresh cinnamon rolls each topped with a thick slice of Cracker Barrel extra sharp cheese and a cup of coffee so loaded with cream it is the color of beach sand. If the cinnamon rolls don’t suffice, he adds four Oreo cookies also topped with cheese. For lunch: more cookies, more cheese, maybe a tuna sandwich on white bread if my mother is there to make it. For dinner: two hamburgers and a plateful of my mother’s homemade French fries placed in front of him on four grease-soaked paper napkins cupped in the bottom of a yellow-chipped casserole dish. At one time my father drank a minimum of six Pepsis a day. Those were the days of returnable bottles, and my mother and I would lug two cases of “those damn bottles” back to Swan’s Grocery every week. Then my father’s esophagus ruptured so now he’s cut back to one or two a day.

When the sun starts to fall and the garden hose shrieks on to wash the manure off boots, I pull the old Crisco can from the back of the refrigerator and begin to scoop the grease into the pot. The top layer is the color of my father’s morning coffee, but the layer below it is darker with bits of burned bacon in it. When I reach the bottom, I set the can aside to collect the grease again when we are finished cooking. My mother jiggles the wire basket in the boiling grease to make sure all potato pieces are submerged.

“He must eat over a hundred grams of fat a day,” I say to my mother.

“Probably,” she shrugs.

“If you keep cooking this stuff for him, he’s going to drop dead of a heart attack just like his father.”

“Then we could travel,” she says. “Where should we go first?”

Tooele, Utah, 1958—A photo is snapped: A white-headed toddler with a worried look runs directly at the lens. She is desperate for the comfort she will find only if she can reach the pretty, young woman behind the camera. Varying versions of this photo will appear for several years to come.

Driving east, 1984—We try to laugh and talk but it doesn’t work. She is sad and I am sick—nothing stays down but saltines—and it is a long way from Salt Lake City to New York City. But I find comfort in her silent company. She has not questioned my decision to move; in fact, it occurs to me she has never questioned any decision I have made—even the ones that turned out badly. She watches in silence, as if she knows something about me that I don’t know about myself. If there were ever a time to question a decision, this would be it. I have accepted a job 2,000 miles from anything familiar with a company so shaky that I have to call the bank each week to see if my paycheck will clear. I go on about the excitement of New York City, about how I need to challenge myself. But she knows. She knows it’s not about going to New York; it’s about leaving Salt Lake—not the place, the situation.

I wash my car before we leave Salt Lake and forget to put the antenna back up. Somewhere in Nebraska I tire of the static-filled songs and shut the radio off. She sighs. The silence fills the car and calms us. At a convenience store in Iowa, I stock up again on saltines and Pepsi. She looks worried. I assure her it is just nerves. In Pennsylvania I think about telling her, but her knowledge would only add another layer of complexity to a decision I’ve already made.

We arrive at the home of Lloyd Springer in New York, who has offered me a temporary residence. When my mother leaves the room to wash her hands for dinner, one of the Springers, in a somewhat astonished voice, says, “Your mother is quite a modern woman.” Later, in the darkness of our shared bedroom, my mother and I laugh about the comment. I had told the Springers my mother is Mormon, and they obviously expected a pioneer woman in a bonnet. Tomorrow she will leave me and fly back to Utah. I feel as if I’m teetering on the edge of a precipice.

Salt Lake City, Utah, 1999—My mother picks us up from the airport, and my husband asks if she should really be driving given her propensity for fainting lately. She says, “I’ll be fine.” He says he’s not so much worried about her, but a little worried for his own safety. “Tough,” she says. “Get in.”

Tooele, Utah, 1964—There is no car in the driveway. At first I am confused, and I follow the cracks in the concrete expecting them to lead to a car parked in front of the house, but it is not there either. I am a little panicked by the time I find my father working in the backyard. “Where’s Mom?” I ask, and he tells me she has gone to the grocery store. His words feel like a pump sucking the air out of my body. I run into the house, stuff myself in the narrow space between the bed and the wall, and weep as if she is gone from my life forever.

Mom and I had spent the morning as usual—going through the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator and making a list of needed items. Then while she took a bath and combed her hair, I went into my bedroom to play a game.

“Jan,” she had called, “let’s go.”

“I just need to finish this game.”

She tried several times more, but I ignored her. She walked out of the house, started the car, and drove away without me—something she had never done before. Saturday mornings are ours—hers and mine without my brother, sister, or father. Now I have let her down, and I am sure I can never make it right again. I have broken the tradition and from here on it will be easy, almost normal, for her to drive away without me.

I am still sobbing when she gets home. I can hear her in the kitchen putting groceries away and wait for her to come to me, to pull me out from behind the bed into her arms and kiss my wet face. She never does. I want her to say she is sorry, that she’ll never leave the house without me again. I crawl out and into the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” she asks. I give her a blubbering rendition of the speech I have been practicing in my head—the one that will make her see my despair, the one that will make her see her act of betrayal. She tells me she has no time for this nonsense.

Mazatlan, Mexico, 1989—My mother screams as a 3-inch cockroach scrambles for cover behind her folded clothes on the top rack of the closet. I hear her from the balcony where I am watching the waves roll onto the beach. I know immediately what it is; this is not the first. I assure her I will take care of it, although I would be yelling for someone else to do it if I were in my own home.

I tightly grip the toe of a canvas shoe and carefully move the clothing. Before I see it, I hear the tittering of its footsteps on the railing of the closet as it scampers over the hangers before falling first to my shoulder, then to the floor. The fight or flight instinct rushes through my body. I fall to the floor and begin pounding the tiny monster with the heel of the shoe all the time yelling “Die motherfucker, die!” When it’s mashed into several pieces, I clean it up with tissue paper and flush it as my adrenaline slows and my blood flow begins to normalize. I walk around the corner where my mother stands, dumbstruck, having just witnessed the murderous tendencies of her daughter. “Well,” she says, “that was something!” I tell her I guess I got a little carried away. “I guess,” she says, and then she mocks me in a very quiet voice, leaving out the obscenity. “Die, die, die!” she says, and we both collapse on the bed laughing. I apologize for my vulgar language, and she replies that I probably come by it naturally given my father’s love for the profane side of the English language.

I search my memory for the precise point at which our roles of caretaker/cared for were reversed, the moment I recognized her vulnerability and yearned to protect it, but the moment arrived unannounced. I now make the dinner reservations, figure the tip, arrange the tour, place the long distance phone calls, complain when the room is not what we paid for, and kill the bugs. She barely pays attention anymore to what bus we board or what time the flight leaves, trusting me exhaustively. I take my new role seriously and play it well, never wavering, never giving her reason to doubt.

That night we order seafood at a restaurant. Next to the white fish sit two slices of lime. “Ask him if we can have some lemon,” my mother says. When the waiter comes back I point to the lime and ask him for lemon instead. He nods, leaves, and shortly comes back with a small plate of sliced limes. I try again. I explain to him that these are limes and we want yellow lemons. “We love lemons,” I say. “Si,” he says nodding. “I will bring many limons.” A few minutes later he returns with a large plate of what must have been more than a dozen quartered limes. She wants a wedge of lemon with her seafood. A simple thing. But I can’t get it for her.

Tooele, Utah, 1968—In Allen’s Foodtown my mother is stopped by a tall, dark-haired woman who refers to me as my mother’s “little shadow.”

“Enjoy it while you can,” the woman tells my mother confidently. “She’ll soon be at that age where she won’t want to go anywhere with you at all.”

I can’t imagine that age, and I am anxious to get away from the dark-haired woman.

Logan, Utah, 1979—We stomp the snow off our shoes. I love the way it sounds on the hollow wooden porch of my grandmother’s house and the memories make me smile. I unlock the door, twirling the old-fashioned doorbell just for fun—brrrriiinng. We hurry inside expecting to be comforted by warmth, but we are not. The heat has gone off so we do the only thing either of us knows to do—call Terrance, my mother’s older brother. While we wait for him to come the 15 miles from his Wellsville farm, we bring in bags and groceries—enough for a four-day stay.

My mother’s mother is not home, but she is the reason we are here. She has fallen twice, broken her hip, and is recuperating in a resthome nearby. Terrance, the oldest, has put together an around-the-clock schedule to ensure that my grandmother is never alone. My mother and her seven brothers and sisters follow the schedule religiously, arriving in Cache Valley by car or plane whenever it is their turn. I am married and busy with my own life, but I always accompany my mother on these bittersweet trips.

On the way to the resthome, I ask my mother if she remembers the first time she went to the grocery store without me. She doesn’t. I want her to remember; I want this event to be as significant to her as it is to me. I describe the scene in the kitchen, and I tell her how I felt like something had broken between us, like a tether that bound us had stretched and snapped and could not be repaired. As she pulls into the parking lot, we are both crying. She does not remember the scene, but she tells me she is sorry, and I say it is a silly thing—I don’t know why we are crying over it.

Grandma smiles her crooked half smile when she sees us. We prop her up in bed and she asks us if Terrance has plowed her driveway although she has never owned a car. We assure her that he has. She tells us the mailman won’t deliver her mail if the walk isn’t shoveled, and we tell her that has been done also. She sees tears behind my mother’s eyes and she tries to cheer her up by saying she’ll be home soon and that she’ll make fried chicken for dinner, which my mother loved as a child. Then it’s our turn to cheer grandma by saying she’ll be home before Christmas. All three of us know she is never going home.

My mother waits until she is outside in the cold winter air before her shoulders begin to shake with emotion. I drive her back to grandma’s house, put a blanket over her on the couch, then go out and bring back Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m pleased when she smiles at my feeble effort.

Tooele, Utah, 1998—One year since the last major fall, and my mother’s new caps make her smile prettier than it’s ever been before. She is remarkably beautiful with soft gray hair that frames a soft, yet heavily wrinkled, face. We have planned our favorite day. We will drive to Salt Lake City, see an early movie, have lunch, and spend the afternoon walking through the gardens of the Mormon temple grounds identifying flowers and trees. I ask my mother if she wants me to drive and she says no. Two years ago, she would have said yes.

She walks around to the driver’s side of the car, and I wait on the passenger side for her to unlock the doors. As she reaches for the door, she trips, calls my name, and falls. I drop the bags I am holding and run around the car yelling for my father to come and help. She sits, face ashen, patches of blood growing on the knees of her white slacks, skin torn from the palms of her hands as if it were newsprint. She wants to get up immediately, but I am afraid I won’t be able to catch her if she faints so I insist that she sit for a minute. My father and a neighbor from across the street arrive and help my mother into the house where she assures us she is all right. “Those damn drugs,” she says referring to the drugs she takes for rheumatoid arthritis. “My skin just tears like paper.” The neighbor says she would have come sooner, but when she saw Mom sitting next to the car in the driveway, she thought she was out there shucking corn. My father asks why she didn’t keep her hands from getting scratched up by catching herself with her face the way she usually does. Mom changes her clothes, I put her bloody pants in a sink to soak, bandage up her knees, and we head to Salt Lake City (my mother drives). After we have driven about fifteen miles, my mother says, “Carol thought I was shucking corn,” and we laugh for the next fifteen miles.

Tooele, Utah, 1987—We sit across from one another in the brand new Golden Corral Restaurant and eat salad from the all-you-can-eat salad bar. We are both on our second plate.

“I was pregnant when we drove to New York,” I tell her. “I had an abortion in Stamford Connecticut a week after you left.” I blurt this out with no lead-in, no warning. The first plate of salad had gone down easily accompanied by conversation about nieces and nephews, weather and crops. Three years have passed since our drive across the country. I am firmly entrenched in my career and engaged to be married in three months. I have no apparent reason for this outburst. I would like to attribute it to my inability to lie to my mother, to hide anything from her. But I lied to my mother throughout a good part of my adolescence. (Have you been drinking? No. Were you in school all day today? Yes. Have you ever been to one of those keg parties? No.) In later years, after my first marriage ended, my reasons for lying changed but I still lied to her. (Are you doing all right? Yes. Are you happy? Yes, very.)

Of course my mother knew I was lying and I knew she knew. That’s what made it all right. But this thing seemed to hang over us in a threatening way—like something we would continually bump our heads against if we moved too quickly. So I put it on the table next to the tired iceberg lettuce and the pickled beets, then we sit in silence for a moment.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to worry any more than you already were.”

“I would have stayed with you.” Her eyes begin to tear-up. “I would have gone with you; it breaks my heart to think of you going through that by yourself.”

Her words have the power to stop blood flow to my brain. I realize that my mother’s love for me cannot be shifted. The words, “I had an abortion” do not faze her. She does not spout doctrine from the church she has devoted her life to, she does not talk about right and wrong, she does not for even a moment weigh her own moral values against mine. I would have gone with you she says. I don’t tell her that I wasn’t alone, that he was there because I realize she is right. I should have let her help me. I should not have deprived us of that.

San Francisco, California, 1997—In the hotel room, my older sister attempts to make a long distance call. “It won’t go through,” she says, setting the phone back in its receiver.

“Let Jan do it,” says my mother.

My sister does not reply. Later that day in Golden Gate Park, my sister and I argue over which path will take us to the arboretum. My mother automatically turns to follow me, and my sister’s face immediately tells me we are no longer discussing simple directions, but I do not recognize the depth of our conversation. My sister, however, finds meaning in every action, every word.

My mother and I travel like a matched set of luggage—each knowing exactly where we fit and how we function together. My sister is an odd-shaped piece thrown in at the last minute. We welcome the addition but don’t know quite how to adjust to it, so we don’t. Instead, we expect the new piece to shape itself to accompany the matched set.

I’m not sure why my sister has never traveled with us before. My memory wants to believe that we asked her but young children and family obligations kept her at home. It is possible, however, that we never invited her at all. In 1978, my sister officially severed all ties to the Mormon Church—the only religion we had ever known—by becoming a born-again Christian. Because my father had always balanced out our religious indoctrination in the Mormon Church with a healthy dose of skepticism bordering on outright disdain, my sister’s search for answers elsewhere didn’t shock or concern anyone. What did come as a surprise, however, was the fervor with which she attempted to save the souls of the rest of the family, directed most strongly toward my Mormon Church-going mother, who apparently was in the gravest danger of burning in hell. My sister tried many approaches—the least intrusive: simply describing her happiness and inviting us to join her—the most intrusive: sending horrendous anti-Mormon propaganda to my mother hoping, I guess, to scare her into repenting for her sins or to wake her from what my sister considered to be a sheep-like unconsciousness. My sister succeeded in neither; instead she dug a canyon between her and my mother that she has spent the last 20 years trying to fill in, but she just doesn’t have enough dirt.

Tooele, Utah, 1992—The slamming of the back door and the thudding footsteps through the hallway make my father sound like a big man of significant weight, but he is not. Instead, his footsteps signify his perpetual state of agitation. My mother catches my eye, and I hit the pause button to stop the VCR. My father always assumes that watching a movie, reading, writing, or listening to music is the equivalent of “doing nothing,” which means anyone found in the process of any of those activities is certain to hear his latest source of vexation. My mother perpetuates this idea by obliging him, and I perpetuate it by obliging her.

“Jesus Christ,” my father says as he flips through the daily mail and yanks out a magazine that he receives monthly. No one mistakenly believes my father might be starting a prayer when he says these words. If he were to read it, the magazine would tell him about the indescribable joy of accepting Jesus as lord and savior and give him a blueprint for eternal salvation. He flings it into the garbage with notable irritation. This is our cue to join him in his indignation of my sister—who has given him the magazine subscription as a gift—but my mother and I don’t pick it up because we are anxious to get back to our movie, and we have performed this drama too many times. However, my father never tires of it. My mother and I know that if we remain silent there is a chance my father will just make his point by swearing one more time and then retreat. There is an equal chance, however, that he will launch into a monologue that will begin with my sister and end with my father’s only son, who, my father is convinced, is waiting not so patiently for him to die.

My brother has been jockeying for position in the event of my father’s death for as long as I can remember. He’s tried the sentimental approach—that piece of land sure means a lot to me—the poor-me approach—I sure wish I could afford a cattle operation like yours—the obligation approach—I don’t know what you would have done if I hadn’t stayed close to home to help you out—and the social responsibility approach—It sure is sad to see those family farms split up and sold when somebody dies.

At one point my father asked my brother if he didn’t get tired of waiting for him to die and my brother turned red and stomped out. After that my father removed his oldest child as the executor of his will and put his youngest daughter in his place. It’s a job I never would have applied for.

Keystone, Colorado, 1982—We sit by the pool while my father conducts cattle business. When we are burned enough to come to our senses, we change clothes. I suggest renting bicycles, but my mother hesitates. I insist and we do. Within minutes, she has fallen behind and I stop to wait for her. By the time she reaches me, she is off the bike, walking along side. She cannot go any farther. I chide her for being out of shape; she has ruined my ride. We walk the bicycles back to the shop and turn them in. As we walk back to the hotel, her face looks like that of a 1950s housewife who has burned the Sunday meatloaf. I take her hand and try to get her to skip with me. She tells me, as she has a hundred times before, how she used to love to skip as a child while holding onto her father’s hand.

Tucson, Arizona, 1999—My husband waits at the curb because we have done this so many times now there is no special reason to park the car and meet me at the gate. It is lunchtime so we go to a fast-food chain and eat soggy vegetables over clumpy rice. I give him a status report—all-day tests show no clogged arteries but there is permanent heart damage. She is hooked to an oxygen tank that must travel with her wherever she goes; she won’t leave the house. I put my fork down. He reaches across the table, holds my hand and says nothing. I can deal with the illness, I tell him. I can even deal with death. But I have to be there. My husband immediately understands this. He tells me to quit my job, quit graduate school and go. We will work out the details.

Tucson, Arizona, 2000—Just as I am ready to rip my life apart and move back home to be with my mother, she calls. I am not needed, she says. They have found some balance of medication, they have taken her off the oxygen line, her swollen face and ankles are back to normal size, and as it turns out, even with a bad heart and curled hands, she thinks she just might live a couple more years. So now I am to stay in Tucson and go on with my life.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come anyway?”

“There’s really no need; I’m fine—feel better than I have in months.”

“But you could have a relapse at any moment—wake up and not be able to breathe. Maybe I should be there.”

“I’ll call if anything happens.”

I hang up the phone and look at my husband who is leaning in the doorway listening to one side of the conversation.

“I’m not needed. I’m not doing this again. I’m not rushing to Utah every time she faints or gasps for air.”

But he knows I will go. I will go because I need this time, this process, because if I don’t I will cheat myself out of a piece of our relationship. And I will go because I haven’t yet reached that age where I don’t want to be with my mother.

Copyright 2002 by Jana Richman. All right reserved.
Published in “Quarterly West,” Vol. 54, Spring 2002.