Cookies for Breakfast
– Non-fiction by Elaine Stevens – October 14, 2018
“Today we will live in the moment.
Unless it’s unpleasant, in which case we will eat a cookie.”
I have learned life is short, and dying takes forever. For nearly seventy years, I’ve been a whirling dervish. I ran to and from various aspects of a life filled with perpetual movement, relentless change, numerous love affairs, bad marriages, different cities, a variety of jobs, memorable characters, lonely holidays, and inordinate amounts of drama. It is in constant doing there is unforgiving undoing. Nevertheless, I long for steadiness and stillness. Ironically, my dying Mother has given me what I’ve been longing for.
She lives in a nursing home where the human condition slaps me in the face every second of every day, where deprivation and fear are companions in the battle on ageing, where the stillness of life is heart-wrenching, where the steadiness of the staff is unswerving. My daily visits, once painfully obligatory, have become compulsive acts of love. The visits provide me the unceasing gift of reflection. My ruminations tend to focus on the unbroken loneliness and persistent doing around the holiday season.
Mother once gave me a solitary Christmas away from family in a Salvation Army home in Oklahoma for wayward youth. My New Year gift was being forced to give up my newborn daughter. That was nearly fifty years ago, but the memory remains vivid. That’s why flashbacks of Christmases past don’t make the season bright.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I reflect on my high-society lifestyle to a wealthy entrepreneur eons ago. I had a fabulous wardrobe, but I paid for it with my soul. Overdone parties, expensive unappreciated gifts given and received, and excesses in every regard became annual attempts to “do Christmas.” The next year was followed by an obsessive attempt at outdoing my own doing of Christmas. It was never enough. My former husband in his frequent alcoholic psychosis selected Christmas as the time to rage and rant at anyone or anything that wasn’t related to Glenfiddich or Tanqueray. Broken spirits and lingering hurts were his largesse to the family.
Musings of long-ago celebrations are sometimes bittersweet. Thinking back on how Mama and my grandmother had to assemble the doll beds for me and my sister one Christmas some sixty years ago, I giggle and cry. “Santa ran out of time in Biloxi and Daddy is working,” Mother explained. The once-upon-a-time goddess of glamour now spends holidays relegated to a wheelchair or hospital bed. Her favorite stuffed bears surround her.
Meanwhile, I gaze dreamily upon my sister’s annual week-long marathon of trimming “The Tree” with heirloom ornaments, decorating according to neighborhood covenants, blissfully gathering the family unit, sharing presents and holiday meals. Her steady life is wrapped neatly in a fifty-year marriage to the same man. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I know I will never have that. My children live across the country, and I tend daily to my ninety-five-year-old mother. My sister visits Mama twice monthly, unless they’re in Rome or New York.
Wheelchairs barely containing the contorted, stroke-ridden, drooling, and paralyzed roll down sterile hallways clogged with medical carts overflowing with life-saving pharmaceuticals. I hear moans and witness yearning for eternal sleep. I am forced to stop, look, and listen to the ones crying out for a nurse’s help or a loved one’s touch. I take note of the poor and recognize the prominent. What good is the acclaim they achieved in their prestigious careers? Where are the children and friends they helped throughout the years? What about their fancy homes and expensive cars? What do those things matter as they sit for hours a day, weeks on end, waiting?
Nursing home warriors live in their own numbered quarters privately waging war against their opponent. Somedays it’s Life; other days it’s Death. Whatever enemy they take on, the struggle becomes a verbal, physical, all-senses weaponry. They are trapped in helpless bodies and infantile minds.
I have been drafted to wage the battle with Mother. I see myself in the not-so-distant future. Plotting and plodding along, I learn day by day in health care boot camp how to deal with powers of attorney, Medicaid applications, health care directives, careless medical advice, uncompassionate care, frequent infections, advanced funeral arrangements, Mama’s loneliness, and my isolation.
My mother is the rule, not the exception, yet Mama is fortunate. She has me. I am there every day, tending to her needs as much as I can in my untrained, yet loving, way. She still cries out, “Help me, help me! I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.” She remains a reluctant hostage of the constant doing. The undoing is painfully unforgiving for her. She regales me with detailed stories of her childhood, but cannot remember what she ate for breakfast. She identifies actors from vintage black and white films, but cannot remember if Daddy is alive or dead.
I observe my remaining parent drift away while old age seizes a little more of her dignity each second. The lightning bolt realization that Mama will never lunch with me at her favorite restaurant, don her diamonds for a party, or even remember yesterday’s visit strikes me like a mortal wound. But I don’t die. For me the daily storm as witness to her finale is my Groundhog Day movie. A redundant reminder that along with her monotonous questions, comments, and complaints, there is nothing I can do to change her circumstances. Only she and her maker can do that. I can simply be near her daily, thus assuaging my own guilt and pampering her in the moment. In the next, she will have lost the luxurious memory of my presence and care.
I answer the same questions over and over again during my three hour stays. I anguish. She says, “I feel like my life has been a dream, and I am now living in a fog.” Somedays she takes me with her in the fog. I cannot escape. My fake light-heartedness with her is an attempt to hide my intense anxiety, verging on panic. I am not ready for her to leave. I find myself clutching her words, embracing her, touching her, listening, and hoping that she may be the only one to get out of this place alive.
While lucid, Mama expresses profound reflections of Life’s Good: “I’ve had a great life, caring parents, a wonderful husband, three loving children, and lots of friends. What else is there? Love is the most precious gift. Love is the key that unlocks every door.” I wonder if I will be able to reflect so positively on my own life.
And Bad: “Why can’t God allow the old to die with some self-respect? Why does getting old have to hurt so much? This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because I can’t do anything by myself anymore.” In Greek, the language of her childhood, she utters her desperation, “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would ever end up like this.” While I ache for her, I don’t fully comprehend her dilemma.
Then comes her repetitious, insightful Ol’ Man River refrain, “I’m tired of livin’, but scared of dyin’.” She breaks into a short chorus of the song: “Ol’ man river, that ol’ man river, he don’t say nothin’, but he must know somethin’, cause he just keeps rollin’, he keeps a-rollin’ along.”
Together we attempt to finish the song, neither of us remembering the lyrics or tune, and chuckling at the sour notes and sweet moment we share.
The nurses and aides laugh and say, “Oh, Miss Irene, you are so funny. I could listen to you all day long.” But they don’t, because they can’t. There are many other mothers, daughters, fathers, friends, and brothers to tend to. Laughing time is limited. Wiping, feeding, lifting, changing times are endless. Sweet moments are indeed rare for most of them.
Mother’s perceptive description of herself as a valuable, nearly century-old antique is known facility-wide by the staff. They call her, “Irene, the antique.” Her value sinks into my brain and fills my heart. She is courageous. “I’m a champ,” she says as she takes one of the frequent breathing treatments during her pneumonia protocol.
“God is large!” she says in Greek. “I am grateful, but sad that you have to watch me go so slowly. I thought I was going to simply close my eyes and go to sleep. But this? This way is so degrading.”
I want to tell her, “Life is a terminal disease. Death is present from the moment we take our first breath; we begin ending at birth.” But I don’t say that. Instead I make a weak attempt at encouragement. “Don’t be ashamed, Mama. Everyone needs help as they get older. Don’t be embarrassed.” All the while I’m thinking of life’s irony. In youth we fight to meet life head on rabidly wishing for success. Years later, we’re still fighting in our old age to meet death and hoping the end will be peaceful
Mama takes a little bit of me with her every day. Like her, I cannot retrieve my youth, what little I have left. Like the nursing home warriors, I, too, am wailing, though silently. My eyes show it. I am becoming one of them. My life, like theirs, has been reduced to waking, sleeping, eating, defecating. Still and steady. The undoing. Sometimes, in daylight hours, amid a shrunken existence, I guiltily confess wanting Mama to be done with it—to make the final passage, for her sake, and selfishly for mine. However, in daily predawn anxiety attacks, I panic, imagining what my life would actually be like without her.
Over time my mother has opened my eyes to the beauty and foibles of living. “Enjoy the moments, now,” she says, “because aging is not fun.” Her physical, spiritual, and mental decline convinces me it’s time to take time. I see gold among the rust. “Stop doing, start being,” I hear her say. She gives me permission to do less and be more, to nurture my childlike soul, to cater to fantastic whims, and satisfy youthful cravings.
There’s a virginal purity in old age. I can see she is shedding the entanglements of life. They no longer matter. Despite the degradation of diapers and dependence, Mama is moving towards Eternity with acceptance. I envy her liberation and make a vow to mimic her.
I have gone from business suits to sweatsuits, from board meetings to care sessions. I shop at Walmart, not Bergdorf’s in New York. I think of Mama and me at the Plaza Hotel having high tea once upon a lifetime. We settle for wheelchair strolls to a makeshift courtyard. I, once in a home for wayward youth and she, now in a home for the dying aged—the undoing is truly unforgiving.
I don’t want to live that long. But if I do, I want to eat cookies for breakfast, cake for lunch, and ice cream for dinner when I’m old, really old. I want to go down dancin’ all the way to Heaven’s door. I want to be in the arms of my beloved husband when I die, extra cookies in hand.
As I push Mama into the dining room Frank Sinatra sings “I Did It My Way” overhead.
About the Author – Elaine Stevens
Chameleon: hanging by my tale by Edward Fassel and The True Art of Living in America by Art Sapanli. She is currently working on her memoir Mermaid in the Window and a compilation of short stories titled, I Married the Waterman: Southern Tales of Love & Woe. Elaine has written for several publications including Gulf Coast Woman, See South Mississippi, Play the Coast, and Mississippi magazine.
Elaine Stevens is an award-winning public relations and media veteran. Her career includes radio and television broadcasting, investigative news reporting and anchoring, documentary and television news series production, development of original programming, and on-air hosting of her own local television program Art Beat: The Heartbeat of South Mississippi. Elaine’s broadcasting profession has taken her cross country from New York City—the Dick Cavett Show in the late 1970’s on public television— to San Diego, California, in 1995 where she owned and operated sTeVens Media Productions & Consulting.
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