Family Matters

My elderly mother waits for a bed in a hospital hallway, an oxygen line in her nose, and her 92 year old body racked with fever. “I don’t know why the good Lord won’t take me,” she sighs to my older sister and her husband. My sister had to call in sick from her teaching job because she and her husband were awakened in the middle of the night by my mother’s frightened calls from her bedroom where she has lived for the past 8 years. “Men are banging on my head,” she shouted, the fever causing hallucinations as well as headaches. Another trip to the ER, another long wait for a medicare hospital bed, looking at cell phone screens and tattered magazine covers of healthy, young celebrities as the minutes slip into hours and the sunlight waxes then wanes in the window at the end of the hallway. My sister dials my number.

Seeing her number on my screen I immediately steel myself for the worst, as if such a thing is possible. Is mom gone I wonder as I fumble with my new smart phone, presenting me with multitude of choices (“Ignore call? Send a text? Shop for phones at Amazon.com? Decide quick because I’ll cut over to voice mail in 3, 2, 1.  Swipe right to answer?” Seriously?) I answer her call. “We’re at the hospital,” my sister begins, and explains mom’s latest scare. She’s tired, weary from seemingly endless trips like this that turn her day upside down. I hear it in her voice, and have learned to simply let her talk. “Mom told me to call you,” she said.  “I haven’t told anybody else.”

I’m about 1000 miles away in a different time zone. The others, three other sisters and a brother, all live within 20 minutes of the hospital yet I am the one called first.

At the age of 16 I saw my future, and I rebelled against it. As the youngest of six children I had gone from the earliest memories of family gatherings with everyone in attendance, through the death of my father to spending Christmas Eve at one sister’s household, then Christmas Day visiting another’s, ending with dinner at my brother’s house. When one sister needed help, my mother expected me to help. Baby sitting. Grass cutting. House repairs. I became my mother’s agent in her effort to keep her family together. At the same time I saw my mother’s love for me had no boundaries. She would do anything for me, at any time, and this scared me to death.

At 18 I moved to Chicago. Ten months later my mother drove all night and rescued me from an abusive relationship, bringing me to safety back home. A few years later I embarrassed myself and she was there, picking me up and cleaning up my mess.  At age 21 I tried again and have been gone since. I had to leave because I knew that if I ever got in a jam, she would get me out of it. I had to fail on my own. I had to clean up my own mistakes, not rely upon my mother to do the dirty job for me. I knew if I stayed I would never be strong enough to resist her seemingly boundless love. The temptation would be too strong to take advantage of her. Escape was my only option, and I took it.

First it was to California, then it was on to Japan. Then it was to Africa. She went an entire year without hearing my voice, receiving only the occasional letter regaling her of my adventures in the Bush. Then it was back to Japan and phone calls that were brief and infrequent. I had the excuse that they were expensive and she accepted it graciously, pleased just to be hearing from me. I told her about the Japanese and the strange food. She told me about the latest birth of a great-grandchild.

Then back to the United States with my own little family, but bypassing St. Louis to live 900 miles away among the Wife’s family in Delaware. Even though I lived closer to her, the calls were still infrequent, and the visits were only a few days once a year. Her health declined and she ended up living with my sister “Just until I recover,” she said. That was eight years ago, and one of my nephews now lives in her home. She’ll never go back. There are too many stairs and no friends or family nearby, the neighborhood now filled with refugees from Bosnia who speak poor English. They are decent people but the neighborhood that my mother knew in the 1970s and 1980s is gone.

I have learned that guilt is inescapable, and as I have aged I no longer run from it. I still only visit once a year but now I call twice weekly. I tell her about my chickens and my dogs, and she tells me about the deer my brother-in-law feeds in their backyard. When she’s sharp we talk about family history; when she’s not I listen to her tell me about her chronic back pain and her health.

My sister tells me that she has tried convincing my brother to stay at her house the three days she and her husband have to go to attend their son’s wedding in West Virginia in December. “He says he’ll think about it,” she spits. I’ve told her that a nearby nursing home can provide a short stay for our mother while she’s gone, but it’s clearly a last resort. Our eldest sister has to care for her husband who has been incapacitated by a stroke for 9 years. Another sister has the responsibility of caring for her grown son with Downs Syndrome. That leaves my brother and my second sister.

As the family genealogist whenever I visited my mother I came with a small video camera and recorded her talking about the past. My brother’s heart condition and my second sister’s rebellion against the family cover everything like shadows. I ask my mother what she was doing when she heard JFK was assassinated, and she frames her answer in the context or my brother’s illness. “It was November and he always tended to get sick that time of year,” she said on video taken two years ago. Of the hours of recordings I have taken over the past five years nearly half touch upon in some way the trouble my parents had with my sister and my brother’s heart condition. In 1966 he received open heart surgery, but that didn’t end the trouble. After that he constantly fought with my father, forcing my mother into the role of peacemaker or at the very least, peacekeeper. They hadn’t spoken to each other for at least a year when our father died a decade later. “It’s a terrible burden he has to live with,” my mother once said. And he bears it very well, I remember thinking at the time, having had a successful career in the Defense Department, married with three children.

This past Summer my mother ended up having a stroke and was in recovery at a local nursing home. I flew in to St. Louis with my son, and I spent as much time as I could manage with her. My brother found out I was in town and wanted me to come to his house or meet somewhere for dinner. I suggested he come to visit us at the nursing home. After several calls and messages back and forth he ended up visiting the nursing home, spending 15 minutes speaking to my son at the foot of our mother’s bed, before going back to “work” – a job he took after retiring from the government with a gold-plated retirement package. He also spends hours during the week at the hospital where he had his heart surgery, volunteering and tending the families with children in similar straights as ours was 50 years ago. I’ve heard he’s well liked and appreciated by the families there. I’m sure he is.

Then there’s the second sister. She married well, and turned her back on her family early on. She had two children, both of whom have also married well, and several grandchildren as far as I know. I haven’t seen any of them in nearly 20 years. She spends her time volunteering at a nursing home, where I also hear the patients love her. She never visited our mother during her eight week stay in the nursing home just 15 minutes away from her house.

The irony isn’t lost on my sister, as I listen to her cry her frustrations over the phone. There is nothing I can offer, not even “She’ll reap what she sows,” because honestly my second sister has lived a charmed life. She turned her back on her family, has made my mother cry countless times, and has suffered no consequences. From what I’ve been told my mother even took a beating or two from our father over her. No karmatic backlash for my sister’s behavior, nothing like “just desserts” or anything. Instead she has prospered and apparently succeeded beyond her wildest teenage dreams.

The call ends with “I’ll keep you updated throughout the day. Love you,” from my sister. She’s the one I used to point to the sky and say her name whenever an airplane flew overhead because she was a TWA stewardess. While the memories of my childhood aren’t the best, the good ones usually involve her. The trips to IHop with her and her boyfriend, the 45 singles of bands she thought I’d like, the birthday cards with more exclamation points and underlines than words. She is my “special sister” and has become all the more so because of the sacrifice she has made for our mother decades later.

It’s only occurred to me recently that my mother’s only failure as a parent was raising selfish children. These have gone on to raise even more selfish grandchildren. I hope that when her life comes to an end whether today or tomorrow or sometime in the future that she never realizes that. It would break her heart, and she has known too much of that in her lifetime.

I suspect that instead she will hear my beloved niece shout “Nana!” as she envelopes in her a warm embrace, my father, her siblings and her parents looking on, and she won’t care about our selfishness. Because of her sacrifice we, her children, have all turned out well. And that’s all she ever wanted. It will be our duty as her children to make our peace with that.

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