“What kind of person stands over their mother’s casket crying in relief that she's dead?” I brushed away tears trying to rid myself of the shameful thoughts. But they kept coming. “I’m so sorry dear,” came a voice and soft hand on my shoulder. It was one of mama’s high school friends. I gave her a hug without uttering a word and turned back to mama’s lifeless body. I’m supposed to honor my father and mother. Since daddy died a few years ago my trips home became less frequent. I knew the pandemic would mean less going out for her so I returned to help. Our last days together were as familiar as looking at yourself in a mirror. We were a mother and daughter who were more like Friday Night Lights than Steel Magnolias.
“Eyes forward, don’t respond,” I whispered to myself. She baited me often and I’m not sure why I always fell for it. I wanted a mother who made sense. Who doesn’t want that? All the medicine, prayer, and therapy in the world and look at us. Our day of running errands got off to a shaky start when I suggested she change her shoes. “You can hardly walk in those boots. You’re going to fall,” I said as she got in the car. She looked down at her feet and considered it. I knew she hated being told what to do, but I was trying to help. By now I should have learned it is not always what I say, but how I say it. I spat the words at her because I resented having to deal with her and she knew I was right about the shoes. She didn’t change just to spite me. I put the car in reverse and headed out the driveway.
“I think I will change my shoes,” she eventually admitted. I sat in the car while she went back inside. Her indecisive behavior is worse than ever and we have a long day ahead. I just couldn’t help thinking this was a precursor to how the whole day would be while we were out. I hoped things would be different and prayed for peace when we finally left home. “I don’t know why someone would want to poison me,” Mama murmured as she put her face mask in place. I pretended like I didn’t hear her. Her paranoia and mood swings were the reason I’d left home long ago and rarely returned. “My mask smells funny,” she continued. “Someone wants me dead.” I didn’t say a word and just handed her an unopened mask. She gingerly opened the package and discarded the one she thought was tainted. I had learned long ago not to try to reason with her. It wouldn’t do any good. Once her mind was fixated on a scenario that only made sense to her, the downhill spiral was like sticky syrup down the side of a bottle. The descent into darkness would be followed by more irrational thoughts and accusations that even the best detangler couldn’t fix.
Our first stop was the bank. She enunciated every word she spoke to the teller perfectly and made her transaction as we sat at the drive-through. She handed me money and said it was for gas. “You don’t have to do that mama,” I insisted. I kept driving and she placed it on the console anyway. Each time she tried to give me money it always felt like reparations for a previous trauma. I listened to torturous words and ideas that usually left me emotionally wounded. Any time I was with her it felt like verbal abuse or mental torture followed by gifts of some kind. Money, gift cards, clothes, or some trinket she saw on television for $29.95. It was a pattern I had come to expect with a side of sadness. It was like she knew she was sick and cold, but gifts were her way to make up for it. If she only knew, there is no gift to compensate for what she has put me through. In the past, it would have taken me days and some schedule II narcotics to recover. My time in therapy has given me new ways to cope. Breathe. Hold. Release. Repeat. It actually worked! It lowered my stress level for sure.
“I don’t need to go into the drugstore. We can pick up my prescriptions at the drive-through,” she suggested. That was fine with me. We waited our turn in silence. My coping strategy did help, but the tears behind my sunglasses began to stream down my face as I slowly moved forward as I thought of the relationship I wished we had. We should be laughing and sharing stories. Instead, we are quiet. Her thoughts are who knows where and I am just trying to avoid more words I won’t be able to forget.
Our last stop was the grocery store and she insisted on going in herself. She cleared her throat as she straightened her mask and situated her purse on her shoulder. She shuffled toward the store and wiped down her basket as she entered. I let down the window and enjoyed the cool evening breeze quietly while she shopped. By the time we arrived at home and unloaded the car she was using every breath to clear her throat with a dry cough. She sat in her favorite chair looking out at the cardinals on the patio while I put away the groceries. She was tired and complained of a horrendous headache. I rarely touched her, but reluctantly felt her forehead. She was as hot as the Louisiana sun in July. I gave her a home test and she was positive for Covid. “I will be okay,” she said, looking into my eyes. She reached for my hand, but I recoiled slightly before allowing her to touch me.
Touch was her love language. So many times she wanted to hug me and I needed to be hugged, but a loving embrace from her only indicated pain was not far away. I grew to recognize one didn’t come without the other. After being fooled so many times I finally withdrew from even wanting her affection. By week’s end, her only contact came from hospital staff. My last touch, while she was alive, came from her warmth due to a disease that ravished her body like a wildfire through a drought-ridden forest. Breathe.Hold.Release.Repeat. A refrain I’d practice knowing I’d never hear words or experience pain from her again.