The Sunday Rumpus Essay: I Know This Fireman
I know this fireman.
His name is Victor and he has the room across the hall from my mother. I notice him because he is young. Forties maybe. He has bristle-brush grey hair that stands up like an alarm, but it’s the kind of grey he probably had when he was twenty. His moustache is neatly trimmed, and a surprising jet black that matches his eyes. He has beautiful eyes, framed by thick lashes. I see that right away, even though he doesn’t let me look directly into them very often.
When my mother first got to this hospital, Victor was always in the hallway, no matter what time I came. He doesn’t like to take time out to eat, but the aides make him. Victor concentrates on the food, and holds his fork the way some guys do, grasping it tightly in his fist. It’s the only time he is still, and while he is eating, I know he is thinking about going back to the hallway. He patrols, moving back and forth between the exits, a padlocked door with red warning signs at one end and the other, the front door that Ari or another employee must open with a key. I understand now that he’s checking where the exits are, in case he needs them, because that used to be a part of his job.
I think sometimes he doesn’t even see me. He moves past as if I’m not there and he’s the only one in the hallway. Today I misjudge his trajectory. I zig instead of zag as he walks toward me, but so does he. He stops talking to himself long enough to say, very clearly, “Excuse me.” It’s the first time he looks straight at me. It’s the first time he says anything without the word “fuck” in it.
Maybe because I know he is a fireman, I feel safe enough around him to take it one step further. In that brittle unrecognizable voice that comes out of my mouth all the time now, I say: “Hello, Victor.” He hugs the wall, but stops mumbling long enough to nod at me. I think I’m making progress, that we have this great rapport, Victor and I, although he has yet to take his hand out of the front of his pants. We’ve made a connection. The next day, he walks into my mother’s room and punches her in the head. The attendants come running and drag him out.
Now they keep Victor tied to his bed. He is not mumbling anymore, he’s screaming “fuck” so loud it bounces off the walls of his room and ping-pongs all the way down the hallway. They warn him that he needs to shape up, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen, which is why they bring in the restraints.
My mother is scared, but there is nothing Victor can do to scare her more than what we did to her.
My father calls me in California to tell me my mother stopped eating and taking her meds. When I ask how long this has been going on, he says since I left a week ago. I get on a plane back to New York the next day.
I am sure once I see her, I can fix it, even though it has been months since my mother looked at me with any recognition in her eyes. I walk in the door, get my father’s car keys, and drive straight to the grocery store. I’m going to make sweet and sour meatballs, little tiny ones, because I think she’ll like that. I always tried to get her to order other things when we went out for Chinese, but she always ordered sweet and sour something.
I am hoping she will eat dinner, and then maybe she’ll have some of her favorite, the maple walnut ice cream I found at Friendly’s, the last gallon. After dessert, maybe she’ll let me give her a manicure, and then, maybe I can talk her into taking the Aricept and whatever else the doctors are telling us she has to take, because it might slow down this thing eating her brain. “She must have been hiding this disease for a long time for it to be so bad so fast,” they say, and I think, “That would be my mother.”
But she won’t eat the meatballs, not even when I tell her jokes and sing Clint Black songs and do the airplane thing with her fork. I try to explain that this isn’t good, that I want her to eat so we won’t have to go back to the hospital. She grudgingly eats a little, but then she wants to sleep.
This is something, a small victory. We take her into the bedroom to undress her. We don’t get her to the bathroom in time and she wets the floor, crying all the time, looking at the mess she is making and looking at me. My father tells her it’s all right, and washes her—what my mother used to call a sponge bath, although I never heard anyone else use that expression. My father covers her body with the baby powder she likes, and then diapers her. I get out her new pajamas—the 100% cotton ones with flowers all over them that I bought for her at Crabtree & Evelyn—and help her in, one leg at a time, then each arm.
She gets into bed with no argument. This, too, may be a positive sign. For the past several weeks, she has been “sundowning.” That’s the jolly name for the stage of the disease my mother is in. She stays up all night hallucinating until she collapses at dawn, beaten down by exhaustion after searching for the little girl only she can see, who is always there, who needs her.
I cream my mother’s hands with rose-scented lotion and tuck her in, kiss her cheek, and shut the light. In the kitchen, while my father puts the meatballs in freezer containers, I do the dishes. We are oh-so-quiet, hoping she’ll sleep through the night.
My father, who is seventy-eight, is so tired he goes to bed even though it is only 8:30pm. I move my suitcase from the front hall where I left it, not even bothering to unpack, slipping around the house on cat’s feet. I find a blanket, and climb into the recliner in the den outside my parents’ bedroom. I put the TV on for the glow of it, the sound down low. I cannot bring myself to go upstairs to my old room, just in case she needs me.
But I must have fallen asleep, because her footsteps wake me. She stands in the doorway.
“Mom, do you need something?” When my eyes are able to measure light, I can see when she looks at me she doesn’t know me.
“I need to go,” she says. “I want my father.” I follow her into the living room. She looks at the Queen Anne table by the bay window, which she thinks is a door that will take her outside where her father will be waiting for her. She keeps reaching for the doorknob that isn’t there, trying to squeeze underneath the table. She pulls away from me, scratching at the table so the door will open and she can get away.
“That’s not the door, Ma, come sit with me and I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”
She is crying now, and I know the screaming will come next. When I won’t help her, she begins to circle the house, from the living room, through the front hall, past the dining room, into the kitchen, back into the living room, moving faster and faster, putting more distance between us. By now she is screaming and running, and she is so strong I can’t restrain her.
My father only wakes up when I shake him out of a dead sleep. Now my mother is trying to get out the bolted front door. My father keeps it barred and double-locked since the time he found her outside at 1am, in the freezing cold, sitting in the car, trying to start the ignition with an invisible key and not understanding why she couldn’t.
She throws herself against the door, wild-eyed, begging us to let her go find her daddy. My father makes me cry when he starts crying and walks into the kitchen to call 911 because he doesn’t know how to fix this. He is the guy who could always fix everything.
“I can’t take this anymore, she’s crazy,” he sobs, and my mother hears him.
“I am not crazy,” she says, and continues to scratch at the door, calling for her father, whom she hated, who has been dead for ten years and used to beat her and my grandmother. That was a detail I never knew about my grandfather. I was his favorite, and I loved him until both my grandparents were gone and I found the desperate note hidden in my grandmother’s locked jewelry box. She wanted someone to know, if she died, that he had killed her.
The volunteer fire department responds quickly. We can hear the sirens just a few minutes after my father hangs up. The guys all know him from the Knights of Columbus, and they come in the side door, big guys in their turnout coats and hefty boots. When I see the gurney and the ties, I can’t find my voice. One of the firemen approaches my mother, talking so low I can barely hear him, but he can’t soothe her. She strikes out at him, and like a trapped animal she flings herself harder against the front door, screaming: “Daddy, I want my daddy.” He looks back at his partner, and they stand on either side of her, all 4’11’’ of her, and gently but forcibly pick her up and lay her, kicking and screaming, on the gurney. One of them says to my father: “Don’t worry, Joe, it will be all right.”
The next time this happens, when my mother will not eat or drink, and the hallucinations are back, I come home again. This time, the neurologist says she can’t admit my mother to the hospital when medically, there’s nothing wrong with her. She recommends a stay at a nearby psychiatric care center, and this time, even though I say no, firmly, we are not doing that, my father is so beaten down, he tells me to get my mother dressed and he’ll get the car.
We take her to a support building on the grounds of the hospital. They do tests and talk to my mother who is lucid enough to say she doesn’t want to be there. But the disease wins, because she’s not able to say the right things, to outsmart them and promise she’ll be a good girl, that she’ll eat her dinner and take all her medicine. When it comes time for her to say all that, she can’t. She can’t sign the necessary papers that will allow her to go home because she can’t remember her name or how to write. The doctor hands her the pen, she looks at it, and it falls to the floor. He tries again to hand it to her, and I think, he doesn’t get it, how can he do this for a living and not get it? I want to take her with me, rewind this, a do over, but instead, my dad signs before I can read the small print.
We might as well be buying a used car, that’s how small the print is that says since she is being involuntarily committed to this facility, that she can’t leave of her own accord. A committee decides. Through my tears, I ask the doctor: “What do you mean, it’s not our choice?”
He tries to steer me away from this conversation as they take my mother away. “Oh no, that doesn’t mean you, you can take her home whenever you want,” he soothes. I don’t believe him, I believe what the paperwork says. I make him write what he told me on the commitment papers so I have proof that we have some control. As my mother is being wheeled down the hallway, she looks at me, and in her eyes I can see that she’s in there, and tonight she knows who I am when she says: “I will never forgive you for this.”
She lives in Caroline Cottage. That is what they call it. A cottage. There are men and women living here, and most of them will never leave. My mother is there for three months, with Victor the fireman, and Dorothy who steals things, and the lady who seems fine until she tells you about the Martians that landed on her front lawn, and Elizabeth who has no teeth and no visitors. The aides tell me that my mother is eating the never-hot-enough food, and following daily instructions—it’s bath time, now we need to brush your teeth, time to take your meds, go to sleep. I know for sure she is getting better when she tells me the food tastes like shit and asks us to bring her bacon and eggs.
One day, when I massage her all over with the rose-scented cream, I notice one of her legs is turning purple and blue and is swollen like a shiny sausage. I call the nurse supervisor, who looks at it and says it’s my father’s fault for bringing her bacon because it’s full of sodium. I tell her that that’s ridiculous, and I pester them until they call for an ambulance that takes my mother from the cottage to the main hospital, where they do X-rays and find the blood clot that could have killed her. There are limitations to the doctors’ care. Yes, they have gotten her to eat, they have stripped away all her meds so she is now lucid. They have started over from scratch with the drugs until they build up in her system and she goes haywire again.
When I visit next time, she is doing better. I put on her favorite red coat and we go outside on warm days to feed the ducks and look at the daffodils and the indefatigable crocus that are starting to poke through the frozen ground. Sometimes she likes being outside, and sometimes it frightens her, but she is walking on her own and this is good.
I tell the doctor that she’s doing well so there is no reason now for her to be here. I want to take her home. He puffs up his chest in his wrinkled suit, his slumped shoulders covered with dandruff, and says. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” looking over my shoulder, not at me. “We can give her the twenty-four hour a day care she needs. We’re helping her.” I get his implication. I focus on his ugly, mustard-colored, too-wide tie as he tells me that it’s his decision when she’s ready to go home, not mine, and of course, as I knew he would, he says, you signed a paper. When he takes a breath, I point out in my funny new voice that we can handle it and I’m fairly confident that our brand of round-the-clock care won’t kill her like the blood clot they refused to see. And maybe it will help in her recovery if she’s not here to be attacked by some other patient they’re not properly supervising, if he knows what I mean. I never stop smiling. He sees the threat in my eyes and says we can take her home tomorrow.
When I tell my mother we are going home, she says, good. The next day, she gets in the car with us, and my father tries to tip Ari, the orderly who never treated my mother like she was crazy, but he won’t take it. I hug Ari, because whenever I called from California he answered the page to the hall phone like I was a worried daughter, not a pain in the ass. So I slip some money into his pocket. “Please,” I say.
We cannot drive away fast enough from Caroline Cottage. I’m afraid the smell of that place, what crazy sounds like, and Victor’s eyes will stay with me forever. Then we’re in the driveway of the little Cape Cod, half brick and half yellow aluminum siding, with the dormer where my childhood bedroom is. Where I used to feel safe. My mother always used to say after every vacation when we pulled up in front of the house: “Home sweet home, good old 87—32.” But this time, she refuses to get out of the car and come inside.
Three years after my mother forgets my birthday for the first time, forgets which day her bowling league meets and drives to the alley to find no one there, three years after she forgets how to make her signature lentils and spaghetti and her incredible pot roast, what my name is, and no longer recognizes my father who has lived with her for fifty-three years so that he’s had to post signs all over the house that say I am Joe your husband and I love you, she has a heart attack and dies in the middle of the den floor.
I don’t like to think about that much. It’s upsetting to imagine her, clammy and in crushing pain, unable to get anyone’s attention. My dad was busy doing the dinner dishes and Carol, the home care lady who helped my father clean my mother and dress her and often sat with her, didn’t understand what my mother meant when she looked up at her and tried to mouth the words: “Help me.” The firemen told my father she was dead when she hit the ground, which is strangely comforting. They continued to work on her as she lay on the floor next to the recliner, and in the ambulance, for my dad.
He calls me in Los Angeles when he gets home from the emergency room where they pronounced her. He tells me to sit down, he has bad news. But I am not surprised, because the last time I was home, less than a month ago, she told me so.
Things had gotten better. She was eating and laughing and sometimes she knew that I was someone she loved. She called me “Honey” and sometimes we had actual conversations, in her real voice instead of the Minnie Mouse voice she used when things were at their worst.
It was a sunny Indian summer day, warm enough for her to sit in the backyard for a while, where she dozed and looked at her roses and the vegetable garden. I leaned in to kiss her goodbye, like always. “I’ll be back for Thanksgiving, Ma,” I said, and she started to cry, something she stopped doing a year ago whenever I left because she no longer understood what “goodbye” meant.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, I’ll be back in less than three weeks,” I said as I held her hands in mine. I stroked her cheek, so soft. She looked beautiful.
“I will never see you again,” she said, very clearly, and I saw a real sadness in her eyes.
“Yes, you will, Ma,” I insisted. I kissed her again and headed down the driveway to the idling taxi, but when I got in the back seat, I asked the driver to wait, and ran back to kiss her one more time. She smiled a smile that I knew.