mothers and daughters

Nursing My Mother, the ICU Nurse

Photo-Illustration: The Cut/Glow Images/Getty Images

This week, the Cut presents stories about the complex bonds of parenthood.

It starts with a garden.

There are trees all around, my mother tells me, long green fronds that crisscross her field of vision. She can’t see the plate of food I’m holding out to her for the flowers — roses and lilies, tulips and hydrangeas — in its way. As I speak to her, her eyes stray to the bedroom ceiling that is the canopy of her private Eden. She seems now always focused on something three or four inches in front of my face, a point in the void between us.

She tells me about the Visitors. They come to her at night when, invariably, she is alone. They lean against the bedroom walls, stand before the TV, or sit on the chaise. They rarely speak, and they don’t frighten her. These are not her usual visions of the newly dead; the Visitors are strangers. She reports these occurrences in the morning, her eyes bulging above the swollen pockets that tug at their corners, an expression that underscores the incredulous.

For nearly four years, we’ve shared a home — my mother, husband, daughter, and I. My mother doesn’t want to be living with us, and I make this up to her with cups of tea and trips to the all-night pharmacy. She suffers from more than one autoimmune disease. The pain that has plagued her all her life has come to claim her, and sleep is beyond the reach of trazadone, restoril, chamomile, valerian root, marijuana, or any combination of the above.

She has fewer and fewer good hours in the day. I have waited all my life for this access to her, and I will take her, as she is — distant, forlorn, changed.

*          *          *

When I was a child, my mother called me Her Shadow; wherever she went, I followed. I would drag a chair into the bathroom and talk to her while she was in the shower or putting on makeup or sitting on the toilet. I would stay up past my bedtime to call her at the hospital where she worked as an intensive-care nurse, waiting until after she’d been in to see her patients before I disturbed her. She is a born caretaker — selfless, nurturing, learned.

She has a tender, spirited way with children. As a child, staring out the window of a classroom, I would see her car pull up outside the school and watch her go in. Minutes later she would return with her arm around one of my friends whose parents worked days. She was everyone’s emergency contact.

Before she was a nurse, my mother had been a teacher. In the summers, I couldn’t go outside and play until I completed the assignments she’d left for me. Book reports, math problems, a list of words I had to define. We read books together and discussed them while we walked our dog or worked in the garden.

On Saturdays, we’d play records and clean the entire house, running to the room the other was in to dance when one of our favorite songs came on. We’d clean all day then reward ourselves with a movie and a game of Scrabble in the evening, a picnic of smoked oysters and beluga caviar in front of the TV.

She is a soft-spoken, God-fearing woman, whose childhood in Jamaica was bucolic. I’ve never heard her use an obscenity or take the Lord’s name in vain. And yet she has a passion for violent films, a contradiction I find utterly endearing. “Anything with a lot of action,” she’d tell video-store clerks, by way of asking for their recommendation. For Christmas, I give her box sets of movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, and Roger Moore as James Bond. When I was a teenager we passed horror stories between us — Misery, Cujo, The Servants of Twilight, The White Witch of Rose Hall.

I adore my mother. She worked obsessively all throughout my childhood, so the time we spent were hours we cobbled together. She worked third shift at the hospital, seven-P to seven-A. When I was in college, I would drive home to Long Island on the weekends to see her. I would take her to work in the evenings and return for her in the morning for those two hours alone with her in the car. Sometimes I returned to the hospital in the middle of the night with boxes of coffee and doughnuts for the nurses on her floor. She’d take her break, and we’d sit together in the lunchroom until her time was up.

The next morning, crawling in rush-hour traffic, we’d talk until she drifted off to sleep. At home I’d put her to bed then see to it that all the laundry was done. I’d iron a week’s worth of uniforms for her while my father leaned against the doorjamb, criticizing the job I was doing or, once, attempting to wrestle the iron from my hands. If he knew I was picking her up from work, at dawn he’d be waiting beside my car.

He wanted the credit. He wanted my hours.

*          *          *

I wake one morning before dawn and find the door to my mother’s bedroom rimmed in lamplight.

Inside, I find a pop-up clinic; the only thing missing is the tent. Laid out on her bed are syringes, clamps, surgical scissors, and scalpels, arranged by size, their tips aligned in a row. The care with which they have been laid out is a resurrection of agency. There are saline flushes and bottles of iodine, boxes of latex gloves and procedure masks, four-by-fours of gauze and stacks of Tegaderm. A suture kit has been opened.

My mother is in the bathroom, sitting on an end table that belongs in the living room. The table is a black cube, the exact height of her bathtub. A year ago, when she was able, she would sit on it while she bathed her granddaughter. Now she sits on it to rest, on her way into and out of the shower.

She is backlit by a showgirl mirror, asleep where she sits. When I wake her, she asks about my husband’s hand.

“He came in here last night bleeding. I sutured him up and sent him back to bed. Did they hold?”

When she’s asleep, I count her pills. Bottles that should be half-filled are nearly empty. They’ll wear off, I tell myself. In a day or two she’ll be back to normal. We’ve been through this before.

The next morning her bedroom door is locked. “You abandoned me,” she shouts from the other side. “You left me here with these strangers. Three people were taken away last night and haven’t returned. Now what does that tell you?”

My husband hammers the knob off the door. We find her sitting on the bed, her knees drawn to her chest. When I take a step toward her, she recoils against the headboard.

Drawers have been pulled free from her dresser and stacked against the wall, their contents dumped onto the floor and sorted. Surrounding her on the bed are piles of clothing, articles that are still on their hangers. Her closet has been disemboweled. Blankets spill through the doorway.

She says the Movers stood watch while she did all the work. She is exhausted from her labor. While I put the room back together, she falls asleep.

Hours later I find her sitting once again on the table in her bathroom, just out of the shower. She’s wearing her good wig. Her cosmetics bag is on her lap.

“Why aren’t you dressed?” she asks. “There’s so much to do.”

She thinks we’re hosting a dinner party; she asks me what time the guests are due to arrive. On her bed are a pair of black slacks, a white silk blouse, and tuxedo blazer. Her lipstick bleeds beyond the border of her mouth.

I roll with the narrative. I hear myself calling her Mama — not Nana or Mom or Bubby, these names that I’ve used interchangeably over the years. I call her Mama, the name by which she called her own mother. I will call her Mama until the day she dies.

It’s rush hour, and the drive to the hospital takes three times as long as it should. The ER doctor is striking, his green eyes at once electric and serene. He squints at me as I describe her condition, grins as though he’s flirting in a bar. A phlebotomist draws my mother’s blood, and as the hours pass she becomes catatonic, slouched over in her wheelchair. When the doctor returns, there isn’t a trace of smugness in his expression.

He says her kidneys are failing. He says she would have died tonight if I hadn’t brought her in. He says we have to dialyze, now.

My mother has heard him. She sits up and leans forward. “I don’t want dialysis.”

“Do you understand what you’re saying? Without it, you won’t make it through the night.”

“I haven’t had a day without pain for as long as I can remember. I understand what I’m choosing.”

The doctor pulls me aside. “Chances are, one or two rounds will get her out of the woods. You can talk her into it or I will sedate her to get it done.”

I kneel beside her wheelchair and beg. “Please, Mama, don’t put this all on me.”

“All you’ll need,” the doctor says, “all it is, is a line to your heart. I’ve put three in already tonight.”

“No, no, no.” She puts a hand to her forehead and consults God.

“You will die tonight if we don’t treat you.”

She says, “I understand.”

She says, “Please let me die.”

“I know you don’t want to be hooked up to a machine for the rest of your life. All we’re asking is one round. Please, Mama. Please?”

I see Death in the yellows of her eyes. She nods her consent, and the residents descend upon her. They move her to the bed and recline her head. Her jugular vein pulses, ready.

They perform dialysis in the middle of the night. I leave before dawn and return the next morning with a bowl of soup from home.

“Is today the special day?” she asks.

“Did you put it in the soup? Oh, you’re such a clever girl.”

“Careful now, don’t taste it. Oh, God, please be careful. If you slip and have some, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Oh, that’s good. I can’t taste it at all.”

“How long before it takes effect?”

“Throw the bowl away when I’m done. And the spoon.”

One round of dialysis has done nothing. For four nights she doesn’t sleep, and I lie on the cot beside her bed, refusing to leave her side.

She is in her Garden of Good and Evil. Stars fall from Heaven, thousands of them. She holds out her hands, collects the offering and presents it to me.

She tells me about the Men — still, malevolent, figures straight out of a horror film. Their faces are painted white or yellow. They crowd her bed, witnesses to her agony.

“Do you recognize any of them?” I ask her.

“Please, don’t make me look. I don’t want to find out that I know them.”

I leave her for a few hours and go home where I shower and hold my little girl. When I return my mother has ripped out her IVs, her peripheral and central lines. There are three nurses working on her, one pinning her down, another staunching the bleeds, and the third trying to start a new line. On the monitor her blood pressure flashes: 202/92.

“The Men vomited on me,” she says. “They punched me in my nose. You don’t know what they do to me when you’re not here. There are patients here, but none of them have moved. Oh, God, they’re not moving.”

One night, in the near darkness of her hospital room, she asks me a question.

“You have to explain this thing to me, Tiff. You have to explain what’s happening. How can I die and end up back in the same place?”

How is that possible?

*          *          *

I find my mother one afternoon doing laps around her bed. She has been home from the hospital a week, relieved of all hallucinations but her Garden.

“What are you doing?” I ask from the doorway.

“Exercising,” she says. “I want you to be proud of me.”

In her last two months, she is the perfect patient. She goes to her doctor’s appointments and sits still while a phlebotomist sticks her 11, 12 times. She doesn’t remember anything that happened in the hospital or the days leading up to it. The second round of dialysis cleared up the toxins, the ammonia that had built up in her blood and crossed the barrier to her brain, causing the delusions and paranoia. She is once again the gentle, intelligent woman I adore. She has opted for hospice over dialysis, palliation over treatment.

The hallucinations, we know, will return.

*          *          *

I wake one morning at dawn to an arc of light beneath my bedroom door. I walk out into the living room, and for a moment, I think the apartment has been burglarized. Drawers have been pulled out, cabinets emptied, bookshelves stripped, toy chests gutted. All of our belongings are arranged in piles according to my mother’s logic, prepped for the Move.

The next day I walk into my mother’s bedroom, and she is standing on the end table in her bathroom, collecting fallen stars. In the other room, my daughter has dragged her pink toddler-size table to the kitchen counter and is standing on it, reaching for a box of cookies.

As I help my mother down, she reaches up and brushes my cheek with the back of her hand.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Just some leaves. I couldn’t see your face.”

The Men, she tells me, are young. She doesn’t know them.

*          *          *

My daughter is prescription. She climbs into bed with her nana and builds a fortress of pillows and blankets around them, a shelter from the unnamable.

When Nana can no longer walk, the child places Band-Aids in a ladder up and down her legs. When Nana is terrified, the child kisses the knuckles of her hand. My mother is inconsolable but for when the child is near.

When Nana is unconscious, her dreams fevered, the child runs a washcloth beneath cold water and places it on her nana’s head. She knows to do this, the child. When her nana stops eating, the child traces her lips with ice.

When her nana is gone and her mother, lying atop Nana, makes a sound she’s never heard, she says, “Mommy, don’t cry.”

“But Nana is gone,” says the mother.

“I know,” says the child. “The sky is crying.”

*          *          *

My husband drives me to the New Age bookstore four towns over. Its doors are propped open like a church in want of bodies. A warm breeze fills the space, awakening scented candles, bouquets of sage, and envelopes of incense.

Statues of Buddha — wood, bronze, jade — lean against walls. The shelves are stuffed with books on astrology, ayurveda, meditation, and past lives. Sorted into bins are the smooth tumbled stones; in locked glass cabinets are the larger rocks, extracted from the Earth and left in their natural state. These untouched crystals invoke the ceiling of a cave. Their facets capture the light and internalize it like a secret.

I stop before a hanging display of pendulums. One of them starts to sway. The pendulum is gold-plated, a cylinder with a pointed terminus. I pick it up by its gold chain and it swings urgently.

I discover that the pendulum has an inner chamber. I open it and find a second smaller pendulum. It, too, has a chamber.

A sales clerk approaches. She’s come over to ask if I need assistance, but something stops her mid-sentence. As she stands before me, tears swim down her face.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “but just being close to you is making me emotional. I’m overcome with feeling. Not sadness, but something very strong.”

I show her the pendulum in my hand.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” She wipes her tears with the blade of her hand. “It opens up. You can put something inside of it. A lock of hair, a crystal.”

“Ashes?” I ask.

“Oh, yes.”

“Is there a crystal that can …” I can’t believe what I’m about to ask. “My mother passed away. I want to feel more connected to her.”

“Wait right here,” she says. She returns with a large, much-handled book: Love Is in the Earth: A Kaleidoscope of Crystals. I’ve referenced this book before, on other occasions inside this store. She opens to a page then turns to ring up the three customers who’ve been waiting, leaving me to read. The page she’s opened to is a description of celestite:

It can provide for access to, and transfer of information from the purity of the angelic realms. It assists in clairvoyant endeavors, affording lucid, distinct, and articulate verbalization of the messages received … It is also a stone for astral travel, providing for the freedom to access pre-determined sites and assisting one to surrender to the inner peace required … It is an excellent healing stone. The blue celestite seems to cleanse the area of affectation, transmuting pain and chaos into light and love.

The scientist rejects this information. The daughter follows the clerk to a glass case, in which the rocks of celestite are kept. The crystals are periwinkle-blue, glacial, and beautiful. Two of these rocks stand out. One is hollow; its crystals grow inward, toward its core. The other is a sphere upon which its crystals grow outward.

“Do you want the one reaching out or the one reaching in?”

The answer is obvious. I return the hollow rock to the shelf.

I’ve been in the store over an hour. The sales clerk asks if I mind that she’s following me around. She says she enjoys just being near me. What she doesn’t say, not that day, is that she sees my mother standing behind my left shoulder, solemn, beautiful.

Our talk returns to the pendulum. “Can I put Herkimer diamonds in one of the chambers?” I ask. The sales clerk’s eyes light up with approval.

“Absolutely. The diamonds will enhance the pendulum’s power. They work best in pairs.”

She brings over a small glass dish of diamonds from which I select two. I set them aside, and she shows me how the pendulum works.

“Show me yes.” She holds the gold chain in one hand and lifts the pendulum from the palm of the other. It rotates counterclockwise.

“Now show me no.” She lifts the pendulum again, and it rotates clockwise.

She leaves me once again to assist another customer, and I orient the pendulum as she’s demonstrated. Yes, clockwise; no, counterclockwise.

Mama, are you with me? Clockwise.

Can you see me? Clockwise.

Will you visit me today? Clockwise.

Will I know? Clockwise.

Before she died, when she was still lucid, I asked my mother if she would visit me from the other side. We were lying in her bed — my mother, husband, and I. Brilliant rays of late-afternoon sun had turned golden the pale surfaces of her room.

“Will you leave me pennies in my pockets, so I know you’re with me?”

My mother laughed at this request. We could feel the solitary journey before her, and for that brief moment not one of us was scared.

“What about me?” my husband asked. Except instead of pennies, he wanted hundred-dollar bills.

Could she send us postcards from beyond the grave? “Of course, my loves. I will try.”

My husband and I return to our car. Behind us, strapped into our daughter’s car seat, is the urn we picked up that morning. In my lap is the celestite, in my hand, the pendulum.

*          *          *

The morning after I purchased the pendulum and celestite, I woke in my mother’s bed, feeling as though a fever had broken. The room was awash in the amber light of morning, and I felt limber and tender, alive inside my skin. I could feel my grief in my periphery, as I’d felt my mother standing watch at the edge of my dream. A new order presented itself, one in which symbols — crystals and pendulums, dreams and parable — reign over reason.

On my first Mother’s Day without her, I go into her room and run a bath. While I’m soaking in the tub, my daughter enters.

“Mommy, want to come with me and Daddy to the playground?”

“Of course I do, my love. Mommy just needs an hour to get ready. Do you think you can wait?”

She nods her head. “I can wait for you.”

The end table is a few feet away, stacked with books. One by one my daughter sets the books on the floor.

She pulls the table to the edge of the tub. She sits down, looks into my eyes, and speaks.