My mother hates cats. She has hated them since I can remember. So when she’s really angry…I mean really angry…she pulls out the ugliest words she can imagine. The C-word: Cat Hair. Yes, that is my mother’s way of cursing. “Cat Hair.” She cannot imagine anything worse in this life. Not just a cat, but its hair shedding all over her.
As she prepared to go into surgery at 6am on a Tuesday, her request was, “Don’t let them drug me up. Last time I went in for a procedure, I kept yelling ‘cat hair’ at the nurses. I was so embarrassed!”
“Yes, I’m sure they’re still trying to recover from that trauma, mom.”
The day before her surgery had been unusually pleasant. While my mom and I have always had a contentious relationship, somehow, the subject of her week-long hospital stay and potential death had been a bonding experience. At 83, my mom had too much time on her hands and spent said time preparing to die. I found it comical, while my brother, Ken, thought it was morbid. Therefore, I was the one who listened to her elaborate instructions on what to do in case of her passing. My willingness to discuss her funeral awarded me temporary ‘good child’ status. My brother had rightfully won the good child title years ago. Over time, I had comfortably settled into my role as the bad child. However, I must admit that I savored my short excursion into Ken’s shoes that day.
Now, you may think I’m being overly sensitive about my brother being the favorite, and I assure you, I’m not. Recently, someone without any understanding of my childhood or my family said, “So, you feel your brother was the more favored child?”
“I don’t feel it,” I said. “I know it. It’s a well-documented, undisputed fact.”
My mother always said that she loved my brother and me the same, but – well – she liked him more. He had a clever way of charming her, and I did not.
In fact, the only time I can ever remember my brother getting in trouble was when he was in high school. My mom went to his car for whatever reason (probably to snoop around) and lo and behold, what did she find? A roach clip. Now, my mother had never seen a roach clip in her life, and had no idea what it was. So she did what my mom does best – she contemplated, twisted and came up with the most outrageous explanation the human mind could ever invent. My mother decided that this roach clip was a device for performing abortions. What??? I mean…. What the..???
The only possible way I can trace this conclusion to anything grounded in reality is that this was in 1973 when the Roe v Wade debate was all over the news (I assume. I was too young to remember what was on the news, but I’m trying to find some mental train of thought here, people).
My mother was frenzied over the discovery that her beloved boy was performing illegal abortions with a small, pronged, silver instrument. By the time my brother got home from wherever he was, she was practically rabid. She waved the roach clip in his face and through hysterical sobs said, “How could you??!!!!!” He gave the answer that every teenager gives. “I don’t know, mom. Everyone’s doing it.”
“EVERYONE??? EVERYONE???” (and I’m not sure what she meant by this next statement, but I do remember that this is what she said) “Don’t you ‘everyone’s doing it’ me…I’ll …high school life… ALL OVER YOUR BEHIND!” I think that was a threat, but I never quite worked out the details of it.
“How much do they pay you?” she was sobbing into my father’s handkerchief.
“What? Pay me for what?”
When we finally made it through the ‘who’s on first’ routine and he figured out what she was actually accusing him of, he laughed and said, “Mom, that’s a roach clip. You use it to smoke pot.”
Well, you might as well have told her Jesus had come back and the rapture was in progress. She actually fell to her knees. “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord! I knew you hadn’t gone bad!”
Summary: My brother managed to get my Southern Baptist mother to say ‘Praise the Lord’ to the news that he was imbibing in illegal substances. Moreover, the way I heard about this story was not because I remember all the details of this very adult subject matter. I was too young to know what was going on. I know the story because she proudly told it to people, like it was a triumphant parenting story.
People, this kind of Jedi mind trick was and is way beyond my capabilities.
However, that story merely demonstrates that my brother’s super power was that he could break all 10 commandments right in front of my mother and emerge completely unscathed. It does not necessarily prove he was the favored child. So, here’s a potent example of that point:
When my father died, my mother gave all of his belongings to my brother. I did not know this until I was home one Christmas and found my father’s apron in the linen closet. Daddy’s apron was obviously not an expensive item. None of my father’s possessions were worth a lot of money, but the apron was very sentimental to me. My father was an amazing chef, (probably the best in Oklahoma back in the day) and I always loved watching him as he masterfully navigated the kitchen, searing a filet mingon or sautéing shrimp in lemon butter. He always wore that white chef’s apron when he worked, so I wanted the apron as badly as if he were suddenly standing in it right then.
I showed the apron to my mother, and she immediately offered it to my cousin who happened to be in town as well. When I said that I wanted the apron, she said, “Oh, you’ll just lose it. You’re always moving (twice) and I just figured since you live in California, you’re not very interested in the family. Besides, who knows what could happen out there with all those earthquakes and democrats. God’s gonna make California get right with Him some day, you know, and I don’t want your daddy’s things there when it happens.”
Just for the record, when my brother learned that mom had given me nothing, he asked for the apron, and then turned around and gave it to me, along with daddy’s Bible, war medals, recipes, his lucky coin from England, and a charm bracelet he had purchased for my mother in Hawaii (yes, the very foreign country she abhors) while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. I’ll say it again. My brother has rightfully won the good child title, and not even I will disagree.
The morning of mom’s surgery saw my return to the bad child position. Her reasons for being cranky with me started out fairly benign. I woke up too late (an hour before we needed to leave, but mom was committed to being 3 hours early to everything). My breakfast choice, (tea and yogurt), met with her disapproval as had every meal I had ever consumed since I was five. And of course my chosen outfit was inappropriate (unclear on her wardrobe objections). However, I can say that these are the standard ‘bad child’ grievances which must be recited every day, like morning prayers. “Thank you, Father, for our many blessings and please help Janie see that if she would have listened to my wisdom from the beginning, she would have been perfected years ago and certainly wouldn’t be divorced, broke, rotund, poorly dressed and tardy like she is today.”
However, a new land mine in the field of bad child deeds had been laid in the past few years, and I had not figured out how to maneuver around it. My mom was losing her hearing. So, when she asked me, “Did you remember to put my bag in the car?” I answered, “Yes.”
“What did you say?”
“YES, MOM, I HAVE THE BAG RIGHT HERE!!!”
“Don’t you yell at me! I’m about to go into surgery and here you are being mean and nasty! Well, I just hope this is the last time you have to take care of your old mother since I’m such a bother to you.”
Sigh. I began my happy mantra in my head. She’ll be drugged soon; she’ll be drugged soon; she’ll be drugged soon.
I drove us to the hospital, which was probably a horrific mistake, but my brother wasn’t feeling well, so I had to do it.
The drive went something like this:
“The driveway has a dip in it at the bottom so don’t pull out so fast or you’ll scrape my car.” (sound of scraping as she spoke)
Mother would randomly scream and slam her foot into the imaginary brake on the passenger-side floorboard. “Slow down, Janie!” (Speedometer reported I was at a heart-racing, NASCAR pace of 30 miles an hour. I slowed to 25 so as not to break land-speed records.)
When I failed to stop three car-lengths behind the auto in front of me, she offered this helpful tip, “We’re going to die! We’ll get hit from behind and you’ll crash right into that car in front of us.” Mother sucked in air through her gritted teeth as she braced for the inevitable impact.
It’s a mystery why I was still driving at that point, because the thought of throwing myself out of the car and being hit by a passing vehicle sounded infinitely more pleasing than staying in the car with her.
I could see my brother rolling his eyes in the backseat. The eye-roll was his way of showing his support, but he couldn’t intervene. As the good child, he was the buffer between my mother’s madness and anyone who was targeted by it. Before stepping into an argument, he had to strategically calculate if she was at a category 1, 2, 3 or 4 and the potential damage from the wind coming out of her mouth, lest he would lose his super powers. An hour before surgery was not the time to directly engage with my mother.
When we arrived at the hospital, I pulled to the surgical drop-off area and let my mom and Ken out.
“I’ll go park the car,” I said. My brother gave me a look that could only be understood from a lifetime of siblinghood. It said, “Don’t leave me alone with her!” Yet, as soon as he shut the door, I sped away.
I did not go to the parking lot as promised. Instead, I drove to the main road and left the hospital grounds entirely. Eventually, I stumbled upon a Starbucks. Desperate for a fix, I went inside and got my comfort drink – a grande soy chai latte. Hands still shaking with anger, I went back to the car and debated my next move. My intent right then was to leave for the airport and never come back. I had at least one of these “I’m leaving and never coming back” moments during every trip to Oklahoma. As I drove away from Starbucks, I was truly about to turn and head to the airport when my phone rang.
“You coming back?” my brother said.
Pause. “Yes. Just parking the car.”
“Well, I accidentally left mom’s bag in the car and she’s having a fit. So I’m begging you, come back and bring the bag with you.”
Out of sheer loyalty to my brother, I returned to the hospital.
The bag of which my brother spoke was a duffel bag containing all the medications my mother was taking plus a few extras just in case. The woman set new standards on frugality and was not above bringing a pharmacy to the hospital so she wouldn’t be charged for any medications. Why pay for anesthesia when you can buy off-brand Tylenol at Wal-Mart for $.99 and it works just as well, right?
I could hear my mother complaining about the missing bag as I walked down the hall. I pushed her door open just enough to dangle the bag as evidence of its safe arrival, and then quickly moved on to the nurse’s desk. I explained that my mother had brought her own drugstore to avoid extra charges, so any medications she needed should be taken from this bag. The nurse had obviously never received such a request before. “Uh, we can’t do that.”
“Yes you can.”
“We can’t administer drugs from outside the hospital. How do I know these are properly labeled or that they won’t interfere somehow with her surgery? She won’t even be able to swallow pills, so everything has to be given through an I.V. Can you just explain to your mother that…”
“No. I can’t explain anything to her. See, you seem to think that we can employ reason here, and I’m telling you we are in a logic-free zone right now. For Christ’s sake, do you hear the yelling coming from her room? She may look like a frail, 83 year old woman, but she can make Freddy Kruger look like he’s playing with butter knives! Just do what she says, or pretend to do it until they knock her out and then do whatever you like, but go in there and tell that woman that you have her cornucopia of drugs and you’re gonna give them to her!!! Please!”
I heard the dreaded words come from my mom’s room. “JANIE?! Janie, come in here!” I let my head drop back, face to the sky, and begged for mercy and patience.
“Ok,” the nurse said. “I’ll figure something out.” She picked up the bag and went into mom’s room. “Mrs. Gideon, I have your medications here.”
“Good. Now, let me show you what each of these are for and how much to give me because I don’t want y’all giving me someone’s Viagra or some-such-a-thing and then I’ve got man problems and a bill for medicines I didn’t want in the first place…”
The nurse shot me the stank eye. Her good deed had turned into so much more pain than she could have imagined.
Then, I committed a deadly breech of conduct. Somehow, I let the faint sound of a chuckle trickle out. I don’t know how I could have been so blithe.
“Well, I don’t know why that’s funny,” mom said. “These things happen all the time, you know. That’s your problem, Janie. You don’t take care of yourself. You believe in all that free love stuff, but someone could slip you a Viagra and you wouldn’t even know it because you’re always wearing low-cut tops and showing off your boobies. Men don’t like that. They don’t respect you. Yessiree, that’s your trouble right there.”
While I couldn’t keep track of how we went from Viagra to my breasts to some kind of bottom line on my failings, I believe the summary is thus: it’s all those free-love orgy nights with my Viagra-slipping pimp that are the source of all my troubles in life. Duly noted.
The nurse said she was ready to put in mom’s I.V. Of course, my mother knows how to put in an I.V. better than any nurse, so she began dictating how to do it right.
“You can’t stick my arm. Those veins don’t work…” Blah blah blah, yada, yada, yada. Nurse’s problem. Not mine.
Outside the room, I heard someone ask for Mrs. Gideon. Mom was otherwise engaged, so I decided I would use this as an excuse to avoid any more public life-lessons on boobs, Viagra and free-love. I stepped out and found a short, balding man holding a Bible.
“I’m Mrs. Gideon’s daughter,” I said. “Can I help you?”
The man looked puzzled. “Well, I didn’t know Miss Lucy had a daughter.”
Of course he didn’t. “I’m Brother so-and-so from First Baptist Church. I just came by to check on Miss Lucy and see if I could pray with y’all for a moment.”
That would be the good child’s department. So, I called on my brother.
“Ken, it’s so nice to meet you finally,” said Brother So-and-so. “Miss Lucy has told me so much about you. She sure is proud of you, son.”
I should have gone to the airport when I had a chance.
My mother lit up when she saw Brother So-and-so. Her whole disposition improved. She even complimented the nurse on doing such a great job with her I.V.
After Brother So-and-so prayed with my mother, the orderly came to take her for the final surgery preparations, where she would finally be administered a good amount of sedatives. I was flat out giddy.
Alas, I knew things had gone terribly awry in their attempts to sedate her when outside the prep room, I heard the obscenities begin. “Cat Hair! Cat hair! See what you made me say??? Oh, cat hair!”
As it turned out, they were having trouble with mom’s I.V., which meant instead of being sedated, mom was lucid and angry. The moment I had been waiting for all day would never come.
When Ken and I came into the room, mother was defining in great detail each staff member’s personal shortcomings. Their faces appeared exhausted, and the orderly looked like he might be contemplating a murder/suicide scenario.
“You can say a few words to her and then we’ll take her into the OR and just gas her…or get her prepped I mean,” the doctor said to us.
She gave my brother a hug and told him how much she loved him and she’d see him when she got out. Conversely, this is what my mother said to me as the orderly wheeled her down the hallway:
“Don’t forget to take the plate on the counter back to the lady next door, but make sure you wash it first. I don’t want her getting a dirty plate back. Tell that nurse that I take back what I said about the I.V. She did a lousy job. And don’t run up my utility bill while I’m gone. 80 is plenty cool, so don’t turn the air conditioning below that. And I love you.”
As the orderly pushed her through the doors to the OR, I could hear her berating him: “Now, don’t run into the door like that. You’re not steering right! We’re going to crash into the wall! Oh, cat hair!”
Ken and I collapsed on the couch outside the door when she was finally out of sight. She was gone. Sweet relief! We rested a minute in silence before heading to the family waiting room.
During this whole ordeal, my brother had been feeling quite ill. As soon as we got to the waiting room, we found a couch where he could rest. While my brother slept, I called friends and family to let them know mom was in surgery and we’d call with an update when she was out.
An hour went by. Then two hours. My brother continued to sleep soundly on the couch while I read a book. After about two and a half hours of sitting in the waiting room, I saw my mother walk around the corner, all dressed and ready to go. I couldn’t believe it. She shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, “Oh well.” I was furious! The woman must have pissed off the entire staff and they had finally kicked her out. Or worse, maybe she just walked out on her own. Stubborn, stubborn, pain in the ass, woman!
I was coming over to find out what was going on when she turned and walked around the corner. I followed her out of the waiting room, but when I got to the door, she wasn’t there. I went to the information desk and asked if they’d seen where she went. They said they hadn’t seen her. So, I made them call down to the surgery to find out what happened. The nurse in the OR said that mom was still in surgery and all was going well.
In that moment, I felt queasy…dizzy…like I was half in my head and half out. I fully expected that my mom was not going to make it through this surgery. So, when the doctor came out a few hours later and said that she was fine and recovering, I couldn’t have been more surprised. He told us that we could see her, but she would be sedated all night (Praise Jesus!). My brother and I briefly visited her in the recovery room, and then decided to go home so Ken could have a good night’s rest.
When I got back to mom’s house, I called my friend E (from the Korean Spa story) to give her an update.
“I was just sure that she had died, and to be honest, I was a little relieved,” I said to E. “The woman was driving me nuts…and that was before she was in any kind of real pain. I can’t imagine what she’ll be like now. I don’t think I can take it.”
About that time, the house phone rang.
“Calling about your mother….you should come back….she won’t make it through the night.”
E heard the whole conversation. “Be careful of your words,” I said to her. “I think I just wished my mother dead. That is SOOOO like her to pull that kind of guilt trip on me!”
I woke Ken up and told him we had to go back to the hospital. When we arrived, we went straight into ICU to see her. The doctor told us her blood pressure was falling and he couldn’t say for sure, but he thought she might be brain dead. Ken looked at me and said, “Can you handle this? Because I have to leave right now.” Poor guy was so ill.
One important note to this story is that my mother reviewed her will the day before the surgery and made sure all her documents were in order, including a living will and a power of attorney. My mother’s lawyer is also our long-time friend and neighbor. She advised my mother to give me power of attorney instead of Ken, because he was so sick at the time. Nonetheless, my mother insisted that she did not want me to have power of attorney. I didn’t even flinch at the news. As the bad child, this kind of answer was to be expected. Of course Ken would get power of attorney.
“It’s not that I love Ken any more than I love Janie,” mom said.
“No one’s saying that, Lucy,” said her lawyer.
“It’s just that Janie lives so far away. And Ken’s already on all the accounts. I just don’t think Janie’s in a position to take care of everything.”
The person with power of attorney to make decisions about my mother was my brother. That was my mother’s expressed wish. So, when the doctor told me we needed to decide what to do if my mother coded, I went to speak to my brother.
“What should we do?” I said.
“Do what you think is right,” Ken said. “I trust you.”
“Based on what mom told me, she doesn’t want to be kept alive if she’s brain dead, so if she’s brain dead, I think we have to let her go. If not, we let them take measures to revive her.”
“Whatever you think is right,” Ken said again. “I trust you.”
I sat there for a moment, contemplating the whole unbelievable situation, and then my brother took my hand. “I can’t do this, Janie,” he said. “I hate to put this on you, but can I ask you to handle this by yourself?”
My big brother, the long-time athlete and my constant rock, looked so pale and weak. It broke my heart. He had never asked me for a single thing in his life. He was the one always taking care of me. So without hesitation, I said “Don’t worry. I can do this.”
I got a warm blanket out of the utility room for him, and then went back to deal with mom.
I asked the doctor if he had determined if she was brain dead or not. He said he was not sure. That meant we were in vague territory.
When the moment came and the nurse turned to me with a sense of urgency and said, “She’s coding, what do you want me to do?” I said the first thing that came to mind. “Do CPR.”
CPR is not the docile process you see on TV shows. It is an aggressive act. My mother’s body was thrashing on the bed as they pushed hard on her chest. If she were awake at all, this would be excruciatingly painful. The rattling and shaking of the bed seemed to drown out all the monitors, beeping noises and words of the staff working on her. All I could hear was the sound of violence.
For ten long minutes, the staff continued CPR on my mother while I sat and processed an entire lifetime together. What would she want me to do right now? What would my brother want me to do? What would my dad want me to do? I said I was relieved when I thought she was going to die, but now I wanted her to live. I wanted her to wake up and yell at me for doing it wrong. All our arguments were really stupid when I thought about it. Our biggest problem was that I annoyed her and she annoyed me. Nothing serious. All the while, the sound of the pounding on her chest pulsated through my head like a count-down.
The doctor came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I was crying, but didn’t even realize it until that moment. “You can stop this any time you want,” he said.
My mom’s life was in my hands. The bad child. Her worst nightmare. But I took that obligation very seriously. She trusted my brother, but she never trusted me. I had a duty, in many ways, to do this better than he would – to be even more conscientious than she would have expected of me.
“Has she responded at all?” I said.
“No. Not so far,” he said.
The physical brutality required to keep her heart pumping was agonizing. “Give her three more minutes. If she doesn’t respond, come back to me.”
I cannot explain to you all that went through my head in those three minutes. I had to quickly review what I could remember about her instructions, face regrets and missed opportunities, and finally come to peace with letting her go. I had been fast-tracked on the stages of grief – denial to acceptance in under three minutes. So when the doctor returned to report that nothing had changed, I simply said, “Stop.”
The pounding and rattling ended. A nurse turned off all the machines, and I went to my mother and held her hand. In comparison to the minutes before, everything seemed so quiet.
“Is she still here?” I asked the nurse.
“I don’t think so, but watch her chest to see if it rises.” It never did. I personally think she had left when I saw her in the waiting room. All of this CPR drama was just some kind of movie being played out, but the ending had already been written.
I had grown up a bona fide ‘daddy’s girl.’ I loved my father, and there is no doubt that my dad loved me. He might have even favored me slightly just to make up for my mom’s obvious preference for my brother. I also adored my brother and can’t remember ever arguing with him. The bonds with my father and my brother had always been rock solid. But my mother and I spent the entirety of our relationship uncertain of each other. Yet, after all our struggles…after all the harsh words exchanged…after her expressed wish that I not be the one standing in this position, in the end, it was just me and her. As fate would have it, I’d been given thirteen precious minutes to put all our demons aside and fight for her. It was an honor and a merit.
I kissed her cold hand and said out loud, “I’m sorry, mama. I did the best I could for you.” And I meant it in every way.
My brother and I drove home in silence. Still sick, he went straight to bed. I could not sleep, so I went outside to sit on the back porch. The house felt empty and strange to me. I had grown up in this house. It was my parents’ house. Now, my parents were gone, and I couldn’t quite reconcile that piece of information.
There was an old storage shed in the corner of the back yard. My dad had built it years ago to store all the things my mom refused to throw away. The woman saved everything. But she hated that shed. She thought it was an eyesore and had intended to knock it down for the past 10 years. Yet, just as she couldn’t get rid of tax papers from 1960, she couldn’t tear down that shed.
I heard a faint whimper coming from across the yard, in the direction of the old shed. It was after midnight and hard to see, so I went inside and found a flashlight. The closer I got to the shed, the more it sounded like a baby was crying. But then I realized the noise was something worse. Something more savage. Something unthinkable.
In the small space between the shed and the wooden fence, I found the source of the whining. Cats. Lots of cats. And newborn kittens too. They had taken up residence in my mother’s back yard and she didn’t even know it.
I could hear her in my head. “Cat hair!”