Driving the back roads of Berks County on Saturday, I saw fields that looked as if they had been placed under a broiler and cooked. When I left the Home some hours later, I walked into the physical force of a heat so intense that for a moment I slowed down and shielded my face, but even that heat was preferable to the cold, industrial lighting and sealed, airless rooms of the Home.
After Saturday, I needed to exhaust myself. The sun remained a powerful, all encompassing presence, but that is what I wanted, and so I turned south and walked down a steep hill. A single crow sat without moving on a sapling’s limb deep in a glade of the woods.
I wanted to sweat and to move. I wanted to let go of the oppression of my thoughts, of the helpless savagery whose remnants still bothered me. I had visited my mother Saturday afternoon at the facility where she now lives. She was virtually silent for the length of my visit. She slept. She held my hand and sometimes rocked it in the rhythm of her heartbeat. She looked at me with a seriousness of expression, a somber awareness.
Down the hill and then west into the sun and into the valley — I let my eyes wander without expectation, an old trick, and atypical shapes and movements revealed themselves. A black cat flattened itself in the grass next to a hedgerow. A button buck took on its form in the brush and then smoothly fled across the road, its hide a tawny auburn color. It did not turn its head to look at me.
My mother had lived with my sister and brother-in-law for years until her declining physical abilities created a need for 24 hour care. Her children worked. None of us have the money necessary for such intensive care.
The Home has used the monies from the sale of the family home, and now she is a Medicaid client. This is a familiar story to millions.
The Facility is clean. Most of the employees are courteous. The women who care for my mother and other residents, even though harried and working in an understaffed facility, are kind and sweet to her. My sisters visit more often than my brother and me; they decorate her room and make it bright with flowers and photographs. Their good cheer and kidding make her laugh. Two of her great grandchildren live close-by and they visit too. My anger had not been stoked by neglect or abuse. It began with her gaze, a more self-aware expression than I have seen in a long time. I think she was alive and aware within a period of lucidity, and I think she knew where she was and that she was trapped. Is there anything worse?
Blue birds and flycatchers stay ahead of me and jump each other on the telephone wires, and then they vanish. Past the pond, up the rise to a vista and the stream course opens up to the south; uncut fields filled with white butterflies push back to the tree line. I have been walking in a landscape forsaken by others. Not one car has passed me. The few homes are shut up. All of this desertion has made for an intensely quiet country. Even the birds are silent, huddled near water, in woods, waiting for dusk. The sun is full in my face now, and I am sweating heavily, but my muscles feel greased and the heat, liberating.
My mother loves horses. She once rode well. Now her entire physical world has narrowed to a bed and a black wheelchair. She sits in a space about two and one half feet across. Because she so often slumps to the right, she is held in place by blue rectangular pillows that are attached to the arms of the chair. She does not have the strength to move the wheels. Others roll her into place.
Her skin is so thin and fragile that she wears soft cotton gloves and socks. A Personal Sentry wire clips to the back of her blouse, held in place by a magnet. A beep shrieks on if she tries to get up and the magnet leaves its base.
Past the big house and the pasture and turning northwest into shade and a cool breath off a pond and then another dogleg west and the rise extending in full sun past open fields. The ass end of a groundhog disappears into the fence row. A mockingbird lands and then vanishes into multi-flora rose. I am the only walker. No one is out on a bicycle. Turning north under big tulip poplars and then east onto a gravel road, and I can hear a brown thrush singing above me and deeper in the woods another, answering.
Awake, my mother begins talking: “Elsie gets up at six o’clock in the morning. She didn’t tell me why.” She repeats this. Then she says, “Germany slept for a while.” She sits up straight, her eyes following something outside. I ask her what she sees. “A bug. Birds. Birds,” she says.
I have to leave. We roll out of the activities room, away from the windows and into the hallway, past others in wheelchairs accompanied by family, to the elevators and upstairs to her unit, through the double doors secured against those who might wander away and into the big room where many of the residents are gathered. I find her a spot close to the TV, and for the first time since I arrived, she smiles. She sees Andy Griffith, strolling with his little boy and carrying a fishing pole on his shoulder, watching his son toss a pebble into a pond.