My mother leaves a tense message on my phone. “I need you here tomorrow. I’m out of pads.”
I live ninety miles away in New Orleans but I’m on vacation. We haven’t spoken in six weeks, since I took my son to visit her. She brightens around grandchildren and with him she smiled girlishly and petted his arm, asked him about his studies in London. He bit at a nail and she brushed his hand from his mouth. “I can’t see your handsome face.” We ate Italian food and she carried her scaloppini like a bonus back to the nursing home.
“It’s very important,” she says in her phone message but I can’t get to her.
“Ask the nurse for pads, Mom,” I say when I phone her back, but she won’t. She doesn’t want anyone to know that she is leaking.
At Walmart she hangs the handicapped tag from my car mirror so we can grab a primo spot. Behind the shopping basket she walks like a woman who still walks. At the home her steps behind her walker have become shuffles and the transitions from carpet to hardwood floor keep her in her room. “They refuse to bring me my mail,” she says. “That’s a federal offense, Mom,” I say. And what mail? It’s only junk she tends to at the desk in her bedroom, redacting proof of herself in black Sharpie.
She sorts through wrinkled coupons and asks me to run for items she can’t reach. She knows the store like an old friend: the bread thins, stacked low, the unsalted almonds, high. The pads we buy are for women who bleed. She won’t use diapers.
“Do you ever miss cooking, Mom?” I ask on the meat aisle. She used to prepare feasts, multi-course meals with recipes from around the world – rice pilaf, chicken schnitzel, salad after the meal for digestion, peach Kuchen for dessert — traveling in her kitchen, away from us.
“My appetite is different now. I hunger mostly for ice cream,” she says, and the many delights inside the frozen food case — dipped-in-bitter-chocolate pops and sundae sugar cones and quarts of black walnut – please her.
“Is she wetting the bed at night?” the nurse at the home asks. “We offer an incontinence package.
But my mother shudders. “No, I do not,” she says, “And I don’t want people snooping around.” “Check her hamper,” the nurse suggested, but it’s empty. Laundered clothes are folded in the straw basket, pastel t-shirts and gray sweatpants, every item soft and smelling of Downy.
“You have a doctor’s appointment coming up,” I say. “We will talk to him about this.” And her fading steps, and when she must move into a wheelchair.
“I won’t take medication to dry me up. I drank too much water is all.”
I unpack her groceries, then ask her to eat lunch with me in the dining room, but she won’t. I hoped to make her proud, a daughter visiting. At lunch with my son, some happiness seemed possible. I turn down her offer of a slim sandwich in her dark room, crowded with unpacked boxes and bins, shuttered against the light, the peach sunsets and full moons. We are in a hope drought.
“People keep moving out,” she says. “The service is terrible.”
I kiss her offered cheek and leave for the shell of my car.
Nelly Zann lives with her husband in New Orleans. She’s writing a memoir about growing up in a musical family called Following The Notes.