The Long Shower


My sister in Santa Fe called our youngest brother in Connecticut. He called our Philadelphia brother who called the Colorado brother and then my sister called the Minneapolis brother, who called me, and I called our mother.

“Who will care for you if you have another stroke or fall?” I asked. “What do you want? Independent living? Assisted living? Your apartment? Moving in with one of us?” She didn’t answer.

 

Our then eighty-three-year-old mother was living in Duluth, Minnesota, in an apartment overlooking Lake Superior, alone, each child scheduled to call on a different day. Not on Sunday though. “Sunday,” my mother said, “I need a break.”

No matter how many times we asked, on phone calls or during visits, she didn’t answer. We didn’t have a plan, but we tried to limit the damage. My health-food sister in Santa Fe suggested green food for my mother’s stomach, because if the stomach works, everything does; my brother who liked electronic solutions wanted to buy her a new TV, but my mother said there wasn’t much to see. My frugal brother advised, “You can’t afford gifts to the mailman or treating your friends to lunch.” “It’s a small town,” my mother replied. “I have to.” I favored the pragmatic and bought her a yellow Italian spoon holder and a knife with a red rubber handle, the only one in her kitchen that actually cut. She frowned. What could be wrong with a good knife?

There was also the worry when my mother didn’t hear the phone or had turned off the ringer to take a nap or listen to the opera or was out for lunch and forgot to listen to her messages. When that happened, my Philadelphia brother called the building manager and asked him to check on her.

“Don’t bother him,” my mother ordered. “This building’s full of old people. He has enough to do with handling Elsie Jean two floors up and there are five others just as bad.”

The third time my brother called the manager, my mother said, “One of these days, I’m going to be dead and there won’t be anything he can do about it. You’ll just have to let me go.” I imagined a fall, my mother scrunched on the floor between the twin beds, grabbing at the worn bedspreads with her pale fists, dragging them on top of her, reaching for the unreachable Fall Alert button that had landed on her back, saying, “That’s it. I’m done.”

 

Several years before, my sister and I had scoured independent and assisted living facilities. My mother knew them all, had at least one friend in each, and we took her to the top three. She spent her time chatting with her friends while we read the facility brochures. That September day of walking through dark corridors had been redeemed by a late afternoon drive past maples with leaves of orange and crimson, to the local creamery where we plopped into an old leather booth and ordered hot fudge sundaes.

When we arrived back at her apartment, my mother said, “I want to stay where I am until I can’t. If something bad happens, you kids will have to figure it out.”

In the six years since, my mother had landed in St. Luke’s ER several times. When I woke at her apartment in the middle of the night, I listened for her breath to be sure she was alive. Nevertheless, she continued to manage on her own, in her apartment, cooking, making the bed, doing laundry, going to the hairdresser, seeing friends.

 

In May, the year she was eighty-nine, I visited from San Francisco after the snow and blizzards ended. As I walked down the hallway of the apartment building, my mother waited in the doorway to give me a hug. Stepping inside, I almost tripped on a small red rug, forty-five years of tatter curling up at both ends – an accident waiting to happen. I took a deep breath and tried to forget it.

“I don’t want you to trip and fall,” I said the next morning. “You have to ditch the rug. HMOs send rug-warning letters. Falls are the main cause of death in the elderly.’”

“They didn’t send me a letter,” my mother said. “I haven’t fallen yet and I like the rug. The rug is staying.”

“Instead of advice,” she continued, “what I want is peace and quiet and time to finish the second volume of Proust. I’d like some good meals out and a ride to the mall to get a bedspread to replace the one so worn that I turn it down to hide the threadbare spot.” My mother, my sister and I, even my brothers, had searched for three years for a bedspread that was warm, matched her curtains, and wasn’t too heavy for her to make the bed. That bedspread, I now knew, didn’t exist.

“Also, I’d like you to make fudge, fudge with five melted marshmallows.” She looked up from the couch and grinned – I knew that look – cunning, triumphant, satisfied.

 

The third night of my stay, my mother went to the bathroom for her shower at 12:30 a.m. I waited. I read a New Yorker. I ate ice cream. I saw the red knife resting in the Italian spoon holder. I looked at my watch. I brushed my teeth.

My mother loved the warm water and soap on her skin and the cleanness of her body after, but it was now one in the morning – she had to be exhausted. Just then, she opened the bathroom door letting in the light scent of her beloved Ivory soap. I looked at my watch. “Thirty minutes is too long for a hot shower,” I said. “You aren’t dirty and it zaps your energy. You’re tired enough as it is.”

“Old people smell,” she said as she put on her pajamas. After a few minutes, she said, “I want to talk to you after I brush my teeth and take my pills.”

I watched her shuffle to the kitchen in slippers that didn’t fit, another hazard; heard her soap the bowl I’d used and put it in the dishwasher; listened to her brush her teeth, water running the entire ten minutes. Just as I was about to scream, she went to the kitchen for her pills. Was she deliberately moving slowly? As if reading my mind, she said, “I’m slow. You’ll have to wait.”

Five minutes later she was back in the bedroom with her eye drops.

“I hate these damn drops,” she said as she sat down with a tissue in her left hand. “I hate them now and I hate them in the morning.”

“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

She turned, slowly straightened up, and fixed her large brown eyes on me.

“I’m going to die.”

I started. My mother was frail, not one of those octogenarians who swam a mile every day and hiked in Tibet. Should I call my siblings? Go to the hospital? The car was outside, just a long hallway and the elevator to manage. I could call an ambulance . …

“Right now?” I asked.

My mother paused, stared at me, then laughed.

”No” she said, “I just couldn’t resist saying it.”

I laughed, too, although my laugh was shaky.

I did my stretching exercises quietly while she put in the eye drops. She lay down on her bed. I lay on mine, turned off the lamp and pulled up the covers. We said goodnight to each other.

I lay still, heart beating. She was paying me back for the nagging, the visits to dreary assisted living facilities, telling me to get a grip – one of these days she would die. The room was emphatically quiet. Not a leg or arm stirred from the other bed, not one breath exhaled. She was a great dramatist. I knew she was lying in that lumpy bed, grinning.

I started laughing.

“Shhh,” my mother said. “We’ll wake up the old lady on the other side of the wall.”

 

 

Author’s Comment: The story started after an interaction with my own mother, who has since died. I wanted to convey how weighty we who are not dying make our interactions with the very old. We tend to be solemn, anxious and fearful about their approaching end, but  for them, our feelings may be  onerous. Not every old person wants to concentrate on dying all the time. Some (perhaps many?) prefer to say, “Lighten up. People die.” Our attitudes are, I think, related to our desire to get something from the dying. However, comforting us isn’t necessarily how they want to spend their time. At the same time I wanted to convey how frustrating the old can be for the younger and that the decisions an old person makes look like stubbornness to those less old.  How many times I have heard someone say, “My mother (or father) is so stubborn!” and I understand what they mean. As I look at the story now, I think it rests on another idea: although children believe it’s their right, a  mother shouldn’t be expected, always and forever, to cater to her children.

 

 

 

Mardith Louisell short stories, flash, essays and memoir can be found recently in Crossborder Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Sleet, Solstice Literary Magazine, Best Travel Writing 2012, (Travelers’ Tales), and at http://ipinionsyndicate.com/author/mardilouisell/ . She believes “Had They Learned about Jayne Mansfield?” (Solstice Literary Magazine) is her best story title. She grew up on Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, and takes pictures of people's ears, which can be found at www.Mardithlouisell.com. The rest of the time, she writes, edits and works part-time in child welfare in San Francisco.

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27 thoughts on “The Long Shower

  1. CATHARINE LUCAS

    You nailed it! Love your spunky mother, love the laughter in the night after the great announcement, “I’m going to die.” My mother was much like that, and said she loved my last visit before her death, because “we talked about it. It’s awful that everyone is afraid to talk about it! Makes you so lonely.”

    Your interaction with her — and the great smile in your author’s photo — tells me how lucky she was to have you for a daughter. And I bet she knew it!

  2. KATHLEEN KEEVINS

    Dear Ms. Louisell,

    A million thanks for your article — it was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both sides of this “dilemma” at work.
    I’m convinced that using humor is the only way to get through this crazy life.
    Our time here is short, so my mantra is “Enjoy every SECOND.”

    You were fortunate to have a mother with such gumption. Regarding you — I’m thinking “apples and trees.” 🙂

    Again, many thanks,
    —Kathy

  3. Elizabeth

    Mardi, great story and captures the burden each side feels. After my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she said one day that her favorite place to go was her local hardware store because they didn’t know she had cancer, didn’t treat her any differently, didn’t treat her like someone who was dying, just like spunky older lady who still had the gumption to fix her leaky faucets herself! Thank you for sharing

    1. Mardith Louisell

      Elizabeth, what a great reply. Love the picture of your mom in the hardware store and love that she could fix the faucets herself. Not sure I will be in that position!

  4. Kathy McMahon

    HI Mardi,
    I am honored to be part of your literary circle and your singing circle, so much fun and creativity. My Mom is 85 years old and I feel the urgency to spend as much time with her as possible, but sometimes she drives me crazy. I wish I was better with older people, like my sister. Mom is still my inspiration in spite of her changing into an old lady with a sometime crotchety personality. She and I laughed and were equally horrified at our selecting the movie “Logan” to end the latest visit. Mom is a great sport.

    1. Mardith Louisell

      Kathy, how funny – the movie Logan. Yes, I know all those feelings but understand better since I have become crotchety myself – you’re too young yet! Thanks for reading and posting.

  5. Nancy Lenk

    Thank you for this story. My mother is 88 and lives across the street from me in her own house. I find myself hovering around her alot and it irritates her. As we grow older we resent that our power is diminished and we try to hold on to anything we can control. I try to be conscious of this with my own Mom. She needs to continue to be as independent as she can. Fortunately, my mom has a good sense of humor and we laugh about how I am sometimes acting like HER mother and she reminds me, that I am NOT! People need to live their lives on their own terms as long as possible.

    1. Mardith Louisell

      Nancy, thanks for your comments. It’s hard not to worry and hard to be worried about, I think. When I have some medical issue, my partner keeps suggesting this and that and I understand how my mom felt when we kept suggesting this and that to make her feel better. Just leave me along, I want to say, and sometimes do, just as she did. But we all seem to feel that if someone tells us a problem, it’s license to give advice! My next piece.

  6. Casey Leones

    I loved your story, Mardi. It made me think of my mother and my relationship (and that of my sisters) with her. It was a bit different – while she demanded to be 100% independent – and indeed claimed to be – she was not really so. But wow! – a force of nature she was, as was your mother! I loved that your mother had to finish Proust. My mother had a Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy or P.D. Wodehouse novel before her until she lost her eyesight – a cruel trick of nature for someone for whom reading was her liveblood. Thanks for the beautifully written remembrance.

  7. Phil

    Excellent, Mardi. You certainly captured Debbie. Anyone who thinks that planning for an elderly person is a science, is sadly mistaken, as you discovered. Are we fortunate or unfortunate that we don’t have children to plan for us, or tell us to get rid of the rug?

    1. Mardith Louisell

      Phil, don’t know is we are fortunate or not. Certainly we should be saved some irritation but then who will look after us and keep us from falling. Love this: “anyone who thinks that plannign for an edlerly person is a science, is sadly mistaken.” You of all people have always known this, which is why you were so great working with the older.

  8. Paula Leahy

    Mardi…you get this so absolutely right! Love the mother you describe. So like my mother.. I hope I can be like them. My mother loved to read, she loved her solitude, was very comfortable with solitude and would say yes to all my concerns when she would do as she damn pleased with I know a grin on her face…

    My dear aunt, my father’s sister who had all her marbles to the end , just before she died, told her concerned and caring daughter…”Jodi , I love you dearly. But I love potatoes too.”

    1. Mardith Louisell

      Love that she said yes and did what she damn pleased. Your aunt’s comment is priceless. Perfect. I’m saving it.

  9. jean gochros

    I love it–
    No— THEM: the story and your comments.
    and you and your mom.
    Thanks for the good read and the writing that speaks to me, my mother and my children.

    1. Sudie Sides

      loved the story the first time I read it. I’m getting to the age at which people start telling you to be careful: of the rugs; of the stairs; of the bathtub; of people trying to trick you. Like your mother , I want to say. Relax. I’m just fine. Let me do my thing!

      1. Mardith Louisell

        Thanks, Sudie. Watch out for rugs!!! My friend Judi said I need to get over my fear of rugs. She said I bawled her out for rugs in her front hall 30 years ago. I said, I nearly slipped and killed myself on it!

    2. Mardith Louisell

      Hi, Jean, yes, it speaks to all of us, doesn’t it? Thanks for posting. I had an email from a friend who is incapacitated and so it spoke to him in a different way, poignant for him. Humor is necessary in this vale!

    3. Mardith Louisell

      Hi, Jean, yes, it speaks to all of us, doesn’t it? Thanks for posting. I had an email from a friend who is incapacitated and so it spoke to him in a different way, poignant for him. Humor is necessary in this vale!

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