Rachel, as the nurse in the family, is concerned about the effect of Mom’s medications on her awareness of the world around her. “I also think those drugs affect her balance and propensity to fall.” When visiting the apartment today, she encourages my parents to see another doctor. “Start with a clean slate and see what he comes up with.”
“Like a second opinion,” I chime in, giving Rachel moral support.
Dad isn’t convinced: “I don’t want Mother having all those tests again and then have Madison fiddling with her medications. It could take weeks to figure out the correct dosage.”
But isn’t that the point? During this discussion, Mom sits on the couch tipping to her left, looking at us with half closed eyes. Does she have any idea what we’re talking about?
On the way home, Rachel is angry. “Why are they so stubborn? I’ll schedule the doctors. I’ll drive them, for heaven’s sakes. They’ll have nothing to worry about.” She sighs and looks out the window. With her nursing background, she is confident that there’s always a solution to a medical problem. “I can’t insist. They’re not my parents. It’s up to you and Leslie to convince them.”
“But if they refuse to go...” I hesitate. “I can’t kidnap my mother.”
“Why not, if that’s the only way to get her there? It’s your mother’s health after all. What’s a little conflict when her life is at stake?”
Rachel can shovel the guilt on thick when she wants to. She knows I avoid conflict at all costs. I’ve stood up to my father on only rare occasions. When I wanted to study in Europe during my junior year, Dad was dismissive. “When I was in college, a girl came back from studying in Germany and couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful Hitler was.” I was determined to go despite what my father thought. “Dad, it’s not the 1930s and I’m going to England. Do you have a problem with the Queen?” Luckily Mom acted as a go-between and resolved the crisis in my favor.
“I have enough problems with my own parents,” Rachel continues, interrupting my memory. “My father won’t have a home health aide in for three hours, for Heaven sakes!” Her father refused to let the home health aide into the apartment when she arrived on her first day. “My mother can barely give herself a bath, let alone help Dad in and out of the tub.” From her voice, I can tell she’s close to tears. She’ll blame herself if anything happens to them.
I reach over and squeeze her hand. “You’re doing the best you can.”
“But they agreed to try having someone in. His behavior was unforgivable.”
“Eventually they’ll see that it’s best for them.”
“Yeah, after my father cracks his head on the tub. They’re worse than raising two kids.”
I laugh to cheer her up. “It was no cakewalk when Jon skipped an overnight at a friend’s house and stayed with his girlfriend—”
“I was mortified when I called the mother and she said Jon wasn’t there.”
These are stories we’ve retold over the years, laughing at them now, although, at the time, there was nothing funny about them.
“You were ready to wring his neck—”
“For that stunt and for making me look like a bad mother. That’s the thanks I get.”
“And don’t forget Jenn. Arrested at that party.”
When Jennifer called from the police station, I was late picking up the phone. The answering machine had already started recording her message.
“Dad. Dad. Turn off the machine.”
She sounded desperate and I expected terrible news. “What happened?”
“Erase the message. I don’t want Mom to hear it.”
Caught up remembering her midnight call, I almost miss our exit. The police found a keg and arrested all the kids. I grin at Rachel. “Lucky one of the fathers knew the judge—”
“But they were kids. You expect some rough patches.”
“You weren’t that understanding when the cops called and gave you the citation.”
“Yeah. Once again, I’m the bad mother.”
We pull into our driveway and I turn off the car.
Rachel doesn’t open her door. “I keep reminding myself that my parents are old and unwell. That’s enough to make anyone crazy. I should make allowances, but I won’t let them off the hook. It doesn’t excuse my father yelling through the front door at the aide to leave him alone. Did I mention he told the poor woman to go away or he’d call the police?”
Of course, she has. This is another story entering the pantheon of family history. I can’t help laughing. “I’m sure it’s not the first time the woman’s been yelled at. Some professions, like working with the elderly and defusing bombs, are no picnic.”
Despite herself, Rachel relaxes. “Okay. I’ve finished my rant.” She opens the car door.
I unlock the front door. “The problem is your father has nothing he’s interested in. My dad has his trains and working on his model ships. Your father doesn’t have a passion for anything, so he sits around angry about getting old.”
Rachel goes to the kitchen. “I’m making tea. Want some?”
While she waits for the water to boil, she gets into her nightgown. I find the newspaper and start on the crossword puzzle. When the kettle whistles, I fill the teapot.
We sit at the kitchen table silent with our own thoughts. Rachel is the first to speak:
“Sometimes I get depressed thinking about getting old. So many things can go wrong—”
“We always have each other—”
“Until one of us drops dead.”
“Just remember if you go first, I’m never speaking to you again.” My old joke is no longer funny.
“But having each other doesn’t stop bad things from happening.”
“We can help each other get through it. We’ve done it the past. Think of Leslie without her husband—”
“Yes, and you should call her more.”
“I know, but I’m so busy I forget. Work takes over everything. I wonder what I’ll do when I retire. What will my passion be?”
“You can get back to your writing. I’ve always said you should have kept working at it, if only on vacations…”
In college, I majored in English and published stories and poems in the school’s literary magazine. I became friends with Richard Painter, another English major who, like me, did not plan to teach English in high school. We collaborated on a play which was performed in the spring of our junior year to enthusiastic reviews (of course, they were) in the college newspaper.
A drama professor from Bowdoin saw the play and asked for permission to produce it during their college summer arts festival. Richard and I attended the production as guests. At the reception following the performance, a member of the audience introduced himself. He recommended that we contact a friend of his in New York who ran a program to help young playwrights complete and produce their plays at a small theatre off-off-way-off-Broadway.
Richard and I spent the summer revising the script. In September of our senior year, we submitted our play to compete for admission to the apprentice program. Two weeks after the New Year, we were accepted for the next fall. That summer I planned to meet Richard in New York to find a place to live and part-time work to maintain a bare existence. But then, the war in Vietnam caught up with me.
A neighbor who worked on the draft board in town tipped off my father that I was on the next list to be called up. I quickly enlisted in the Air Force. My plans to move to New York were cancelled. Richard attended the New York program by himself while I headed for Lackland Air Base to sweat my ass off in basic training under the sun of a Texas august.
“…I read in the paper,” Rachel’s voice returned me to reality, “about a group in Boston that produces an evening of ten-minute plays. You should submit something.”
“I don’t know. It’s been so long…”
Rachel took my hand. “I have confidence in you. Just think of it as preparing for old age. You’ve got more than enough material for a play about elderly parents.”
“And the play is only ten minutes?”
As for my mother, there was never a second opinion.
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