The Next Step
It begins so simply: a smiling young woman hands my 92 year-old mother a clutch of tiger lilies at her back door. "I can’t stay," she says apologetically. “Got a meeting in ten minutes, but I just wanted to bring these." The woman pats my mother’s arm affectionately. "Miss seeing you,"and then turns back to her car, its motor a low soothing hum.
"Thank you, Frances," my mother calls out before leaning into the flowers, delighted that their scent will fill her house with a sweet musty smell. She’s used to people bringing her things: garden-ripe tomatoes, a basket of strawberries, an especially pretty fern for her back patio, a bag of peeled bay shrimp, a quart of gumbo, sometimes even a puppy, though the puppies never stay long. She’s lived in this small Alabama town for 61 years and there are her former students, former patients of my father’s, friends and children of friends as well as members of the Episcopal Church she sees every week during her trips to the post office, the grocery store, and the discount mall where she buys presents for her great grandchildren. At 92, she’s spry and independent, taking care of the house, cooking meals, driving around the county to appointments, and helping her great grandsons with homework – even searching on Google when they need more details.
Now she’s focused on the flowers, holding them carefully in both hands. She totters sometimes when she walks, her left ankle red and inflamed, still aching from recurring cellulitis, a worrisome irritant that’s treated and then treated again. It’s because of this that she’s particularly vigilant when she navigates around the table in the center of her kitchen, a round oak table heaped with the folds of her favorite Oriental rug, a rug that usually covers most of her kitchen floor. That is, until last week when the ice maker broke, flooding the kitchen and soaking the rug, making such a mess she actually cursed – damnit, goddammit-- words everyone says so casually these days, and then she called a neighbor, the man who mows her yard, to help her bundle the rug onto the table so that it would dry.
She shuffles past the sink, past the stove, moving towards a cut crystal vase on the opposite counter that’s tall enough for the lilies and where, she knows, they’ll look festive on the coffee table in the den. The stems of the lilies are wrapped in waxed paper, but already she can feel the moisture seeping through, dampening her hands. She’s so concentrated on holding them upright that her first response is incomprehension to the sudden sharp tug on her foot, a treacherous yank as if the folded rug is a monster that’s taken her foot into its mouth, the flowers tossed like a bride’s bouquet into the air, the room swaying dangerously, then her own body slapped hard to the floor. She hits with cartoon swiftness, full frontal, her face smashing into wood, her teeth biting gums, her forehead bouncing. Her right hand, still miraculously attached to the broken stem of a lily, pushes forward as if such a primitive gesture might save her. An awful tingle goes up and down her spine.
This is it, she thinks.
Everything hurts and nothing hurts. From where she’s fallen, she can see the scattered lilies, their stems bent or broken, their petals as soft as yellow silk. Behind her the refrigeratorhums. The clock, almost directly above her, ticks loudly. Thank goodness, the floor is cool and blessedly solid, though there are specks of dirt and dust at eye level. Who could believe such tiny grains, as small as sand, tucked into the grooves of the wood?
She wants only to lie very still. To memorize the sounds of the house, the shifts and sighs of air. To close her eyes.
But, like an alarm, fear interrupts, a siren of urgency. I have a brain bleed. I am alone. I will have to get myself to the Emergency Room.
This fear gets her up on all fours – her head now throbbing, her wrist a blaze of pain, her legs like soft jelly -- and then reason takes over. Slow, slow. Steady now. Don’t rush anything. You can do this. She grabs hold of the linen chest with her left hand and with caution pulls herself upright. From this vantage point, she notes her car keys on the counter, sees her right shoe thrown to the other side of the refrigerator as if it had leapt away from the fall. The coffee pot is still plugged in. The butter dish uncovered. She takes a deep breath. And then she walks, picking up her keys, moving with medieval slowness towards the back door as if, once again, to meet Frances with her bouquet of flowers though she’s concentrating only on saving herself. Last year, her neighbor, Mr. E., two years her junior, had such a fall and, just like that, his life went amok: he lay hooked up to machines, staring up at the ceiling, and then one day he closed his eyes and was gone in a few days.
Only at the door does she stop, seized by a new fear: What if she can’t find a parking spot at the hospital? What if the brain bleed bursts, blood vessels exploding while she’s trapped at an intersection?
She shambles back into the kitchen and calls a friend for help.
Falling and rising; rising and falling. This seems the most potent metaphor for my mother’s life, a symbolic trajectory, an epic journey, old age only accelerating the pace. Perhaps it’s everyone’s story, rain and then sun, sun and then rain, the Chekhovian inevitability of uncertainty and despair on the heels of stability and clarity, all of us longing to leave the flotsam of tragedy behind. And yet I’ve always thought of my mother’s life as a rising up, a resistance, a battle for resurrection – something like Woman against Fate: don’t you dare try to stop me! Maybe that’s because she grew up in a little mining town in northern Alabama, one of those parched, brutal places stirred by misery and poverty, by the subjection of the powerless who, battered and bruised for generations, passedon the legacy. Every family a raw sore: be born; get ready.
And yet she got out. My mother left the slag heaps, the broken-down houses, the bent backs and hard, smudged faces at age 16 for the unknown world of college, of scholarships and waiting tables, of science labs and libraries, of dietary kitchens and hospitals, of curling her hair and murmuring sweet talk on the phone. Until she went to college, she’d never used a telephone, never slept alone, never had a boyfriend, never swung her hips or twirled, one hand still in her partner’s, to the beat of a Big Band. College was like traveling to Paris, each return to that little mining town a hard fall back to earth. Up and then down. And waiting to rise.
At the ER, she’s checked and re-checked, x-rayed and scanned, needle-pricked and poked, an ice pack resting on the hematoma on her forehead, a monstrous bruise the color of dark, pink gums. Worry still races inside her head, but as the hours wear on, two, three, four, five, and the tests reveal no brain bleed, no broken bones, no damage except for a few small cuts - on her nose, her upper lip – and deep bruising on her face, she slips into exhaustion. She is lucky. She is like that little green lizard that darted into the house yesterday morning, escaping the slam of the door, the slap of her shoe, and her hiss of annoyance. She has been laid low, and yet once again she rises from the canvas, carrying her game face – two black eyes, a smashed nose, a miraculous hump adorning her forehead – into the next round.
The next round. How quaint, how pugilistic that sounds.
Two months later she sits in her favorite chair in the kitchen, the Oriental rug unfolded, cleaned and behaving beneath the table. The room is bathed in light. Outside a riot of caladiums and camellias blooms in the hot, humid air. The spider ferns sprout new shoots that flutter in the breeze. Since her fall, she’s been hospitalized for double pneumonia and hooked up to multiple ivs; she’s recovered with rehabilitation protocols and "a bunch of fuss" in a nursing home; she’s contracted a fungal infection on top of the cellulitis and returned to "wound care," been told to "practice" walking – exercises to stabilize her balance – and to refrain from driving for weeks, perhaps months. Thus, she sits in shadow, worrying, waiting, staring at her useless car keys on the kitchen table. Suddenly she feels trapped in old age, in the thick of it, a round where every step is a potential hazard, every fall a threat to autonomy, every day a circuit of avoidance: bruises, burns, bumps, bleeds.
And what does old age look like?
I have, I fear, only a fickle sense of it when I visit in June, when she winces in pain (venous stasis and continuing cellulitis) as she struggles toward the counter to take her organized cache of pills, when she accidently reveals the mass of sebaceous cysts, ugly white bumps rising from the bruised tissue of her arms, when she stays up late at night, head drooping, eyes weary and distracted until I "shoo" her to bed. I kiss her on the forehead once she’s cocooned in her duvet, surrounded by a mound of pillows.As she lies on her back beneath the covers, her face bare of all make-up, I notice the bruises, big as birthmarks, splashed with black and grotesque in the light; she looks shrunken, fragile, not the woman of last year sitting erect at her kitchen table reading The Economist or standing before the mix-master, stirring batter for a pound cake.
"I cry a lot more," she tells me the next morning as we sit together for breakfast in the early morning light. "Everything seems to affect me."
I try to imagine "everything": My sister’s slight? My brother’s abruptness? My niece’s misunderstanding? My own impatience? But it might simply be the inability to move a chair from one room to another, to figure out the computer’s quirks, to find the powdered sugar in the pantry. Or maybe it’s a quick glance at the mirror – a face of sags and wrinkles, weakened, bleary eyes -- wondering how all this damage could have happened.
I know the way she cries: eyes bunched up and red, tears leaking, head bowed, hands to her face. "I’m so sorry," I say, a sudden tenderness welling up. I put out a hand.
"No, no," she insists, drawing back, clearly frustrated with me.
I sit up straighter, surprised and even a bit to hurt by her resistance.
"It’s not what everyone thinks. It’s a way of coping. A release,” she says. “I kept so much inside for most of my life. I didn’t believe I had a right to show my own sadness. To be emotional."
Now she leans forward, staring intently at me."It’s me feeling. I cry because I feel."
And in that instant, I understand. Both of us are uneasy and awkward, finding it difficult to escape into life, to let go, to plunge into sunlight, but in the last year she’s broken through something old and formidable, letting the ferocity of love and anger, fear and resentment rise up and tumble out.
I feel a moment of pride, of pleasure. As always I’ve underestimated her.
Underestimated her grit, her sense of self-preservation. She’s fighting in a way I hadn’t expected, pushing against the propriety of Southern womanhood, that ideal of the uncomplaining, pliant female, repressed and obliging, all of life’s difficulties tucked deep inside.
Old age, I realize, can be more than loss and degeneration; it can also be an opening, the impetus to throw off oppression.
The day my mother returned home from the ER, the lights were off, that devil of a rug still piled and folded onto the table, looking harmless and almost friendly, the tiger lilies haphazardly crammed into a vase, the blooms tilting in lopsided fashion toward the upholstered chair. It was only later that she remembered: she’d stooped, picking them up from the floor and putting them into the vase as if that was the only proper thing to do before grabbing her keys and heading off to the ER. "I always straighten up before I leave," she told me over the phone, with no sense of irony, regretting only that she hadn’t had time to arrange them. And because it was all quite literally behind us, I found myself laughing. "Well, of course!What else could you do?"
That first night she sat on her couch, holding hands with three of her great grandsons, smart, beautiful boys who’d come to help, hugging her and worrying over her and finding the huge welt on her face "awful and totally awesome."
Only when she was tucked into her own bed by her granddaughter, an ice pack on her head, did the old familiar narcissism return. Oh, what a horrible face she’d have, not just an old woman’s face but a monster’s face, a testament after all to her human frailty.
In my mind she is always rising, struggling for everything, regardless of the probability of success. Months after the fall, she meets me at the back door when I drive in from the airport, unlocking the three locks and calling out, "Pat? Pat?" into the darkness, her lipstick a bright red, her body bent forward a little more than the last visit. I want to believe that for years she’ll always meet me in this way, independent, assertive, insisting that I drop my bags and come into the kitchen for a piece of cake, sliced and waiting on the plate, resting on a linen mat beside a linen napkin. While I eat, she tells me casually that she’s driving again. "You know, I can’t live without a car.That’s impossible. There’s so much work to do."
And I nod, amazed. It’s her vitality that stuns me. Her resilience. And maybe the old-fashioned toughness I associate with her generation, people like her family who survived the Great Depression, who lived on turnip greens and sweet potatoes and denial, who wore asphidity bags of ginger and goldenroot to ward off illness and watched their father begin each New Year’s Day chopping the air with an ax to rid the house of evil spirits.
And yet despite my optimism, late at night I sometimes see it: the sudden twist of her foot, the unexpected stool, corner, chair, rug, a slip, a stumble. Who left that towel on the floor?Why did she rush to get the phone?I see it – that inevitable fall -- because old age is the new captivity narrative, the one we all fear, a threat looming in the wings. Incontinence. Incoherence. Immobility. And of course that doesn’t include the ordinary inevitability of exhaustion, discouragement, and pain, the horror of being "not very much alive." How can the mantra be other than worry, worry, worry?
Old age, the final martyrdom: you will never get free.
No, she says adamantly as if I’ve spoken aloud.Not yet!She opens the refrigerator to pour herself orange juice and then rattles her car keys. She’s got to make a run to the post office.
And so I try to calm down. Last night at dinner she told me that when she hears Benny Goodman or Frank Sinatra on the radio, she can’t help herself. She dances: slow, gliding steps, her arms lifted as if offered to a partner with sparkling eyes and a shy grin, the two of them drifting across the floor in fading starlight. Here, she is transformed into a sleek young woman in a black silk dress, tiny cloth roses embellishing the bodice, her suede heels high, the toes cut out to reveal the tips of her glossy pink nails. She floats. Occasionally the shadows from a lighted car ghost the curtains. They look, at times, like faint arms fluttering towards her, whispering their friendly assurances –don’t worry, we’ll catch you if you fall. Here she has a little haven of pleasure before the doorbell rings, before the dishwasher beeps, before the dressing on her foot must be changed. Here, she’s in the music, her head tilted and her body buoyant. Here, she’s ready to take the next step.
While I wait by the phone.
Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (PEN/Jerard Award for memoir), Just beneath My Skin, and four anthologies, most recently Understanding the Essay. She is the recipient of a Dean’s Scholar Award, a Yaddo Fellowship, the Fred Bonnie Award for the novel and has published over fifty essays and stories in Ploughshares, The Sun, and other quarterlies. She is a professor in the MFA Program in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa and has taught in France, Australia, Italy, Czech Republic, and Spain.