Mom Reflex

April 3, 2011

I drape an afghan over my mother’s shoulders as she sits on the deck in the early spring sunshine. A cool breeze still holds the wet chill of the snowflakes that had fallen only the day before. She sits in her wheelchair, her face as pale as the once auburn locks that have now turned white, and stares out at the soon-to-be green hills that she can no longer see. I bring out a chair and sit next to her, but find it hard to sit still as my mind wanders to the work waiting inside for me. Yet I stay, and listen to the junco in the lilac bush berating us for sitting too close to the bird feeder. Afraid to come near, she soon flies off. I think about an incident earlier in the day, and the mothering instinct that still remains strong in this woman next to me who, so frequently now, seems to be a mere shell of the woman she used to be.

I had just finished feeding Lauren her breakfast when Dad wheeled Mom to the table. She immediately asked how my foot was. Two nights before as I stumbled out of bed to make one of those increasingly frequent trips to the bathroom, I had landed wrong on my foot and heard a distinct “crunch”. Painful and swollen, I had ignored the foot as much as possible till the discomfort forced me to elevate and ice the wounded appendage. During the next night I had woken to realize that I couldn’t put any weight on my foot at all. When I updated Mom on my mini crisis during the night, she said, “Why didn’t you call me?”

Why didn’t you call me? I think about the difficulties that Mom is facing right now. She needs to hold tightly to my hands as I walk backwards in front of her. Crushing my fingers, she shuffles along, afraid to fall. As I prepare her for bed each night, I ease her tee off of her left arm first, pull it over her head, then gingerly guide it down from her right shoulder where bone grinds painfully against bone. At dinner each night, I put food on Mom’s fork before she raises it to her mouth. She can no longer tell when she’s cleaned her plate. She’s often too confused to verbalize her wants and loses track of the days and the hours. Yet, still, she wants to help me. She didn’t stop to think of what she could or couldn’t do. She just expected me to ask. Wanted me to ask. But “mom” has not been an active part of my life for years. This now tiny, frail woman is my mother, but she has not been able to be there for me physically or emotionally in a very long time. However, the reflex of a mother to reach out, to want to comfort remains. “Why didn’t you call me?” she asked. Lauren, noisily vying for my attention, spared me from responding to a question whose answer was so painfully obvious.

I decide that the work inside will wait. The junco returns. She trills a few sweet notes and then repeats them over and over as if inviting us to join along. My tuneless whistle does not meet her need for a duet and she leaves us. This time for good.

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