Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blogging my mother: Claudette

My mother is a pistol.

She's one of those people who gives of herself for the people she loves until she bleeds. She's brisk, energetic, opinionated, stubborn, vain, and not afraid to tell you about any of it... yet she uses childlike euphemisms for sex and body parts, is grossed out by potty humor, and is touched to the point of tears by sweet things even as she recoils from their "ick factor." She's a very type A personality, unlike me. It's not that she plans it that way so that she can dominate me-- far to the contrary. She wishes that I were an "alpha," too; last month she gently explained to me that a lot of my problems stem from not standing up for myself enough. (She is probably right in many respects.)

One thing about her, though: she's mortally afraid of pain and sickness. Hospitals are anathema to her. She becomes shivering and soft-eyed in them, and she will allow her own illnesses to go untreated for preposterous stretches of time because she is afraid, deathly afraid, of sharing human suffering.

And yet...

When I was a child, Mom's best friend was Betsy. Betsy was another mother to me: the one who smoked like a train, drank socially and joyfully, told dirty jokes, made shy-making comments about my budding body, Armor-All'd the seats of her white Lincoln Continental so that when she went driving for puddles to splash pedestrians (yes), we kids would slide around helplessly in the back seat and flounder (take that, seat belt laws.) Betsy was larger than life. It would have been a blow for anyone to be diagnosed with lymphoma cancer, and to be given six months to live, but because Betsy was the person she was, it stung and stank of lese majesty.

(We were kids. We didn't understand what cancer was, but we thought it was pretty bad. We knew it "ate people up," so I thought it meant that there would be holes in Betsy like Swiss cheese. I was a sheltered kid... when I discovered that I had a hole in me that I hadn't found before, I ran screaming to my mother, hysterical and sure that it was cancer. Anyway...)

Mom was there by her side for the 12 years during which the doctors cured her of cancer and treatments killed her. She traveled to other cities to accompany Betsy when she went for special treatments. She helped Betsy around the house. She stayed with her, holding her hand and letting Betsy tell her dirty jokes*, in every hospital Betsy inhabited. She just squared her little jaw and put on a bright and businesslike "alpha" voice, and went along. I don't know that she ever told Betsy how mortally miserable hospitals made her, but I suspect not; she told me, and then she went and did it, and I went along and didn't say a word.

(*The one I really remember is the one-liner about chemotherapy making one's pubic hair fall out, and that that could turn any pair of slippers into fuzzy bunny slippers. Yeah.)

When I was a teenager, I became aware of a connective tissue disorder that made me stretchy, because I dislocated just about all of the joints in my body, one at a time or in small groups (as when I tumbled downstairs). Mom came with me into the ER dozens of times, sitting beside me and watching so that the doctors didn't pull any fast ones, I guess. I felt so bad for her. She fussed after me at home, too, but insisted that I "man up" and do the things I ought to, even injured. I owe her so much for instilling this grit in me.

When my grandmother got sick, Mom put her into a senior care center. I was furious that she didn't provide home care, just acquire a caretaker or two and bring Grandma Red back home where she belonged, but I am starting to realize what it must have meant to Mom to go to the hospital as often as she could and sit among the elderly, weak, sick, and dying. She must certainly have felt that it was the best solution, because otherwise she'd have been out of there like a scalded cat. She was with Grandma when she passed on. It has been over three years, and she hasn't put one glance on Grandma's things, which are in storage where my brother's friends put them; that is my job. Sure, it seems eccentric... but it may give insight into the depths of her terror of death.

Now, Kathy is my mother's best friend. She is loving, filled with the spirit of celebration, with a ribald sense of humor but a sense of propriety that tames her down to my mother's demure level of expression when she is not actively telling a joke. She reminds me of Betsy, kind of. Kathy is very close to her family, including her mother, Claudette.

Claudette is one of those souls who beams love upon everybody she meets. With a wry and irreverent sense of humor, unquenchable interest about what people do and how they live, and a radiating sense of peace and tranquility, religious faith and faith in humanity, she touched my heart from the first time I met her. And Claudette, I am sorry to say, is dying.

She has been through six kinds of primary cancer (not metastasized from other cancers; they arrived fully formed, like Athena from Jupiter's forehead, and evidently invited their friends). The sixth and most heinous is a large brain tumor they found when she was experiencing dizziness and weakness on one side after they removed her ovarian cancer. They thought it was a stroke, but tests showed it to be a tumor the size of a walnut. They did surgery to remove it, knowing that it would only buy her time; it was more the size of a fist, and, according to my mom, they had to take out practically a whole hemisphere of her brain. It was already into the bone of her skull, and she is in trouble.

Claudette is unchanged, miraculously. She has trouble telling right from left, but she is herself. She says she wants the Colts to win the Super Bowl, because she has a C-shaped scar on her head. I figure she'll be okay either way, since the Bears have that huge C-for-Chicago. She asks who is the patron saint of farts, because her tummy's feeling gassy. She is making prophecies (she told my Mom that we were going to have kids, soon!) and asking boons. Less inspiringly but with sarcastic, lucid irreverence for what her caretakers want, she pleads for us to smuggle her some Aspercreme for her sore legs, which are tumescent, nearly black, and torturing her.

Mom has been visiting her three or four times a day, because Kathy is her friend. She brings chocolate cream pie, sandwiches, hot tea, her children, good cheer and brisk compassion, something every time. When I accompanied her, she fussed briefly and secretly in the car about the hospital-- how she hates them, how labyrinthine they are and how painful it is for her to march their length with her knees destroyed by degenerative arthritis, how awful it is to be among the sick and the silent and the dying. And then she got out of the car and marched in, smiling.

I am proud to be with her in the hospital, so proud. I am glad I went along to visit Claudette-- glad because I got to see Claudette, but more glad because I was there for my Mom in a moment of weakness that others won't even see. My mother's toughness is miraculous. No matter how astonished or cowed or frustrated I can be by this "alpha" personality, there are other times when my envy and admiration are so great I can hardly choke them down.

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