by Denise Clemen
My mother squeezes ketchup onto her turkey burger, and I ask myself why I bothered with the lemongrass, the scallions, and the cilantro. The marriage of delicately sautéed flavors is now buried under a mudslide of tomatoey corn syrup. Our taste buds are in revolt. Hers, because they are 90 years old. Mine, because they are bored. She craves the familiar: ketchup, salt, blue cheese dressing, butter. I crave anything I haven’t cooked over and over again these three years that she’s lived with me.
I never imagined this scenario when I agreed to relieve my brother after his three-year stint of caring for her. She seemed impossibly small and frail, dozing in the back seat as we drove from Maryland to California. Six months, I told everyone who raised an eyebrow at my decision to care for her. This isn’t going to go on forever.
As it turns out, forever is a malleable concept. When your mother smokes and you do not, and she moves in with you, each cigarette she enjoys takes forever—even if she smokes it outside because no matter where she sits, the toxic cloud of nicotine wafts inside to the room where you happen to be. When your mother then quits smoking because her vascular surgeon warns her that she’s in danger of losing her feet and legs to peripheral vascular disease, the period of time that she’s angry and irritable is forever too. And then when she regains some modicum of health as her 70 years as a smoker recedes into the background, you are chagrined to admit that the future also feels like forever. “Why did you let her quit?” a particularly irreverent friend asks.
This past Thanksgiving my mother fell in the middle of the night after choosing to stuff herself with martinis instead of turkey. She was close to blackout drunk when I led her from the kitchen to her bedroom while our guests looked on in horrified amazement. It was past midnight when the last of us climbed the stairs to our own beds, long after my mother was safely snoring in her own. The next morning I hadn’t even had my coffee when I found her in the downstairs hallway, bloody and swollen. She was on her feet with two black eyes, a nose the size of a pear, and a right hand that appeared to be a purple boxing glove. She was fine, she insisted.
The ensuing nine hours in the emergency room felt like forever. My daughters and I took turns. There were turkey sandwiches, drugstore candies, lots of coffee, and an intimidating session of dirty looks from one of the doctors treating my mother. After she was finally admitted to the hospital, I designated my most reliable friend as my first phone call in the event that I was arrested for elder abuse.
My mother was released a day later, her broken hand wrapped in a temporary splint. She needed opiates to quell the pain from her injuries, so I cut back on her martinis. Since she abhors the idea of her martinis being shaken over ice (it dilutes the taste of the gin), I consulted with a bartender’s guide and her primary care doctor. The agreed upon amount was a mere two-ounce martini per night. Based on a couple of old grocery receipts, it appeared quite likely that I was reducing her martini intake by 75%.
Drying her out (relatively speaking) took forever. There were middle of the night forays into the garage and the laundry room to search for the hidden booze. But two months later she seems stronger than ever. Her memory seems better. She reads more, and can carry on a more lively and reasonable conversation.
A couple of weeks ago she began proclaiming that she’s aiming to be the longest-lived person in her family. Maybe you’ll live forever, I said, entertaining the thought that she might actually outlive me. I don’t want my mother to live forever. What I want is for these last weeks or months or years of her life to be joyful and satisfied. But I don’t really know how to facilitate that. Should there be more butter or less butter? Entrées that take well to ketchup? Enough gin to ease the pain? How much gin would that be? For her? For me?
Denise Emanuel Clemen’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Georgetown Review (including an honorable mention for their prize), Two Hawks Quarterly, Literary Mama, The Rattling Wall, Fiction Fix, Knee-Jerk, Chagrin River Review, Delmarva Review, New Plains Review, and Serving House Journal. She’s received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale Foundation, and was an Auvillar fellow in France in 2009. Her memoir, “Birth Mother,” was recently published by Shebooks.