Between The Lines
Copyright 2005 by Paula Gramlich
As I sat in the hospital beside my 87-year-old mother, I was not prepared for the rush of images and feelings when she called out for people who were no longer alive much less in the room. She saw people dancing on the hospital roof and talked about her life as though she were watching it happen to someone else.
“This young couple is going into business,” she announced.
“What couple, Mom?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t either—not at first.
“Did you like being in business for yourself?” I asked with a calm voice, taking a seat beside her.
“Yes, yes, I did, but I never had any training in office work.”
One of six Irish-American children, her family bundled into a basement living quarters the size of a studio apartment; her childhood was put on hold. Although her father worked every day as a bookbinder, and later as a steel worker, he squandered his weekly pay at a neighborhood bar. Mom quit school in third grade to help her parents support the family. Standing on a restaurant crate, washing dishes, and bringing home her pay to her mother took the place of a formal education.
“Shanty Irish! That’s what we were!” She told me one time when I asked what her life was like when she was a girl.
Mom couldn’t wait to grow up and move away from home—away from the constant reminders of poverty and ignorance. In every picture from toddler to young adult, she has the eyes of a grown woman. Sixteen and dressed in the most grown up clothes she could find, her picture shouts, “Hey, I’m on my way out of here.”
By the age of nineteen she was married to my father. They bought an old run down two-story brick building and turned the second floor into a home. They ran a small business from the first floor.
Only one thing was missing. Mom never got pregnant. They decided to adopt.
When my parents came to pick me up, the nun at the orphanage took one look at them and said, “I have the perfect baby for you.” I grabbed hold of a button on my soon-to-be mother’s jacket and didn’t let go. It was a peaceful moment of recognition for both my parents—a peace that would soon be disrupted.
At the age of thirty-three Mom was diagnosed with fast-spreading cancer of the uterus. On the day she signed the final adoption papers; she was given A-GET-YOUR-AFFAIRS-IN-ORDER-PROGNOSIS. When the doctor asked if she would volunteer for a new cancer treatment involving radium, she agreed.
The experimental treatment did the job and more.
Radium, left in too long, burnt out the cancer, her bladder, and part of her intestines. Although she was technically cured, she had to wear rags to catch her urine. For as long as I live, I will remember Mom standing between twin beds as she prepared for an outing—layering rag upon rag to hook to an elastic belt.
She volunteered at the age of thirty-eight for an experimental surgery to construct a new bladder. This operation was performed many times before it was successful. In the middle of the last surgery, her soul left her body. During my mother’s near-death experience I was on the other side of town huddled in my grandma’s bed pleading with God to bring her home. I was nine years old and had spent the greatest part of my life living with my grandmother while Mom was in the hospital.
The battle with cancer, radium, countless surgeries, and the near death experience changed her. I didn’t recognize her when she came home. Even when my grandmother led me to her, I knew this person was not my mother. My mom was not the broken, angry, and bitter woman I saw before me. I wanted my real mother back.
As the days stretched into months and months into years I accepted the fact that the woman who used to be my mother was never coming back. That was as far as I could go. Young girls don’t think about how it feels to have your insides burnt up or what affect surgery has on a person’s body and psyche. Even Mom was against dwelling on the past. She was all for moving on with life at whatever cost. The only time she came close to talking about what had happened to her is when she told me of her near-death experience
“Don’t be afraid of death. “
She told me about floating above her body and watching the doctor and nurses working on her as she drifted towards a bright, white light. Almost into the tunnel of light, she stopped.
It was so peaceful, so beautiful. I didn’t want to come back.”
“What stopped you?” I asked.
“I heard your voice calling me.”
I remembered my pleas with God to bring my mother back to me, but sometimes I wasn’t sure if I loved her or not. She was full of rage, and I often saw that rage directed at me.
“I don’t know why I say the things I do,” she’d cry after a vicious verbal attack.
I didn’t know either. All I knew is that I would have given anything for my mother to look at me the way my friend’s mothers looked at them and say, “This is my lovely daughter,” but her middle aged rage was not near as frightening as the blank stare on her 87-year-old face when she called out for people no longer alive.
“There’s something wrong with my mother, I told the nurse. She’s seeing things that aren’t there.”
I believed if something weren’t done it would only be a matter of moments until Mom would not know me.
“It’s the medication for the pneumonia. Has she ever been toxic?” the nurse asked.
I trembled as I remembered the stories of how she had slapped nurses and ripped out her IV’s years ago.
“Lillie, do you know who this is?” The nurse asked my mother when we returned to her bedside.
“Yes,” said my mother. “Of course I know who she is.”
“Then tell me,” the nurse coaxed.
“She’s my beautiful baby girl.”
Not since I was a young child had I seen such a look of love on my mother’s face. I knew why she braved all the torture—why she kept herself alive—why she never gave up.
would have been so easy to die on the operating table years ago, but
Mom chose to walk toward the sound of her little girl’s voice.
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