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Dancing when nothing else will do


On this chilly Saturday morning, I am wearing the warm pajamas I bought for my mother. Her name is on the hems of the pants and shirt in black laundry marker, nursing home style. They are knit. I guess she thought pajamas should be flannel.

Now she wears only hospital gowns with housecoats to cover them when they get her up for meals.

She’s 97, one of the frail elderly. Until last June when she had a stroke, she could shift herself from wheelchair to bed to toilet and could roll herself to the main dining room. She often traveled backward down B Hall. She said it was easier to push with her feet than pull with her hands. Now she travels the halls only when pushed.

She learned to talk again after the stroke, although finding the words and saying them seems difficult. She had to relearn how to swallow. She does well with pureed food, but water slips down too fast and has to be thickened with a special starch so she won’t choke. She can’t move her left leg and arm. She uses her good hand mostly to stroke the motionless one. When I asked if she feels sory for her left hand, she nodded. But she doesn’t complain.

In September she slipped from her wheelchair and broke her right thigh bone just above the knee. An orthopedic surgeon put in a plate and pins. The bone near the knee was soft and the pins pulled through and had to be refastened.

After a few days in the progressive care unit, they moved her to a regular hospital room. The first time I visited her in the new location, she grabbed my hand pulled me close and said, “I want you to buy me some rawrawraw.” She repeated it patiently until I understood whe wanted strawberries.

Next day I brought some lovely berries, mashed with sugar. She ate a bit but wasn’t too interested.

One night back at the nursing home, she seemed restless, waving her right hand aimlessly. I grabbed that hand and used it to beat a rhythm while I sang all the songs I could think of. When I got to the one about the “Red, Red Robin,” she joined in, with her deep, after-stroke voice, on the bob-bob-bobbin’.

Recently when I was reading to her Longfellow’s “Hiawatha’s Childhood,” she joined in on the “Ewa-yea! my little owlet! Who is this that lights the wigwam?”

When I read “Paul Revere’s Ride,” she interrupted with, “He sprang to his sleigh ...” Then stopped and looked surprised. Righ beat, wrong poem.

Sometimes she says, “Hep me. Hep me.” But when I ask what I can do, she answers, “I donno.”

I remember her in a thousand other ways. When I was 5 and overwhelmed at the idea of having my tonsils out the next day, she had to leave at bedtime to work at the tiny telephone office a block from where we lived in my grandparents’ old yellow house. I was so afraid she would die and never come back. Next morning there she was, bundling my brother and me into the taxi -- the only one in town, driven by a neighbor’s son -- for the trip to the hospital.

For years she worked six days a week at the Penney’s store and washed our clothes on Sunday in the basement, in the days before automatic washers and dryers, in North Dakota where winter lasted forever. Because she worked at Penney’s and could charge things, we always had piles of presents at Christmastime and a big box of chocolates and a can of mixed nuts.

Back then she wore black dresses, red wooden beads, red lipstick and sensible Health Spot shoes. She thought it was important to keep her fine, long nose powdered. I thought she was beautiful.

Years later, when I moved with my newspaperman husband and four little kids to Kansas City, Mo., a taxi brought her and her suitcase. The house we found had been empty a long time and was a chaos of packing boxes and work to be done. She had a week or two between attending summer school, where she was working toward her degree, and teaching at a Catholic grad school. It was hard to believe that anyone fresh from getting her hair done would travel 500 miles by train to help me clean and unpack.

Holy people tell us that the only moment is the present moment, and the only task is the duty of the present moment. My mother and I are sharing a moment different from all the other moments. For two people who have always loved words, it is a strangely quiet time. I look at her. Her hair is still thick, though a lot comes out when I brush it. Her skin, almost transparent, is still smooth. She looks at me. When I cross the room to dampen a cloth to wash her face, she calls my name. It’s a kind of dance we do.

We are not alone. More than ever before there are daughters and sons dancing with frail, elderly parents in homes and nursing homes throughout the country. The steps are new, changing, uncertain. We make them up as we go along and hope for the best.

Patty McCarty is NCR’s copy editor.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998