Harsh Mistress

This is where I brought my mother during the last months of her life. Every day we would come. I’d pick her up, wrestle the walker into my car, and her into her seatbelt, while she muttered her mantra, “This gettin’ old shits.”

Sometimes she got confused and thought we were going to the bank, or the grocery store. We’d stopped doing all that. It was just too hard to navigate the doors, and the sounds, and the ‘too many people’. But here, we could move freely in relative solitude — especially on early weekday mornings. Tuesdays were the best.

Same conversation every time. As we approached the park, she’d notice that, except for a few people way over by the baseball diamond, we were alone. 
“You mean it’s just you and me?” 
“Yeah, Mom.”
“Well that’s ridiculous!” her voice acid with contempt. “Absolutely ridiculous. There’s nobody HERE. Gimme a break! Take me home, Angie.”

I would swallow my hurt. (I think the words you’re looking for here, Mom, are “Isn’t this great? It’s just you and me!”)

Her exhale was a snarl and sigh combined, her bony hand waving me away, waving it all away. Dismissed.

Nothing I did for her landed where I wanted it to. For her, all my efforts were indictments, not expressions of love. I’d be cleaning out her bathroom, and she’d yell, “What the hell are you doing in there, Angie? Go HOME. I can do it myself.” Yes, she was still standing on her own feet, but she was frail. She was 90. She could not do it herself. Diabetic, and in the early stages of dementia, she’d survived two broken hips, triple bypass surgery, rectal surgery, and a hysterectomy in the past ten years. I just wanted to make life a little easier for her.

Bitter years, those last ones. Hard labor. Daunting, intimate messes to clean up. Thankless, long hours, and sleep in fits and starts. It seemed like it would never end.

And then it did.

When it was over, what painful relief, what strange, sweet grief. 
When it was over, how we remembered her goodness — the folded $20 she’d slide across the table when the bill came at lunch, the unfailing order in her home, the wide avenue she held in her heart for strangers and all children, and her deep reverence for nature’s gifts. 
When it was over, how her caustic stubbornness, her biting refusals of assistance blossomed into dark virtues we came to admire.

When it was over, we went to the park, and sat on empty benches, my heart improbably reaching to hear that harsh, dismissive voice again.

When it was over, how we missed her.

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