Thursday, October 13, 2005


It's a fact that mothers can tell the difference in the cries of children. One cry means "I'm mad", another "I'm annoyed". Still another means "I need to be close to you." I recognized right away yesterday when I visited Nadine, my 43 year old cousin in a persistent vegetative state, that she was in pain by her cry. Her body uncomfortably curved in a parentheses to the right. Her face, resting on a towel to catch drool and tears, nearly touched the bed rail, and her blood shot eyes squinted and strained in the opposite direction. She grunted and slightly verbalized a puff of the sound "bbbbbuuu"- a sound I've heard from unattended children in a crying spell. Her ruddy expression drew all her facial features tightly together and nearly matched the color of the short auburn curls on her head.
"Nadine, can you talk to me with your eyes? I want to help. I'll ask as many questions as it takes."


"I can see you are really hurting, but I am willing to try anything if you can blink for me to tell you what you want."

No change. My plans instantly blown to really give her some time the way she might like it. She was hurting too much, been like that so long, she couldn't or wouldn't respond.

On the hundred mile drive to the nursing home, I lectured myself. Nadine has no choices about her own life, and today I will try and give her something she asks for. I will put aside my inadequacies and insecurities and find a way to be with Nadine for the afternoon. I carefully constructed sentences I hoped to convey to prevent rambling on nervously as I had last visit. I drew deep breaths thinking about the tension I'd feel with simply sitting and being with my friend. I will simply ask yes and no questions until...

I packed a fingernail kit, a Countryside Magazine, _Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul_, _What's so Amazing About Grace?_, _Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe_, _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance_, and lotion into my deep purple Chinese silk book bag. The Plumeria lotion, a special gift from my workout buddy Cecily, had been given to me just for Nadine. Cecily had massaged her own dying mother with this particular brand, and Cecily couldn't since bring herself to use the lotion herself due to the memories which flooded her when she opened the cap. These tools were specifically selected in hopes for me to connect with Nadine.

I visited with her mother, Willa, first and asked if she'd like me to wheel her to Nadine's room for the visit with me. "True, they've moved Nadine to the room attached to my bathroom. I go sit with her all the time. She's going to get better. In fact, she has more feeling in her limbs than ever. She can't talk, but she grunts now." This was great news to me. Before,though they were placed in the same nursing home, Nadine and Willa could have been miles apart because of the long hallways Willa was physically unable to navigate through to get to Nadine's room. Nadine now has the tender and constant love of her mother just beyond that wall every single day. It also occured to me that Willa's generous spirit might draw kindness out in the staff tending Nadine.

I'd snuck in some contraband homemade chocolate cookies for Aunt Willa, because she's on the diabetic diet, and she savored each one. Willa, and probably everyone else there, hates the nursing home food. I don't blame her one bit; the stuff on her lunch plate didn't look more enticing than what I feed my dog everyday. Aunt Will offered me pale greens and diabetic fruit punch a number of times. "No thanks. I've eaten." I was thinking that what I ate yesterday counted as "I've eaten" as I spoke the words. I cut and filed Aunt Willa's nails and read a passage from a book she wanted to share with me. We talked about family members and our lives with one another. Then I walked the ten steps to Nadine's room.

That's when I found Nadine sobbing. My plan failed so quickly, and I sat there wishing I could do something, anything, to ease her pain. A nurse's aide entered, and queried the normal,"You her sister?"

I asked, "Cousin. Last time I visited she didn't seem like she was in so much pain. Is there anything we can do?"

"No, she cries like that all the time. She'll get some pain medicine in her IV when it's scheduled."


The nurse mumbled something about me leaving the room for a few minutes, and I obeyed. I moved next door back into Aunt Willa's room who matter-of-factly answered my inquiry, "She cries like that, because she wants us to know she's still all there and trying to get back to us." My aunt is one of the kindest people I've ever met, but I was terribly uncomforted by this reply. Nadine wants us to know she is hurting and can nothing about it.

When the aide opened the door again, Nadine had been straightened from her curve to a more upright position, and the nurse was dragging out a garbage bag. Nadine wasn't sobbing anymore, and it was obvious to me her crying had been a way to ask for repositioning or a change of pads! I flashed with anger thinking how the caregiver couldn't or wouldn't make this simple deduction. Nadine held a squinted gaze on some dorky daytime soap opera on the television above, a show neither she or her roommate could have chosen to watch. I moved to make eye contact to communicate with her again. If I wasn't not terribly mistaken, Nadine looked miffed. I tried to meet her pupils with mine but she looked beyond me with her the slit of her one open eye.

"I can tell you aren't hurting anymore. Would you like to try and talk with your eyes? I've brought some books and I wanted to know if you'd like to listen as I read one?"

No response.

I open _Chicken Soup for a Mother's Soul_ and read a sappy story. I tried two more hokey stories as I watched for Nadine to look my way. Again, no response.

I chided myself for reading such dumb material to her. The stories were about mothers who could get out of bed, feed themselves, go to the grocery store while Nadine unwillingly required all this and much more to be done for her. She couldn't will her own twelve year old daughter Rose to visit much less bake cookies for her.

"Nadine, I'm going to read from one of my favorite books now. I wonder if you've read this."

I lifted the cover to her and cracked open _The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe_. I jumped in reading in my excellent theatrical voice with Chapter I "Lucy Looks into a Wardrobe". When I looked up for a response this time, Nadine was staring directly me at me. She didn't look mad anymore and her eyes were opened much wider than they had been. I lost my place in the book as I quietly celebrated joy and relief that I finally found a moment directly with her that day. I skimmed to find my place and continued reading about Narnia, fauns, lampposts, snow, sleighs for quite some time. I placed my hand on Nadine's arm and stroked it gently as I read. A nurse stuck her head in the door, and blushed that I noticed her. "Uhhhhh, hello" she stammered and quickly popped her head back out the door. Nadine listened intently and never averted her gaze from me. I paused as another nurse came into remove Nadine's feet and hand splints. These were on her to help prevent the natural atrophy which occurs in paralysis over time. It was the opportunity I'd prayed for to massage Nadine with the lotion. "May I put some lotion on her hands and feet?" I asked permission from the nurse.

"Sure. I bet she'd like that."

I uncapped the bottle near Nadine's nose and said, "This is Plumeria scented. I hope you like it."

No response, but she didn't turn her eyes away either. First, I noticed all Nadine's nails had been recently neatly trimmed. Nadine's limbs jumped a bit sometimes as I rubbed in the cream. I took a while lingering on each joint remembering a yummy hand massage the manicurists gave me last time I got my nails done. The Plumeria scent mixed in with the not-so-pleasant nursing home smells stayed with me until my shower the next day.

I leisurely finished another chapter of Narnia after the massage, and offered my love and a kiss on Nadine's forehead.

I stepped next door to gave my goodbyes and hugs to Aunt Willa. I promised to bring my children and dear husband to see her soon.

The nursing home took me to another world very outside my own. The time there always seems to stand still, and yet it feels sacred. It is my joy to step out of the chaos of four children, a farm, being a wife to simply chat in the calming presence of my dear Aunt and share a story with my cousin.

On the long drive home, Buck and I talked on my cell. He explained a crazy water leak in the yard, and I jolted back into my daily grind. Not to worry, I'd escape the daily grind again and enter another world with my own children when we snuggled together on the couches under the cover of comforters to read another chapter of _Christy_.


thicket dweller said...

This is so touching. You're such a wonderful writer, True. Thanks for sharing this. I think it's so important that we take the time to be a part of others' lives. It's easy to push it to the back of our minds, to reason with ourselves that we're not really needed and our visits go unnoticed. It's a lie. If nothing else, they change us.

unquenchableworshipper said...

Have I told you lately what a great woman you are? How proud I am of you? I haven't? Shame on me!