Death Valley Sunset from Pixabay

This dispatch comes from my mother’s hospice room.

This little death watch diary will have to be today’s contribution to Medium. No dog story; no Trump story…but I repeat myself.

It’s a small room. I am sitting in her wheelchair and my laptop is resting on my walker. I plugged it in over next to the oxygen port, where the red plug is not in use. My battery is charged up but I’m one of those paranoid souls who always plugs in when possible.

I woke her when I came in — not on purpose — and she’s resting with her eyes closed now, either back asleep or about to be. She does not appear to be having any pain.

Last time we talked about pain, she said she only gets it when she eats certain kinds of foods — those being pretty much everything she likes.

Her mother raised me, and grandma always had a big coffee tin on the stove to catch bacon grease and lard. She never changed the grease can, although she would seine it with a tea strainer now and then to remove pieces of food poured in by accident.

My grandmother believed that the verb “to cook” had an exact synonym in “to fry.” My mother inherited that culinary habit and all I have to say is she better start eating right or she will die young. She’s 91.

When I came into the orbit of the University of Texas, my eating habits changed big time. I remember a big argument with a girlfriend about carrot cake, which I loved at first taste. I was convinced she was putting me on when she said she really made it with carrots. I learned about all kinds of foods that were not fried, but it was too late to avoid morbid obesity. When I got woke, I tried to drag my mother along.

The closest I came was one evening at a locavore joint that serves very healthy food. She ordered the veggie plate, and I thought I had misheard — but she was on the other side of a big table with people in between and she did appear to be taking long enough to pick the veggies. Then the order showed up: sweet potato fries, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, onion rings. When I got my breath back from howling, I hollered across the table:

Aren’t there five items on the veggie plate?

About that time, the waiter showed up with a smaller plate containing her last veggie, waffle cut fries. I don’t think she did it to make a joke. That was really what she wanted to eat, because none of the meats on offer appealed to her. I mean, grilled chicken breast? Fish tacos? She eats both chicken and fish, but only the way God intended — fried. There was no chicken fried steak on the menu that night.

I’ve told that story so many times…. I’m sure I get the exact veggies wrong, but the essential facts are correct. My recollection is that my order overlapped hers in only one veggie, the fried okra. I seldom pass up fried okra.

The hospice nurse is here right now “taking vitals” and asking her directly about pain. She says not. I’m glad she told others what she told me. I’ve been in so much pain for some months that I would trade being in hospice for the good drugs.

I’ve been taking opioids for about 15 years. I’ve quit cold turkey three times, the last time a couple of months ago. I had no symptoms of withdrawal. The last time, I was experimenting with weighing my pain against the petty humiliations I must endure to get the opioids. If I still knew the illicit drug market in Austin, I would get my drugs there, where nobody is going to count the pills or have me pee in a cup. I lasted a couple of weeks.

The nurse just left and my mother was asleep before he hit the door. He says she’s wrong about walking on in the next 24 hours. I don’t know if he’s correct but I’m solid certain that he’s telling the truth as he believes it to be rather than blowing smoke.

I told my mother what I wrote above and she just smiled. She, too, is telling the truth, not crying out for attention. I will not know who got it right until tomorrow afternoon.

I’m pretty sure I won’t last that long. I don’t mean I’m going to die, I mean I’m going to wimp out. On that famous 1–10 scale, I’m at 11 after doubling my allowed opioid dosage. And I’m hot. And there’s no way to get comfortable.

I can’t help but wonder if I would feel differently if this woman had raised me. Or contributed anything to any of my political races. Or my university education. Or even, just once, told me she was proud of anything I ever did.

This is how my memoir begins:

Hoyt Axton left us a song that said he’d never been to heaven. Perhaps he has now, and that would be our loss. Most of us have never been to heaven, but some of us have been to Oklahoma. They tell me I was born there, but that’s hearsay, as far as I’m concerned. That puts me in a tough position because I’m told a memoir has to be told from memory. I’ll do the best I can.

My earliest memory not aided by a folk song was a sojourn to the oil patch in Pampa, Texas, where my mother made a futile effort to mother me. I was about three years old. I remember snow drifts taller than me, traffic signals of such bright reds and greens I could not look away from them. I remember visiting a doctor, being beaten with a belt and, when I cried, being told that if I did not shut up she would “give me something to cry about.”

I know that my mother’s attempt to play mother did not work out. Aside from the beating and the illness, I don’t remember the details. She left me with her parents back in Bristow, Oklahoma, where I became a major disruption of their golden years.

On her fourth try, my mother married a man who did not abuse her. While that was something to celebrate, he did have some downsides.

He was a beer for breakfast alcoholic. Luckily, a mellow drunk rather than a mean one.

He was illiterate. Totally. He was scared of road trips because he could not read maps or traffic signs. He would get irritated when other people read books in his presence, so she quit. She used to read trash, but she read lots of it.

He made his living by day labor — he was very good at carpentry and roofing — and he preferred to be paid in cash, because he could not read checks.

Because he preferred cash, he did not pay as much as he might have into the Social Security system.

He was much older than my mother. All either one of them had was Social Security. When he walked on, it only took her a few months of watching her cash flow to realize she was bleeding.

They owned a home he had cobbled together when he bought a kit house, assembled it, and then expanded it on several acres of land south of San Antonio. She sold it to an undocumented Mexican, who paid her like clockwork. Getting paid was not her problem, because the man was hard working and honest, as are virtually all of the undocumented immigrants I’ve known. Her problem was where to live.

My wife and I had a home in Bloomington, Indiana, that had the basement built out into an apartment. The only part of it I used was the living room, where my desktop computer lived surrounded by bookcases. I offered her the use of the rest of it.

Why did I do that? Because I was presented with an elderly person who had no place to live when I had more space than I needed. I can see now I had an ulterior motive to learn stuff about myself. I always intended to write that memoir, with the major hook being the dropout becomes a university professor.

I knew that my relationship with both my parents had been cold and distant but I could not account for why. It’s not that the account I had was unsatisfying. Rather, it was that I had none.

Speaking of problems, the immediate one became how to get her from Texas to Indiana. I was teaching and prepping and writing like a fiend.

She prevailed on my son and her grandson, Paul, to drive her from San Antonio to Bloomington with her dogs and all of her stuff in a Kia sedan.

A couple of years later, my mother could no longer drive, so I put her Kia up on Craigslist for sale and quickly learned that contemporary students do not know what a “stick shift” is, much less how to operate one. Great hilarity ensued.

It was in Bloomington that my mother expanded her gambling from bingo to Texas hold ’em poker. I learned to play because she needed a ride once a week and I got tired of sitting off to one side reading a book.

I got to be pretty good when I could keep my head in the game. By that time, I had been a judge for twenty years and therefore twenty years practiced at reading people. Hold ’em, I quickly decided, was not about your cards. It was about your opponents.

Over those years, I had many private conversations with my mother, ranging miles wide but only inches deep. The excuses she offered for not having me to burden her were so thin they did not even convince her, so we seldom talked about what her absence meant to me.

I did learn some surprising things. It turned out that she never had a ceremonial marriage to the man with whom she had two children and created a middle class life for herself in the Permian Basin — the oil patch again. She was a bookkeeper; her “husband” repaired the magnetos necessary to the ignition system on the pump jacks that dotted the landscape.

I learned that she had another son between me her shot at middle class existence in Odessa. He was the product of a one night stand on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. She had given him up in an open adoption, so finding him was no great trick in the age of Internet. In 2011, I drove her to Florida to meet him.

He appeared more mentally healthy than any of her other offspring, myself included. He had some physical health challenges that led to a serious problem with short term memory loss, but I could tell what kind of man he was by his wife and children. He was retired from a technical career and it appeared that his kids had launched successfully.

Meeting our mother took up a lot of emotional space for him. Our mother, not so much. She was not nasty but also not greatly interested. The road trip to Florida was an opportunity to hit several casinos and see the Redneck Riviera.

It appears I have slipped into reminiscing rather than writing about the here and now. I’m in a dark room that is uncomfortably hot watching a 91 year old woman sleep. The pain in my back keeps dialing higher and I know I’m not going to make this an all-nighter.

I understand wanting somebody to sit with her. I felt the same way when cancer came calling. It felt good to be visited by all four of my kids, none of whom are “children of my body,” as some people call a relationship more biological than my own.

But I came to know then what I know now:

Dying is something you do by yourself. That is so even if there is someone literally holding your hand.

I would, of course, take her hand if that’s what she wants. But that gesture would lack authenticity. It strikes me that we never shared a hug — not once, not ever. Still, I’m willing to pretend. I suppose I am, in some sense, making myself available for confession. To the extent I could offer absolution, I would.

And it would have to be me. She had four sons. I was number one.

Number two, the one I learned about in 2011, is supposed to rest quietly after surgery for an aneurysm. He’s in no condition to travel.

Number three finally answered my text messages from a hospital in Houston, where it appears he had surgery for the same cancer I had (it remains past tense so far), my grandmother had, and is now killing my mother on the third try. Her experience is why I tell people I am a cancer survivor “so far.”

Number four is missing from the streets of San Antonio. My mother requested, and I promised, that I make an effort to track him down and tell him she died. Then I am to give him $500 and tell him he inherited it. She figures that’s the maximum amount of money he could handle without danger of overdose.

This last part, starting with the accounting for my half-siblings, is written from my home, where I’m slightly overdosed on opioids and looking forward to my bed that raises my legs.

She woke up as I was trying to escape. I told her:

I’m sorry if this will convince you I’m a bad person, but I can’t do this. The pain is too much. I’ll be back in the morning.

I don’t tell her that my conversation with the hospice nurse convinces me she’s not going to die tonight. She does not believe in professional expertise. Not the nurse’s; not mine; not anybody’s. We had a conversation once about what it would have taken for her to become a Certified Public Accountant. Not much, as it happens, but she would never take the exam because she considered the CPA to be just another bogus claim of professional expertise.

Right now, I’m going to get some rest as soon as the pain pills kick in, but I find myself wishing I had more professional expertise than I do. I know little about hearing a confession and less about absolution.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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