Coping Short Story

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Coping Short Story

Postby ibicwriter » Mon Aug 01, 2011 11:32 pm

My mother died of PSP on December 2nd, 2010, after a five year battle. Below is a story I wrote, following her death, for my MFA creative writing program. I don't see a place for an attachment, so I'll cut and paste it here. My love goes out to everyone who is touched by this horrible disease.

The premise comes from a conversation with a friend of mine whose grandmother had just died of Alzheimers Disease. She said that, in the final days, her grandmother would have conversations with people long dead, or mention that they had just visited her. Watching my mother lie immobile, staring out of vacant eyes, I took solace in the fact that maybe, inside her head, she was with those she loved, or maybe Disneyland. Maybe that's the "gift" we get for diseases during which we lose our minds completely: To everyone else, the sick is in a horrible and pitiful state, but maybe they're happily out to, a well-deserved, lunch while they're physical form is in the process of shutting down forever.

Title: The Company She Keeps

Margaret Ramsey found Frank sitting at the foot of her bed in the brown, verlaine guest chair, not realizing he had entered her room. Dead for two years now, he looked the same. Dressed for comfort, as usual, wearing the shabby 501’s he wouldn’t throw away, an un-tucked tee shirt of a faded, unrecognizable color, frayed Nike running shoes barely fit for walking, and a blue blazer; his attempt at fancy. As ragged as Margaret found his appearance, he was beautiful and perfect, and Margaret was happy to see him.
Margaret shared a warm, sympathetic smile with her husband; she missed him terribly. A Place By The Sea wasn’t a bad place, in fact it was quite comfortable and clean, and the care she received was certainly of the best that her retirement could afford, just as she had planned; as they both had planned. But neither had planned on the loneliness, on being away from each other; out of each other’s sight, each other’s loving and reassuring embrace. That was what they needed most and what no retirement plan was capable of offering.
Margaret’s eyes filled with tears as she reflected upon her life with Frank and her heart welled with the disparate and conflicting emotions of the joys of being together, the pain of being separated, and the love that had kept them together forty-two years. The emotional intensity reached an unbearable limit.
“Frank, honey, what’re you doing way over there?” she said with fabricated irritation. “Scooch on over here. I need some help with my pillows.”
Margaret’s bedridden body began to pitch slightly, attempting to spark some movement into arms and legs that had become quite accustomed to their sedentary lifestyle over the last six months. She managed a small arch with her back and leaned back onto the four soft, white pillows on her plush, queen-sized hospital bed.
“You’ll get it, kitten,” he said, reassuringly. “Always been good at takin’ care of yourself. Me? Not so much. But that’s what I have you for.” Margaret had always heard this from Frank, her tenacity oftentimes being a difficult, yet highly complementary trait to Frank’s more docile nature.
“Oh, I’m sure you’re getting along just fine without me,” she said, her breathing labored from the pillow exercises. Frank offered no response.
Margaret’s struggle with her pillows was interrupted when one for her three nurses entered the room. “Here let me help you with that Mrs. Ramsey,” she said with concern. Margaret leaned forward with the nurse’s help, allowing her to expertly fluff and rearrange the pillows.
“All right, sweetie, go ahead and lie back for me. Let’s see if that’s any better,” said the nurse, placing her hands on Margaret’s small, bony shoulders. Margaret leaned back slowly, assisted by the nurse’s firm but gentle grip, a deep imploring stare beneath a brow furrowed with discomfort, possibly pain.
“How’s that?” asked the nurse, as Margaret nestled into her pillows with renewed comfort.
Margaret looked up at the nurse with a fatuous smile and nodded her head feebly. “I’ll be by to check on you later,” said the nurse, quickly disappearing down the hall.
“Thank you for fixing my pillows.” said Margaret. Frank smiled.
“I don’t think she likes me,” muttered Frank.
“I think she’s jealous,” said Margaret proudly. “If she’s not, then…” Margaret cast a nervous glance around the room. “…then she’s probably a lesbian,” she whispered.
“Oh, kitten,” said Frank, at the unexpected and mildly inappropriate comment; both started giggling like kids at a carnival.
Margaret’s laughter trailed off as a male attendant entered the room with an energetic stride, carrying a large floral arrangement with both hands. “Hello Mrs. Ramsey,” said the attendant cheerfully. “Another beautiful day on the California coast.”
He quickly made his way across the spacious living area to the small, round decorative table in front of the bay window, its two chairs angled outward, inviting company. Margaret eyed him intently, the outline of a wistful expression seen deep within the many lines of her face: He was young, of an age Margaret could barely remember, with bright, green eyes, sandy brown hair and a wide toothy grin. Margaret thought of her grandson.
The large, fragrant bouquet contained an eclectic mixture of domestic and tropical flowers, exquisitely arranged within a tall, slender glass vase. Margaret watched him lower the vase carefully then take a step back to examine it with a critical eye. She slowly shifted her stare back to Frank just as her sister, Elizabeth, marched into the room. “Strike up the band!” she said, in her usual boisterous manner. Margaret beamed.
“How do you like the flowers?” asked Elizabeth. “Picked ‘em myself,” she said rolling her eyes with sarcasm. Margaret glanced at the arrangement.
“There you go Mrs. Ramsey. Enjoy the rest of your day,” said the attendant, offering another big smile as he hurried out of the room.
“Looks like my grandnephew,” said Elizabeth, with a nod in his direction.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” said Frank, eyeing Elizabeth warily.
“Coot!” said Elizabeth, hands on hips..
“Jezebel!” countered Frank, playfully. “And put that cigarette out! This is, well, kind of a hospital.” Elizabeth had died three months before Frank, who had often told her cigarettes would kill her. She died while foraging through her purse for a pack, at 85 miles per hour.
Margaret joyfully watched the exchange, happy to be with her two favorite people. “Lizzie, it’s so wonderful to see you,” said Margaret.
“Of course it is,” she said emphatically, as she flounced over to the table, plopping down into one of the chairs.
“So how is the ol’ gal?” said Elizabeth, looking her sister up and down
“Better, now that you’re here,” said Margaret.
“Hey! What am I, chopped liver?” said Frank.
“More like cirrhosis,” said Elizabeth, caustically, causing Frank to wince. “You gotta be quicker than that, lamb chop. Mind like a steel trap,” she added, tapping her head for emphasis.
“Yeah, sealed shut and rusted through,” said Frank, bracing for a harsh retaliation. Margaret watched Elizabeth open her mouth to retort but closed it quickly, drawing a blank; Frank leaned back with a self-satisfied grin.
Margaret languidly rolled her eyes back and forth between them, thoroughly engaged in their sparkling repartee; she enjoyed listening to their mordant banter as much as, she knew they enjoyed dishing it. Margaret watched Elizabeth sharpen her claws, as Frank launched into another volley of good-humored insults. She was so intent upon the exchange, the fact that she was being observed escaped her notice completely.
Susan Ramsey stood on the threshold of her mother’s room summoning the strength to enter. She stared at her mother: Childhood images, etched deep within the worn and wrinkled canvas of her face. The powerful arms that protected her as a child, supported her as a schoolgirl, and embraced her as a woman, now lay frail and motionless; the lithe and nimble fingers that had taught her the piano, twisted and brittle.
The irreconcilable conflict between the joy and the sadness sparked a momentary pang of bitterness and regret, as Susan fought to understand how such a vibrant, beautiful woman, who gave her life, could be allowed to deteriorate so ignobly, after only seventy five years, into this ninety-three pound remnant; in diapers! She swallowed hard and entered the room.
Susan’s approach went unnoticed and she stood at her mother’s bedside looking down upon her. Margaret’s head lolled sideways towards the window, gently cradled by four, soft, goose down pillows, the deep lines of her face forming a peaceful expression, stark against the hollow gaze of her large, round, opaque eyes; the radiant emerald green having faded into murky jade. Susan watched her mother’s eyes wobble with determination, compelling Susan to glance towards the window. Beautiful flowers, she thought, appreciating the environment that A Place By The Sea created during her mother’s final days.
“Hi mom.”
Trigged by the familiar voice, Susan saw her mother’s eyes stop moving and she began to stir beneath her covers as if waking from a dream. Susan looked on as her mother continued to coax her desolate form into movement, pulling whatever strength she could from wherever it remained, and was eventually able to swivel her head away from the window.
Susan met her mother’s gaze, generating a powerful wave of emotion and she struggled to maintain her composure, her brain flooding with countless memories of childhood: helping her through a terrifying first day of school, attending every piano recital, laying out talking about boys. She swallowed the enormous lump in her throat and bit down hard to avoid the impending breakdown and, just as she decided to turn away with a warm tear coursing down her face, Susan’s mother smiled.
Despite the intense velocity of her rapid approach towards the seductive edge of despondency, Susan sustained the sobering impact of her mother’s love, regaining her strength with a sharp intake of breath and returned the gesture.
“Hi mom,” she repeated, smiling. “How’re you feeling today?”
Her mother’s brow furrowed in consternation as her mouth moved to form words she was incapable of uttering. Any form of comprehensible speech had vanished months ago, just before her mobility, leaving behind barely audible squeaks and wheezes, with an occasional groan or gurgle; occasionally surprising everyone with a light breathy laugh. Because of the way her mother still struggled with speech, Susan believed that the words formed in her brain but the train of thought derailed somewhere on its way to the station.
Susan carefully slid her hand underneath her mother’s and raised it gently to create a space in which to sit. She lowered herself onto the firm, yet not uncomfortable, mattress and Susan slowly brought her mother’s small, bony hand to rest in her lap, maintaining contact with a loving caress. Susan noticed that her mother’s skin barely concealed her skeleton; thin, overstretched and squamous to the touch with a coolness not entirely suitable for human life.
Susan sat comfortably with her mother, her gentle gaze unwavering, her mother’s tending to wander. The tick tock of the heavy clock on the wall opposite her mother, resonated loudly in her ears and Susan fought to stay in the moment, as thoughts and images of the past continued to appear in sharp and painful contrast to the present; those in the future, offered only death.
“Shuffleboard on the lido deck, Margaret.” Susan turned around to find Dr. Trask standing in the doorway. Of the same age as Susan’s mother, he stood tall at six feet five inches, with a bulky frame that barely fit inside his oversized lab coat, and a full head of soft, snow-white hair. He carried his signature brown Plexiglas clipboard in his right hand and a wide, warmhearted smile on his face.
“Dr. Trask,” said Susan amiably. She returned her mother’s hand to the bed, before standing to share a cordial embrace with the doctor.
Susan turned back around to find her mother smiling brightly at Dr. Trask, attempting to speak. “I keep telling you, Margaret, I’m married,” said Dr. Trask good-naturedly, motioning towards the table with his clipboard.
“We’re going to go sit by the window and talk, mom”, said Susan
Susan slid the flowers aside as Dr. Trask pulled a file folder from his clipboard and began reviewing the contents.
“You mom’s doing well,” said Dr. Trask. “Her vital signs are stable, her blood work is normal and she’s relatively alert and responsive.” Dr. Trask fell silent, continuing to review his notes. “She is having more trouble swallowing liquids and we’re having to add a coagulant to her water. But apart from that, she’s very healthy; all things considered.”
“Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?” said Susan, glancing over at her mother who was staring intently at the guest chair. “Is she in any pain, any discomfort?” asked Susan, imploringly. “She can barely move. She can’t speak. Her hearing seems to be OK but I have no idea about her eyesight. She just lies in that bed, morning, noon, and night, staring at the walls. What’s going on in her mind? Does she even have a mind? I visit her as much as I can, but with dad gone, her sister, gone, and me being an only child…” Susan felt her anxiety bordering on hysteria and paused, allowing herself to breathe.
“Susan?” continued Dr. Trask, pausing to formulate his thoughts. I don’t know.” “There’s not a lot known about Progressive Supranuclear Palsy,” he stated flatly, glancing over at Margaret. Dr. Trask took hold of Susan’s hand in a supportive gesture before continuing. “It’s a degenerative disease. Viral? Genetic in nature? We’re not sure. But it attacks certain areas of the brain, causing the gradual deterioration and death of those areas. Susan, your mother’s brain is essentially shutting down.”
Susan shuddered, turning away from Dr. Trask to gaze out over the Pacific Ocean, the sublime beauty and raw power of the crashing waves providing an incomprehensible comfort to her soul. Together with the recent image of her mother’s smile, Susan returned to the conversation.
“You OK?” asked Dr. Trask.
“Yes. Thank you,” Susan nodded stoically. “When it comes time…how will she…in what manner will…
Dr. Trask sympathetically interrupted her, “We don’t believe your mom’s in any physical pain or discomfort. As you’ve seen, she’s still alert and able to express herself and I’m confident that she’d let us know if she were in any pain. Clinically, she’s fit as a fiddle.” They both glanced over at Margaret who stared in their direction, smiling, her eyes engaged in a loose wobble.
Dr. Trask spoke indirectly to Susan, “we believe that one day, she will just stop breathing.
“As for what her mind is doing,” said Dr. Trask, as they both continued to watch Margaret, “ there’s really no way of knowing how much of her is in there, Susan. With all due respect, she could be climbing the proverbial walls, or she could be on a tropical island,” he said, pausing to reflect. Susan shifted uncomfortably. She appreciated the doctor’s candor, believing he truly cared about her mother, but it is still difficult to hear.
“Or, she could be playing shuffleboard on the lido deck,” said the doctor, glibly. Susan offered a thin-lipped smile, granting Dr. Trask permission to smile as well.
“You think I’m kidding?” said Dr. Trask. “Power of suggestion. And you just thought I was being trite. Of the few studies available, some suggest that her remaining consciousness can be molded.” He and Susan shared a commiserative smile before returning their eyes to Margaret.
“All I can say is that while she’s here,” said Dr. Trask, “We’ll make her feel as comfortable and cared for as possible. It’s unfortunate she has no other family that can be here with her, but we’ll certainly do all we can to fill in any gaps.”
“Lunchtime Maggs!” came the cheerful voice of the female orderly, over the rattle of metal serving trays jostling around on the meal cart. Margaret slowly rolled her head in the direction of the orderly.
“Well, that’s my queue,” said Dr. Trask. “Good to see you Susan, and please call me any time for an update.” Turning towards her mother, “You take care Margaret and I’ll stop by later to check on you.” Margaret’s gaze still affixed to the orderly.
The orderly exchanged pleasantries with Susan and shuffled around to prepare Margaret for her meal. Susan leaned down and kissed her mother’s cool, clammy forehead. “I love you, mommy,” said Susan, forcing a smile through the encroaching tears.
Margaret met her gaze and smiled, watching Susan turn away and walk out. “That’s all right,” she said, re-focusing her attention on Frank and Elizabeth. “It was getting a little crowded in her, anyway, and I’m famished.”
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Postby Robin » Tue Aug 02, 2011 12:09 am

My condolences on your loss.

Thanks for sharing this personal story.

Does your story take place at a hospice facility ("A Place by the Sea")? If so, I'm surprised the MD didn't also share that seeing the dead is a common part of the dying process. Many, many people report this happening to their family members. I'm not sure it's part of losing one's mind.
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coping story

Postby ibicwriter » Wed Aug 03, 2011 5:49 pm

Thank you Robin. It's a fiction story based on actual events. The location was a retirement facility, fictional.
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