Last week I finished teaching my Flash Nonfiction course. When I planned the prompts and the assignments, I hadn’t intended to focus on any one theme, but synchronicity often plays a hand in writing. During the four weeks–at different times and under different prompts–each student wrote on things we keep: a box of written confessions, a ball of string, a pencil from years ago unused but somehow symbolic.
Mel Miskimen, my guest today, writes about things she keeps: messages from her mother. Not of the written kind, though. Something even better.
Messages from Mom
Officially my mother had nothing terminal. She had a heart condition that she took pills for. She didn’t have Alzheimer’s, just dementia. Just? According to my WebMD degree, I diagnosed her with Failure To Thrive – impaired physical function, malnutrition, depression, and cognitive impairment. Check. Check. Check and double check.
I hadn’t planned on having a vocal record of her decline, but . . . funny how that worked out. Prior to her hospitalization, I could count on coming home to fourteen messages on my machine, ten from her. I kept some of my mother’s voice messages and made them into a playlist on iTunes. I play them whenever I need . . . you know, something.
I listen to The Cake after a big family get-together, first thing in the morning, when I sit down to write at my computer because that’s the time she would have called and interrupted my writing mojo. It’s an uptempo number. She’s snappy. Sounds like one of those octogenarians who travel in groups and spend hours rehearsing their South Pacific number for the Senior Center Showcase.
Monday. 9:18 a.m.
Hi, Melly, this is mother . . . I just wanted to call and tell you what a great time we had yesterday–it was very special–and the cake was dee-licious! Buh Bye!
I recorded this in August for a co-mingling of my birthday and my father’s when I tackled the time-consuming Sunshine Cake recipe handed down from my grandmother, that my mother used to make but because she hadn’t the stamina to fold the egg whites into the batter, instead of being light and airy, her Sunshine Cakes were dense and stormy.
And then, a couple weeks later, I mentioned to her that I needed help putting in a zipper in my son’s very expensive, low mileage, winter jacket. I really didn’t need help, I just thought it would be something to keep her brain cells chugging along. Putting a zipper in a winter jacket in August was not high on my list of priorities. My mother had a different list and it was all about The Zipper.
Thursday. 10:42 a.m.
Hi, Melly, it’s your Mom . . . come to me–uh–come over here tomorrow and pick me up . . . I’ll show you how to do that zipper! Bye.
Friday. 5:46 p.m.
Hi, Melly, it’s your mother . . . just wondering if you got that zipper in . . . if not . . . I’ll come tomorrow . . . and help you with it. Bye.
Saturday. 12:28 p.m.
Did you get that zipper in? >sigh< Um . . . Call me back, uh . . . when you get a minute . . . Bye.
Was she sitting at her kitchen table, staring out the window, fingering her doilies, waiting, waiting, waiting for me to ring her on the zipper hotline? Why had I been avoiding her calls? Because . . . I was a teensy weensy bit annoyed. Didn’t she have anything better to do than obsess over a damn zipper? Which made me feel guilty because . . . she’s my mother, and someday she might not be here, and then I’d feel even more guilt.
A month later, following her first hospital-rehab stint – she had fallen – tests revealed a shrinking brain due to . . . they couldn’t say. All our brains were shrinking, they said. Such a comfort.
I had come over to spend the afternoon with her and when I walked into the kitchen, she was sitting on the pad of her walker, near the same table that she showed me how to bake, roll out pie dough and cut out a skirt on the bias. She looked dried up, hollow. I was afraid to give her a hug. I didn’t want to break her. The house had that smell that no amount of Glade plug-ins could cover up and that’s when I sort of knew, on a gut level that she was dying. I told her I was worried that she had given up. She assured me she was just tired. The next day she called and left a message. There was a noticeable change in the quality of her voice, a smallness, a slight hoarse vibrato, but still traces of her old self.
Monday. 10:14 a.m.
Hi Melly . . . it’s your mom . . . I’m doing much better today.
Uh . . . I got up . . . I ate my breakfast and . . . I just–I’m doing better. So . . . you don’t have to worry about me–if you were going to worry! . . . don’t worry about me. Bye. Bye.
She had given me the okay not to worry about her but . . . still, I worried about me . . . whether or not I was emotionally prepared for what would happen next.
Wednesday. 2:57 p.m.
Melly, I need your HELP! I bought some stockings for myself . . . those stretch ones, you know? and I can’t get them on my feet . . .they’re too tight . . .we bought a small . . . too small, then we bought a medium, too small, we bought a–we didn’t buy a large–but your father is so impatient, just now he said,’To hell with it! You’re not wearing them!’ So here I am . . . sitting with these things half on and half off . . . call me back . . . please?
Wow. So much packed into a few minutes. My father’s fear-based frustrations, me being her number two go-to person. Helping her get into those compression stockings was – remember that episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer needed Jerry’s help getting into skinny jeans and the more Jerry pulled, the more Kramer slid off the sofa? Yeah, like that.
Her calls dwindled. I missed coming home to her voice messages. I asked her why she didn’t call. “I don’t call?” she said. She went into the hospital right after Easter for surgery to alleviate fluid build up around her shrinking brain. And, it went well. The doctors said we shouldn’t expect a miracle.
Monday. 9:28 p.m.
Melly . . . Where IS your father?!
Boom. No, sing-songy ‘it’s me, your mother,’ no small talk. Her voice was strong. Forceful. Very commanding. Almost demanding.
He said he was coming to pick me up!
I almost start to feel bad for my father, about the dressing down she’s going to give him the next day when he comes to visit her, and then she went off an a riff that I did not expect.
I’m at the airport! Waiting! >click<
The nurses all said it was the drugs and the shock of surgery, but . . . a couple days later guess what? she took her one way flight to the after life, so . . . my opinion . . . I think she was at the airport. Waiting.
Hi, Mom! It’s Mel. Um . . . just calling to say I miss you . . . but, I get it, I know you are in a better place and all, but still . . .oh, and guess what? . . . I finally got around to putting in that zipper. It only took three years! So, come winter, your grandson will be warm. So, don’t worry . . . if you were going to worry . . . don’t worry. Bye!
Mel Miskimen is a regular contributor for More Magazine. She is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post 50/50. Her break-through essay? I’m Changing My Underpants and the Economy. She’s the past recipient of the Wisconsin Regional Writers award for humor.
Mel lives in a drafty, 120 year old empty nest with her husband of 30 plus years and a black labrador named – the first dog allowed on the furniture, because “That is what happens when the kids leave.” She has written a second book – The Seamus Sessions – a heartwarming, inspiring story of grappling with loss, finding hope and healing with the help of a badly behaved labrador. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.