A New Pair of Shoes

I doubt that anyone who knows the sad story of these past few months — a story which really had its beginning several years ago, and which has required my daily presence and attention ever since — would blame me if I were to save myself and what remains of my physical and mental health by placing my mother in a nursing home. But the fact that she feels happy, or believes she is, and that she still knows me, recognizes members of the immediate family, and retains some of her memory, makes such an action seem cruel. Two or three days in a home and it would all be over: the trauma and change would do her in. Here, her days are scripted, scheduled, and arranged. Everything is in its place, everything is explained, every problem is solved. She enjoys home-cooked meals, and I see to her medications, which she takes without question, no longer knowing their purpose or their names. She doesn’t realize that she is completely dependent on my help. She doesn’t even know what to do with half a dish of leftover beans. She thinks I just bought her the toothbrush she has been using for over a year. My mother — the same person who was once so sharp, so capable — the same person who was a legal secretary, and who single-handedly compiled a beautiful church history from interviews with old-timers and a pile of poorly written notes — the same person who, when I moved away from home at the age of eighteen, was too sad for a time to enter my room — the same person who cooked and cleaned, and who for years entertained an ongoing parade of relatives and friends, and who helped my father survive life’s many trials and tribulations — the same person who now wonders if anyone will tell her if one of her sisters dies, and who wonders what day it is, what time, what month, what year, and who is baffled by calendars, and shoelaces, and tea kettles, and paper garbage bags under the kitchen sink — the same person who just flushed her toilet and who might get up now or two hours from now to begin her day — and find me casually passing through the living room looking as if I have all the time in the world and no concerns of my own.

Yesterday evening in the kitchen, my wife told me something I already know, and which she knows I already know: lately, I have been walking like an old man. I responded by taking a deep breath, throwing back my shoulders, puffing out my chest, and saying, “Oh? How can you say such a thing? Look at this.”

She smiled and shook her head. As she continued with her work, I deliberately stretched my spine, then stood on my toes. “All I really need,” I said, “is a new pair of shoes.”

October 16, 2006

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