Her voice is heavy and hoarse now, as if she’s been screaming at the top of her lungs at a very loud live stadium show. Sometimes the words she speaks in this voice—their order, their pronounciation, their inclusion in the English language—make sense to me, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes she looks me in the eye and laughs at my jokes, and sometimes she talks quietly to herself, her head hanging down, her eyes fluttering, her voice scraping out of her mouth.
As far as my own speech goes, I have caught myself, several times over the past five days, falling into the wheedling, upsy-daisy tone people often use with small children and old, sick people, even though my mom is neither of those things, really—today the hospice nurse complimented her on her good general health, and she is only sixty-six. “Oooookay, Mom! It’s time for lunch! I will bring it to you! Okay! Make sure it’s not too hot! Is that good, Mom? Huh? Is it yummy? Do you like it? Is it good? Here’s a rag to wipe your hands on! Okay, give me your hand! No, give me your hand…I’ll do it for you. Now the other hand! Okay!” By Day Three I was consciously stopping myself from doing it and now, at the end of Day Five, I am getting a little better at just speaking normally. I tell her about my band and about proposed tobacco control measures in New Zealand. I tell her it’s time to get out of bed and into the chair, that it’s time to shampoo her wispy post-chemo hair with a wet washcloth, that I will put in another movie for her. I tell her I will just be in the other room and to call me if she needs me.
She complimented my dress this evening. Yesterday she responded with “Merci beaucoup” when I told her the lotion I was rubbing on her legs to prevent pressure sores was a spa treatment at an exclusive French salon. I can’t tell what she understands and what she doesn’t; I usually, so far, have a sense of when she’s more present, but I haven’t always been certain what she wants from me. Sometimes she can’t get the words out, and sometimes there are too many words, and sometimes she doesn’t remember what words she’s said or I’ve said. Sometimes she doesn’t laugh at my jokes.
I am here to do what needs to be done, and I’ve been trying to do it: fixing food that’s easy for her to eat (she isn’t using cutlery anymore), raising and lowering the hospital bed, putting in three loads of washing a day in the laundry room around the corner. I put her earrings in and apply lipstick when we go for a walk. (“That’s a good color for you, Mom.” “Thank you honey.”) The other residents and the staff here at The Place–because I am still mincing words in that one last way and cannot bring myself to say ‘Assisted Living Facility’–are slowly getting used to my being around. I treat The Place as a sort of mid-level hotel that happens to have people in burgundy scrubs who will help me lift my mother from the bed into her wheelchair; they remark on the adjustable, industrial-gray wheeled table that hospice delivered and which I have decorated with the Japanese washi masking tape I brought with me from Wellington specifically for this purpose. The wheelchair is next, I promise myself.
She asked how long I was staying, the first afternoon I was here, after I’d attempted to shower thirty-six hours of plane travel off me but before I’d had any sleep. “As long as you want me to stay, Mom,” I said.
“A couple of weeks?” she said, in her scratchily gentle voice.
“Longer than that,” I said, but I don’t know if she heard me.