Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The ER Visit - Part Two: The Walls of Jericho

It is now many, many, many hours later. We finally get a stall.

And so begins again the repeated declaration of no I’m not taking off her clothes and yes she is going home tonight. Even when the supervisor of Dr. Hottie R comes over the decision is final. No. Florence is not staying overnight. We are going home. All the tests are fine – her heart, her lungs, her pressure, her blood. She is not staying in the hospital overnight.

One more test, they suggest. Maybe she has a urinary tract infection. Can you get her to pee? If not, we can easily catherize her.

Here’s what separates the men from the boys.

How many times have you seen your mother’s vagina and urethra and asshole? How intimate are you with the smells of those places on whatever parent you now wipe clean on a regular basis? How often do you make decisions about those places?

No. No catheters. She can’t integrate the pain it will be too upsetting. Let’s try the bedpan.

For a frail old lady, she is dense heavy bones to move and it takes two of us to slip the metal bedpan under her. An hour later a hopeful check only to find the pan is suctioned tight to her bottom. After prying it off in between her shouting “Ow Ow that hurts,” a small plastic one is slipped under instead.

Suddenly things get quiet and empty. As if New York decided to take a break from car accidents and sidewalk falls and life-threatening illness.

Singing a chapter from a Buddhist sutra lulls Florence into rest and relaxation and soon she is sleeping. What happens next, what happens next, what happens next, oh what happens next...

My heart breaks open, exhausted and sad I cry missing the company of someone who once lived with me, once loved me in a home we shared. I cry and I sing.

Dr. Hottie R. pops his head into the stall. “Anything?!” He is so cheerful about the possibility of pee.

No, nothing.

“Don’t worry! It will happen!” His shift ends in a few minutes, but he wants to find out before he goes if in fact his diagnosis of a possible infection is correct.

I continue quiet singing. Florence sleeps. But grief wins and I put my head in my hands and I weep.

I hear Florence’s voice. “Laughing or crying?”

“Crying. I miss R.”

“I want you to feel better.”

But I can’t stop crying. Worn down, worn down, so exhausted from drumming up strength and support and fortitude. I am tired of being Shirley Temple and like a good little soldier marching along with a chirpy little song and a happy little tap. I am tired, almost 50 years old, and heartbroken.

My cousin once told me it was not the trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho. It was the tears of the women.

Florence says, “I had to change in later years. Working.”

I look up. “Working? Like teaching piano working?”

“No,” she says. “Working on myself. Becoming equal to what I had wanted to do.”

A few hours ago she didn’t know my name or that I was her daughter. I was just the person she knew would always take care of her, rub her back, sing her songs, help her feel better, love her like a mommy loves her little girl. But suddenly in this quiet and still ER, someone else emerges. A person I only glimpsed bits of in 49 years of knocking on closed doors and waiting patiently under grand pianos hoping to see or hear or converse with.

Here, with shower-like curtains drawn around us, a moment of humanity and though I only met her a few time in my life I’d recognize her anywhere. From the midst of her disintegrating into wisps of childlike desperate need, she is suddenly my mother.

“I’m going to give you a drink!” she declares.

“Of what? Scotch?” It was what we drank together at an old bar in the village, never mind that I was still underage.


One of the addicts in the next stall is woken up. “We’re going to give you Narcon.” “No! No! I don’t want Narcon.” “Well did you take anything?” “NO! NO! I just fell asleep on the bench.” “Then why won’t you take Narcon?” “No! No!”

Florence and I look at each other like WOW. What was that?

We rest.

She finally says, “Is there anything I can give you?”

“You’re giving me something right now. You’re listening to me.”

“Well.” She says with strength from decades ago. “I’m listening!”

I say, “I think this was one of our best visits ever.”

But she dismisses me. “Oh, I like the other one where you put all the….



I start to cry again. “I’m just sad.”

“When you say the word SAD, I can feel it. You always say you’re OK. Makes me think it’s….” Another word gone…

“A facade?”


“But I am OK. But I’m sad.”

“Why don’t you go to a shrink? Get a minor….”

“What? Key?”

Shakes head.

“Lover? I want to go home to R.”

“Start changing with R. Start changing the change of the different changes of the … the store.”

I sit up try to pry into her words what they could mean what they could represent like stepping back from the square of a quilt and seeing an entire portrait of a heart…

“… and then start out with what you have with starting with a different…” she is fading...

“What? Job? Attitude? Approach?”

“No. I was thinking it might not work this… What I can think of it that way is better…”

And then she starts to count.

“123. 456. 123. 456.”

And her portrait reveals….

“A different time signature?”


I now weep broken again, broken and broken open. My first decade as her pupil, learning notes and keys and rhythms and time signatures. The beats within two bars. The measure of each note. The pulse within the walls of a home. I weep.

“You look awful.”

We are interrupted. Another addict, furious at the treatment he was offered but refused to take because it didn’t include the pain killers he wanted screams at the doctor who has told him to leave the ER, “I HOPE YOUR CHILDREN ARE ALL FAGGOTS AND THEY DIE OF AIDS.”

It is now eight hours since we’ve arrived at the ER. The night nurse comes in and we find that all the apple juice we plied on Florence was happily peed out - not into the little plastic tub, but instead all over the sheets, the pads the blanket, the bed. There is nothing left to do but catherize her.

I hold Florence’s hand and sing her songs from old musicals and we all find out she has a urinary tract infection which is one reason she couldn’t get out of bed for the last couple of months. A prescription is called in to the 24 hour pharmacy, a private ambulance is called to take us home and two Amazons, with no effort whatsoever, move Florence from bed to stretcher and from stretcher into ambulance. I quickly kill the roach running around the back but Florence somehow sees it. "Was that a roach?!"

It is now 10:50pm and we are in her home lobby trying to get her from the stretcher into the wheelchair. Florence utterly befuddled stares up at the taller Amazon in childlike wonder. Without thinking I blurt out, “Florence! It’s your dream come true! You're in the arms of a beautiful woman.”

We can’t all fit in the tiny elevator. “They are going to take you up in the elevator and I'm going to take the stairs and meet you up on the 5th floor.”

Florence’s face crumbles. “But I want to go with you …”

Both Amazons go “AAAAWWWWWWW….” I run up 5 flights of stairs and all four of us, the two Amazon, P. and me manage to get Florence out of sheets and wheelchair and confusion to face her bed. When Florence sees it for the first time, her face lights up like a child opening a present. “OH!” The taller Amazon scoops up Florence in her arms like a prince to his princess or a groom to his bride. Or a really strong woman to a frail old lady and she gently places Florence in bed. P. and I cover her up. Florence is finally home.

I haven’t seen my mother since.

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