“I’ll Eat the Chicken Wing”: My mother the martyr
November, the first year
Mama’s back has been hurting again this week. She’s been in bed for two days—days neither Jill nor Michelle were here—and suffering in nothing near silence.
After finally agreeing to a Tylenol with codeine, she feels better when I help her out of bed for breakfast this morning. Once up, though, she plunges into pitiful again, lest I forget she isn’t feeling well. She asks if I have made coffee.
“I’ve had mine,” I say, “but I will make some for you.”
“The instant is in the freezer door,” she says.
“Would you like to have real coffee?”
“Mix it half decaf and half regular instant. It will taste better.”
“Would you rather have brewed coffee?”
“It will take too much of your time.”
“So you would prefer instant?”
“Then I make will make you real coffee.”
“It’s too much trouble,” she says.
I make it anyway.
After breakfast I suggest a shower. “I don’t want you to spend your time doing that,” she says. I sigh. Graceful, enthusiastic acceptance is not a burden, these conversations are what consume my time—and me. I read that when a person feels like a burden, they make sure they are one.
“I want to,” I say.
“Maybe I’ll lie down.”
“Wouldn’t you feel better to be clean?”
“The bathroom isn’t warmed up,” she counters, daring me to back down.
“I can turn the heater on.” I want her to feel good and I know it’s what she wants too. She can’t allow herself to be cared for, except on her own terms.
“Thank you for making breakfast,” she says, ending the battle.
When I go to the bedroom to check on her after cleaning the kitchen, thinking she is lying down, she’s sitting in her chair in the corner. She asks if the bathroom is warmed up. I don’t bother to remind her she didn’t agree to a shower.
I turn on the heater, and she bathes.
“Oh, that felt really good,” she admits, showered and in a clean nightgown.
“It’s okay to say yes to pleasure,” I say. “Maybe 96 years of self-denial is enough.” She laughs.
“Shall I wash your sheets?” I ask.
“Weren’t they washed not long ago?”
“I don’t know, but you’ve been in bed a lot. Now you and your nightgown are clean. Wouldn’t you like fresh sheets?”
“It’s too big a job,” she says.
“Fine,” I say, “you win.” I can’t fix her.