Happy 99th, Mrs. Fossilfuel
"Oh no, honey," she said, in that gravel-filled wisp of a voice. "It's not my birthday."
"Isn't February 22nd your birthday?"
"Well then, it's your birthday."
"Oh, IS it?"
"Yes. And we must celebrate."
Our celebration began with her taking a nap. As any good birthday should. I could hear her snoring while I was in the kitchen, taking stock of the situation. The Son of Mrs. Fossilfuel came into town on Monday the 18th. I had yet to meet him. Perhaps this would be the day. He is the dentist from Seattle who mysteriously doesn't actually work. But then, he is just a boy, only 65 years old, and just getting started in the world. Barely out of college.
Esther had left many notes with instructions from John Fossilfuel.
"Candy/Sherrie, John says we must take Mrs. Fossilfuel's blood pressure each morning after breakfast and write it in this notebook."
"Attention all caregivers: John says we are to make Mrs. Fossilfuel three protein smoothies each day with the following ingredients (blah blah blah) which are in the lefthand cupboard."
I hadn't even met the dickweed yet and he was giving me orders. He was out attending some woo-woo seminar on Chinese healing, the main reason he came to town. If I were guessing, I would say that percentage-wise, his reasons for coming to Phoenix stacked up this way:
Attend Chinese healing seminar: 13.5%
See Mother: 1.5%
Check on Mother's money: 85%
As I've said, I keep trying not to despise him, but the evidence of his prick-ness has accumulated.
Since the agency I work for provides strictly non-medical help, we are not allowed to take blood pressures, or even take a temperature or hand someone an aspirin. I wrote a note for John to that effect. I did not add: "If you want to know your mother's daily blood pressure, you can keep your dead ass in Phoenix where she needs you, and take it yourself."
I woke Mrs. F. at 12:30 so we could start getting her ready to leave at 1:30 for her radiation treatment. It takes a good hour for these preparations, including changing her from the green-checked dress she sleeps in, to the green-striped dress she wears for outings. Her only outings are her trips to the oncologist 5 days a week. This would be her 20th visit, with 10 more to go.
Her first stop out of bed is her potty chair, where she gives me the usual play-by-play as to what is escaping the dark hallway of her digestive tract. I then help her into her wheelchair, wheel her to the bathroom, help her out of her wheelchair into her pink vanity chair in front of her pink bathroom sink. Each time she has to stand up or sit down, mostly through my effort, she is in pain, and terrified I'm going to drop her. Even though I have, for lack of a better term, a death grip on her emaciated frame.
She sits in front of the mirror and begins her make-up routine. You know those blemish covering sticks that come in tubes like lipstick? She has 3 of those, all the same color, all of them totally empty except for a speck of make-up left at the very bottom. Mrs. Fossilfuel takes a rat-tail comb and digs down into that exhausted tube, and pulls out 4 molecules of cover-up and applies it under her eyes with the end of the comb.
Next, the rouge. You can tell she's from another era because she still says "rouge" instead of "blush" and "cold cream" instead of "lotion." I am especially fond of hearing her say "cold cream." It reminds me of my mom.
Loose powder comes next, carefully applied over the rest, then lipstick. While she's doing all this, I stand behind her and watch every detail. I used to try to turn away, or at least pretend to turn away, to give a girl some privacy. But I don't even try anymore. It's just too interesting to watch.
Most fascinating of all is the fussing over the wig.
"Is this the front?" she always asks. Yes, I say. Even though this thing is now so worn out and dull that she could turn it inside out and wear the netting for hair and it would look better. But this wig makes her happy. She takes the comb and pushes her stray white hairs up inside the horrible fur cocoon. Then, and this is my favorite part of all, she uses the comb to pull down a couple of wisps of "bangs" and says "It just looks more modern this way." Once she made the right side of the wig curl upward in a jaunty little Marilyn Quayle flip and then said "That looks more casual."
Just before it's time to leave, one of Mrs. Fossilfuel's neighbors, Anne, drops by to give her a birthday card and a giant cupcake piled with enough icing to paint a small doghouse. Mrs. F. does not eat sugar. At all. Which is probably why she has lived to be 99. But she is very gracious and effusive in her thanks.
Now to the doctor. We take the streets I've learned to take, the route which must never be monkeyed with. She is visibly shaken to be riding in a car. I don't talk to her because it shakes her up more. I only respond to her comments about a pretty tree or a little girl and her mother standing on a corner waiting for the light.
As always when we drive, she is wearing one sweater over her dress, and is covered by a second one, and also by a lime green afghan. When there isn't much left to you, what is left gets chilled very easily, it seems.
I sit in the waiting room, holding my purse and Mrs. Fossilfuel's ancient handbag, the color of dirty butterscotch, which she has instructed "You guard this with your life." 40 minutes later her treatment is finished, and the doctor has seen her and given her the news that the radiation is working very well, but she must eat more and start getting out of bed again. "Eat cheesecake," he tells her. "Get all the calories you can hold." She would sooner swallow Drano.
The nurses have some birthday treats for their oldest patient. "We don't get many 99-year-olds in oncology," the head nurse tells me. They have gotten Mrs. Fossilfuel 18 bright pink roses and a cake made of cupcakes, also pink. But they're having trouble coordinating a handful of nurses to gather round to sing "Happy Birthday." Mrs. F is exhausted and waiting to go home. I try to keep her spirits up by bending close to her and whispering things in her ear.
"You won't believe the great birthday surprise they have for you," I say.
"Oh NO, honey. Do they?"
"Yes, and you will love it."
Two more minutes pass.
"Mrs. Fossilfuel, they have MORE. THAN. ONE. treat for you!"
"No!" she hisses. "You don't mean it!"
Finally they let me wheel her backwards from the exam room into the reception area and we all sing. They show her the vase of gorgeous pink roses and she puts her hands to her cheeks. They put the pink-frosted cake (another confection that she will not eat) on her lap and we finish singing. She lowers her head and says "I'm 'fraid I'm going to weep."
"But they're tears of happiness, aren't they?" I say, trying to keep my heart from falling out.
"Yes," she says. "I'm so grateful. I have such good friends."
"What have you learned from living so long?" a nurse asks.
"Never look back," she says. "And I'd do it all again just the same."
By the time I get her home, she is very quiet, beyond exhaustion. I change her dress and put her on her vibrating cot, a fifty-year-old contraption handed down from her mother (who lived to 103) that jiggles her old rusty bones like a cheap motel bed with a slot for quarters. To me, it looks painful. But under her four afghans she says "This is heaven."
I have to leave in an hour, and her son has not returned from his seminar. Sherrie is not coming tonight because John has cancelled the evening shift while he's in town. I decide to make one of the complex smoothies and see if Mrs. F. will drink it. There are 10 ingredients, some of which make sense, like whey protein powder and whole milk and a banana. But then there is this jar of something called Bio Greens. I take the lid off and the crap inside looks like clumps of green nasty dirt. It smells like a mixture of boys locker room and maggot piss. I look at the label to see what it contains, and I see that it has expired in January 2001. My hatred for the Son of Fossilfuel grows another horn.
I make the smoothie without the green clumps and it doesn't look bad. I offer it to her. Take just a sip, I say.
"No. I'll eat real food."
The clock ticks and I have to go home. She has been on her vibrating cot for almost two hours. You have to wonder if that's healthy, but then really, what difference could it make now? I tell her I need to go, and ask if she'd like me to help her back to bed before I leave.
"No, honey, I'll just stay on here."
We three caregivers thought that if the son came to Phoenix and saw what bad shape his mother is in, he would be at her side, or make sure someone else was with her all day long. No. Dump these smoothies into her gullet and let her fend for herself. I consider staying, but I'm worn down to a nub myself and would really like to see my husband's face, a rarity these days with our work hours.
I leave a second note for Dickweed next to the "we don't do blood pressure" one.
"Made your mother a smoothie. She didn't want it. I left out the Bio Greens, since they expired before the Twin Towers fell."
Locked the door as I left, and hid the key.