Our brief convo doesn’t go well. Mother says she’s already raised me once and has no intention to do it again. She rubs it in my face, that I haven’t learned from her many lessons yet. She reminds me, she’s retired now, watches her budget, not a can of beans to spare. She likes living alone with her female pet crows.
“I’m barely able to take care of my own needs,” she says between the crackle and solar flares of the cell towers.
“It’s just for a while, until I determine a new direction?”
“You’re breaking apart, it’s difficult to hear you. You never listen to me, Katie. Look after yourself.”
After the harsh words, her phone cuts out, “Damned her, damned the towers, damned men, I say out loud to no one who cares.” Long story short, I know she hung up on me.
A lot can change in just a few years. The Twenty-First Century is teaching us that.
I move back to the Mississippi coast, scarf up the crumbs of my 401-K, and work three different server jobs at the local restaurants. Somehow, I scrape up enough money for a small room with kitchen privileges. Then, I take as many business classes as I can at Gulf Coast Community College. In just a few short years, I move into management at one of the larger barge casinos near Biloxi.
Mother remains in our hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, just 13 unlucky miles south as the crow flies. She’s only invited me to dinner once. It’s now 2019. The short ribbon of coastline that connects us hasn’t brought us any closer.
Until, my mother has her stroke, nothing changes.
“Katie, am I speaking to Katie Cumming’s?”
“Yes, this is Katie.”
“Katie, this is the charge nurse, evening shift, at Gulfport Memorial Hospital. We discovered your mother’s address book. She had you listed under, ‘unwanted daughter.’ I’m sure that’s a family inside joke, but I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
“Did she die?” The question leaped out of my mouth. But from behind the dark, protective drape that shields my true feelings, as fail-safe as an X-ray protector, what I was truly thinking was, “I hope the evil bitch is dead.”
“Ah, no, but your mother’s had a severe stroke Katie. You may want to visit her in a few days. She’s still in the I.C.U. Please check back regarding any future visitation hours, and for when she’ll able to see family and friends.”
“Family and friends, I’m ‘it’, if an ‘unwanted daughter qualifies?”
“Well, ah, anyway Ms. Cummings, I’ll give you the station landline number. That way you’ll be able to follow-up on her medical condition. Depending if, ah, when she recovers. Ask for nurse Cassidy in case I’m in.”
A thought pounces crosses my mind. Do I ever want to call, check-in? But I’m polite to R.N. Cummings, say, “Thank you.” The words leave my mouth as painful as a toothache.
Jesus, how things change in three months?
I meet a man named Dr. Covington. How ironic that he’s in charge of mother’s care. But mother demanded the top cardiologist, absent gender. So Dr. Covington is her new specialist, in charge of her care.
When we first speak, the first thing he tells me is that he’s in a hurry. That he’s up to his stethoscope in sick and dying patients. The second thing he tells me is that he thinks mother hates him.
“Katie,” he says, “I understand you’re her only living relative. I’ll be blunt. Your mother is going to need nearly 24-hour medical care. She’s had a severe stroke and has been diagnosed with diabetes as well. It looks like the disease has gone untreated for many years. Her kidneys are failing and she has a damaged heart. She could live ten minutes or ten years.”
“Her heart Dr. Covington, how strong is it?”
“Well, it’s more like how weak and damaged is it? She’d die on the operating table if we cracked her sternum and attempted cardiac surgery. It, her heart, is a ticking time bomb, a few beats short of 50% capacity. With the right medications and minimal exertion, she should be fine under your care.”
“Dr. Covington,” I say in a soft voice meant to be calming for both of us. I’ve read all the instructions, including her regimen of medications, supportive clinical prescriptions, and dietary requirements. I’ll do the best that I can. As we’ve discussed, we do have a strained relationship”
“I’m not surprised,” says the good doctor. “I love to see family members, in difficult situations, drop everything to take care of their sick parents.”
“I don’t know how devoted I’ll be, but I’ll do the best job that I can. She’s not very comfortable with company.”
“Well,” Dr. Covington says as he briskly stands, “You’re her only child. I’m sure she sees you as more than just company. In due time, I imagine, you stand firmly between her living and dying.”
I cough out of nervousness, into my elbow. Dr. Covington asks if I have allergies. “Just those damned birds.” He gives me a sample of a new antihistamine and escorts me down the hall, where I exit the hospital and enter hell.
“Did she die?”
He says, “Good luck,” to my back.
Over my shoulder, I say, “I’m going to need it.” The sound of my response is anemic. It comes from somewhere under my tongue, the exact location I’d like to place a cyanide tablet.
I drive directly home and empty my remaining belongings from my car. I place them in the corner of my old bedroom. It only takes three trips this time. This is my last trip up the long row of wooden steps. I’m carrying my best friend, the one and only, Alexander the Great. As we enter the cold house, Alexander gracefully leaps on the squeaky hardwood floor. He begins to chirp and wind his tail around my leg when he smells the crows.
From just outside mother’s closed bedroom door, Alexander and I stand transfixed. I notice there is a hell of a lot of wheezing in there. The crows seem to be mimicking her. It’s as if she and the crows are conspiring to calm one another.