Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Come-As-You-Are Party

I notice the wandering foot immediately. Bea must have been trying to get out of bed all morning. The foot dangles over the bed rail. My mother has pushed aside the covers and is wiggling her toes. Looks like she's hosting another party …

“Guests are coming,” Bea says and extends one hand. “Help me get up.”

“You can’t get up,” I say, astonished that anyone can forget having been bedridden for months.

“You mean I receive my guests in bed now?” She looks flabbergasted at the impropriety of this idea. “But I’m not dressed!!”

“The party can be come-as-you-are. Whom have you invited?”

“Ruth and Henry. Miggits and her husband. Somebody from China and his fiancé. She’s very pleased to be included. My sister and her husband. And, of course, you and Sven.”

“What are you serving?”

“I’m not sure yet. I have to think about it.”

As Bea settles in to consider the menu, I congratulate myself that the distraction technique seems to have been effective. I go off to make her some breakfast. Five minutes later I find my bedridden mother again hard at work, maneuvering her way towards the bed rail.

“You have to stay in bed,” I tell her, more firmly this time. “You might fall if you stood up.”

“Can’t I just practice?” she asks. “Come on! Help me get up.”

“I can't do it alone. How about waiting until Lisa gets here?”

“Okay.” With reluctance, Bea leans back against her pillows.

I know Lisa will be willing to help me get Bea into a chair but trust this new fixation on walking will have passed by the time our health aide from Hospice and Palliative Care of Cape Cod arrives. A phone call draws me into the next room. When I return, I pause in the doorway and listen.

“That Ruth knows everything,” Bea is saying in a chatty voice. “Ruth plans to surprise everybody with what we are going to eat. I’m afraid I will be a little late. My husband loves me, so he puts up with my being late….”

I clear my throat.

A brief look of embarrassment crosses Bea’s face but it is preempted by distress at the urgency of her predicament: I am her ticket out of bed.

“Oh, do hurry. They’re coming in 3 minutes. You must help me. I really have to get up. They know I’m eccentric, but not so eccentric as to receive them in bed.”

“I’m sure they will understand.” I search for another way to distract her. “Wasn’t Henry Fox a doctor?”

“A psychiatrist. He chose the name himself.”

“Why? What was his name before?”

“He didn’t tell me. You can ask when he gets here.”

Bea pauses and looks off into the distance, then says with sorrow, “Both Ruth and Henry died of TB.”

Quick as a spring shower, my mother shakes off the melancholy. Bea has an uncanny ability to jump from dream world to reality and back without missing a beat: “Here comes Ruth now. How do I know? I can smell the Chinese perfume. I have such a pretty daughter. The guests have never seen you before. They are all going to gasp.”

Is she talking about me as a child? Are we in the past or the present? All of a sudden I feel overwhelmed by her resilience and reluctance to leave this life she has lived so fully. All I can think to do is express affection. I lean in and hold my head near hers a quiet moment.

“You’re so pretty,” she says then.

“You, too.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Give me a kiss.”

Bea busses my cheek. The cream of wheat has finally cooled down. I spoon it into her mouth and leave my mother with her eyes closed, smiling happily.

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