Book of Marvels
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Charlie Is Alive

My mother had a list of things that she wanted me to do--pull the tomato plants out of her garden, refill her salt shaker, move the decaffeinated green tea to the front of the cupboard where she can reach it. The one thing I really didn't want to do was to dispose of Charlie's remains and clean out his sepulchral vase. But when I walked into my mother's apartment, I saw a flutter of fins.

"He's alive!" I told her. His vase--with a plant in the top and roots in the water that he nibbles at and hides in--was slicked over with green and clotted with floating poop. My sister had been gone for three weeks, so it hadn't been cleaned in at least that long. My mother couldn't see Charlie for all the scum and floaters, so she had stopped feeding him-- she figured it didn't make sense to feed a dead fish. He had survived a week or so of light rations and, after I took care of matters, was feeling pretty swimmy with his clean vase and pollen-sized pellets of food. He's always been a shy fish, but he was suddenly showy.

The sad thing was that my 92-year 0ld mother could still hardly see him.

I visit her every three or so months in California. At each of those three-month increments, I find that more and more has been taken from her--meaning, she gets smaller, she hears less, she struggles to see. I should point out that there have been gains, too, and that some things haven't changed. She has lots of lovely new friends at the apartment building she moved to after my father's death; I tell her it's like the college dorm or sorority life she never had. She even has two new friends who climbed part of Mt. Everest when they were in their sixties. And she still loves clothes. Even though she can't read much else, she manages to peruse the catalogs and order clothes over the phone. I'm sure she enjoys chatting with the people at the call center. I'm sure they have to set aside their time-studied efficiencies and allow themselves a conversation.

But my mother can't read books anymore. This is a huge loss for someone whose life was always partly defined by what she was reading. I have a large family--four siblings, plus their spouses and their eleven grown children and their spouses--and there is a constant book swap at work. My mother always used to have a pile by her bed-- this one from Betty, this one from Dan and Sue, this one from Cindy, and so on. Whenever it was her birthday, she'd get a pile of books. It was the one thing we always knew she wanted.

But her eyes have failed her. Her wrists, too: even when she finds a book that she likes in big print (and she has issues with the quality of the books that go into large print!), the book is usually too heavy for her to hold. She still talks about books and touches them lovingly in stores. When I took her through Costco in a wheelchair the other day, she found a book that someone in the family had been talking about and held it in her lap for a while. Then she sighed and lifted it with two trembling hands. "It's too heavy," she said.

One of the last books she read was High Albania, a wonderful book about a turn-of-the-last-century woman who was ordered to travel for her health and wound up spending years in Albania, visiting remote mountain clans on horseback. My mother loved the book so much that she talked it up to her friends at lunch. One elderly couple wound up borrowing the book. They returned it while I was visiting. As the man handed it to me, he widened his eyes and said, "She's pretty smart, isn't she?"

"Quite smart," I said, and refrained from kicking his walker. Maybe the comment stung because I remembered boys saying something like this to me, about me, when I was a teenager. They seemed startled that a girl could be smart, just as this man was startled that my mother could be smart-- at least, in this bookish way.

Now she can't be smart and engaged in that way anymore. It breaks my heart. Posted by Picasa

I don't know how it is in California, but my own 82 year old mother is losing her eyesight to macular degeneration. In Missouri, where she lives, she gets books on tape. It’s a special format read by a machine that is on loan from the Association for the Blind. The machine has simple buttons for its operation. They send a tape to help learn how to use the machine. A doctor will have to certify that she needs it, but she can probably have all of this free, if someone will help her get it set up. The tapes come in the mail and are postpaid to send them back. All you do is turn the label over. My mother has wonderful stories to tell about the book she is listening to every time I call her. The only drawback is that it difficult for a low vision person to order specific books. But my mother has been disappointed with a only a couple. Oh, there are magazines on tape. too.

Glad Charlie’s alive. But smart mothers need mental stimulation, just as we do. I hope this will help.
Helen's is a great idea--I hope your mother will do it. Ours wouldn't--she was stubborn about things that she saw as part of the too-much-change in her world.
It is a good suggestion, but my mother either won't or can't do it. It's even hard for her to see well enough--and have good enough strength and dexterity--to use her telephone. She's kind of given up on dealing with any new machines.

But thanks for the thought, Helen.
Perhaps books on tape? or CDs on tape? Perhaps you could turn her on to npr? I love "This American Life" and imagine it might be something that she might like...
That's me above (homeinkabul)
This is so beautifully written; I feel like I really got to know and came to admire your mother through this short piece. It's especially moving to me since my own mother is going through some of the same losses.
I kept a fish tank as a kid and remember the insane hassle of cleaning it out every few months. Now I have recurring dreams that I've forgotten the tank for some undetermined LENGTHY period of time, and when I discover the tank again, it is slimed over with algae and over-grown plants, and the fish that are still alive are either gigantic, have long scary tendrils, are poisonous, or sometimes, on a good night, are just really hungry.

I'm glad Charlie was one of those "good nights."
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