Betty by Rick Stepp-Bolling

Chris, I’m writing this letter to you knowing you will never receive it. There are several reasons for that, but I’m sure you will understand that your mental instability probably ranks highest on the list.

Your mother is dying. At this moment she lies on a hospital bed at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson. I wonder if you remember that she has lived in Tucson for nearly a decade and considers it home? As the wife of an Air Force colonel, home meant wherever she was currently stationed for three years. By contrast, ten years was practically a lifetime and translated into friendships on a semi-permanent basis, knowledge of all the back roads to and from her residence in the Catalina Mountains, and a home decorated in Southwestern finery that only an interior designer could manage. All of those vanished in a blink of an eye and the smallest movement of a blood clot in the brain creating a massive stroke powerful enough to disrupt the circuitry of the entire left hemisphere. God, if there is one, works in mysterious ways, Chris, and this perhaps, the most enigmatic of all.

Your mother is seventy. When I entered her room for the first time, she lay flat, her white hair matted, lifeless, her eyes fixated on a moment in time, not on anything tangible. Then her eyes opened and met mine. There was an instance of recognition and a gray-blue fire leaped to life within her. Her left arm held the I. V., which dutifully clicked and dripped; her right arm, motionless, lay to the side, a useless limb. Her right shoulder looked blackened, a bone extruding out where it should not have been, the result of her fall after the stroke. Her eyes locked on me with surprise, recognition, and what I think was a touch of anger. She wanted me there and she wished me gone. I felt the ground become unstable below me.

Your younger sister, Ann, had met me at the airport. She had just recently arrived from Iowa where she had taken an emergency leave from her work and from her own hospital adventure. Scheduled for surgery in another week, she should have been resting or mentally preparing instead of spending her days by her mother’s side and her nights popping tranquilizers. There is no justice in being human. Ann, if you remember, is some ten years younger than you with two daughters and an administrative position at ACT. She supervises the creation of the Pre Law Exam. She was the one you claimed betrayed you, and you threatened to take away her children. It was another reason she hadn’t talked to you in over ten years.

When Ann walked into the room, she did not hesitate. She spoke with a voice committed to lightness but with no truth behind her words or tone. Her voice spoke more of despair and less of hopefulness. The “Hi Mom,” woke your mother from the edge of some unseen pit. Again, her eyes focused with cognition, lit, then dimmed. The nurses dutifully entered, changed bags, I. V. or urine, fixed her position, checked her vital signs. The food service came and packed away her uneaten food. Aides arrived to comb hair, exchange linen, clean floors. There was a business involved with dying—not to be interrupted or disturbed by the last days of someone who had outlived her usefulness.

Even so close to death, this woman had not lost her sense of humor. My weak jokes provoked a brief explosion of air and sound which all of us took to be a laugh. Throughout the morning I maintained the levity, maintained the farce. What I wanted to truly do was rush out of the room, get away from this dying woman and rage at the cruelty of life and mourn my own mortality. By afternoon I had been drained of all of it. The humor, energy, defiance . . . all I had left were tears, and so I sobbed onto Ann’s shoulder, and she on mine, and the day passed into the heat of the Arizona evening.

We spent the night huddling with the memories of our childhood. We played “Do you remember . . . “ into the night, laughing at the ghosts of our former selves—so foolish and innocent in our youth. Then the house suffocated us with its desert flower arrangements, playhouses complete with miniature furnishings, and the wall photographs of dead and dying people. Sobered, we slipped into our rooms hoping to find a kind of peace within the darkness.

Morning found us in the hospital once again. I steeled myself against the antiseptic smells and clinical efficiency of early morning routines. The physical therapists had arrived at the same time as the aide who changed the sheets and sponge-bathed your mother. Attempting to speak, only two words escaped and those barely discernible. Even my feeble efforts to help her communicate, blink once for yes and twice for no, proved futile. The few words she spoke sounded alien. Her brain simply would not allow access to the words she wanted to use. Finally, after a day of struggling, we understood what she wanted from us. Grabbing my hand with her left hand, she placed it on Ann’s hand. “Cousin,” I said. She responded in her unearthly language, but nodded. Then she said something unintelligible, but pushed us away from her. My heart broke. “You want us to leave,” I said quietly. She nodded. She repeated the gesture, placing my hand in Ann’s. “Always,” I said. And that was the last time I saw her.

I tell you this, not because it will make sense to you, not because it will make sense to me, but because all stories must have an ending. Two weeks later, a woman in the hospice called and said your mother died peacefully in the night. I am sure those words were rehearsed with great care. Your mother died and perhaps she was at peace, but the words were for the living to give whatever comfort someone else’s death can give us. This is all I have for you . . . words. I don’t know where you are, I don’t know if your private hell has swallowed you again or if you have found the redemption of sanity in an insane world, but these words are for you.

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