Sep 09 ● BY Stefanie Caterer
The box of morphine is still in the fridge. It’s been there for two weeks. Maybe more—I don’t feel like counting. It’s in the dairy container in the door. I look at it every time I get butter. I just hang onto the door handle, peering at the little white box, wondering what it would take for me to open it and drink. Would I feel drunk? Stoned? People who would do that, open the box and drink the morphine, they’re the people who downhill ski. Skydive. They’re the people who like to leave their houses. What if I sell the box? What would it go for? Maybe $100? I don’t even know. Could I really sell my mother-in-law’s pain meds that hospice dropped off the day before she died? I stand there in my kitchen with the refrigerator door open, wondering. I shut the door, and even though I don’t see it happen, I know the light goes off inside.
The house I don’t like to leave is nice. When we were shopping for houses with Gram, we walked into this one, and my daughter said, “We can’t live here. It’s too nice.” The floors are a dark chocolate hardwood, the counters a gray granite. Sedate tones have been painted on the walls, so sedate you can’t even call them colors. There are windows everywhere, and through the glass you can see rows of 1930s brick bungalows that look exactly like this one lining the street, so alike that if someone broke in and robbed us, I wouldn’t take it personally. Local legend says that ten minutes south all the big gangsters built huge mansions with underground escape tunnels and sent their henchmen here. So I guess we live in Henchmen’s Alley. There are a lot of cemeteries.
Gram helped us buy the house so we could move in together and take care of her. I guess we were the ones most available to do that. Or the most willing. The deal was that she would put down the cash and we would split the mortgage. There was an apartment in the basement, and a contractor added a stove, sink, and a peninsula counter, but until that was finished Gram lived in the room right outside our upstairs kitchen. She would get up and have a cup of coffee and sit at the heirloom oak pedestal table she got from her mother (already promised to me) and not move for sixteen hours except to pee, which took a lot of effort. That first month, every time we went into the kitchen she wanted to talk. Soon we all began avoiding the kitchen.
She would ask me to take her shopping. I did sometimes, but I don’t like shopping. The filling of a cart is soul emptying to me. Really though, I didn’t feel like carrying her oxygen tank out to the car while inching beside her walker, so the attached tubing didn’t pull off of her face and then running back for the wheelchair in case the store didn’t have motorized carts. A third trip back would be for an extra tank just in case we needed it (we always did), plus water, the rescue inhaler, her purse—I ended up starving on those rides from the exertion it took just to drive away. We didn’t have time to stop for food, though. The oxygen might run out.
I would pull into the parking lot. “We have a handicapped sticker,” she’d say as if I didn’t know, as if she’d never said it before, as if I hadn’t driven her around for months to stores and doctor’s appointments and pharmacies and Panera Breads. I let it slide and bit the inside of my cheek, waiting for her to inevitably point out a specific handicap spot. She always did, and I’d pull into it, shamefully proud of myself for pretending to be easygoing. Hefting the eight-hundred-pound wheelchair out of the back and rolling it around to her side, I’d open the door and ever-so-gingerly pick up the oxygen cylinder resting on the floor between her knees. It is smooth-brushed nickel with military green accents, weighs nine pounds, and stands twenty-nine inches at attention. Shooting pure oxygen into my mother-in-law’s nostrils at a rate of four liters per minute, it will last roughly four hours.
But she hasn’t been at four liters in months. We’ve got maybe half that time. Reluctantly, she turns her body, shifting her legs to get out of the car as I reverently back up in tiny increments like a bowing geisha. Even the smallest movement causes her to stop and catch her breath. I pause. Don’t talk. Look away. It’s a moratorium on time itself. A deliberate decision is made in her brain to move from the car to the waiting wheelchair, every action a chore. Finally she sinks down and says, “Wait.” She doesn’t want to be pushed yet, wants to just sit there. I already know to wait and I wonder again why moving forward while sitting still in the wheelchair would drain her, but it does. Moving forward sitting still. When she barely nods to show she is ready, I push her across the small expanse of pavement toward the inevitable bump at the entrance. She gets mad at me for the bump. In a way, her rudeness is sweet. I am an extension of her body so she doesn’t need to be polite. Politeness takes too much effort.
“Go this way.”
“Ouch, watch out for my feet.”
“Stop. Back up. I want to look at that sweatshirt.”
We are at Target and I am quiet. My own peevishness peeves me, and I try to overcome it. At one point we stop and I sojourn from behind the wheelchair to face her.
She looks up. “You have no idea how much I miss this.”
We have to keep going. The air is running out.
In the last known Kmart on the planet, it is just Gram and I again. She wants to buy an obscene quantity of a grossly flavored store-brand seltzer water: blood orange blackberry or something, full of chemical sweeteners. Okay but how was I going to push her in a wheelchair and also push the cart carrying a hundred bottles of nasty carbonated water at the same time? Gram decrees that she would sit forward and drive the cart while I, in tandem behind, push her in the wheelchair. The buzzing of the florescent lights mocked our way as we rolled through the last Kmart alive with Mr. Death snapping at our wheels.
That wasn’t our last trip out. Our last trip out was to Bed Bath and Beyond, a store that is hard to navigate even without a wheelchair, and with one, totally impossible. But we had Gram’s sister, Marnee, with us, so she pushed Gram. Marnee was beautiful, of course. They laughed their way around the main track, giddy with shopping and being sisters and not being me. I followed pushing the cart, thirty years behind, suffocating and hating myself. Gram bought a wall clock and a memory foam wheelchair seat cushion that day. She didn’t like the clock when we got it home. I haven’t returned it yet. I probably won’t.
The next morning I trek down the thirteen stairs to her basement apartment, peering at her through the glass door. She’s sleeping in her La-Z-Boy, hunched forward and to the side, looking like she’s about to fall out. She’s done it before. I make sure to see her torso lift and recede before I turn the doorknob. She hears the door click and sits up, breathing heavily, oxygen machine between eight and nine. It only goes up to ten.
“Good morning!” I say, trying to be happy. “How did you sleep?”
Our routine takes an hour, every moment filled. I roll her to the bathroom and stand impatiently outside the door, contemplating my worthless existence. When she’s done, I flush the toilet for her, a surprisingly intimate job. I roll her back. All of this takes no fewer than twenty minutes. Then I take (and record in a Hello Kitty notebook) her: blood pressure, heart rate, pulse oxygen level, blood sugar, and weight. I wait until the end to take care of the dreaded compression socks.
Sitting on the rug at her feet like a reverent discount shoe salesman, I stretch the stiff nylon over her toes, trying to be mindful that my cramping fingers don’t accidentally let go and snap the fabric into her already burning flesh. I usually fail and snap at least once, eliciting brief but scathing anger. It’s one of my better days.
After bringing her the pre-breakfast pills, I make her whatever she wants to eat. Sometimes it’s Cream of Wheat sprinkled with two packets of fake sugar, sometimes Cheerios with strawberries and two packets of fake sugar. Eventually in the mornings, she just wanted a little bit of banana and an Ensure. That’s when she couldn’t make it to the bathroom anymore, so we put a commode next to the couch to be emptied a few times a day. I wonder how it felt peeing in the living room while watching HGTV.
She would watch the cooking channels and fantasize about eating all the food on there—she wasn’t supposed to eat salt or sugar. She would watch and then ask me to buy her vanilla ice cream or a fish sandwich from Culver’s. I always said no—I’m the one who had to call the ambulance if things went bad—except once when we visited her in the hospital. We brought her drumsticks, the dipped ice cream cones with nuts. She sat there, at the end of the hospital bed, licking that cone and smiling so big I couldn’t help but feel awful. Because of all the ice cream I had denied her in the past year. Because I couldn’t make it last a little bit longer. Because I couldn’t do anything at all. I just sat there and ate a damn cone and smiled right back at her, even though I don’t love ice cream.
The last time I called the ambulance I had a feeling she wouldn’t be coming home. It was her legs. They were so swollen they started weeping out this clear fluid in little drops. Her skin couldn’t contain what was happening in there. This can’t be good, I thought. The EMT guys took her out the back way, across the new patio by the privacy fence she had just paid for. She made them stop so we could all admire the fence.
“I’ll bring your stuff,” I said, holding her hand.
“You know what I need.” She smiled and looked at me.
“I sure do,” I whispered back, not letting go of her hand. “I’m following right behind you.”
Hospice came and dropped off a bed, and another oxygen machine, and a lot of drugs. We made a cheery welcome home banner decorated with silk flowers and bought party food with Gram’s credit card for when she came home. We went to see her in ICU that night.
She was talking a bit crazy, thinking she was back in our house in Henchman’s Alley. “Can you go downstairs and grab foil from my kitchen to wrap up the pizza?” she asked me.
“I think they can just throw the pizza away.”
She wasn’t happy I didn’t fetch foil from her kitchen that wasn’t there to wrap pizza that didn’t exist, but she was looking forward to coming home the next day for her party, so we talked about that. I told her I bought organic hot dogs and vanilla ice cream and she could eat whatever she wanted, and if she got tired she could just go in the room next to the kitchen because there was a bed in there for her, and one for me, and our old friend the commode.
We said goodbye and I told her I loved her. She stuck out her lips for a kiss and I offered my cheek. When I looked back to wave, she was sitting in the chair, tiny and expectant, as if she were still waiting for me to say goodbye, like she wanted me to stay.
A nurse called early in the morning. “You better get here,” he said. Before we could tie our shoes, she was gone.
I sat there on my son’s bed watching his teenage body easily rise and fall.
“Bud . . . hey, Bud?”
“Mom,” he growls. I wait, suspended in the time before everything would change.
“It’s Gram, Bud. Gram died.”
His eyes open. He looks into me.
“You did so good, Mom.”
I shake it off.
“Mom. You did so good.”
The banner has been up for a while. There’s morphine in the fridge. I open the door to look at it. I shut the door and the light goes off.