Conjunctions:60 In Absentia

The night my mother died, I was sleepless in a hotel room in Miami. From what Stan—Dr. Sparkman—tells me, from what the nurses told him, I figure I was awake at the moment she passed. I wasn’t there but I was awake. Before I left her, Stan assured me she could live on as she was for a long, indefinite period. If it was at all important I should go ahead to Miami. So I came down to say good-bye to the stockholders, and they stood up and applauded in thanks and regret at my passing. At my retirement. He built all this for us from nothing, they said. What a guy.

     She was demented.

     Not at first.

     She broke her hip in assisted living in a nice place in Buckhead, where my dad had died a few years earlier. She was standing in the center of her living-room floor and she was ninety-two years old and she was talking to a nurse, trying to explain Bach to her, which was filling the room at the time and which the nurse had asked her about, and my mother up and fell. Just like that. And her hip was broken. Stan says the breaking of the hip likely preceded the fall. But there it is.

     When her surgeon the next morning warned me that one person out of two over eighty years old who breaks a hip dies within six months, I thought my mother would beat those odds if anyone could.

     She didn’t. She broke her wrist as well. She couldn’t rehab the hip. So she spent the rest of her life flat on her back in a nursing home. Another nice place up in Buckhead, with me just twenty minutes away, mostly downtown in the Georgia-Pacific Tower, helping the oil fields and construction sites of the world manage their risks.

     She moved from hospital to nursing home with a clear mind.

     “I went into a swoon over an adagio is what happened,” she said, her very first words when I sat down beside her bed, her never having thought to explain in the hospital. She was buttoned up to the throat in her flannel pajamas, the institutional blanket smoothed over her and the bed cranked up so she could read. We’d brought the stand-up wrought-iron lamp that had stood by her reading chair for as long as I could remember. “From the Brandenburg Concerto Number One,” she said.

     I said, “Dad always thought Johann would do you wrong.”

     She extracted her right hand from beneath the covers to slap me lightly on the wrist. “Your father and I had an understanding about me and Herr Bach.”

     I caught her hand before she could take it away and I held it. She turned her face away from me.

     “Do I smell of piss?” she said.

     “A little bit,” I said.

     “I’m in diapers,” she said, her face coming back to me. “But they better not talk to me as if I were a child.”

     “I think they realize that,” I said. “The nurse said she liked your spirit.”

     “They ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” she said.

     I squeezed her hand, gently.

     She took it away.

     The gentleness felt patronizing to her. She didn’t say so. But she looked me hard in the eyes for a moment. Then she softened. “You got your drive from me, you know,” she said.

     Not from Dad. From her. She was right.

     “I know,” I said. “And I’m grateful.” I didn’t take up her hand again, though I had the urge.

     She was fine. She was who she was when she first moved from the hospital to the nursing home.

     She taught me to drive myself. I learned things elsewhere, as well. I just wish I’d been smarter about applying them.

     The dementia was beginning by the next time I saw her, less than a week later. I didn’t recognize it. In my first visit I’d hung a framed print on the wall beyond the foot of her bed. She wanted to see it always. Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Bach’s adagio spoke to what she always hoped for in herself but I doubt ever really found. The painting was what she lived with always. Even a quiet night of church spire and olive tree, of rooftops and mountains, of clouds and moon and stars: Even these were roiling, ever roiling, caught up in a ceaseless vortex of anxiety.

     She nodded to the painting. “Your father went out there last night and he hasn’t come back,” she said.

     I laughed softly.

     “I don’t care,” she said. “He needs to walk more.”

     I took it all as an imaginative little riff on her disaffection with my father, a common theme ever since he’d died in hospice care in their assisted-living apartment shortly after their sixty-fifth anniversary.

     But in fact she meant it literally.

     As this thing in her brain began to spin more rapidly, she would often begin our visit by pointing him out to me. There he was, beside the olive tree. Or on the mountain slope. Or at the church door. I had to see him wandering out there before she would go on.

     And then she’d swirl on to me. How I was about to ruin her life and mine by letting myself go off to war.

     She was convinced; she was unremitting; I could never figure out how simply to stay quiet or deflect her. It would follow much the same script each time.

     She says, “Please don’t go.”

     I say, “It’s all over. I’m back.”

     “We should leave the Vietnamese alone,” she says.

     “That all ended decades ago.”

     “You can still run away.”

     “There’s no need anymore,” I say.

     “You can go to Canada. Your father and I can visit you.”

     “Ma,” I say, using the softest name for her but the sharpest tone she’ll tolerate. “The Vietnam War is over. I’m back and I’m safe.”

     “Don’t leave me,” she says. “I can’t bear it.”

     “I’m here.”

     “A year would feel like a lifetime,” she says.

     “Ma,” I say.

     “You’ll die over there,” she says. “You’ll die alone.”

     And sometimes she got stuck on the part about her being left alone. At least that would shift her sense of time back to the present, but the big problem with her being left alone in the nursing home was that there was so much for her to do in the middle of the night. The nurses needed her help and she tried and tried but she didn’t know how.

     I heard this last theme for weeks before it made sense.

     How stupid I’d become.

     I was an intelligence lieutenant in Vietnam. For the first few months I ran a little all-purpose shop out of Plantation, about thirty klicks up Highway 1 from Saigon. When we interrogated suspects I always had my boys play it by the book. But it was 1971. Units were standing down. Five months into my tour, our unit went home and I got reassigned up-country into I Corps. The First Cav had just stood down up there and everyone was very nervous, butt to butt, as they were, with the North. I ended up working under a captain who had long ago stopped playing it by the book.

     We were in a field office within smelling distance of the Gulf of Tonkin and the thing that finally came back to me in the nursing home was a night during that summer of ’71. A young Charlie in black pj’s was caught with wire cutters and a couple of grenades on our perimeter. They took him to be a sapper. He might have been an unfriendly, but from how easy they grabbed him and from his measly arsenal, he was no proper sapper.

     It didn’t make any difference in those days. He was locked in the back, in our interrogation room, which was bare except for a cot and a piss pot and a chair, and I pulled the midnight-to-dawn shift, sitting at the captain’s desk in the front of the shop, reading cast-off paperbacks and sending in an MI sergeant to wake our Charlie every hour. Just wake him up thoroughly. This went on around the clock. It was as simple as that, the method. Never let him finish a dream. You had to grill him good in the first twenty-four hours because by the second day he was utterly disoriented and by the third day he was hallucinating pretty much all the time. As it was, we never got three coherent sentences in a row out of this guy, much less useful intelligence. But the captain sure was one hell of a tough-guy interrogator.

     So one afternoon near the end of the third month of my mother’s failing mind, she was explaining to me how she really needed some help in the middle of the upcoming night, either from me or my dad— hadn’t she always been there for us when we needed her?—because she was going to have to do the work of ten nurses and they didn’t even give her a sponge and a bucket. And abruptly I knew.

     I went out of the room and down to the nurses’ station and I asked what the procedure was in the night. What did they do to take care of her?

     She was the peroxided, ready-to-retire head nurse with a serious groove between her eyebrows that instantly furrowed deeper. “Is something wrong?” she said.

     I remembered enough about interrogation from forty years ago to hear that tone of voice and let her tell me what was wrong. “What do you think?” I said.

     “She was clear last night,” she said.

     “Are you sure?”

     “Diaper rash can come on quick,” she said. “We love your mother. We’re vigilant, I assure you.”

     I nodded. Diaper rash. I could well imagine. For the state inspections of nursing homes, this must be an obvious objective measure. And I bet the lawyers of litiginous family members love a slide show of diaper rash for the judge.

     “And what do you do to prevent it?” I said.

     The head nurse straightened in her chair and relaxed her brow and announced, “We check her diaper every two hours, day and night.”

     “Day and night,” I said.

     “Yes, sir,” she said.

     “You go in every two hours through the night and wake her to check her diaper.”

     “She goes right back to sleep.”

     Stan, who doesn’t do nursing-home rounds but took my mother on as a favor to me, was appalled at the procedure and leaned on the home management to put her on a bedtime-and-rising diaper routine. She lasted another three months and not once got the rash, but her mind was so fucked over by then, she never recovered.

     I awoke thinking it was something in the room. Then it was something outside. Some sound. But there was only silence. I knew at once where I was. No confusion. No flashbacks. The hotel sat on Brickell Key and my balcony looked across a river-sized slice of Biscayne Bay at the south downtown Miami skyline. Nothing out there would make a sound at this hour.

     I sat up, pulled the covers back, put my feet on the floor. Where was I going? Nowhere. Just to a sitting position with my feet on the floor. Back to Atlanta in a few hours. I’d been gone barely thirty-six.

     The last time I saw my mother alive she was sleeping hard at noon, even though I was beside her. Not a coma. She’d wake up. But only enough to turn her eyes to me. She’d stopped talking.

     The last time she spoke to me, two days before, she lifted her hand for mine as I was about to go back to the office and she held on tight and she said, “Kenny.”

     And my name struck me as if for the first time. As if she’d only just then named me.

     She said no more.

     She let go.

     I went out.

     But sitting on the side of the bed in the hotel room in Miami, I knew what she wanted to say next. Don’t go.

In addition to his thirteen novels, Robert Olen Butler has published six short story collections, one of which, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Grove Press) won the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.