Monroe, LA - She no longer sings. Oralee Dorothea Meachum spends what is left of the rest of her life in seeming silence. Looking through sightless eyes at a world she cannot see. Riding in the car, away from St. Joseph's Nursing Home, she occasionally offers: "What beautiful trees." I agree.
We are both being polite. She seeks to reassure she is pleased to be up and about, away from St. Joseph's; my response means to encourage the fantasy that she continues to be an active member of the human race. We both know better.
She has become what she told me years ago she feared: someone waiting for "sweet death," as the poets say. She no longer argues she should live in Maryland, self-prescribing the medications she chooses.
Her theme then stressed a lack of dependency on doctors and nurses and the facilities that maintain her life 24-hours a day every hour of the week. In conversation I went along, never agreeing or disagreeing; my part was to keep the hope alive, to save her dignity and feelings. That role no longer exists.
Upon each return to Louisiana, mother struggles to recognize her only son. I try to help with touching and kissing and repeating several times "I love you." She breaks my heart, each time, by responding "Thank you." Her voice resumes a youthful pitch; her head genuflects, as if to an older person: a teacher or priest from the past. The very politeness underscores her sense of isolation.
In the course of our sporadic and infrequent days together, she gradually comes to understand and acknowledge who I am: her only visitor in the caring ambiance created long ago by Catholic nuns. Those American-born Franciscan sisters departed long ago. They were replaced by Irish ladies, complete with lilting accent, who belong to the Order of Mercy founded in Dublin.
Mother receives reassurance from their veils (very much abbreviated) and the lilt that lingers in each, although they all have been in this country for years. She goes to mass each morning, being rolled in a wheelchair turned to face her face toward the altar.
In several services, with our arms and shoulders virtually touching, I've yet to hear a single oral response but she has smiled in such a way to encourage the hope she understands what is being said and sung. She definitely knows she is in the chapel, one of the three realities that give her comfort. Her room is another.
In her last years mother sleeps on the type of bed that I went to in my first years of breaking away: a boarding school cot that was replicated in Army barracks. The kind nurses tell me Mrs. Meachum passes most of her hours curled up on the thin mattress, frequently with a cloth covering her head on the pillow.
Others comment on the framed and hanging picture a good friend made of her child kissing her curls while she looks through eyes that obviously fail to focus; they cannot. One side of her mouth pulls up in a tentative smile that never develops. She rarely smiles now, except when presented her absolute favorite: vanilla ice cream floating in Coke. "This is delicious," she says repeatedly. "This is delicious."
The dining room is the third peg for her personal trinity. She sits early at table, waiting to practice the etiquette and manners she taught me: carefully holding fork and knife, soothingly stroking her mouth with a napkin while she pretends to participate in the conversation's flow, sometime crackling. She simply can't and her younger tablemates understand.
This coming winter, on the day after Christmas, Oralee Dorothea Meachum will turn 93, and she will. Her life force has dimmed but not disappeared. She has the attention of all those marvelous St. Joseph's people, her taste for Coke floats and a son who comes these hundreds of miles to make her smile and confirm she is loved. Helpful Pushkin helps. We both would like to do more.
In return, I fervently wish to hear that sweet voice crooning: "What can I say, dear, after I say I'm sorry," or the racier: "I'll be down to get you in a taxi, honey." As longtime readers know we once joined in duets. No more. How I miss them.