Lessons of age as I fall into being my mother

(M Scott)
(M Scott)

by Melissa Musick Nussbaum

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"Pride goeth before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18) is one of the Bible verses I learned before I could understand it. I now not only understand it, I can add to it. "Pride goeth before, and sometimes after, a fall."

For those of you who read our sister publication, Celebration, and so are keeping score at home, you may remember that I fell hiking in the mountains with my grandchildren on the Fourth of July. Bombs bursting, as it turned out, not so much in air as in my shoulder and my back.

The first problem showed up in a right rotator cuff tear. The second problem, a displaced spinal vertebrae and impinged nerves, showed up soon after. I'm now a regular at the physical therapists' office, where they are valiantly working to stretch, exercise and massage me back to health.

Another verse comes to mind: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). This, I now understand, is a simple declarative statement about the way muscles and tendons and nerves (oh, my!) work and do not work, regardless of the intentions of the body in which they dwell, and is devoid of any hint of what we currently call "spirituality."

When my husband and I prepared to leave on a late summer vacation, my physical therapist -- and the only person I know who both refers to the pelvis as a "soup bowl" and can demonstrate how to hold said pelvis so as not to "spill the soup" -- urged me to travel with a cane. I could see the sense of that.

What I could not quite believe is that I did not have a single cane in my possession.

My mother, who lived with us for years before she died, was something of a cane diva. She had canes with floral patterns, and canes with fancy handle grips, and carved wooden canes, and the sturdy, three-tipped canes for days when she was less interested in looking good (and those days were rare) than in strong and certain support.

Before she moved to a walker and then to a wheelchair, her canes were both mobility aids and fashion statements. Admiring cane users often stopped us to find out where my mother had picked up an especially fetching number.

So why was I on my way to the medical supply store to pick out a cane for me?

Because, when my mother died in December 2011, I gave them all away. It was partly a goodwill gesture to the facility where she spent her last months, a place where canes were always needed. But it was mostly my own pride and arrogance and a sense that I would have no need of her canes. Canes were for the elderly and I was a staunch middlely.

Then came the fall, and, if not The Fall, it was my fall, and my body wasn't the only thing bent out of shape. I took the cane on vacation, and spent a good bit of time in airports and on our boat explaining my problems in such a way as to make them sound a) temporary and b) the result of the kind of vigorous, outdoorsy, youthful activity that makes one "the fun grandma."

I should have worn a sign: "My regular mode of transportation is a pair of sturdy -- slightly used, lightly varicosed, but very handy -- legs."

When I returned home, I went for my regular biweekly appointment at the body shop and picked up a Jolly Rancher candy (I know, I know) from the bowl beside the check-in desk. I popped it in my mouth and began chewing. I stopped chewing as soon as I realized that, in addition to the chunk of hard sugar, I was chewing on something distinctly metallic.

I pulled out of my mouth a piece of candy with a dental crown firmly embedded. One of the questions after the pride and the fall is, "Where does one stow a piece of crowned (literally) Jolly Rancher during a physical therapy appointment?"

Answer: A tissue. Held gingerly, so as to keep the crown intact and replaceable. (Do not put the tissue in your pocket. Because you will forget it and sit on it and bend it. Do not ask me how I know this.) And just like that -- or, at least, after everyone stops laughing -- all pride is gone.

Or maybe not, because then I began falling, just falling. In public, on a quaint street in a quaint town in Maine, in a movie theater with my 12-year-old grandson. No harm done, because I have learned to take support where it may be found.

Since this is a sign of worsening nerve impingement, I was sent for an MRI and flexion (if that is, indeed, a word) X-ray study.

That led me to a pain specialist who suggested the next plan of attack. Which is how I found myself face down and bottom up on a gurney, as the doctor threaded a catheter into my spine and pumped some combination of steroids and magic beans (I'll just take back the cow, please) into the spinal nooks and crannies.

A friend, who is also a nurse and who helped care for my mother in her last years, took me to the appointment. She sat with me as the IV was inserted in my hand. She waited until I was returned to the curtained cubicle where I broke my pre-procedure fast with cold water and saltines.

The nurse came in and made me stand and walk. Nothing, at least, made worse. And that simple relief, my friends, is now also a source of joy. I could go home.

They removed the IV and wrapped my hand in the brown, stretchy bandage I remember so well from mother's late-life illnesses and accidents.

We got in the car and I fastened my seatbelt. My glance fell on my hand, the fingers thickening at the knuckles, the digits curving in slight arcs, as if my fingers were preparing to take flight. It was, right down to the bright red fingernail polish, my mother's hand.

"Oh, Yvonne," I said, "look. It's my mother's hand." I waved it in the air.

She looked and smiled and said, "Yes, yes, it is."

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's column for NCR is at NCRonline.org/blogs/my-table-spread. Her latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life and will be in bookstores in February 2016.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 20-Dec 3, 2015 print issue under the headline: Lessons of age as I fall into being my mother.

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