The Folklore Project
A Dose of Extra-Strength Tylenol
By Lanier Isom
When my mother, now 83, asked me to drive her to see Frank who is recuperating at a physical rehabilitation facility two hours away in Huntsville, she says, “The only reason I’m asking is I know you won’t let me drive alone on the highway.”
This from a woman who’s been to Tibet three times, China seven, Japan eight. This from a woman who’s ice-clamped her way across glacial ravines, been rescued by a Russian banana boat in the Bering Sea, and sipped tea downwind from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, ignoring urgent emails to come home.
And, anyway, since when does she listen to what I have to say?
But in a rare moment when she’s being honest about where she is in life, I know she doesn’t trust herself navigating the scattered orange cones that line the never-ending widening of our superhighways. I also know she knows how nervous I am driving on the Interstate, and how hapless I am with directions. Usually, when we go anywhere, she drives, as no one in my family expects me to drive them anywhere, and with good reason. Her request signals a tectonic shift in our relationship.
Even though I don’t have the time and dread the drive, I say yes. I also make my 17-year-old son, Clint, go with us, thinking, I’m taking my mother to visit Frank today. One day soon, I could be visiting her, and one day, Clint might visit me in the same sort of place.
Frank and my mother's friend Barbara are two of her few friends left. B, as we call her, my mother and Frank go to dinner at the Fish Market once every couple of weeks. Their other friends — Joan, Mary, Ginny, Rosie, Pride, Adele — they’re all gone. Addiction, cancer, Alzheimer’s, unnamed neurological disorders, an unsuspecting side effect from the shock treatments prescribed to most of these women during the 1960s before they sifted through the wreckage of divorce, affairs, and middle-age disappointments, claimed them all.
These three have known each for years now. They knew each other when Frank’s first sculptures were as simple as a child's. Standing outside Frank’s hospital room recently, his brother told my mother she was the only one left who knew the “real” Frank. The legions of visitors were people who knew only the "famous" Frank, the ones who celebrated his 75th birthday hosted by the Birmingham Museum of Art, home to a magnificent collection of his life’s work.
Frank had fallen several weeks ago, but then he fell again in the middle of the night. Alone, in the dark, he flickered in and out of consciousness for six hours. By this time, he couldn’t walk, and his blood pressure had dropped to 34/21. In the hospital’s intensive-care unit, he was eventually diagnosed with sepsis, a wicked bacterial infection that killed soldiers in droves during the Civil War. By now, Frank was learning to walk again in a facility near family who could keep an eye on him. The first rehab place had let him sit, for hours, unattended.
Frank had moved to Huntsville once before after he announced his retirement from creating mystical, magical, fantastic ceramic and bronze statues of animals and vegetables — eggs with eyes and women with monkey heads and phallic pieces of okra and figs resembling a little too closely men’s testicles resting on fig leaves. But this famous artist from Bear Creek, Alabama, whose work is exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution and parks and colleges and cities and wealthy patrons’ gardens and grand hallways had been caught up in scandal, so he returned to Birmingham, and everyone forgot or never truly cared in the first place. He came out of retirement and continued creating mythical creatures that Alabama Baptists call “Satanic.”
On the way to see Frank, we picked up B, who lives two doors down from my mother in a row of one-story garden homes. Once I help B, wearing her funky black glasses, one lens round, the other square, her short blond hair tufted like Le Petit Prince on the cover of Clint’s French book, into the front seat, she turns to talk to Clint. After some chit chat, she asks Clint if he smokes. He shakes his head.
“How about that wacky backy?”
He tries to suppress his grin and shakes his head more vigorously.
“Well, if you do, that’s OK.”
I’m quiet for a minute, absorbing this, and then start trying to frame her comment for the both of them.
“You know, B, pot’s not the same as it was back in the day. It’s a whole lot stronger.”
At that point, Mom pipes up from the backseat, “Do you remember that time I stole your pain pills when you had your wisdom teeth out?”
I look in the rearview mirror, relieved Clint has put his earphones on, but I suspect he’s still listening. No, I don’t remember. Silly me. I’d put that memory right out of mind.
“I bought you some extra-strength Tylenol instead.”
“Really? How thoughtful of you.”
“I felt so guilty, I gave them back.”
After getting off the Interstate, we finally find Valley View. There’s not a hill or valley in sight. We enter the nursing home. The stench hits us all at the same time. B flushes a Pepto-Bismol pink. At the end of the hall, a circle of old men and women in wheelchairs wait, sitting, bobbing there as if floating in water. Mom looks at me: “I have long-term care and in-home care.”
We don’t know where to go and fumble down one hallway passing and peering in rooms full of similar faces watching TV, sleeping, sitting and staring, bobbing and waiting, the only view a sterile room with call buttons and bed pans. I keep expecting the many uniformed women we pass to help us, but they ignore us. They don’t even look us in the eye or say hello. We stop and get directions and a code for the locked doors. We put Clint in charge of the technology. Behind the locked doors is the rehabilitation facility. There the paint is newer and the smells not so bad.
B asks us if she’s ever told us about her boyfriend who played the banjo, the one who went into random nursing homes and asked to see Aunt Sally. “There’s always an Aunt Sally,” she assures us.
She explains he’d find Aunt Sally and start playing old gospel hymns. Soon he’d have a circle of wheelchairs around him. “It was his way of doing his Christian duty.”
We finally find Frank. Mom has brought him a magazine about Alabama football and a T-shirt from New York. She shows him a newspaper clipping from Scribbler’s, the society page, in 1978, a picture of them, both Geminis born on June 17, with two other guests at their birthday party where lobsters were flown in from Maine. Everyone in the photo is staring at my mother, her mouth open, as she holds court, her wide-open profile and demand for attention reminding me of me.
In 1978, I was 13. By that time, my father had left home for good when a year earlier he relapsed after a stint at the rehabilitation center. My mother was 42, supporting four kids, or really three — by then my oldest brother Billy had disappeared out West — on a negligible income from a job in which she raised money for public radio. Her own bank account had been ransacked by a husband bad to drink, so bad he drove all over the state “on business” for several years, draining his way through her inheritance. How many times did we pass him, oblivious, creeping down the road in the “Starsky and Hutch,” baby-blue Gran Torino we called Dimples, his reading glasses still perched on the end of his flushed red nose, his shock of hair prematurely snow white, on the way home to our house?
Back in the 1970s when I first met B, she was a divorcee trailing three wild kids in tow, her daughter Amy being one of them. B had just moved into the pink concrete house I had lived in until we moved after my grandmother died two doors over to my grandparents’ farmhouse. My mother had grown up in this house, and it also became my childhood home.
Little did I know I would move there after graduating from college and eventually buy and restore the house with my husband while my mother moved into the garage apartment. She lived there with us as we raised our children, until she moved down the street to a garden home. About that same time, B, who’d long ago moved from our neighborhood, decided to downsize, and she found a house near my mother once again.
But the first time B lived next door to my mother in the early ’70s when I was a child, she transformed my old house into an exotic museum I loved to visit, walls crammed with abstracts, nudes, landscapes, her glass coffee table covered with a mercury glass collection, and ashtrays with animal feet, butts from her menthol Doral cigarettes spilling onto the glass. By the time I knew B, this former cheerleader — who’d left college to marry her high-school, football-star sweetheart, the son of a funeral home director — was paving her way as a painter. Paint fumes from her studio, once our garage, drifted up the back stairs into the kitchen, where she cooked pancakes with perfectly crisp edges on the Saturday mornings after I’d spent the night with Amy.
For several years before my father and my parents divorced, on Friday and Saturday evenings, B and my mother and other former debutantes (and artists like Frank) gathered on screen porches, reinventing themselves right before my adolescent eyes, becoming priests, lesbians, crisis center directors, Buddhists, activists, anything but the housewives they’d been groomed to be.
Standing in the small room, Mom asks Frank if he’d like her to read to article out loud. She’s brought it only because their mutual friend, Mary who used to gather with them on screen porches, has only recently passed, and her daughter had sent Mom this, along with other mementoes. Boozy pictures full of eating and drinking, jugs of wine on wooden picnic tables, laughter, bleary eyes, everyone so young, but my father looking exactly the same at 40 as he did at 70, a man already old when everyone was still young.
Frank nods, and she stands closer to the end of his bed and reads, “A party given by the elegant hostess Anita ...”
“Anita was never elegant,” B interrupts, sitting in the only chair in the small room. Her face has returned to its normal color.
B keeps commenting as Mom reads, and since both B and Frank are both a bit deaf, they repeat themselves quite a bit as they meander down memory lane. They talk a long time about the ceramic urn Frank made and gave Mary to put her ashes in when she died. He doesn’t understand why her husband Jack put her ashes in another urn.
Mom explains that a long time ago, Mary had bought this very expensive vase with her own money she’d earned from a temporary job. When Jack fussed about the cost and they argued about it, Mary announced, in anger, she planned to use it for her ashes, and that is precisely the one Jack used instead of Frank’s urn. That’s Mom’s version anyway.
We don’t stay long, and as we leave, I feel faint and need to find a vending machine.
“Where do you think a vending machine is?" I repeat as we pass another woman in a wheelchair.
“Watch your sexy figure,” she chirps. “Watch your sexy figure.”
I think she’s talking to me, but her eyes are on my mother.
A few minutes later, another small woman hunched over in a wheelchair, with two sticks dangling from either side of her mouth, zeroes in on my mother.
“Take care of me. Take care of me,” she whispers.
Mom leans over to hear her better. “Take care of me,” the woman repeats.
Mom stands back up. “I can’t right now, but I will get someone who can,” she says, walking past the next attendant without saying a word.
“What were those sticks?” I ask as we turn down the wrong hallway. Clint stands and watches us and tries not to laugh in his horror.
“No, they weren’t. Those weren’t from a sucker.”
Clint enters the code to let us into the nursing home side, and again we are enveloped by the smells of Pine-Sol, diarrhea, wilted flowers, and mildew.
My mother links her arm in Clint’s and whispers, “Don’t let them put me in one of these.”
“I’m starting to stockpile my Ambien right now,” B says.
B is fading again and heads for the bathroom, but not before she tries to go in a broom closet and asks, “Did I tell you about Nanny’s boyfriend who was the head of the Hemlock Society?”
As we wait for B, women and men and a few children with instruments wander in from the outside world toward the circle of wheelchairs. The women wear prairie dresses with Church of God hairdos. The sound of a woman wailing in a nearby room echoes down the hallway.
“Someone brought a baby here?” my mom says, raising her eyebrows.
“No, that’s a woman,” I say.
“I’ve got to go outside. I can’t stay here anymore. Come on, Clint.” He follows her and enters the code again. They go through a set of double doors. A nice man hurries in past them, carrying a black instrument case. He sees his musical group ahead. They’ve struck the chords to “The Old Rugged Cross.” He looks at me sitting there waiting for B and turns around and looks back at the doors.
“Was that woman supposed to go out?”
I smile and choke at the same time. “That’s my mother. We’re just visitors.”
“Oh, I thought she looked too young.” He smiles a little too vigorously.
On the way home, we stop at Papa Jack’s. A truck with the largest Confederate flag I’ve ever seen is parked out front. The flag pools from the truck bed onto the asphalt. Inside, B buys a Moon Pie.
“Don’t tell Amy,” she says, falling off her Paleo diet of four days.
I buy a Coke in a glass bottle, but the opener is tight against the cooler of Budweiser and popsicles so the guy with tattoos and salty grey hair and a gallon of white paint sprayed all over him takes it and pops the steel cap off.
In the car, eating her Moon Pie, B announces, “I tell Amy that you and her have become our mothers.”
“I don’t want to be anybody’s mother unless I birthed you,” I snap.
Clint tells me later my mother cried in the back seat on the way home. My mother doesn’t cry, not unless you mention her brother who died during World War II. But she’s worried that she’s losing another friend. Her circle continues to shrink. No more dinners with Frank at the Fish Market, or a visit to sip white lightning and share secrets. No more big, boozy birthday parties with a long list of their “real” friends printed in bold black ink on the society page. No more lobsters flown in from Maine.
And for me, no more depending on my mother to drive when I don’t want to, either. I have indeed become my mother’s mother, but in many ways this is nothing new. Only now, I’m ready to relinquish the responsible role I’ve played for so long in my family. Right when I’m ready to disentangle from my mother is actually the appropriate time for me to take on the role I accepted prematurely after my father’s leaving. B is right about the mother-daughter role reversal, about Amy and me becoming their mothers, and my resistance or resentment won’t change the place where my mother is in her life, or where I am.
Throughout the years, at times, our relationship has been strained, difficult and maddening, and now, as we face our last years together, I wonder, if she’s ever in pain, will I take her pain pills and give her extra-strength Tylenol instead?