By Bob Chrisman
My mother met me in the lobby of the nursing home quite accidentally. She had taken her afternoon stroll pushing her walker up one hall and down another, visiting other residents she knew from the dining room. She arrived at the front desk as I walked in the front door.
She looked up and smiled. “Never thought I would see you again. It’s been awhile.”
“Mom, I was here last week. Remember? I took you to out to have that roast beef sandwich you wanted.” I waited for her to acknowledge that she had forgotten.
She ignored the question, instead she looked away and down at her walker. “Well, it’s good to see you anyway. Has a week passed already?” She started down the hall in the direction of her room. I knew I was to follow.
I asked, “How are things going here? Did you go to church services this morning?”
“No, the minister is nice enough, but he’s a little too serious for my taste. Too much death and sin to interest me at my age.” She nodded to the women who sat in wheelchairs in the wide hall. Some stared into space unaware of the greeting. Other responded with a soft “Hello.”
“A new woman moved in just two doors down. She’s married to Herbie. You remember Mildred’s husband? You always liked Mimi. Well, the poor thing is two doors down from me. Herbie came to visit a few days ago and stopped by to see me. Shame about his second wife and her poor health. I think she’s mental because all she does is beg people to find her some underwear.”
We passed by a room and she jerked her head toward the open door. “That’s where she stays.”
As we walked into her room I noticed her telephone is on the floor at the foot of her bed. “Mom, what happened to the phone? Is it broken?”
“You might as well get rid of that darn thing. No one calls, except people who want to sell me something. It rings at all times of the day and night and I’m afraid it will disturb my roommate.”
“I thought you wanted a phone. Don’t you call people from church?”
“No, take it out. Might as well not waste your money to pay the bill when I don’t use it. Besides, no one is ever home when I call.”
She sat in her chair. I took my place on the bed.
She had told me not to put a phone in her room at the nursing home. She hadn’t wanted to learn a new number. I insisted that she keep it. I even worked with the phone company to transfer her old number to the new phone. I held onto the idea that she wouldn’t die if she kept in contact with her friends.
She had kept the same phone number for fifty years. When she left her house for the senior citizens center, she left behind the heavy black phone with the battered receiver from countless drops on the floor, and the tattered cloth cable that connected it to the outlet. She kept the old phone number.
I bought her a new phone. She hated it. She wanted her old phone, her old house, her old life but she couldn’t have them anymore.
She shook her head. “I’ve tried calling Vera and Anna Lee for the last few days and no one answers their phones. What could my sisters be doing at all hours of the day and night? It’s beyond me. They even turned off those dang machines that take messages. I hate those things, but I would leave a message if I could. I wonder what they’ve been up to.”
I didn’t know what to say so I opted for the truth. “Mom, it’s a good thing your sisters didn’t answer the phone because they’ve been dead for years. I would be very concerned if you talked to them.” I watched her face to see what effect my words had on her.
She looked at the backs of her hands, covered with age spots and bruises, as though too preoccupied to reply right away. “Guess it is a good thing they didn’t answer. I thought they had died, but I wasn’t sure. Sometimes things aren’t so clear in my head anymore. Funny, how I can remember their phone numbers, but forget that they died.” She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “Just take the phone out of my room. I don’t have anyone to talk to anymore.”
When I left that day, I took the phone and made a mental note to terminate her service. The phone number I had learned as a preschooler some fifty years ago would cease to belong to the Chrisman family, yet another sign that my mother was dying.
About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand, followed in June by Uncle Howard At The Cemetery.
You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad.