Thursday, March 16, 2017

What's Next? Part 15 Captive Audience

Monday morning Mom was seated in the kitchen after breakfast, sad because she couldn't color.  I turned the TV on, but since she's not able to see, she is not able to keep up with the story line.  

"I can't see, did I tell you that?" Mom asked me again.  

"I know, and I'm so sorry, Mom," I replied.  

"Do you think my eyesight will come back?"  

"I hope so."

Wracking my brain for something Mom could do despite her vision I had an idea:

 I don't know if anyone remembers the little 'Magnus Chord Organs' that were sold in the 1960's? (Here's a link to someone playing one: Magnus Chord Organ) My mother had bought me one when I was a child and we both played it every day.

Back in 1983, I wanted to surprise my mother with something special.  I purchased a very large, real wood organ with a wooden music bench from an acquaintance at work.  The organ had belonged to my co-worker's deceased grandfather and was his prized possession.  He had been sad to think no one in the family wanted the instrument and had mourned the fact repeatedly before he died.   In due time, the old gentleman passed away.  His granddaughter was thrilled when I said I'd like to buy it and for $150 it was all mine. I wasn't sure if I'd made a good deal or not; it is a tube type, not electronic, and I had my doubts about how (or if) any of the tubes could be replaced in case of burnout.  Nonetheless, I took a chance. 

We had to take the trailer into town to pick my purchase up about two weeks before Christmas.  Between the two of us, we wrestled it into the house carefully, and then wondered where in the world we could hide it.   Mom used to come visit us now and then and I wanted it to be a surprise; the only place she wouldn't go was our bedroom, right up against the foot of our waterbed, but we kept our bedroom door locked just in case.  I well remember the hassle of trying to climb around the organ to get to our closet and dress for work.  

We were both glad when Christmas Day arrived.  While Mom was at church, Carl and I loaded up the organ and drove up to Mom's.  Dad was home at the time and for once, didn't grumble about the fuss we were creating as we struggled to carry it up the steps and into their living room.  I covered the organ with a pretty sheet and put a huge red bow on the very top.   

When Mom came home from church, Carl and I were sitting in the living room, grinning like Cheshire cats.  Dad was seated in his Lazy Boy, reading the paper.   Mom knew something was up. When she removed the bow and the sheet, she stood speechless, staring.  I wasn't sure if she was happy or not at first; she was almost afraid to touch the keys.  

"You bought this for me?" she whispered incredulously.  "This is far too expensive.  I can't read music, you know that," Mom said as she continued to stare in awe.  I saw the start of tears in her eyes and found myself fighting back my own. 

"Well, are you going to stand there looking at it all day or are you going to try it out?" my father gruffly asked.  I think he was close to shedding a few tears, too.  

Carl helped her move the piano bench out and showed her how to turn on the switch.  In no time she was shyly playing, wincing whenever she made a mistake, apologizing profusely.  Carl and I left her alone in her living room and set about getting dinner ready.  Mom played for a little while but then hurriedly came in the kitchen when Dad grumbled, "Are we going to eat today?"

She played the organ many times a day for the next thirty years.  It was the best $150 I ever spent.  And the tubes never burned out, either.

When we moved Mom here last month, I was worried about her not having her organ, but there is no room in our house.  (Too much stained glass, alas.)  But I had purchased an electronic keyboard over a decade ago that had been stashed in our bedroom closet for quite some time. 

When I first put the portable keyboard on her lap last week, she began to cry.  "I never thought I could do this again," she said through her tears.  Tears come much more easily nowadays; Mom was always the stoic type, indeed I'd only seen her cry twice; once when I had the unfortunate task of telling her my brother had been killed and the second time when my dad put her beloved German Shepherd, Sparky, down.  She mourned both of those losses for months, but only allowed herself the luxury of tears once each.  

Over the years, Mom had told me crying served no good purpose.  She'd been an unhappy young bride on the farm, living upstairs in her in-law's house with no running water and no indoor plumbing.  Every ounce of water she needed to cook and wash with had to be carried up two flights of stairs and back down again to be disposed of.  

Her mother-in-law, Maggie, wasn't unkind to Mom, but she was also not inclined to be helpful either, and when my brother Bob was born, he was too noisy for the old people downstairs.  They would complain his crying kept them awake at night.  Mom took him to the barn with her in the mornings and the evenings just as she did with me thirteen years later.   As Bobby grew older, he liked to go down the steps and see Grandma and Grandpa.  Unfortunately, they soon grew tired of the rambunctious youngster and summoned my mother.  When Mom came down to get her son, her mother-in-law said, "Your place is upstairs.  I suggest you go there and keep him with you."

The only bathroom was the outhouse, so any time they needed to use the toilet, down the stairs they went and out the door in all kinds of weather.  Every time I go up to Mom's house, I think of her trudging up those worn wooden stairs day in and day out after a long day of farm work.  To think she lived above her not-too-friendly in-laws for over a decade boggles my mind.  Could I have endured it?  I think we all know the answer.  

But I remember well Mom telling me about the day when everything had gone wrong and she flung herself down on their bed and gave in to her pent up emotions.  "I cried and cried, I made a real fool of myself," she said.  "I don't know how long it lasted, but when I was done, I was ashamed of myself.  Crying didn't do anything for me except give me sore eyes.  It didn't change a thing.  I had to get up and find something to do.  Work will never let you down; when you're miserable, find something to do."  For the rest of her life, Mom vowed never to cry over spilt milk or much of anything else, either. 

But when I put the keyboard in her lap, she teared up immediately.  I wondered if I'd done the right thing; I didn't want to make her feel worse.  

"Would you please give me a tissue?" she asked, wiping her eyes.  She tentatively touched the white keys and was startled when the organ responded.  "What if I break it?" she asked.  

"You can't break it," I said, "And if for some silly reason it quits working, I can buy another one."

"Oh no!  I'll be careful!" Mom said and soon the strains of 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful' came pouring out.  

She was so happy to be playing her beloved hymns.   At least she's still able to play the organ by ear, one perk of never learning to read sheet music. 
The vision loss is the hardest thing for her to bear, and for me, too.  Mom held her finger up to me right before breakfast which is her way of summoning me for urgent help, "I need to tell you something...... I can't see," her voice trembling.

"I know you can't see," I said. 

"I think I should go to the doctor," Mom said.

"We did go to a doctor last week Thursday.  In fact, we saw two doctors," I said.  "The doctor gave you a shot in both of your eyes and we have to wait for your eye to get better,"  I sighed.

"I did?  I don't remember that.  I wonder what is wrong with my eyes, do you know?" Mom fussed.

"You had a blood vessel rupture in your right eye," I said, for the tenth time in an hour.  (I'm not trying to be sarcastic but simply stating how much this problem is on both of our minds and how hard it is to tell her repeatedly there's not much we can do about her vision but wait and, ironically, see.)

"Do I have cancer?" she asked me next.  

"No, you don't have cancer," I tell her.  She asked the new nurse who came on Monday the same question.  The nurse kindly went through her health history and diagnoses with her and reassured her she doesn't have cancer.  

"So the reason I can't see isn't because I have cancer?" Mom asked.


"Then why can't I see?" Mom asked.

The nurse went over the same information again, and Mom stared off into the distance.  The nurse said, "You are very quiet, Lucille.  Is there anything you want to ask me?"

"Yes, why can't I see?"


As I write this post, Mom is sitting ten feet away from me in the sunshine with my keyboard on her lap.  The range of music she knows is stunning, even if she'd snort in derision if I told her so.  I don't think she even realizes I'm sitting here, and that's ok.  She's still very camera-shy; I don't think that will ever change.

She had a good night last night and ate a hearty supper of beef stew, rye bread and chocolate chip cookie.  We're trying to settle into a routine.  Carl takes her to the bathroom at 5 AM (if I haven't been up slightly earlier with her) and she's usually up for the day around 8, at least this week.  We head for the bathroom and get dressed and then off to the breakfast table.  We eat and then I read aloud to her while we wait for 'The Price Is Right'.  While she watches her program, I go into the living room and do my walking video for an hour.  Then we reconvene and have our dinner.  

This afternoon she had no wish to try coloring any more and started to mourn her loss of vision again.  She said TV holds no interest since she can't see the screen very well, and I could tell she was miserable, so I wheeled her to the living room and put her in her Lazy Boy.  She asked to be turned to face the window and look out the window at the birds, but her voice trailed off when she remembered she cannot see the birds...

I grabbed the book we've been enjoying together and sat next to her, reading aloud.  This brings back memories to me, too, some fairly guilty ones, really.......when I was a small child, books were my saving grace.  I learned to read at a very young age and once I realized books could take me from a place of misery, I was addicted.  I could be anywhere in the world and still be in the present when I was needed.  

When I was very young, around six or so, my brother was still living at home; he left home at nineteen when he joined the army during the Viet Nam war.   He hated my reading habit, too.  Especially when Dad was at the tavern and it was just the three of us in the barn at night.  Spoiled little me would ensconce myself on my little milk stool and sit in the alley right next to Mom who would be stripping out a cow after the milker was taken off.  While she pulled patiently on the cow's teats, I would be reading to her from some old school books my father's old maid schoolteacher sister had left behind.  The books were tattered and in terrible shape from being in the barn, but that didn't matter.  They had old stories in them about Icarus (in my naivete', I pronounced it 'I-car-us') flying too close to the sun and his father scolding him.  Then there was one about Rip Van Winkle falling asleep in the woods and waking up years later.......and all of these old stories I would try to read aloud to Mom while she worked.  

My brother would always yell at me, "Go somewhere else!  We're trying to get some work done here!"  I knew Bob was jealous because he wanted to talk to Mom and I was taking up all of her time.  I would stick my tongue out at my teenage brother and then he'd push me off my stool. 

I'd cry and whine and Mom would be ready to pull her hair out.  "Karen, why don't you go read to the cows?" she'd ask.  I'd wipe my eyes, take my stool and my book and try to read to the cows up in front, but the light was too poor.  

Dad also greatly disliked my habit, "She's always got her nose buried in a book," he'd grouse.  Though I didn't like to displease him, I never did give up reading, I'd take a clean bread bag and put a big, thick, library book in it and take it with me on the tractor.  I'd read the book while I was waiting for Dad to get a load of oats when my only job was to drive down to where he was parked and bring the empty wagon.  The old combine was always cantankerous and sometimes an hour would elapse before he'd need me.  The book would keep me company while I sat and swatted horse flies in the hot sun.  

I looked forward to every Friday in the summertime; Mom would go to the grocery store and drop me off at the public library and I'd come out with five, six, sometimes seven books in my arms.  Though I didn't own the books, I felt so rich having them in my lap on the way home.  I'd pick each one up to admire; they were very precious to me.

So now, over fifty years later, we've come full circle again; Mom is a captive audience to my reading aloud.   

 My fervent hope is she's enjoying it this time around.  

I know I am.


africanaussie said...

Reading aloud to someone you love is such a blessing. I too have always had a love of reading, and even now visit the library every week. I do wish your mom could see that gorgeous stained glass window! How talented you are! Enjoy this precious time with your Mother.

Anonymous said...

I find your stories very moving. And that is a gorgeous window!

Karen said...

africanaussie, I'm so happy to know another avid reader! Mom can see shapes and colors, but cannot see fine detail. I do hope her eyesight doesn't grow worse. She does enjoy looking at the window in the sunlight. :-)

Mary, thank you. Writing about this time has been therapeutic for me. Thank you for visiting. :-)

Alison said...

What a beautiful gift you gave your mom! Thanks so much for sharing that story with us. I hope at least some of her sight gets restored soon. I'm so glad to hear that she's eating. I love to read too, but I have an aversion to being read to. My dad used to read the newspaper to us from the dinner table, and then give us his opinion, which was disagreeably ornery. But I share your love of being able to lose myself in another world.

chavliness said...

I read your posts and find strength in them. I'm of similar age and have an elderly mom. I admire you for being able to open up so much. End of life journeys are difficult; we cope the best we can. Your childhood stories are fascinating and endearing. Thank you for sharing.

Ellie's friend from canada said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog and I am so touched by your story about your Mother and her blindness. Cherish the times when you can read to her. They will be treasured. My Mother became legally blind and profoundly deaf. She had become blind in one eye but had perfect vision in the other. Literally, she was driving home from a store when her driving deteriorated suddenly and she became blind in her good eye due to a macular bleed, blinding her. Fortunately, she was close to home and made it in her car. I hope your mother will regain some vision. I have a small organ I would gladly give you if we lived nearby but we don't. You did the right thing to give her the keyboard in spite of tears. I think I cherished my Mother's last years above all. Like your family, I had a jealous brother who would try to banish me if I was talking to my Mother while she was cooking in the kitchen and I was helping her. He would come in and sit at the kitchen table to read the newspaper then leave in a huff when I talked to my Mother. But when my Mother became old and blind and deaf, then I got to know my mother in ways that I never had experienced before. It was as if so many unsaid things that my soul needed to hear were then said by her. She had lost being able to hear male voices but luckily she could still hear my voice. She had to be in a nursing home for the last 3 years (still a big regret but it was unavoidable) and I remember her sitting in the hall and studying the passersby. I didn't see her one day and she perked up and said "Here I am!". We always had a strong bond but it became stronger at the end.

I would suggest to you that you get her an iPad and put audio books on it but I don't think it would give her as much pleasure as she would get from hearing your voice. May this time with your Mother be blessed.

Ellie's friend from canada said...

I am just now reading your blogs backwards, in reverse order. I realize how much you treasure your Mother. I hope that you really will find a way to take care of yourself, and get good sleep. I think after my brother and mother passed away I literally slept 2 years of my life away as I was so tired. I remember feeling frustrated and imprisoned by the situation at times and that is normal. And yet I would steal time for myself on occasion. I wish good sleep for you and happy moments.

FlowerLady Lorraine said...

Dear Karen - thanks for keeping us updated. You & your Mom came to mind very early this morning, which caused me to pray for you both.

Love, hugs & continued prayers, FlowerLady

Indie said...

What a strong woman your mother must be after living such a challenging life. I lived above my in-laws for just a few months and that was challenging enough without the addition of no running water or plumbing. I can't even imagine. How wonderful that your mother can enjoy playing the keyboard and that you can spend precious time with her reading, blessings in a difficult situation.

Karen said...

Thank you, Alison, ironically, I do not like being read aloud to, either. Isn't that strange? Maybe it is because my father used to do the same thing your father did; read the editorials in the newspaper and then become enraged about something he disliked. Amazing similarities!

Karen said...

chavliness, thank you! Yes, end of life is very hard...I hope your mom is doing well. I often debate posting some of things I write about (and I delete a LOT) but it certainly helps to know I'm not alone. :-)

Karen said...

Ellie's friend from canada, thank you! It warmed my heart to read that your mother recognized you even with failing eyesight, what a wonderful memory to cherish. Our brothers sounded very similar, too, ha! I can relate to your story very much. This time with Mom is precious even though there are times I'm exhausted and frustrated. I can well believe that like you when this is over, I will be needing a lot of sleep. Thank you so much. :-)

Karen said...

Rainey, your prayers are always needed and appreciated. Thank you so much for thinking of us. You are a dear, sweet friend. :-) I hope your computer is up and running again.

Karen said...

Indie, thank you! My mother has lived an incredibly difficult life and yet remains sweet-tempered and gentle. I do hope some of her courage will rub off on me. We lived in my girlhood bedroom when we were first married for about a month, and yikes, it was difficult, and I was living with my own parents, not my in-laws. (Living with my in-laws would have been a disaster as they were vehemently opposed to our marriage in the first place. THAT would have been no fun...!) I'm so blessed to still have her, I just hope I can give her some joy.

Ellie's friend from canada said...


My Mother like yours had "an incredibly difficult life and yet remains sweet-tempered and gentle". That is the thing I took most for granted when growing up. I assumed everyone was like that, and everyone's mother was like that. That is, that she did not become bitter. I think this, along with her resilience and quiet strength and indomitable spirit, is one of my most cherished memories now. And I, too, hope this wore off on me!

I was wondering if you could hire a night owl student who could come and "babysit" your mother for 5 or 6 hours. Say from 9 p.m. till 3 a.m. The student wouldn't be expected to do anything except watch your mother so you could get good sleep without worrying. Try not to wait till later to get your good sleep. Try to sneak it in now. That will keep you healthy. You are following a path that I would have given anything to be able to follow but I was alone, without any family, and even with help, I could not keep my mother at home but that broke my heart. I had hoped to get her home for her passing but it was not to be.

When people give you their advice remember it is based on their feelings about their parents, their situation and not always yours. But some friends will of course be rightly concerned with how physically difficult your task is, and how the lack of sleep will affect you.

I was asked my mother why she wasn't as funny when I was growing up but was in her old age and she immediately replied "because raising you was serious business". She then laughed and laughed. She was right. What I really love about you comment above is that you hope you can give her some joy. I am sure, first of all, that just being with you gives your mother joy but your reading to her will give her joy. And there are so many other things that will, too. Even joking and saying silly things. My mother gave me so much joy in her last years. I bought very expensive hearing aids designed for profoundly deaf children. One day, we were sitting in the garden courtyard of the nursing home when I saw the most curious look on her face. I asked, what are you thinking? and she said "You know, I never missed not hearing magpies" and sure enough I looked around and there was one". There are so many small things that I hold in my heart from those days. It seemed no-one laughed in the nursing home, but there we were laughing. Those moments of joy are among my finest treasures. I sang to my mother. Could you not sing something when she plays her keyboard? Even if every day it is just the same little song. When I told my mother she could come home and help with the gardening, she said "you know, I am not up to that". But I said "well you could supervise". And she straightened up and said with a smile "yes I am a great supervisor". If you plant a flowerbed, you could ask your mother what she thinks you should plant. I love the look of sheer joy on her face when she looks at her bouquet.

Ellie's friend from canada said...

The word limit means I have to continue here.

I picture you sitting with your mother on a porch, enjoying the fresh spring air. There are many ways to involve her. For example, ask her what the kindest thing anyone ever did for her, ask her who her favourite teacher was and why, ask her about what her parents, grandparents were like. I had promised my mother I would do her genealogy. Imagine her pleasure when we sat looking at photo of her great grandparents that someone from the internet had sent me as well as a complete well-researched genealogy dating back to the 1300s, also discovered by chance. Ask her everything that you have never had a chance to do. Ask her what you'd regret not knowing if you don't ask her. Invite your best friend over for tea with you and your mother. You will be surprised by what your mother might tell her and you! Ask what she did as a young woman. What was her favourite chore? Her most disliked one? What were her parents like?

Most important, remember not only to give your mother joy, but receive joy from her, too.

Bon courage

outlawgardener said...

A story as beautiful as your garden. Thank you for blessing us with this treasure. I love listening to someone reading aloud, it allows me to close my eyes and create scenes & feel emotions. Hope your mom's vision returns so that she can enjoy her shows again. You're such a special daughter to find ways for her to enjoy playing. I remember that chord organ well as it's how I taught myself to play a keyboard as a kid.