New York City, July 2015
My mother arrived in New York City with a black eye and one arm dangling in a sling.
And by the time the dirty white van finally swerved to a halt after seven hours navigating the highways of New York State, she was clearly not happy.
“I thought that trip was never going to end,” she blurted as the lift lowered her wheelchair onto the steamy sidewalk in front of Regal Heights Rehabilitation and Health Care Center. I hadn’t seen her in nearly three weeks, but she offered no smile, no kiss hello. I gave her both anyway.
With her limp right arm and right eye ringed by oversized bruises, eighty-nine-year-old Eunice Chesnut looked like an aged soldier returning from war. But these injuries weren’t from battle; they were the result of her latest fall at the assisted living facility in Brockport, New York, where she’d lived for just over a year.
Deciding to put your parent in a nursing home is not a choice you ever want to face. Less than three years earlier, my mother had been living alone in the same four-bedroom house where I grew up. But a cascade of changes slowly stripped away her independence.
She sold her home. She moved to a small apartment that charged rent on a sliding scale. At age eighty-eight, she retired from her part-time, thirty-year job as a historian. Then she moved to an assisted living facility. She gave up her car and stopped driving.
Of all those changes, retirement was the only one that was her idea; everything else came about because my sister Glynn and I had grown concerned about her health, safety and mobility. She was becoming more confused and physically unsteady. She started falling.
A round of tests at a Rochester hospital had found a likely cause for her decline: A large brain tumor.
My mother would soon need more care than her assisted living facility or my sister and I could give. After learning her diagnosis, I had called her at the hospital a few days earlier to tell her about the move to New York City.
“Momma, we’ve found a really nice place for you to live, right in my neighborhood in New York City, so we can see each other all the time,” I said as brightly as I could. “Would you like that?”
“I think that would be wonderful, sweetie.” She was almost always cheerful, even in the hospital. Her Southern politeness and manners dictated that she remain upbeat and not cause drama.
My original plan was to fly up to Rochester and accompany her on the long ride down to the Big Apple. But my mother’s latest fall and diagnosis had accelerated her move south, and there was no time. I had to finalize her accommodations at the nursing home. I had wanted the trip to be an experience we could share. But she traveled on her own, in the back of that crappy white van.
It would have been our last journey together. Geographically, at least. My mother was eighty-nine. She was tired and confused, but sure of one thing: She was ready to leave this earth. She’d already told me so, many times.
Brockport, New York, 1969
“My daddy’s dead!” I shouted gleefully whenever anyone visited our home during one rather dramatic week in 1969.
I don’t remember cheerily proclaiming my father’s death while darting around the house. But my mother said I did. “You were only four years old, and you didn’t understand what was going on,” she explained years later. “For you, your father dying just meant you were getting more attention from the grownups.”
Some people claim to recall vast details from their early childhood, but I don’t. Especially when it comes to my father. Most of my memories are the result of stories told repeatedly by family members. Still, a few recollections must really be mine — they’re too specific and inconsequential for anyone to have bothered mentioning. Things like the water fountain near my father’s office at the college, where he’d lift me up for a drink. Its dial-like handle fascinated me, since most fountains operate with a pushbutton. I also remember my father sitting in a striped blue chair in the family room, a beer in his hand and crutches by his side, smiling and reaching out to grab me as I ran past, giggling.
A few details about Lakeside Memorial Hospital also stay in my mind, from the weeks leading up to his death. But those memories aren’t greeting-card-worthy moments of being with my daddy one final time. As his condition worsened, I was no longer allowed to visit his room. So I’d wait with my sister or grandparents in the sparklingly clean hospital cafeteria, where a giant vending machine — a carrousel-like affair with clear plastic doors that slid to reveal sandwiches — was just about the greatest thing I’d ever seen.
I was thrilled when Daddy would send me little gifts via my mother. My mother would appear in the cafeteria, smiling as she handed me plastic-wrapped eating utensils, complete with napkins and tiny salt and pepper packets that you could sprinkle on whatever you wanted. Once, my father sent a toy soldier made out of a clothespin painted red and black (or was it a British beefeater guard? I didn’t know the difference back then). I have a feeling now that my mother had bought the toy in the hospital gift shop, but I played with it like it was the best gift ever. I was pretty much oblivious to the fact that my father was dying, just down the hall.
My father died of lung cancer at age fifty-one, in the same hospital where I was born in Brockport, a middle-class college town in western New York State. His brother — my Uncle Ed — insisted on paying to ship the body to Louisville, the biggest city in our family’s home state. There, Ed — who I later learned to think of as my “rich uncle” — had bought a plot at Cave Hill, a historic cemetery that would later be the final resting place of Colonel Sanders and Mohammad Ali. When Ed decided that the spot was too shady, he even paid to move the body to a sunnier location.
My mother took a more practical approach to death and dying. She didn’t care whether her husband was buried in sunshine or shade, or in Kentucky or New York. “To me, it seemed silly to spend all that money to fly John’s body down to Kentucky, and then to pay even more to move it to a different plot,” she told me years later. “But it was important to Ed, and as long as he was paying for it, I figured he could go ahead and do whatever he wanted to do.”
I don't remember my mother crying or mourning in a public way. She always looked the same, with her minimal makeup and low-maintenance, wavy haircut that required no updates at any beauty salon. Her wardrobe didn’t get darker after my father’s death; she sported the same array of sometimes-colorful polyester pants and tops, accompanied by practical shoes. She did, perhaps, add a few more pounds to the weight she had already failed to lose after I was born. There was no time for exercise as she busied herself with making decisions about the changes in our lives and making sure my sister and I were OK.
I’m sure my parents loved each other. But even though my father was an educated and progressive man in some ways (he used the GI Bill to help pay for his graduate degree, and openly supported the African-American civil rights movement in the 1960s), he was apparently traditional when it came to male-female relationships. It was, perhaps, a lingering holdout from his childhood growing up in the countryside of southeastern Kentucky. He was born in 1918 as the youngest of ten kids in a tiny, nearly extinct Kentucky settlement called Bailey’s Switch, which had grown around a camp once occupied by Daniel Boone when he was laying out the Wilderness Road, a route used by early settlers.
My parents didn’t have a traditional courtship. They’d met through my mother’s Uncle Mark, who was living with her family in Louisville in the 1930s. “John would come home with Mark sometimes for dinner,” Eunice said. “And then he got drafted into World War II. While he was in Texas training to be a pilot, he started writing me letters, and I wrote back to him. I never really had a date with him. He was almost nine years older than me. I was seventeen, I guess. So really, it was a correspondence romance, and then he was gone so long, I don’t guess I saw him again until after the war.”
After the Nazis shot my father from his Flying Fortress in December 1943, he continued to write to my mother from the prisoner of war camp at Stalag Luft I, on Germany’s Baltic coast. After being released in September 1945, he landed in Louisville and immediately started talking about marriage.
“I love you Eunice, and I’m having great difficulty being patient while all my old friends cross-question me,” he wrote to my mother in July 1945, when he was visiting family in southeastern Kentucky and my mother was at home in Louisville. “I want to be with you.”
“Do you really love me Eunice?” he added. “Perhaps I overemphasize it, but were you really reluctant to make certain concessions to our partnership? I told you as best I could what I think and what I plan to do. When I come back next week we will be able to make the important decisions.”
I’m not sure if the reference to “concessions was about sex or marriage, but at any rate, my mother wasn’t crazy about the idea of tying the knot with someone she’d never really dated. “He said that he wanted to get married right then, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get married yet,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Well then I’m leaving.’ So I said, ‘OK, then let’s get married.’”
My mother wasn’t a professional writer yet, but she later credited her wartime correspondence for holding John’s attention. “I was a good letter writer,” she said. “That’s why he married me. After the wedding, he found out I could write better than I could keep house.”
My parents had a ceremony at West Broadway Baptist Church, the Clayton family’s place of worship in Louisville’s West End. John wore his Air Force uniform and Eunice donned a light blue suit and a bird-feather hat that looked like a dead fowl sitting on her head.
They moved to Atlanta so my father could get his graduate degree in English at Emory. They moved to Ann Arbor so he could begin his PhD at the University of Michigan. And when those studies were interrupted by an offer to teach English at the state college in Brockport, they moved yet again.
Now, my mother was, for the first time, in her life, in the driver’s seat and in full control of all the decisions in her life.
To be honest, my father’s death didn’t directly affect me much. As my mother said, I was too young to really understand. And in the months leading up to his departure, illness made him an increasingly scarce presence in my daily life. Of course, my mother’s life did change profoundly, as did our social structure. What had been a traditional, four-person nuclear family became a single-parent household. And it shrank even more within a matter of months, when my much-older sister graduated from high school and went away to college, just as I started kindergarten.
My father and sister were gone, albeit in different ways. My mother made adjustments. The barely driven Ford Cobra my father had bought months earlier (“He didn’t know he was going to die when he bought that car,” my mother explained later) vanished from our garage when she sold it back to the dealer. The yellow-and-white riding lawn mower disappeared too, during a big garage sale that emptied our house of a variety of furniture and small appliances. My mother found a family to rent our three-bedroom house and moved the two of us to President’s Village, a brick apartment complex on the far side of the Erie Canal.
The excitement of kindergarten — and especially reading and drawing — diffused the memories of my earlier family life. My mother began studying too, after enrolling at the State University of New York’s College at Brockport, where my father had taught. More than twenty years had passed since my mother had dropped out of the University of Louisville as a teenager, and now she decided to finally get her bachelor’s degree, in history (she would’ve studied English but didn’t want to receive artificially favored treatment since her late husband had taught in that department).
With her classes and part-time secretarial job — not to mention volunteer work and an active social life — my mother was busy. Piles of books, magazines and notebooks found a permanent home on her single bed. It seemed like we visited the town library as much as we did the supermarket. But she still made time for me. She bought me a little red bicycle and let me ride it with her when she walked to the neighborhood supermarket.
President’s Village did not live up to its name. Rather than catering to visiting heads of state, the complex was designed for families in need of inexpensive housing on the less-attractive north side of the Erie Canal. The carpeted public hallways smelled like cardboard boxes and there were far more children than there were apartments. After a few days of exploring the grounds, I met a bunch of slightly older kids — if I was five, they were probably seven or eight. They were tall, gangly white boys, with freckles, military-style buzz cuts and mothers who yelled commands from their apartment windows like “get back in here before I smack you.” Most of their parents had some kind of job at Kodak, which at the time was the biggest employer in Rochester, just a few miles away.
These kids always seemed to be hanging out and playing outdoors, kind of like a trashy, late-twentieth-century version of the Little Rascals. I started to tag along.
One day, I followed them into the densely wooded lot next to our complex. The biggest boy turned around and looked at me.
“So you wanna be part of our group?” he asked.
“Well then you’ve gotta do something.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my little cowboy boots. “Ummm … what do I have to do?”
The kid looked around the woods and then at his friends. He smiled. “You need to take a shit, right here.”
“But I don’t have any toilet paper.”
I didn’t know if they’d made other kids poop in the woods as an initiation rite. And I didn’t know if by following this boy’s order I might humiliate myself. All I knew was that I wanted to be liked by these older boys, and taking a dump certainly wasn’t the worst price to pay. So I agreed. The other kids giggled as they walked down the trail to wait for me.
In case you didn’t know, the refreshing aroma of a forest changes quite a bit when you poop in it.
That was the first experience that I remember purposely not telling my mother about. But my foray into the fecal forest was worth it. I got to hang out more with those boys, and we played games like tag and red light/green light in the courtyard. My mother would fill a blue-and-white metal bucket with candy and lower it on a string from our balcony, so that all the kids could pick a treat.
After a couple of years at President’s Village, my mother decided that the two-bedroom apartment was too small, and we moved back to our big red house on Fourth Section Road, an upgrade made possible through a combination of my father’s life insurance, veteran’s pension and social security, combined with my mother’s part-time salary. We became a small family in a big house.
One day, my mother took me to Big N to buy a tiny black-and-white TV for my bedroom. I rushed upstairs and plopped it onto the fake wood entertainment console that she’d also bought for me. Finally, I could watch my favorite shows in the comfort of my own room.
That first night, I rushed upstairs to turn on my TV for “The Partridge Family,” which showcased the adventures of a musical family that, after the father’s death, toured the country in a colorfully painted school bus. I had all their records, and I did my best to play them at the same time that they sang on their own show.
One day, I dictated a letter to my mother to send to them. “You are my favorite family,” I told the fatherless TV family. “I hope some time you could come to Brockport, New York, and make a show here. If you want to, you may come to our house. You may come in your bus or car. I would like it very much if you come in your bus. But do not come on a school day.”
New York City, July 2015
“I ain’t never seen a place like this before,” the medical transport aide said as he rolled my mother through the Regal Heights lobby, past a bubbling fishpond and a nonfunctional fireplace that looked like it was purchased from the same catalog used by the assisted living facility where my mother had been living until today. Assisted living facilities (is there no other word for them?) seemed adept at creating falsely comforting environments. Most nursing homes didn’t try as hard, so the Regal Heights lobby was a standout.
“Is this a hotel?” my mother asked as we crossed the second-floor library to get to room 221, which would be her new home.
“It’s actually a place like where you were living in Brockport,” I answered. “But this is better, because it’s really close to where I live.”
Unlike the nursing home’s mock-colonial lobby and book-lined library, my mother’s room was decidedly hospital-like. Glowing fluorescent lights hung above her bed. A sheer curtain provided some level of privacy and separation from her roommate, who wasn't in the room when we arrived, although the TV was on.
After the aide maneuvered my mother into her new bed, a smiling nurse walked in. “We’ve been waiting for you, Mrs. Chesnut!” he said cheerfully as he set a blue tray of food in front of her. “My name is David.”
“Thank you,” my mother smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“We thought you might be hungry, so I’ve brought you a tuna fish sandwich. I hope you like that.”
“Yes, that sounds very good. Thank you very much.”
When David left, it was the first time that day that my mother and I were alone together. I took her hand, which was still as soft as I remembered it being when she’d walk me through Sears as a child. Her frizzy hair was a mess of brown and gray strands and her face was swollen and bruised, but her eyes still sparkled when she smiled.
“I’m glad to see you, kiddo,” she said, patting my hand.
“I’m really glad you’re here, Momma.”
I unwrapped the plastic from the sandwich and handed it to her. She took a bite and gave it back to me. “You have some too,” she said. “I’m hungry, but I’m not that hungry.”
The wheat bread was slightly soggy, but the tuna fish tasted pretty good.
I passed her a white Styrofoam cup of water. “How are you feeling? That was a really long trip.”
“It really was,” she said. “I think they gave me something to eat and drink, but I’m thirsty now, more than anything.” She took a sip of the water and looked at me, her brow furrowed. “But you’ll have to forgive me that I’m just a little bit crazy. Where am I again?”
“You’re at a place called Regal Heights, in New York City,” I answered. “It’s just a few blocks from where Angel and I live.”
“But do I stay here?”
“Yes. This is kind of like The Landing, where you used to live in Brockport.” I was doing my best to avoid using the dreaded term nursing home. “But here, they’ll pay more attention to you, and you’ll be closer to Angel, Glynn and me. Plus,” I smiled, “this place is cheaper, and Medicaid will pay for it.”
Regal Heights actually wasn’t cheaper. But it was true that Medicaid would kick in to pay for it — after she’d exhausted her own savings to almost nothing.
Eunice smiled. “Medicaid will pay for this? That’s wonderful! I don’t want to spend all your inheritance — you might get all of fifty cents if we play our cards right!”
Another nurse entered. “Hello Mrs. Chesnut!” she said. “Welcome. How are you? How was your trip? I understand you’ve traveled a long way.”
“I’m fine, fine, thanks.”
“Well, listen, I hate to interrupt you and your son; I know you have a lot to talk about. We’d just like to do a few little tests to make sure everything’s fine with you, so we can get you settled into your new place. Would that be alright?”
“Oh sure, that sounds like a lot of fun,” my mother said, smiling slyly.
The nurse helped my mother back into the wheelchair and rolled her out.
My smile, which had beamed in a nonstop effort to project happiness and security ever since my mother arrived, finally disappeared. I opened up the blue roll-aboard suitcase and unpacked a few things: fuzzy winter hats that she used to wear while brushing the snow off her Ford Taurus during brutal Western New York winters, a fuzzy pink bathrobe that she donned while editing her writing in bed. Here were a pair of blouses that she’d reserved for semi-formal events at the historical society where she’d worked until age eighty-eight. And here was the sparkly purple sweater that a woman had given her at Chicago O’Hare airport, taking the garment right off after my mother had complimented its beauty while they shared a golf cart shuttle between gates. Now I had to itemize all of my mother’s clothes on a Regal Heights form and leave everything at the front desk, so that the nursing home could attach labels inside every item so they wouldn’t be misplaced on laundry days.
Then I climbed into her bed and fell asleep until she got back from her tests. It was my second nap that day. We were both exhausted. I kissed my mother’s cheek and walked back to my apartment to wait for my husband, Angel, to get home from work. I fell asleep again before he arrived.