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Better Than Fiction

The Desert Air

by Pamela Cottam

My mother-in-law, Pat, is fighting the few nursing home aides who try to lift her from her wheelchair to use the toilet, change her clothes, wash her body. She wants to sit with her siblings, talking about their lives before they all moved out of Provo, Utah. They have just returned from a long hike through Canyonlands National Park, in southeastern Utah. She is holding a scotch, her forever drink, as Flo and Marjorie Jo brush red dirt from their shoes and marvel at how easily their older brother Bruce killed the rattlesnake that slithered into the campsite. They sit on aluminum folding chairs around an ash-filled firepit. At various angles and resting on scatterings of dried pine needles, tents of various color rest like tired dogs in the shade of spreading junipers and scrappy pinyon pine. A family reunion. Pat is smiling, maybe thinking back to their hike earlier in the day, the air redolent with sun-dried sage, succulents nestled between boulders, and the occasional outcropping of Indian paintbrush and Walker’s sun cup. The dry heat has helped her arthritis; her legs no longer ache. The scotch hits just the right note. She forgets about being stuck in her room all day because of COVID-19.


Jennifer, her favorite aide, tells her she can keep talking but they need to lift her up — doesn’t she need to go potty? Pat stares at her and hisses. “I know when I need to go!” Her hands, the knuckles swollen and red, swipe at the nursing home helpers, as if swatting at a swarm of gnats. “I can’t get up now. I’m talking.”


Jennifer lets her be.


Pat’s siblings — four sisters and three brothers — are dead. She is the last of the Ferrell children. Now 94, she was independent until age 92, living alone in a huge, four story colonial house in Pittsburgh. My husband, Pat’s son, and I would drive to Pittsburgh every few weeks and visit, taking her shopping, cleaning her home, trying our best to tell her the time was ripe for her to leave Pittsburgh and either live with us or near us in Cleveland. It was not until she almost died of pneumonia and lost her ability to walk without support that she succumbed to her children’s demands and social services orders to leave her home and enter assisted living. She angrily, resentfully, accepted that she could no longer live without help. A medical transport brought her to a nursing home seven minutes from our home in Bay Village, Ohio shortly before her 93rd birthday.


When my husband’s brother called yesterday to tell us that Pat told him her brothers and sisters were visiting, I immediately called Pat. Pat’s enfeebled, declining body had not affected her cognition as of three days before, when I had last talked with her. She could remember the Latin names of viruses and bacteria, detail pathogens, and talk politics. She had been a microbiologist in her professional life, and we discussed the latest Science magazine research on the disappearance of insects and the latest research on how the coronavirus behaved. When I called her this time, she told me she was attending a biology conference, the session was ending, and it would be a mess getting out. She then yelled off in the distance, “It’s Carolyn on the phone. Does anyone want to speak with her?”


When I told her, no, Pat, it’s Pam and I am checking on you to see how you are (stuck in your assisted living room on the second floor, confined to a wheelchair, eyes becoming blurrier with cataracts, hearing almost gone, your legs swollen and oozing open — all without the benefit of fresh, outside air for weeks because of COVID-19 and I feel so bad!), she shouted, “Oh, wait, it’s not Carolyn. It’s Cam!”


Pat’s doctor at the nursing home said she was declining fast and getting angry and fighting — and she was refusing to be anywhere but her wheelchair, where they say she insists on sleeping. She has always been difficult, not just stubborn. She is mean, judgmental, her personality sculpted in ice with a biting sense of humor. Her two daughters and two sons dislike her intensely, but they have always treated her with respect. I decided when I married to treat her without bias and to make sure she was included, along with my father-in-law Dick, in our lives. I did not turn a blind eye to her indifference to the struggles of her children, their assertions that she never hugged them or told them she loved them, her intolerance of fat people and those mentally impaired. I also never expected her to be the Grandma who volunteered to watch my children for a few hours — and she never was. She described herself as a microbiologist, who just ‘happened’ to be a mother.


Fuzzy and warm, cheerleading and inspiring are not descriptions of this diminutive, green eyed woman who is now under 4’8”, hunched over and barely 90 lbs. She hurries off the phone when any of her three children, who live in the Pacific Northwest, call; she now uses her lack of hearing to end conversations quickly. She talks politics and anything lacking an emotional interiority. In old age, Pat continues to treat her adult children as the afterthoughts they always considered themselves to be in her world. They appreciate her intelligence but never experienced the warmer, nourishing, and accepting attitude of a loving mother.


Pat and I have had a good relationship ever since I married Russ. I do not know if it’s because I knew she was difficult and let her be, or because I have listened to her and asked her questions about her life, but I became a trusted confidante of hers over the years. I do not foment dissension or exclude family, and I wonder if that helped her feel comfortable with me. Thinking of her trapped in her room, bereft of pictures of her children (she hasn’t requested or okayed any pictures to be hung of them) and the trappings of a life well-traveled, sniffing now and then a bundle of sage from Utah that sits in a bowl on her side table, haunts me. The dry, hot sun of the desert is in her bones, and having camped and hiked that area myself, I understand the seep of desert air and the smells that nestle forever in the psyche of a person who has experienced that land. She recounted many times to me over the years the long hikes she and her family would take on weekends in Utah when she was growing up. Provo was a much smaller town, but near enough to Salt Lake City to feel the quiet, tenacious spread of Mormonism and near enough to the forests and desert valleys to be called by their beauty. She always kept sage in her home in Pittsburgh, a long bundle in one of the many bronze ewers she’d bought while living in Iran during the 1950s.


I so much want to take her outside, wrap her in blankets, and let her feel the sun, maybe rub a little sage on her sweater before she dies a prisoner of COVID-19.


Pat’s doctor at the nursing home said he is so sorry we cannot visit her, the sound in his voice suggesting she might well die while quarantined. When I last saw her March 13th, I kissed her on the top of her grizzled gray head and told her I would clean her clothes and return them in two days. She hates being touched, but she was feeling so bad and I wanted her to know we love her. I mentioned that if COVID-19 spread, it might be a few weeks before I saw her again. She nodded and looked up at me. “I’m not going to walk you to the door. It’s too hard for me.” Her thick, gray hair waved under her chin as she hunched forward, and sunlight streaming through her window revealed old lady fuzz on her sunken jowls.


I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Dr. Manette is imprisoned for 18 years, where he goes mad and occupies his time making shoes. He is disheveled and filthy, and he stares vacantly in his cell. That’s melodramatic, but not wholly unrelatable. Jennifer, the caregiver, says Pat is angry, confused, turning inward as she sits, alone, away from the sun (and gloom) of outside. She barely eats, mostly consuming recycled air in a controlled environment. There is no red dirt on her sneakers, and no scotch at the end of a twisting trail that circles the red cliffs of a canyon forged by an ancient sea and chiseled by the Colorado River and wind erosion.


Tonight, the aides will bathe her, brush her teeth, and give her pain medication for the pain that radiates through her swollen legs and feet. Maybe she’ll ask someone to open her window for fresh air. I will ask Jennifer to lift a few sprigs of the dried sage, roll them between Kleenex, and give Pat the tissue for her nose. Maybe she can sprinkle the leftovers onto the blanket that covers her legs.


Maybe, before all is done, she will sit on an aluminum chair at the campsite with her siblings and drink one last scotch.

Pamela Cottam is an emerging writer who has written a full-length mystery novel, short stories, and children’s picture books. She completed her MFA and received two scholarships for study. She received Honorable Mention from The Chautauqua Institute, Summer Literary Contest, 2019.

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