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Phoning home

Su Lum

My 98-year-old mother has good days and bad days, so I’m always nervous before calling her in New Jersey. I time my calls on days when Carol, one of her Jamaican caretakers, is on duty, knowing that Carol will fill me in on what’s been going on, which helps me to follow the ensuing conversation with my mother, who is hard of hearing and has a problem with “losing words.”I will learn, for instance, that Earta, the Haitian woman who comes twice a week to help get my mother into the shower, was in a car accident and off the map for a couple of weeks and has now reappeared. Due to the new privacy rules, no one knew what had happened to her. A couple of inept replacements had been sent without explanation and suddenly Earta, whom my mother likes a lot, came back.I learn that the caretaker who spells Carol two days a week had not shown up for work, was reported to have health problems and no one knew if she would return or not. My mother doesn’t like that woman, who hovers over her and tries to take her book away if she nods off (“She always pats me!”).My brother-in-law Hal had sent me an e-mail, subject: HANG ONTO YOUR HAT! to say that my mother had expressed a hankering for chicken soup and her hospice nurse, Barbara, had said, “Try it!”Hal was dispatched to purchase chicken, onions, celery and garlic, and Carol spent the day cooking it down and straining it into a clear broth.I should insert here that my mother has been living on a diet of Ensure for a couple of decades due, as far as the many specialists can guess, to adhesions following a hysterectomy for uterine cancer when she was in her 70s. Gradually, various exacerbating foods were eliminated until only Ensure remained in the food pyramid.She has congestive heart failure and has gradually deteriorated physically to the point where she can’t walk at all, is bedridden save for wheelchair rides around the house to look for books, or down the drive to the mailbox, weather permitting. But she still reads The New York Times every day and always has three or four books on her bed.Carol checks to see if my mother is awake, tells her I’m on the line and puts the phone to her ear. When my mother struggles with the words to say that someone who used to give her a bath has returned – something had happened to her – I can understand that she’s talking about Earta, and can understand what she means when she happily reports that “the other one” (names are real sticklers for her, but she refers to the “patter”) may be replaced.I ask my mother about the soup. The first batch was chicken soup and that day Carol told me she had prepared beef soup. “How did you like the SOUP?” I bellow.”First I had chicken soup and today I had BEEF soup,” my mother announced clearly and triumphantly. “I wish you could have been here just to see the LOOK on my face!” “I’m not in any pain so I might as well enjoy what I’ve got,” she says, adding that she’s surprised to wake up every morning still alive. Spring is coming and Carol bundles her up and wheels her around the bumpy thawing lawn to inspect every new bud and bloom. Her neighbor, seeing her outside, walks over to chat, and after this outing my mother takes a long nap and may wake up thinking that she’s back at her childhood home in Alabama or may reach for the newspaper and have some crisp words to say about George W, but she’s in there and she keeps on ticking. Su Lum is a longtime local who is making plans for an April visit. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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