I've a good, stout cup of freshly brewed coffee beside me, made from beans ground just as I like them -- until the scritchy sound of the grinder vanishes and the blade whirrs smoothly and unimpeded. I use tap water, as I always have done; I don't use the delivered water that I keep for drinking, though purists would scoff. My second-hand coffee pot delivers 10 cups of perfect brew, through unbleached filters, into a glass carafe never cleaned with soap. I am fussy; I like my coffee brewed just so.
Yesterday, a lab technician ironically named Lance drew several vials of blood with just the same degree of effortlessness that I make coffee. I look for him, on my monthly visits to the vampire's lair. He demonstrates an unusual deftness.
Journeying from the elevator, looking for the proper door, I see handwritten signs encouraging me to continue my search for the recently relocated lab in the bowels of the medical building. Yellow, lined paper stuck here and there, on which someone has scrawled messages such as NOT ROOM 140 and KEEP GOING, THIS WAY TO THE LAB. I stop beside one such sign, swaying slightly, and close my eyes.
I hear again my mother's voice, and the sound, calling me from the past, draws me closer.
My mother spent nearly twenty-five years working in the EKG department at St. Louis County Hospital. In her first days there, she "was" the EKG department; by the time she left, she was "the head" of that department. She performed her job the same way in either guise: with diligence and dedication.
Several afternoons each week, she had "clinic hours", during which patients came to her office for EKGs as outpatients. The hospital served mostly lower-income persons, many of whom were uneducated, and my mother treated them with kindness and courtesy. But she also learned that many of them had difficulty understanding her directions and explanations, and she spoke with gentle tones, slowly, modulating her vocabulary to ease their confusion.
At the end of every work day, Mother hurriedly divested herself of the clothes she had worn to the hospital; lab coat into the hamper, dresses back onto hangers; then a quick shower. She wanted fresh clothes, unsullied by exposure to disease, in which to assume her guise as parent for the evening. After she had changed, we ate dinner, then gathered somewhere to hear about her day and share stories of ours. In the living room, on the porch, grouped around her, we listened to her talking.
My mother had liquid brown eyes and the olive skin of her father's Lebanese heritage, and coarse, wavy brown hair. Her slender shoulders bore the weight of her life choices with gentle ease; her voice, deep, throaty, and silken, lulled me into believing that life did not threaten, just outside the door.
I remember a particular summer evening, sitting on our wide front porch, lightening bugs flashing in the yard. My mother gazed across the street, seeing something other than the empty expanse of the neighbor's driveway. I waited, sitting on the brick wall in front of her, watching as she absent-mindedly rocked the painted metal lawn chair in which she sat.
Today a man came up to me and asked where the Lab was, she began. I said, "Okay, the Lab. You go way down this hall. Way, way down this hall. " I pictured my mother, her tones slow and careful, the wide sweep of her arm gesturing towards the location of the laboratory. "You might think you missed it, but keep going", I told him. "Go way, way down the hall. You'll see something that looks like a lab, but isn't -- that's the Blood bank, don't go there. Keep going, way down the hall, until you come to a set of doors." My mother emphasized the word, "doors", and my mental image of her deepened. I knew that tone, the one she reserved for people who needed extra explaining.
I waited. My mother shifted in her seat, and focused on my face, perhaps to see if she still had my attention. And the man looked at me, and said, "Doors. You mean those things with handles?" and I started to say, "No, these are swinging doors --- " and then I looked at the man, really looked at him, and saw the stethoscope around his neck.
A decade and a half later, four days before my mother died, I bent over her still, frail form. We had been schooled by the hospice worker to stroke her throat to stimulate her muscles while feeding her. I tried this technique, but her pre-comatose mind did not respond. Swallow, Mama, swallow, I admonished, over and over. Swallow, come on, Mama, swallow, I repeated. Suddenly, a bony hand reached and grasped mine; and her face moved, her eyes momentarily focused on my face as they had been focusing on my face for thirty years. I am still your mother, she said, don't patronize me.
And then she swallowed, slowly, deliberately, and carefully, the morphine-laced applesauce that I had been feeding her.
In the hallways of the Plaza I Medical Building, in Kansas City, I opened my eyes. I looked for the next yellow sign, and ventured forward until, at the end of the hallway, I found a set of doors which I entered, into the Lab. The woman at the desk greeted me in loud, rounded tones, telling me to sign the clipboard, although the two-inch bold letters on the hand-made sign in front of her unmistakeably announced the same directive. Now sit down, she admonished, repeating, loudly, the final instruction of the glaring black letters on the clipboard itself.
I sat. I closed my eyes, and thought about my mother, and the Lab at St. Louis County Hospital, and the startled doctor to whom my mother spoke in the same voice that this Lab attendant had just used with me, and so I bit back a snotty retort. I'm sure that -- like my mother -- she meant well.
The sun creeps higher, warming the air, inviting me to pull the weeds dying on my back fence before my neighbor's yard party this evening. After a while, I will ease the furnace filter from its cradle to find the model number, and travel to some large, impersonal store where a disinterested clerk might help me find the proper replacement, for which I will pay an ungodly sum. Later, we'll heat some coals, and grill a couple of pieces of chicken, and fight against the mosquitoes on the patio before surrendering to the inevitable lure of air conditioning. And still later, when the sun has set, and the dog has curled in her bed, when the house is still, I will sleep again, and awaken to the thud of the Sunday paper landing on my porch.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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