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Stepford Mom
By William J. Gentsch


Mount Ranier

I know that I wasn't the greatest son in the world, but my mother drove me crazy.

Mother, Sharon, my wife of 31 years, and I had just completed a graveside visit requiring many hours of highway travel. Dad is buried in our hometown of Joliet, Illinois. A couple of years before my father passed away, he and Mother chose to retire in Fort Dodge, 90 miles northwest of Des Moines. Under normal circumstances, Joliet is only six hours east of our Des Moines home. Now, with the trip-o-meter rising over the ten-hour mark, we tacked on a series of forty-five minute restroom breaks and 2 hour restaurant stops. Well, you do the math.

Mother's current mantra was that she was crippled and blind. Ever since her eye surgery, she peered though thick glasses, and I'm sure this presented some problems. I had my suspicions when she complained to the housekeeping staff about dusting her dresser -- the front of dresser.

Yet, people actually liked this person, my mother. In Joliet, old neighbors and churchwomen giggled and cried in Mom's motel room. Likewise my niece's girlfriends flocked to the room and fawned over her.

The day after, back in Iowa, I dropped Sharon off in Des Moines and drove Mother to Fort Dodge. Following lunch, I headed back to Des Moines alone. I fumed aloud to God, telling Him that I had no idea what these people saw in my mother. I knew of His love for her, just as He loved everyone. I wailed that he would have to love her for me. She just plain drove me nuts! I knew that God wouldn't change anyone to suit me. "You 'laid the cornerstones of the Earth'. You can do anything you want. My limited human experience tells me that if she joined some kind of support group -- which isn't going to happen -- her insights would be few. Not only that, aging causes such insights to evaporate. I'm sorry, God."

Two days later, a nurse from the retirement home telephoned. Mother was uncommunicative and at the hospital. While at lunch, she attempted to use a fork to do something to ice cream that wasn't possible. The nurse encouraged me to await the emergency room report before driving the ninety miles back up to Fort Dodge.

Within the next hour, I was on the road again. The diagnosis, pending further testing, was a stroke.

Mother, normally verbose to the point of hoarseness, sat in the hospital bed Buddha-like, staring vacantly until someone approached. Seeing me, she attempted words, but none came. People experiencing aphasia, while not being able to initiate conversations, can often complete simple rhymes. I sang an easy song. "Happy Birthday..."

" you", Mother responded.

I tried a cliché she often used. "Life is a--"

"--chair of bowlies." This was not a mistake. As far back as I can remember, Mother played with phrases by transposing the first syllables. "Life is a chair of bowlies," she used to say.

Later, just up the hill from the regional hospital at Mom's retirement complex, I learned disturbing things. Nurses and house staff informed me that, for months Mother teetered on the brink of losing her independent living status. It seemed that Mom had suffered two insulin reactions within a single month. Now, the nursing staff administered her insulin. Further, her daily usage topped a walloping 70 units; the result of an unregulated diet. I examined her checkbook and found several drafts written to the local pizza carryout. Then, there was Mom's abandoned walker.

The year before my father's passing, they purchased the electric wheel chair, something Mother never needed if she had maintained a simple exercise regimen. Gradually, her reliance on the electric version grew and grew. In the months before the stroke Mom's days were cycles of meals, naps and extended bathroom visits. A late development was her inability to control the chair. She often ran into furniture.

Before Sharon and I left for the day, my sister telephoned from New Mexico. Though Mom's speech ability seemed improved, conversations were beyond her. After frustrating attempts at conversation with Mom, my sister quizzed me. I remained vague because I was reluctant to discuss medical condition with Sis in front of Mom. Sis continued to zero-in for specifics. Exasperated, I replied that under the present circumstances Mom could hide her own Easter eggs.

The dinner arrived as Sis rang off. My fumbling attempts at raising the bedside stand proved comical. Sharon, from the opposite side of the bed attempted to explain my error. I didn't comprehend. We resort to a whimsical quip in such circumstances.

"Is this too fast for you?" Sharon asked.

Mother responded, "No, but it's too fast for me."

Sharon and I shot looks back and forth as Mother heartily chuckled.

To regain independent living status Mom, among other things, needed to walk fifty feet using the walker. I sat in on the first physical therapy session. Mom could barely shuffle three steps, and only with continual prompting and much physical support. Within the week, hospital staff doused any hopes for Mom's returning to independent living status. Mother's pre-stroke deterioration eliminated her as a candidate for continued Skilled Care.

I resolved to be Mother's cheerleader. I attended monthly care conferences where optimal goals for Mother's recovery were established. As a freelance video scriptwriter, I didn't have to worry about punching a time clock. A good thing, because once the nursing home devised their care plan I logged nearly 36 visits over a 12 week period. Though she never regained her independent living status, my mother succeeded in walking over 60 feet with only the walker and one aide.

The stroke removed some short-term memory. Miraculously, she forgot some of her life's uglier circumstances. Although Mother's speech returned, she never resumed her talkative, demanding ways. She also forgot her compulsive overeating, drug abuse and vision problems. Sharon and I took Mom on short picnics and in communal kitchens we shared festive holiday meals.

Mother never suffered from any kind of dementia. Beyond physical and occupational therapy, nursing facilities lack day to day stimulation. The Adult Day care unit provided a social environment in a residential setting. Mom could visit and participate in parlor games. For her, spelling games were a slam-dunk. Mom always excelled at spelling.

For Memorial Day I wanted to bring Mom down to Des Moines for a backyard barbecue at my daughter's house. The nursing staff counseled against this, citing logistical problems. In addition, a camera crew had scheduled me to work that afternoon causing travel problems. Amy, the Adult Day Care director agreed to drive Mom back and forth. Amid much laughter, story telling and food, we presented Mother with birthday gifts. Amy related that Mom was totally buzzed during the ninety-minute trip back to Fort Dodge.

Two weeks later Mom suffered another stroke. I really hadn't been apprised of her condition, so when I arrived at the hospital, I stopped first at the gift shop. In addition to flowers, I wanted something bright and cheerful. Balloons were out; Mom never cared for them. She didn't have the space for knick knacks, either. I gave up and settled on just the roses. I stood at the cash register, digging through my wallet, when the door of the shop fanned the balloon display. They undulated like undersea kelp. One picturing a little girl stacking bowls on chairs peeked from the center. The caption read, "Life is a chair of bowlies."

This stroke proved to be of tragic proportions. Mother's tongue lolled, inert. Her entire right side no longer belonged to her. The balloon and flowers seemed a cruel joke. Within the month, a systemic infection gently slid Mother into a coma. I read poetry, scripture and sang to her. I wept while her fevered body lost its final battle.

A June sun blazed over greening fields as Sharon and I drove to the funeral in Joliet. We re-lived moments from the past two years. At one such event, Sharon prepared Thanksgiving dinner in the west-building's kitchen while I fetched Mom. The day was blustery and a large parking lot separated the buildings. I bundled Mother up in her blue parka. She hated the hood, but I insisted. The hood continually slipped down past her eyes. I must have pulled it back three times during the scoot from the nursing facility. Mom responded well to verbal commands, like move your left footnow your right. Though often disregarding events going on around her, she never confused left with right. I stopped to dig something from the trunk of our car, not realizing that Mom was still zipping across the rain soaked parking lot. Not only was she off in another world, her hood covered her eyes. It looked as if a blue sack drove the electric wheel chair. Ahead of her sat a large rain puddle. I yelled, "Mom, lift your right hand!" Immediately, as though saluting, her hand lifted from the control lever. The electric brakes squealed the chair to a halt.

As we pulled into the funeral home on that June morning, I said, "I don't think for a minute that God would injure someone to meet my personal needs, but I'm grateful for the change, just the same. Mostly, I'm happy for the last two years of a renewed relationship with my mother. I thought of her as Stepford Mom."

"The touch of God doesn't always tickle," Sharon replied. "And, you became Stepford Bill."

 William J. Gentsch

Bill's credits include: three published fiction shorts and 8 Iowa Voices essays for the local NPR affiliate. Bill works for NewsRadio WHO, owned by ClearChannel Radio. NewsRadio 1040 WHO is where President Ronald Reagan got his start as a sports announcer.