Wednesday, December 26, 2012
The Frightening Sounds of Silence
As I've written here before, communications with my mother, 93, have declined over the past few years. Until recently, she was very adept with her computer, and had the annoying habit of replying almost immediately to email. I would write a newsy note to her; twenty-three seconds later would come a reply. Meaning? I still owed her a note.
Occasionally there were pauses in her email. She was having problems with her machine. And she was so proud about her prowess that she would never ask anyone at her stages-of-care facility for help. She would wait until one of her sons showed up for a visit. Many (Most?) of my visits in recent years involved some time at her computer, straightening out messes of various sorts.
Sometimes she would call and try to describe the problem. Sometimes I could help--but usually not. I just couldn't "see" the issue she was describing, and she would hang up, disappointed in her dunderheaded second son.
As the years went along, the computer silences lengthened. Her arthritis in her hands made typing a chore (she had always been the fastest in the family). And she was forgetting how to do the simplest things on her machine--even, eventually, how to turn it on and off, how to access her email program. Joyce and I used our digital camera to make an illustrated guide for her--a guide to her own computer. And that worked for a few weeks. And then ... computer silence. A permanent one.
But there was always the telephone. We called two or three times a week, checking in. But two years ago, I also started writing snail-mail letters to her, twice a week. Sending her the family news, a poem now and then, a clipping from the Plain Dealer.
And then, a few weeks ago, she took a bad fall and had to move--temporarily, she hoped--to the nursing wing in her facility. My brother arranged for her to have a phone in her room (a room she shares with another woman), and we were able to call her there--though she didn't always answer. Perhaps she was at PT? Or otherwise occupied?
And then, last week, no answers at all. We called several times a day--usually at mealtime (knowing she has her meals in her room). Nothing.
I spoke with both brothers, who were not too worried. They live much closer (we are nearly 600 miles away) and see her on weekends. And Dave (my younger brother) gets calls immediately from the facility when something is wrong.
Then yesterday--Christmas Day--my brothers and other Mass. family were in her room. Dave called me on his cell. I told him to hang up and let me call her room. Has she forgotten how to answer a telephone? Hers is no simple pick-up-and-say-hello phone; there's a button to push. Does she remember which one? Also: Her hearing has been deteriorating ... Does she even hear the rings?
I called. Dave eventually answered. He said he'd figured out the problem: Somehow, the mute switch was on. Mom had never heard any ringing because there hadn't been any. It's probable that she did it inadvertently. Which means it will probably happen again. But now I can call the front desk and have someone check.
It was an odd, wrenching feeling, not being able to communicate with my mother. I'm sixty-eight years old, and I've always been able to communicate with her--even when it was only a cry or some other infant complaint. And now I was writing letters. Receiving no answers. Making phone calls. Receiving no answers. Such a feeling of helplessness, of imminent emptiness.
But now--for the nonce, anyway--there is a way to hear her voice again. A way to make her laugh. To hear a story I've forgotten. A story, maybe, about me as a little boy, on Christmas, a little boy who thought the greatest gift he could ever receive would be a new cap gun, a baseball, a Davy Crockett cap, a little boy who could never have imagined that one of his greatest gifts--one day, far in the future--would be the tremulous sound of his dear mother's voice.