Cindy Matthews has worked as a chamber maid, potato peeler, data entry operator, teacher, and vice-principal of special education programs. She writes, paints, and instructs online courses for teachers in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada.
This creative non-fiction piece, “Nothing by Mouth”, was shortlisted in the 2014 Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest. Cindy’s non-fiction will also appear in Issue Eleven of Tincture Journal in September 2015. Find more of her work at http://cindymatthews.ca.
In the bathroom garbage Muti’s toilet paper sat like ghosts wearing lipstick. Those bloodied tissues compelled me to nudge her to get a bowel scope. After Dad died, Muti reluctantly tolerated my meddling. When I asked about the blood, she said, “Oh, don’t make a huge deal. The doctor said stop straining.”
“You’re constipated? Since when?” I asked.
There were multiple conflicting bowel symptoms. Muti had gone from pushing until she cried to bouts of unpredictable diarrhoea. Then, a few days before Christmas she called. “I need a drive to St Mary’s. For a colonoscopy,” she told me. “Pencil me into your busy principal schedule.”
“Vice-principal. Remember, I’m dead against promotion.”
On the day of the scope, a check of the bathroom garbage shows it’s empty. Muti never flushes toilet paper unless she wants the septic to back up. Drained bottles of Fleet and plastic containers of Wink are tipped into the basin. Before washing my hands, I rest the empties in front of the trash receptacle. They stand like proprietors on a street of pawn shops.
I walk past Muti’s chair in the living room to the kitchen where I find her scouring the floor. The linoleum in front of the stove is scuffed grey with years of grime. On the laminate counter stands a transistor radio Muti has had since I was in high school. Listeners phone in to argue about traffic circles. A caller refers to them as “roundabouts”. I find the noise and chatter of it disquieting and itch to turn it off.
“You’re here? I didn’t hear you,” my mother says.
“Do you mind?” I don’t wait for a response before dialling down the volume. “How was your night?” I ask.
“OK if you like peeing out your bum.”
I lean against the door jam and watch her purge the floor of blemishes. There is a calm rhythm to the way she does chores. There is no impatience, unlike me who is always irritated by menial jobs. Muti elects to scrub from hands and knees using a pair of my deceased father’s underwear. Her keenness to do things the same as her mother is rooted in a thrift that stems from the war. The smell of ammonia assaults my nose and makes me sneeze. Muti grabs a cupboard door to boost herself up. A noticeable creak pops from a joint. She leans against the counter and gestures at the kitchen. “Someone could really make something OK out of this.”
“Let’s not spend today figuring out how to put the house on the market,” I say. “Get your coat on or we’ll be late.”
She steps into pumps which she replaces with boots. A suitcase big enough for a holiday sits near the door. “Seriously, such a huge bag? You’re just going for the day. You’ll be home by dinner,” I say, noticing how light the bag feels in contrast to its size.
“Just put it in the trunk already,” Muti says. She finger-combs her hair and checks her face in a compact mirror she keeps in a nearby drawer. As she fumbles with the lock, I offer my elbow which she promptly shoves away.
“You think I’m an invalid now?” she asks.
In the car I notice it takes Muti three tries to fasten her seatbelt buckle but I don’t offer to help. We pass traffic circle construction site.
“What do you think?” I say, pointing.
“What makes you think I voted for them to build that here?” she asks. “Drive. Let’s get this over with.”
After finally finding a parking spot at the hospital, I fist loonies into a meter. A blue-haired volunteer whisks us off to surgery. After Muti registers and receives a sedative, we wait. Silence hangs in a room crammed with geriatrics all apprehensive about getting a rectal probe. A TV flickers from a corner.
A tall man wearing turquoise pushes a hospital bed. His muscular arms have no problem controlling the gurney. His scrubs contrast beautifully with his chocolate complexion. He looks familiar. I consider our connection when he calls out, “Mrs Konig?” Muti’s head weighs heavy on her chest so I prod her.
He smiles. His teeth are bright and even, like those of a model. When Muti finally rises, she steps into flirtation mode. The sedative makes her words come out elongated and filmy. “A good looking guy like you have a girlfriend?” she asks.
“Nope,” he says. “I’m gay.”
“How ridiculous,” Muti says. “You’re much too pretty.” She shuffles along the floor like she’s in a bubble, barely lifting her heels. And I think good God. Muti is stoned.
“You married, sugar?” asks the attendant.
A nervous laugh emerges from Muti’s lips. She says, “I used to be. Who wants to know?”
It takes him two attempts to prop her on the stretcher. He fastens a belt around her legs and upper body to prevent her from slithering off.
“Why are you strapping me down?” Muti asks, only it sounds more like “Why yous lappin’ me, Don?”
“How did you know my name?” asks the attending, who flutters a hand over his mouth and giggles.
As we make our way to the elevator, I jog to keep up. I flail at Muti’s hospital gown to cover an exposed breast. Her oversized suitcase rides on the rack below. The attendant encourages me to return around noon and suggests I visit the hospital coffee shop. He holds Muti’s wrist and verifies the name on the bracelet. “Got to make sure, Sugar Konig.”
I perch with a coffee on a vinyl chair under the waiting room window. A staff member telephones from a special education program I supervise to discuss a youth whose tantrums are escalating. I gaze out the fourth floor window. I can spot the flat roof of the program in question—my workplace, where I really should be—but resist darting over. I flip through a copy of Chatelaine, blue yoga mats fatigued on yellow pages.
Soon it is after one and I try not to fuss. There’s a commotion in my stomach and I berate myself for not eating more than a dry raisin biscuit. The waiting room is chilly and damp. Earlier, after Muti and I argued over the suitcase, I’d snuck a look inside before stowing it in the trunk. She’d packed a red terrycloth robe and her upper dentures, the false teeth irrelevant, nestled in the arms of the housecoat.
At two o’clock the surgeon finds me stretched across armless chairs. I pick the sticky stuff from the corners of my eyes. The doctor spews a word salad of technical jargon with a dressing of surgery. The dendrites in my brain are too slippery to be much use.
Muti is admitted to hospital while she awaits the opening of a surgical theatre. A few anxious days cause the groove between my eyes to intensify. I am eager to discuss what is looming but Muti gives an air of non-concern whenever I bring it up. When I quiz her the only one with doubts is me. My misgivings about hospitals stem from my childhood, when Muti spent exhaustive stretches under the care of an oncologist and later, psychiatrists.
An operating room avails itself at a nearby hospital. I drive below the speed limit as I trail patient transport, appreciative the driver keeps the ruby beacon off. Despite it only being a few days into this medical event, I am slogging in I-words: incompetent, isolated, ineffectual, inept, and inadequate. I crave to pick the brain of someone, likeminded or not, with whom I can share these mounting decisions. Being solely accountable detours my ability to focus well on this trek with its unspecified agenda and indefinite eventual outcome. As I follow patient transfer, I attempt to memorise the licence plate ahead of me. We crawl past familiar older single-family homes. The brief drive squeezes my weary brain.
When we arrive, I must decide between leaving the car in a parking garage off Green Street or park for free at a vacant lot off the high school. I wrestle too long with the decision, its simplicity obvious yet insurmountable. I find myself in the lobby on the third floor of the hospital trying to determine where I’m headed. As I ride the elevator, it strikes me very odd to tuck surgical theatres in the basement.
The hallway to the waiting area is long like the corridors in schools. It stuns me how heavy the three doors I push through are. Finally I am face-to-face with a room of strangers. We sit silently and one-by-one they fade away.
As the night grows old, the only people who remain are custodians. I lift my feet so a dry-mop can scrub salt stains from under my chair. When I look up to see who is at the other end of the mop, there’s gorgeous Don, the attending from the first hospital. I laugh out loud and say, “Hi, long time no see.” Only it’s not Don. The only thing Don and this man share is mocha skin colour. His diminished height and skin tags chaining his nose reveal my error. My brain is as effective as the crumpled tissue resting in my palm. “Sorry,” I say.
I lift my feet. A voice says, “Thank you, honey.” I consider requesting he comb fingers through my bangs and inquire if I am OK.
The coffee table is heaped with magazines and my feet play a chasing game until I give in and offer my eyes a break. Soon I dream I am charged with beautifying hospital waiting rooms. I swoop around on a magic carpet tossing paint at walls leaving a bazillion dots and a naked guy riding a bull. He tugs on a surgical disguise and smothers Muti with a sleeping mask. Another stranger slices Muti’s bum and belly open. As he slides tumours into a bathtub-sized pan, a musty, metallic smell fills the air. From the corridor, the loud noise from a buffing machine snatches me awake.
I blink to rid my eyes of itch. I unearth crusty skin along my thumb which I resist chewing. Much later, a man with olive skin and pale blue scrubs enters the room. He is Muti’s surgeon. When he extends a hand for me to shake, I dust mascara flakes from under my eyes before offering my limp fingers. Red splotches speckling his scrubs distract me. Five words pump from his lips, “Surgery went well as expected.”
Seconds tick and carry off those five words. I reiterate the words. I count the syllables. I argue with myself whether there are eight or nine. I repeat the words. It never occurs to me that there was any other outcome but for Muti to make it. Residing between those carefully spoken words rest my dashed hopes and busted promises as I digest his message.
“Go home. Get some sleep,” he says. When I look down, my hand is diminutive nestled in his large palm, his fingers long and unadorned. I wonder if there is a family waiting for him, a family who despises the lengthy surgeries he commits to. “Come find the patient in Intensive Care in the morning.”
Nobody says why they keep Intensive Care so dim. The nurses resemble miners with their headlamps. It’s impossible to scare up a chair. There is a veritable electronic white noise of bleeps and hums coming off a factory of machines. I cannot make out what the nurses say because they sigh when they speak. There’s no point asking Muti how she is. Where her lips once were, someone has taped a wide plastic tube. An electronic motor gasps for her. A thin hose streams urine from under a blue cotton blanket. Rusty yellow pee dribbles into a handbag-sized sack. Other tubes squirt clear liquid from bags on poles lining her head. I scrutinize a tube to determine if the fluid is backing up or runny enough to know where it’s headed.
I count the needles held by pure white adhesive against Muti’s vein. I ponder God’s role. Muti would not want me to notify a priest. All the time I’ve known her, she’s been a steadfast non-believer. I was seven when I taught myself to pray. It was during her treatments at Princess Margaret Hospital. Not really understanding why she was there, I asked her when she returned home, “Did you bring me a brother?” My heart collided like a bell tower against my ribs.
I watched her fatigued face open into a grin. “I only have love for you.”
Later that evening Muti made us ice-cream cones. I licked until the cream’s surface turned glossy. Then, using my teeth and lips I bulldozed ruts and valleys.
“See,” Muti said. “Like that. If you had a brother, I’d have to watch two. This way you never have to share.”
In Intensive Care, the patients are more often than not nearing the end. A Mennonite farmer kicked by a horse. A teenager with encephalitis. A child’s head crushed by a farm gate. Each bed has a dedicated nurse tapping code into a laptop.
Muti’s bad eye, gone blind when the retina detached, resembles a spent petunia. Her sparse white hair is so greasy it folds itself back. The Muti of my childhood, a woman with velvet cheekbones, a prominent nose, and blue eyes curtained by thick brown locks is replaced by this woman whose fate clings to a parade of whirling contraptions. I study the mechanical rise and fall of her chest. The nurse speaks breathily like she is afraid I’ll startle. She stops typing and asks, “Do you like tea? I can put the kettle on.” Her subtle, maternal approach draws me in. Images of cinnamon cookies and china cups swap places with my affair with blame.
Intensive Care becomes our home. Thirsty parking meters, familiar coffee servers, endlessly long halls, secret entry codes, and hours on cheerless vinyl. All the while Muti remains on a predictable surface. After a week, the nurse tugs out the ventilator tube. Muti heaves and spits like she’s expelling an owl pellet. And for the first time in days she snuffs a breath all her own.
I land the next morning in Intensive Care to find a red beard in place of Muti’s toothless scowl. My molars grind at not being informed. Like a skewered rotisserie chicken spinning at the deli, I circle in search of someone who can help me. A hospital volunteer with a name like George or Gordon escorts me to where Muti is snoring. I wake her by slipping a sliver of chocolate between her lips. She smacks in satisfaction. A nurse with a pony tail steps into the room.
“Help you?” Pony Tail asks.
“I’m the daughter,” I say.
“You may want to step out until I finish,” she tells me, folding back the sheet to expose Muti’s abdomen.
“It’s OK. I’ll stay.”
Toffee coloured liquid burbles from the stoma and dribbles into a bag previously concealed by bed covers. The more I muzzle it, the more pronounced the gag. “You’ve never seen her bottom parts before?” Pony Tail asks.
Muti elevates her hips and her brow furrows with the effort she exerts. Pony Tail leans in and says, “That’s OK, honey. Just set yourself down on the sheets.” Muti closes her legs and then her eyes. The nurse adjusts the gown over Muti’s breasts which resemble shrunken heads with sun-kissed raisins for nipples.
The nurse spots the red chocolate bar wrapper which doesn’t camouflage on the turquoise bedcover. She gestures at it gnarling there, her pony tail keeping beat with her gum chewing. She drags me to a sign dangling from the door.
“See this?” She taps the pink laminated poster and tosses a fresh wad of gum into her mouth. The air fills with the smell of cherry blaster. “NPO! It’s Latin for nothing through the mouth. An occasional ice chip but that’s it.”
“Sorry. How could I know?”
During subsequent visits I glide by the ice machine to fill Muti’s pitcher. As the cubes melt, droplets cluster on the jug and puddle on the tray. For six weeks, I slip frozen slivers past chapped, dehydrated lips. Muti bargains for what I cannot give.
A few days later, I decide to take one day off from hospital visits, a vacation from self-criticism, a day catching up. I sleep past nine and spend half an hour sipping coffee while paging through the Saturday Record. Mid-morning, Pony Tail gets me on my cell. “Your mother’s out of control. I’m on twelve hours. Her screeching is driving me and the patients crazy.”
“I’ll be there tonight,” I lie. The piles of laundry. The bare fridge shelves. Clusters of dust along the baseboards. Streaks on the mirrors. Muti’s neglected cats. They have started pooping beside the litter box. I sit and wonder what my kids look like.
“You should come now,” she says. I blink at her nerve. “My head nurse supports me.”
I stare at the phone. I want to sizzle this officious nurse in a too-hot pan. Should. What a word that is. I should work harder. I should be a principal. I should be a better daughter. A better wife. A more involved mother. I should drink less alcohol. I should love Muti more.
“You should come watch me play,” my son said during a call to my cell earlier in the week. “I’m playing centre now.”
As I considered his request, I thought about a recent radio program about the red-tailed hawk. Every year they should migrate but some postponed going this year. And as a result of not doing what they should, many hawks would die. I was a red-tailed hawk. There was much I should have been doing. Instead of offering an ear to my son, I took advantage. When I should have been mature, I complained about responsibility and being charged with Muti’s care. How important I not screw up. Why being an only child was a burden. How my son should try to step in my shoes.
From the receiver emitted a sigh so wet and sincere it felt moist against my ear. I wanted to snatch back every stupid word. I gripped the receiver like I would crush it. But it was too late. Notwithstanding my selfishness and inability to focus on someone besides myself, he was gone.
Pony Tail says, “Maybe I was too forceful. Come when you can.” I open the fridge to spot an almost empty jar of cheese spread, some mouldy asparagus, celery past its best before date, and a plastic pouch of English muffins. I slather peanut butter on celery while still cradling the cordless phone.
I sniff my armpits. “I’ll be there.” In the shower my attention narrows to a rusty stain near the drain. I try to concentrate on the sensation of shampoo against my scalp, the soap on my skin, water rinsing. I pull a razor along my legs. When blood sprouts, I watch it blaze a trail to my toes. Unhappy with each outfit I tug on, I stand naked in front of the mirror and beg for allowances. In the kitchen, I forego making coffee-for-the-road and clench my car keys until they imprint a grave impression in my palm.
When I step off the elevator, I hear a voice rasping like a grinder on metal. It’s Muti. “Where’s my supper? I’m hungry,” she says. Her bottom lip is cracked and white spit balls collect in the corners of her mouth. When she isn’t repeating the line about supper, her lips hammer together like a baby bird. It has only been a few months since we argued over the suitcase. The look that passes between us is of two people seeking deliverance.
The first surgery is a bust. The blockage is more extensive than predicted. Plus, Muti isn’t handling it well. Indigo drapes her attitude pressing her further into demoralisation and despondency. I slather lotion over her fingers like I’m smoothing casing on Vienna sausages. The translucent skin sags and the veins resemble earthworms.
Finally, tranquility consumes Muti so I slip off the chair and flee. In a stairwell between floors, I lean against the wall, draw a long, steady breath, and hold it to see if I can.
After weeks of nothing through the mouth, the gastroenterologist decides to ship Muti to a Hamilton hospital. Fantasies to escape this medical nightmare avail themselves. I opt to embrace nudism and leak my depravity to the press. I consider drinking myself stupid. I contemplate submitting my resignation so I can devote myself fulltime to her needs.
I second-guess my consent to another surgery. I find myself craving the presence of a sibling, even if just for the night. As the new doctor outlines the surgical plan, my shoulders relax. I flush with excitement as she punches her contact information into my Blackberry. I have huge expectations.
This hospital is new and modern. Carpet replaces linoleum. Colour-coded walls. The smell of urine conspicuously absent. Surgeon Number Two removes the blockage and tosses Muti’s will out with the tumours. Muti’s room is near the nursing station. Immediately, Muti starts to nitpick. The hospital is too noisy. Too cold. Too hot. She pleads that I not visit. She yells, “What do we have to talk about?” When Muti yanks the appliance off the stoma, it results in the bed becoming a river of feces. The nurses don’t disguise their irritation.
I struggle to help by saying inane things. “This surgery finally fixed you.” “No more ice cubes.” “Now you can eat.” When a lunch tray with a caramel pudding cup, soup, and fruit arrives, she looks at me with mistrust and pivots to the wall.
I tell her about the deer crossing signs on the road I travel to and from the hospital. How watchful I have to be in case some crazed animal tests my steering ability. She never even smirks when I confide to relieving myself while squatting among cat tails.
When I offer her broth I wait and watch with optimism if this time she might actually swallow. Days later, she reluctantly gums a cracker. The doctor orders Ensure to supplement meals. She threatens to put Muti back on an IV if she doesn’t start eating. Gaunt, Muti’s cheeks sunken, her normally strong fingers thin and withered, I realise she is wasting away. All amounts of encouragement cannot inject will into a person designing a different outcome.
Weeks later, Muti transfers to a rehabilitation facility in Kitchener. The red brick building has a courtyard with immaculate lawns and fork-tined fences. Freeport is so pretty somebody selected to film an Alice Munro story there. A hospital administrator reveals I must pay for Muti’s convalescence. When I challenge, they read from a form I signed indicating my understanding of the billing. Muti is categorised as uncooperative. If I were in their shoes I would designate her obstinate, contrary, belligerent and pig-headed. And no matter of accommodating has made a drip of difference.
When I offer to take Muti to sit in the gardens among serviceberry bushes, I spot moderate acknowledgement of the idea so I take advantage.
“If I have to,” she says. “But take me in the wheelchair. I’m too weak.”
“I like that colour on you,” I tell her. She is wearing one of the new velour tops I bought her.
“Well, everything else is too big,” she says.
Through the elevator’s glass doors we can glimpse the garden. “Look, the same as you have at home,” I say, pointing at the bushes. As soon as I utter the words, I wonder if I should bring up home but I’m stuck on what to talk about with someone I see every day. We’ve run out.
After sitting on the bench in the warmth of the August sun, I ask, “Want frozen yoghurt at the canteen? We can come back later if you like.” Before we arrive at the self-serve yoghurt cooler, we pass the hospital gift shop where neon pink and yellow helium balloons stroke the ceiling. Stuffed bears and monkeys jostle for space in the shop window. A familiar gift shop volunteer waves and says, “Hello, Mrs Konig.”
“You should say something back,” I say when silence follows the volunteer’s words. Muti sighs audibly and folds her arms over deflated breasts.
Muti says, “I don’t really get her jokes so I don’t want to encourage her.”
We stop and wait for the automatic door to open to the garden area. Others dot the wooden benches, everyone pining for fresh air and sunshine. The humidity of earlier in the summer is replaced with dry air. We sit side-by-side, me on a bench and Muti in the wheelchair. We think our own thoughts as birds flit. Suddenly, Muti rolls her shirt up. The smooth contour of her round belly is broken up by an appliance affixed on one side of her abdomen. “Do you have this, too?” Muti’s question barges into the back-and-forth of no one in particular.
I give her an elbow. When that doesn’t cause her to release the fabric, I give her the stink eye.
Not to be outstripped, Muti repeats, “Do you have one, too?” The people across from us do not hide their feelings. They look away, at each other, over their shoulders, down at the ground. Anywhere but at the unstable woman. Smirks unpeel their faces. They wince as they steal a moment to look at Muti with constipated consternation. One-by-one they drift off.
A few weeks later when I should be renting DVDs and slicing pizzas for my son’s birthday, the staff place Muti on suicide watch. A hollow has opened inside her and she is imploding. She cannot draw a true breath—not because her lungs are broken but because the chasm that is her life is thrusting her organs out her throat. She no longer bothers getting out of bed to pee, so a catheter is inserted.
As if her lips are sutured with yarn, she refuses food. The irony isn’t lost on me. I sign another form so a psychiatrist may inject a drug to shock her out of this psychiatric flare-up. She fails at starving herself so she plops herself into her wheelchair and steers it into a window.
In mid-August when I return to work at the school board, Muti moves to long-term care. The facility is minutes by car and the staff there remember her name. Every evening instead of having dinner with my family, I sit and watch her slurp puree. The spoon of another resident flashes the setting sun in my eye. Muti’s spoon slips from her fingers. I pick it off the floor. A scowl reappears on her face, her mouth air-locked so food cannot invade her mouth.
No one at the table speaks during meal time but me. I say inane things. “Any of you been working on the jigsaw puzzle in the hall?” or “Great hockey game the other night.” and “Sure glad it’s been a nice fall.”
The woman across from me is beautiful. Despite her age and infirmities, she has stunning skin. It’s smooth with barely a blemish. Her eyes are cubes of chocolate and her cheeks are polished crusts of French bread. Muti is younger, I surmise, but her skin is rough and scarred, like someone blindfolded did calligraphy.
Muti’s skin as a young mother was exquisite. Sometimes she’d dress up in something linen. Pale blue and peach circles, their size reminding me of dessert plates, spotted the fabric. And while she stood there in this exquisite dress, my father would stretch a hand and offer to dance. Their favourite music was by Nat King Cole. Dad would turn and dip Muti to the song “Pretend”, the bottom of her dress rustling. I begged him to dance with me. Muti would perch on the arm of a chair and watch. He bundled me in his arms while I ducked from smoke wafting from a dangling cigarette.
Patient transfer ships Muti to emergency five times. She can no longer hold food down. She shivers like a skinny-dipper in a northern lake. Muti is helpless as needle-prick after needle-prick tests her blood, inserts an IV, and shoots her with pain medicine and antibiotics. She stops speaking. I can no longer call up her distinctive Austrian accent and that strange way her tongue trips on Guelph. Christmas Eve we get the call. When we arrive, “O Tannenbaum” plays on her portable radio, its plastic housing still sticky with cooking grease. Head shots of her grandchildren line a window ledge. We huddle in the dim room. My husband repeats with unnecessary sternness, “Let go, Theresia. Just let go.” My fingers squeeze into fists and I resist popping him in the nose. The dogs become the reason for him and our son to slip home. The room is draughty yet offers a serenity I am not expecting. My daughters and I roost on institutional chairs, mine black, theirs wagon-red and listen to choices a DJ makes.
I watch Muti’s emaciated chest. Her granddaughters morph into one, their near identical features becoming masks of terror on carefully powdered faces. They sigh as the time between gasps widens. I find myself fooled by the unpredictability of the chest and hate myself for counting the seconds between each breath. I am a co-conspirator willing a desired outcome. Colour drains from her face and then from mine. The smell coming from her changes. A nurse’s aide checks Muti’s legs for bruising, a dollar store necklace blinking from her collar. And we come to know that the body in the bed is just that, a body. As we pause there, I consider never having to go on. And being home.