Thursday, December 3, 2009

I cradled her

I checked on Mom twice before Dad got back from his shopping errands. The first time was at 6:30PM, and she was sound asleep. The second time was a little before 8PM, and when I went into Mom's bedroom, I saw that she was on her back, with one hand on her forehead-- a sign that she was slowly waking up. I leaned over Mom's supine form, and gently rubbed her upper arm to prompt her to open her eyes. She looked at me in the semi-dark; the only light was coming from the bathroom next door.

"You awake?" I asked. I thought I saw a slight nod, but couldn't be sure.

"You hungry?" Nothing. Mom stared at me.

"You thirsty?" Again, nothing.

"Let me get you something to drink," I said. "I'll be right back."

I went to the kitchen and prepped some pomegranate juice in the new "thermos cup" that Dad had bought for Mom. The cup has a screw-on cap and a large plastic straw; spilling the cup's contents is possible, but not likely, making it great for use in bed. I brought the pomegranate juice back to Mom, set it on her nightstand, then reached under her to raise her to a seated position. Mom held her neck steady as I tilted her forward, a sure sign that she was waking up and was also, perhaps, a bit stronger and more alert than she had been before her nap.

It quickly became obvious that I wouldn't be of any help if I stayed in that awkward position-- facing Mom, both of my feet on the floor next to the bed, my body bent double with my arms wrapped around her to keep her upright. So I kept Mom in position, and slid onto the bed behind her, sitting in the spot where her torso had been. I kept my left leg on the floor and tucked my right leg behind Mom. She now leaned against my stomach and chest, and my arms were free. It was almost as if Mom had become my blanket, or I had become her couch.

The thought was too cool not to voice. "I'm your couch now," I declared in a whisper. I handed Mom her drink, and she took it from me with no trace of hesitation or perseveration. She drank down a few good swallows of juice; I could only imagine how thirsty she must have been after her nap, and still nursing those bruises from her two falls earlier in the day.

I took the cup from Mom's hands when I saw that she was no longer thirsty. And so we just sat there in the dark, Mom leaning on me, me supporting Mom. I don't know how much time went by; maybe just a few minutes, maybe half an hour. Mom said nothing the entire time, but she seemed content with that state of affairs. Her eldest son was doing something that he had never done before, holding her in such a comforting way. As Mom's cancer has progressed, more and more of my inhibitions have been falling by the wayside. The more I realize the importance of simple human contact, of presence, the more easily such gestures come to me. Even eight months ago, I'd never have done something like this for Mom.

Eventually I broke the silence, determined to try evoking a response again.

"Do you want to get up?"

And this time, Mom nodded, her head bouncing like a bobblehead toy.

"Are you hungry?"

Another weak-but-bouncy nod.

So I put on her helmet, slowly helped her out of bed, and took her over to the bathroom. She was able to walk the short distance without collapsing, and seated herself on the toilet with dignified deliberateness. Toilet time is reorientation time for Mom; it gives her a chance to regain her bearings after any sort of transition, be it a move from the bedroom to the bathroom, or a move from the living room to the bathroom. We normally let Mom meditate a few minutes on the pot before suggesting that we move on to some other activity; in that spirit, I stepped out of the bathroom, retrieved Mom's Korean newspaper, and brought it to her. Then I stepped back out to allow her her privacy.

A few minutes later, I poked my head in the door and said, "Hey! How're you doing?"

Mom stopped reading and slowly looked at me. I expected her to give her usual nod, but instead she whispered, "I'm fine."

It was the first time she'd spoken all day. The rest of the evening was so much better for Mom-- dinner, TV, and mental lucidity.

Strangely enough, this wasn't the first time I had cradled someone this way. Several years ago, while I was living in Korea and before I'd gotten my peach of a university job, I was standing at a bus stop in the Kwanghwamun section of downtown Seoul, in front of the Sejong Cultural Center. The cold that night was brutal; all of us at the bus stop had bundled up like Eskimos.

I saw two old ladies bickering in front of me, obviously longtime friends, and just as obviously drunk out of their minds. One of the ladies saw a bus approaching and shouted that this was their bus, the one they had to take. The second lady didn't want to board, and when the bus pulled up to the stop and opened its front door, a weird wrestling match ensued. The rest of us stood and watched as this bizarre tableau played out like an off-beat comedy.

The first lady managed to put the second lady in front of her and wrestle her onto the front steps of the bus. But that was as far as the two ladies got: the second lady, far too drunk, simply collapsed. The bus driver, agitated that he wasn't able to keep his schedule, began berating both ladies, and the first lady finally managed to drag her friend back off the bus, which left without them.

Imagine the situation at this point: two old, drunk, bundled-up ladies on the street in frigid nighttime weather, one collapsed on the pavement, the other swaying over her like a palm frond, shouting and gesticulating... with about twenty people-- including yours truly-- standing at the bus stop and staring at them. It became alarmingly clear to me, though, that the second lady wasn't moving. Perhaps she was merely out cold (she did seem to be breathing); perhaps something was truly wrong with her. I didn't know, and at that point, I didn't care. Someone had to do something, and no one else was moving.

While the first lady continued to tug drunkenly at her friend's arms and clothing, perhaps not even realizing that the second lady was down for the count, I stepped onto the street, hooked my arms under the second lady's armpits, and dragged her back to the bus stop. She proved to be heavier than she looked. The first lady was no help at all: she ignored what I was doing and continued tugging and punching (!) at her friend, demanding that she get up.

And so I found myself sitting on the cold sidewalk, my back against one of those trees that you'll find lining the streets of downtown Seoul, an old woman sacked out in my lap, and likely losing heat through her skin thanks to the alcohol. Worried that she would start to freeze, I took my own coat off and draped it over her, using one arm to ward off the inebriated blows of her friend. I turned toward the cluster of onlookers, beckoned to a young lady, and asked her to call 119, the Korean equivalent of 911.

The ambulance took a few minutes to respond, so I sat with this lady leaning against me, using my body to heat her from behind and hoping that my coat was trapping the air in front of her. At first, I had to spend my time both warming the lady and deflecting the wildly inaccurate punches of her drinking buddy, but eventually the first lady calmed down as she realized that two things were happening: first, her friend wasn't moving; and second, this foreigner was actually trying to help. By the time the ambulance arrived, the first lady was positively nice to me, telling me that I didn't have to do what I was doing. The paramedics took over from there, loading both ladies into their tiny minivan, then trundling off to a nearby hospital.

And that was that. The only strangers who got involved were me and the young lady I recruited from the crowd. Everyone else had just stood there, gawking.

I was reminded of that amusing night in Kwanghwamun while I sat with Mom on her bed earlier this evening. In the dark, with Mom in her blanket and with me acting as her couch, warming her from behind, I pressed my cheek against her cheek and imagined-- wished-- that my touch could dissolve the cancer in her head.



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lovely post, Kevin. In this troubled time, your writing has gotten even better.

Jeffery Hodges

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jeanie oliver said...

I can't catch my breath. I have been crying through most of this post. I read EVERY one, but don't comment-just silently watch from Arkansas with love and respect for you and all you do for your mom and family. May peace transcend for you and yours this holiday season.
Jeanie Oliver

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, J & J, for your kind words.