Ethel

She’s in a nursing home and I’m waiting for her to die. Every few months I get a phone call from them that always starts the same way, “I’m calling about your mother but don’t worry, she’s fine.” Better luck next time, I always think. Usually they just need permission for something like a change in her meds or a visit to her doctor. Last year she had a tumor on the side of her face. They asked if they should cut it out and give her chemo, Medicaid will pay for it. I said, “sure, why not.” Things did not go well and she was disfigured. They called back a few months later, said there’s another one. I said, “nah, leave it alone.”


Ethel didn’t love me. She was fed up with having babies (I was number four). She didn’t nurse me. I suppose she must have touched me at times but I can’t remember anything like that. If you look that shit up in a book you’ll find out that kids like me often turn out to be sociopathic, which I don’t think I am. Or criminals, which I certainly have been.

Of all the kids, I was the one that she neglected the most. She felt bad about it, though, so when numbers five and six were born she decided to be a mother again. I know these things because, many years later, she told me. For years, she couldn’t stop apologizing. It was incessant. I once told her I forgave her just to shut her up but it didn’t do any good. She couldn’t not apologize. Thankfully, she ended up getting dementia and forgetting about all of it. Now she’s got a ten year period in her sixties when she was a reasonably functional member of society working at a donut shop and that’s all she remembers. Convenient for her.

She had an tiny altar with a feather on it. She found the feather after number two died (killed himself) and she was sure it was a sign that he didn’t hate her. When I moved her into the nursing home I threw that fucking feather, along with her disgusting shit-stained, hole-filled baggy underwear that she left hanging on a clothes rack in her bedroom. You have no idea how much that offended me. I didn’t actually move Ethel into the nursing home. I paid someone else to do that.

“Killed himself” doesn’t quite capture it. He was in his forties. They lived together. They ran out of gin. He told her not to buy any more. On the day that she did, he used it to wash down a hoard of prescription meds. While she was sleeping in the other room he documented his transformation from being alive to being dead on a series of index cards. Geuss who found the cards (and his body) in the morning?

Ethel was able to stay in her apartment long after her dementia began because she had OCD. I don’t mean she was organized or anal retentive, which is what most people mean when they say OCD. I mean she had OCD. Every activity in her life was ritualized to such a rigid degree that she was able to function despite the fact that she had shit for brains. She coudn’t have conversations, or do anything that she hadn’t already done a thousand times before.

Before I stopped answering her phone calls we had the exact same conversation week after week for two years. She asked the same stupid questions and told the same stupid jokes. It was excruciating until I realized if she couldn’t remember we had the same conversation a week ago then she also probably wouldn’t remember that I stopped taking her calls.

None of my (alive) siblings had anything to do with her so I hired a company to visit her three times a week. They took her to the grocery store, the health food store, and the restaurant. Ethel only ate breakfast on the days the driver took her to the restaurant: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. One egg, over easy. One piece of rye toast, edges cut off, and half a cup of coffee. On Mondays she would buy a lobster roll to take home for lunch. She would eat half that day and half on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays she brought home kale soup which was lunch through Thursday. I don’t know what she ate for lunch on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Every day at 3 pm she would eat one brownie and a half glass of red wine. She liked halving things. (Back when I used to visit, if I ever took her out to dinner, she would eat exactly half of whatever she ordered. The other half would be wrapped up for tomorrow.) Every night she ate a frozen microwave meal. She cycled through her favorite three but I never knew the order.

One time, the only thing in her refrigerator was a dozen cartons of soy milk.

Another way her OCD helped her were the notes. They were everywhere in her apartment. Post-it notes, all yellow, with her scrawled reminders in blue ink. Every surface, including the walls, was covered with notes. Most of them were logical. The kitchen notes were mostly about food, the bathroom notes about bathroom things, the living room notes about how to operate the TV and phone, etc. All of the notes were precisely arranged for maximum efficiency.

In case you’re wondering, I’ll give you just one example note content: “Ask ——— if I should cancel the newspaper?” I canceled it a year ago.

The most curious collection of notes was on the coffee table, which she sat in front of while she was awake. The entire surface being covered, the only place for new notes was on top of the old notes. They were dozens deep. Not surprisingly, the notes on the bottom layers were neatly written but the more recent notes on the top layers were indecipherable. She stopped being able to write but that didn’t stop her from taking notes.

One time she told me she stopped reading (books, magazines, newspapers) because it was making her eyes bad and she didn’t want to not be able to read.


They finally called to tell me she died. I didn’t know they were going to send me her ashes but they did. What the fuck? I took them on a hike near Lands End Park in San Francisco. Figured I’d toss them in the ocean but it was so windy I couldn’t find any place where they wouldn’t blow back on me or other people. I carried them for a fucking hour before giving up. I got back in my car and headed home. As I was passing the Great Highway beach I noticed the wind had softened so I jumped out, ran to the water’s edge and dumped them on the sand.

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