Backwards and Blind | Helyn Trickey Bradley
Grief has made me a morning person. It shakes me awake at three a.m and whispers with a hoarse voice into my ear.
I’ve begun rowing with my grief. Tipping its pale face to the slow sunrise. This is not a metaphor. In April, I joined a local rowing club. I made my gawky start in the smallest boat imaginable in the calm morning waters of Oregon’s Willamette River.
It’s odd how much the geese in the early dawn mimic the high keening of my heart, or how the splashing of a sea lion rolling around near me in the inky waters, its whiskery face catching the morning light and a silver fish with equal ease, can bring me back from the brink of despair.
I’m grieving the slow loss of my mother from Parkinson’s disease. The affliction has shriveled her body and withered her brain. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I was barred from seeing my mother in her memory care facility for more than a year. I talked her through crying jags and confusion and paranoia on the phone, while she wondered aloud why no family ever visited her. I told her why every day. She kept forgetting.
Now that I can see her in person again and hug her slight shoulders, I’m both relieved and grief-stricken. She’s declined so much in the year we were physically apart that I felt my chest tighten the first time I saw her again. She is a birthday balloon, three days after the party.
“I’m so angry,” Mom says when I finally can visit her in her room. “My ideas keep falling out of me.” She looks helplessly at the floor. “And I can’t get out of this damn chair.” Mom pushes weakly on the cool metal of her wheelchair, but she can’t move her body an inch.
Balancing in the boat on the Willamette, I feel the tension between trying to stay upright and adding strength to my stroke. Don’t tell my rowing instructor, but I’m on the water for the peace and the grace, and don’t care much about form. But she does, so I pretend. My instructor calls to me through a blue megaphone in an adjacent boat to slow my stroke, to wait half a beat in the release position before rolling my head and then body and then legs forward in one liquid motion. I perform this action clumsily and it nearly has me gulping river water. “Feather your oars!” she calls. This instruction will save me from a dunk in the cold water.
“I’m so scared,” my mother says to me one evening when I arrive at The Springs Memory Care to tuck her into bed for the night. She’s been having night terrors and I hope my presence at bedtime might help.
“What are you scared of Mama?”
She looks dehydrated, so I hand her a glass of water, but her arms shake violently, and her hands can barely stand the weight of the glass. I hold the back of her head steady as I tip the glass to her mouth. She takes a sip and peers into my eyes like a newborn.
“I’m frightened of what’s going to happen to me next,” she says. I nod and we say a prayer together, the same short sing-song prayer that she taught me to recite at bedtime as a little girl and that I say now with my own daughter every night: “Now we lay us down to sleep and pray the Lord our souls to keep. …” Mom and I hold hands all the way through.
My body needs to be out on the river in the weak light of early morning. I need to see the sun come up again and again, to be reminded that darkness does not last forever. All I want is to be out on the river, moving forward.
Except rowers move backwards.
Honestly, it never occurred to me that I would be sitting backwards and flinging myself and my impossibly light boat behind me with each pull. I think I was imagining kayaking when I signed up. I never thought about how weird it might feel to fly fast and light and backwards! But backwards I go, and I feel like a fledgling who has caught a lucky draft, adds an easy tipping of its wing, and is soaring.
I’m also rowing blind. I can’t wear my glasses easily; they fog up with each breath I take. So, I row through this holy, early world as Monet must’ve wandered his gardens at Giverny: a blurry landscape made that much more astonishing without the finer details. It’s dreamlike and cold until I get going so hard and fast that I wish I could peel off that extra shirt I put on this morning without capsizing my boat. But I can’t. I don’t have the dexterity or confidence yet. So, I slow my row and glide backwards through the still, black water and see the blurred lights in the homes that line the shore flicker on, one by one, like lightning bugs.
“Be brave and be strong,” my mother told me a few weeks ago when I could finally see her face to face. I knelt on the carpet beside her wheelchair, my face mask brushing up against her cheek. She knew who I was, recognized my eyes even with a mask covering my nose and mouth. I felt her weak fingers twine their way in between mine. Where will I ever find enough bravery and strength to live through losing her?
The Willamette is chilly this morning. Ribbons of steam rising like ghosts off the glassy surface. I am in a quad. Four strangers in a boat. It’s my first time as stroke seat, the position that sets the pace of the boat and establishes a rhythm. The four of us sit rigid, our oars feathered on top of the water. We don’t even remember each other’s names, we’re so new to one another.
“Watch each other’s shoulders!” Coach yells. “When the rower in front of you is peeling their shoulders back, yours should be in perfect sync.” I feel the boat wobble as someone behind me tightens their shoe grip. I might as well be on a Saltine cracker, I think to myself.
The stern pair, me and a woman whose eyes have been wide with fear all morning, starts rowing. Arms first, then back, then legs. Catch! A smooth motion. But we’re not in sync, so the boat teeters so far to the right that someone yelps in fear before we steady ourselves and try again. I try to establish a rhythm, but the inertia of the rowers behind me is disorienting, and I find myself galloping hard across the water. “Slow down, stroke seat!” someone yells at me from behind, and my cheeks flame, but no one can see my embarrassment except the coach motoring along beside us. Later, in the dock house after we have together lifted the quad over our heads and placed it gently in its cradle, I will apologize to my fellow rowers for going so fast, for giving in to the rushing momentum, for not numbing my brain out with the mantra: arms, body, legs, catch! Arms, body, legs, catch!
“There are only two kinds of rowers,” our coach will tell us. “The kind who have been in the water and the kind who will be in the water soon.” So, you see, there is no getting around it. No matter what, the cold, dark is going to swallow me up. The only question: Will I resurface?
I ask Dad if he wants me to make the call to hospice. We are standing outside the entrance to Mom’s facility. His fists are jammed in his dress pant pockets, rattling change.
“What happens if your mother has a heart attack or something?” he asks. “We’d still rush her to the hospital, right? For something so serious.”
I shake my head. “No. We’d call her hospice nurse, and they would make Mom as comfortable as possible, but they wouldn’t try to save her life anymore.”
“Yeah, that’s how it works. No more visits to the ER. We just do everything we can to make her comfortable through whatever happens.”
Dad looks away at something in the middle distance. “But we can always cancel hospice if we don’t like it, right?”
I hesitate. “Why would we, Dad?” I feel the sudden weight of my own lungs as I take a breath. “She’s never going to get better no matter what we do. We’re only prolonging her death.”
Dad’s eyes are glassy windows in an old house. “Boy, I never thought it would come to this.”
Hospice is a boat made for four. My brother, mother, father, and I barely balance in its hollow belly. Mom sets the pace. The rest of us watch her rail-thin shoulders to know when to lean in and when to rest. But we’ve never done this before, been so eye-to-eye with the imminent death of one of us. How do you turn off the urge to rush in and save a life when it’s all we’ve been doing for so long?
When it happens, the hospice meeting is surprisingly pleasant. Our social worker, Rachel, has nice eye contact and a sweet voice muffled only a little by the pink mask covering the lower half of her face. I believe Rachel is pretty because her eyes crinkle nicely around their edges.
My brother, father, mother, and I are cozy together, sitting in Mom’s gently lit room with a large picture window overlooking a garden budding with small, green pumpkins and the beginnings of apples on a tree. The four of us together feels so familiar we could erase twenty years and still be here, talking about the new neighbors, how the traffic is worsening, or how the Edwards’ German shepherd Max has been overturning trash cans up and down the street again. It’s always been the four of us, slowly rowing through our days together. Even the presence of my mother’s new metal wheelchair with its levers and springs and fancy tilt-a-wheel capabilities doesn’t jolt us out of our well-worn comfort with each other; even the quiet presence of a hospice nurse and a social worker doesn’t break this odd spell.
I take my mother’s familiar hands in mine and tell her we’re having this meeting to make sure she’s cared for in hospice. We hold our breath. We have no way of knowing how Mom will react to the word hospice, whether she will throw up her hands and give up. We watch her shoulders for some indication of the way forward.
“Good,” she says. “I was wondering when this tea party was going to get started.”
Afterwards, the conversation turns to the weather, and Rachel tells us that during the unseasonable hot spell several weeks before, where temperatures in Oregon rose as high as 113 degrees, Rachel laid wet bed sheets on her lawn for the squirrels who scrambled down from the trees to lie flat on the cool sheets and lick them. I think to myself, yes, this is the kind of person I want helping my mother, the kind who will lay cool sheets out for squirrels. I’m still thinking this when Rachel takes me aside in the hallway and asks whether we’ve thought of final arrangements for Mom.
“Do you know what her wishes are?”
A lump in my throat. I’ve swallowed a fish. I shake my head.
Rachel presses a card into my hand. “When you’re ready, I can help you make arrangements. I know a good crematorium if you want to go that way. Don’t delay, though. This gets really hard if you wait too long.”
Mom’s night terrors are getting worse. Often, she believes she has been abducted by a murderer who has hogtied her and is now going after the rest of her family before returning to kill her. She says she can feel the rope burns on her wrists from trying to get out of the hold. Sometimes she believes she is being raped. Mom screams so loudly and for so long that her suitemate cannot sleep and is relocated to a couch in the lobby for the night. My brother, a doctor, works with Mom’s neurologist to try different drug cocktails in hopes of mitigating the terrifying hallucinations that often accompany Parkinson’s related dementia. We’re hoping to level out her fear because she still has some good days. But the meds are failing. Andrew tells me we are running out of options.
“What are we going to do?”
My brother screws his mouth up, and his eyes slide to the right. I’ve seen him make that face a thousand times. Finally, he throws up his hands. “Snow her with morphine? Not ideal. It’ll zonk her out completely.”
I show up at bedtime to tuck Mom in. Tonight, she’s wearing the blue china pattern cotton pajamas I bought her last fall. They match her eyes. She searches my face, trying to place me. “Wimma,” she says using my childhood nickname. Beneath the covers, her hands tremble so violently that they resemble twin racing hearts. I cover her hands with mine, and her involuntary shaking travels up my arm.
A mother duck and four ducklings paddle out alongside me in a line. I’m on the Willamette in a single scull and grateful for the solitude. An early morning light gilds the tops of the leafy trees standing quiet at the shoreline. I love the glide of my boat, the ease of pulling myself through the water, the surprise at the animal-like movement I can make in a boat by myself. I think this must be what it feels like to be a skimming bird or maybe a flashing fish underneath the waves. My eye catches a movement just feet above my head and to the left of my small boat. A bald eagle making large circles, its bright white head catching fire like a match in the light. I stop rowing and hold my breath, taking in the majesty of this bird, its control as its circles grow smaller and the eagle begins a descent. One more easy circle over the ducks before a controlled, blurry dive, a last-minute squawk and fluttering of wings and a duckling life lost. I open my mouth, but the killing is so fast and graceful I don’t have time to make a sound.
Later, as I pull my scull from the water and dry dock it in a sling, I catch sight of the mother duck. She’s crowded the three surviving ducklings under a corner of the dock and is shielding them with her body and one splayed wing.
“I can’t call the fucking crematorium, Andrew. I can’t make myself do it.”
“That’s okay,” my brother says over the phone. “Maybe it can wait.”
I’m walking circles in my front yard, pacing the dead yellow grass that didn’t survive the surprising heat of the summer.
“I can’t even call the social worker who put the wet sheets out for the squirrels,” I tell him.
“I can call,” he offers, but his voice is weary. My brother has spent the last year watching people die of COVID-19 in his ER, helpless to save mothers, fathers, even children gasping for air.
“No,” I say, pacing the yard. I’m trying to gather courage with each step. “I can do it. The social worker said we shouldn’t wait, that it just gets harder. How can it possibly get any harder?”
“Oh, I think it can get harder,” he says. His voice is far away. He’s driving in for another hospital shift, his seventh in a row.
“I prayed to God that He would take Mom, that He wouldn’t let her suffer anymore.” I make the confession so quietly I’m not sure my brother has heard what I said. “I want to take it back,” I cry. “I’m not ready for her to leave yet. I’ll never be ready.”
The phone crackles and I wonder if I’ve lost the connection. “It was a loving prayer,” he finally says. “And we’ll never be ready.”
The mornings on the Willamette River are cooler now. Overhead, rusty-throated geese fly south, sweeping the sky clean. Soon, it will be too cold for me to row. Soon, the threat of falling into the freezing black water will keep me tethered to shore. All winter I will dream of a warm day and the promise of a perfect stroke.
My grief says get in a boat. My grief says pull the oars through the cold water, using my legs to add power. My grief says fly over the water alongside the honking geese and be glad in the movement, any movement, even if it is backwards and blind.
About the Author:
Helyn Trickey Bradley is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her patient husband, three children and one dog of questionable character. When she is not on deadline, Helyn tries to find zen in the general chaos by reading in coffee shops and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. She writes essays and articles for national publications including Oprah Magazine, CNN, PBS, and The Oregonian. Helyn has an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University, and she is hard at work on a novel.