17 March 2021 -- Inertia

It was 20 years ago today that my mother, Mary Catherine Wood Heilker, died after a long and difficult decline from COPD.  I wrote a short essay about her passing some years later. It appears below. 

This is, I think, my favorite photo of her. I can see my face in hers -- and both of my sisters' faces, too.




October 1989 

I find the orangutans in a dark rectangle in the oldest part of the Fort Worth Zoo.  Behind heavy glass and gray steel bars, four orangutans sit on three concrete slabs, motionless, victims of gravity, their arms limp at their sides, though one finger loops loosely around the base of a bar.  Long, red-brown hair mats into shapeless rugs.  Black almonds sink into masks. 

Ten steps away, down in a pit, a lone raccoon stands upright for a second and scans his small horizon, eyes shining like small, dark marbles.  He wheels left and scurries along the back of his world, right shoulder rubbing against the rough rock wall.  After a hairpin turn, he gallops across a half-circle of gravel to make a hard right down a ramp to a dry moat painted light blue.  He sprints to the far wall, makes two hard lefts, and rushes back the length of the moat and up the ramp.  Reaching the gravel again, he pauses, rises on his hind legs, surveys his limits for a moment, then begins another frenetic circuit. 
February 2001 

My mother, Mary, is dying of congestive heart failure and emphysema.  Her weak heart was discovered during dance lessons when she was eight.  Her lungs were scarred when she worked at the Bulova Watch Company in Queens in her late twenties: she bathed tiny parts in cyanide before their final assembly.  She has been chronically ill for ten years, critically ill for two, and morbidly ill for six months.  I am visiting with her in New York to give my sister a break.   

Mom is on oxygen constantly.  Even so, her damaged heart and lungs can barely keep up.  She sleeps 18 hours a day, and it takes a good 90 minutes for her to become lucid after waking up.  Her shins and feet are cold, swollen, blue-maroon.  I help her sit up in bed so she can watch the Crocodile Hunter, go to McDonalds twice a day to buy her the cream of broccoli soup she will eat, find the dusty bottles of magnesium citrate laxative she wants on a bottom shelf in the pharmacy, help her shuffle to the bathroom and back.  At 3:00 one morning, I pick her up from the kitchen floor because she has mistaken a chair for the toilet in the dark and slipped in her own pee.  She rehearses well-worn stories, repeats questions about my kids; I listen, answer.  Mostly, Mom thanks me for being there. 

I dwell with her for two weeks, but then I have to leave.  As I say good-bye, I understand that I won’t see her again, that she is not going to make it to my sister’s wedding in May.  She tells me that it’s time for me to go.  She tells me to have a safe trip. 

March 2001 

The call wakes me from fitful hotel sleep.  I wrestle my way from under the leaden bedspread.  All I can think is that I have to get home.  I’m dressed and packed in five minutes, moving but mindless, moving in order to stay mindless.  I find myself in the lobby restaurant choking down a bowl of oatmeal.  I feel compelled to flee, to return, but there are no straight lines this morning; the cab to the airport must first evade the police roping off streets for the St. Patrick’s Day parade.  We snake our way through downtown Denver, and I am relieved to feel myself being forced into the seat cushions as we accelerate, swaying against the door on turns.  When we finally reach the highway, I press my forehead against the cold window; a soothing blur races by outside.  I walk around the airport all day until my flight, covering the same ground several times.  I search for moving sidewalks to see how quickly I can move through space.  I create my own breeze.

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