I sat there in the corner while two emergency room RNs held her down. Bertha looked over at me in helpless rage. In her hospital gown my mother-in-law looked like a giant dehydrated bird caught in a net of blue latex gloves. Even at ninety-one years old, she wasn’t going down without a fight.
Until about two years ago, it’d been a love fest. Bertha and I had shared a door connecting our two homes. More than a decade ago, my husband and I had snatched her from her mobile home in Northern California, taking her from her rose garden and her friends to Culver City, where she rented a condo for her two parakeets and white cat. The tipping point to move her had come when Bertha had fallen off a garden chair next to her prize geraniums. She’d waited three hours in the dirt for no one to find her. When we purchased the house on a quiet West Hollywood street, it was because of Bertha. She could have her freedom, walk to the grocery store and hangout at restaurants where she’d flirt with the gay waiters. They looked out for her and so did we.
I was a late bloomer when it came to marriage, and I hadn’t been sure about the mother-in-law thing. But over the last ten years since she moved here, we’d become thick as Bertha’s awesome noodle kugel. Kindred foodies, we both lived to eat. Her new home, Los Angeles, had no shortage of freaky fun food and seriously strange fruit. I spent most of my off-time trekking with her, coupons in hand, to an endless variety of ethnic restaurants. Canter’s in WeHo’s Little Tel Aviv, Nyala’s in SoFax’s Little Ethiopia and on Sabbath, Pasta Fazool at Spumonte’s in NoHo’s Italian District – these places became sacred to us. And we both recognized in each other that food was our temple.
I worked from home, so that meant I was vulnerable to Bertha’s appetite for adventure. She’s grab me in the middle of dotting an “I” for a story I was writing, and we’d be off, cruising the neighborhood in her golden, Buddha-sized New Yorker. Day or Night, Bertha was up for any holy or unholy food shrine. I had to explain to her son why my income took a hit. After all, his mother liked shrimp and she ate a lot of it. Our quest for the perfect shrimp taco, for instance, lead us to Los Cinco Puntos. Apparently Ceasar Chavez had a taco with hot sauce blessed by the Pope at this very location. Now retired, she was still writing a column. “We Seniors,” was a brutally honest look at senior Life. My husband and I observed as Bertha got frailer, after three accidents in one day on her way to get groceries for the house, our excursions more and more were to health care professionals, but always there was time to find the perfect new restaurant that barked our name. We weren’t food snobs and ate our way up and down the food strata. In between doc appointments and our restaurant excursions we even began co-writing an article on “The Divine Mythology of Food – From Hotdogs to Donuts.”
In those first years of proximity with my mother-in-law, my native city took on new meaning for me. Other than the occasional too intrusive moment when she caught us kissing on the couch in our underwear, Bertha was a blast to be with. And, as gregarious as I was, she was an even brighter bulb. Our only fights had been when I tried to outshine her in public. We were both type-A, Queen Bee, Alpha babes, who recognized we shared not only a door, but also a man. Inherent in our relationship was that slippery slope. Until this most recent accident we kidded each other about that rivalry.
Indeed, the scared bird lying on the ER bed surrounded by whirring machines and attentive medical assistants, had led an inspiring life. She’d been a journalistic celebrity as the first women to break the gender barrier at the mostly male City College in New York. She interviewed the biggest stars of her day – John Garfield and Ernest Hemingway. Her tone – in life and work – was incisive, biting but funny. Her college column “We Women” was an indictment of male supremacy, written during the Great War, when Rosie the Riveter first learned how to use a vibrator. It was “Sex in the City” for her generation, packed into one hilarious, politically sassy rant of a weekly column. Little did I suspect that those same chunks she took out of everyone in her stories, she’d eventually take out of me, one vengeful bite at a time.
Underneath her brittle sarcasm was a pioneer fearlessness that saved our ass more than once. Three months after the renovations were supposed to be done in the home we were moving into with Bertha, we were still skipping from hotel to hotel waiting for the “all clear” sign from our construction crew. Our architect was a talented but drug addicted lunatic, unable to measure time and money. Space he was good at, as evidenced by large gaping holes where walls had been demolished. Wires dangled from the ceiling and reminded me of luminescent caterpillars like the one’s in the caves in Costa Rica. The architect was about to give us another wonky excuse when Bertha charged him. Then in her eighties, Bertha was still agile and gazelle-like. She bored into him with the horns of her sharp-edged New York accusations and legal innuendos. She stomped over the large cords and wires on the floor, and got up into his face, “We will move in as you promised August 5th, if is the last thing that I – or you – do.” With that she had walked off leaving us all to stare blankly at the walls and wires. Within three and a half days, miraculously, the architect had managed to get us into the house so the renovations would not electrocute or injure us. And we moved in, a new family bridging discontent with awe at her moxie.
That was four years ago and while wires and pipes were now behind closed up walls and paint, Bertha’s own plumbing needed an overhaul. Two years into a bad fall where she had broken her hip, Bertha and my love fest was now an official hater’s party. Yes, she had fallen on our anniversary dinner, insisting on wearing some flats that both Scott and I saw were on the precarious side of safety. Now, she had been in and out of rehab, a horrible place where they take your money and spirit promising to return your beloved back to you. No more sacred trips to quirky restaurants. No more walks to the grocery store to pick up cat food and an apple. She was in a wheelchair. Our spirited heroine was forever changed. It required a lot of us to navigate her ongoing health challenges.
About an hour before the call to pick Bertha up and take her to ER, I had been enjoying a casual Passover night Seder with friends and family, which includes: breaking matzo, lots of heavy food as in matzo ball chicken soup, brisket and kugel. We also listen every year to the next generation of youngsters ask and answer the “four questions, like “why is this night different from all other nights?” Mostly we all were chillin’ with the teffilin, a prayer shawl women only get to wear on special nights of contemplation. And, despite being told I was “the best daughter-in-law” ever, according to the staff at the New Melrose Retirement Home Assisted Living Apartments, Bertha made it known that I was not acting in her best interests. She held me personally responsible for her not returning to her home and instead living in this awful substitution for a life.
There was little I could do to dress the giant gaping hole of disappointment of having lost control of her universe – which included food and being deprived of driving. I was evil and she let me, her doctors and now the hospital staff know it.
So, getting the call on a religious night off, that Bertha, who had been too sick to attend our annual Passover dinner, left my heart colder than matzo soup in a dry ice freezer. Now, alone with her in this small ER room, I looked at her, trying to shower her with pink loving thoughts of love, but I couldn’t jumpstart empathy. I felt nothing looking at her under the tungsten lights. Shit, why tonight?
Adela, Berta’s caregiver, had started taking care of Shirley twice a week. A saint if ever there was one. Adela shot me a smile and quietly gathered her own sweater and purse. She whispered that she would check in with us tomorrow and left. Thank God for Adela who was blessed with angelic patience and saw it as her duty to God to help the elderly. Adela and I often acknowledged that despite Bertha’s illness-induced temporary crazies, we genuinely shared a love for this cranky ol’ great-grandmother bear.
In the stark white hallway, this Passover night, a Catholic and a Jew hugged. ‘Thanks Adela, for everything.”
“It’s okay. I know.” And then, I was alone with her, the Sashquatch monster.
With adrenalin-induced strength, Bertha struggled to wrestle free as she lunged at one of the nurses. Their testosterone grips held, but her loose-fitting hospital gown slid off her shoulders. I motioned for the nurses to cover her up. Catching my eye, one of them made a vague effort; but the gown fell open where her flattened aged breasts looked more like stale bread loaves abandoned on a forgotten hearth. They flopped to one side, homeless without a bra, as Bertha reared up and opened her mouth, her teeth perilously close to the wrist of the RN restraining her. I wanted to say, “I know they’re fake, but they’ll still hurt like a motherfucker.” Instead, I yelled, “Watch out, she’s going to bite you!” I put my face eyeball-to-eyeball with her and held her down while they inserted the IV into her wrist.
“Bitch! Bitch! Bitch. Bitch!” My Jewish mother–in–law was in serious need of a Priest to perform an exorcism.
“You don’t mean that!” I tried for a calming tone but failed.
“Bitch! Stop them. YOU could do more to stop them.”
“They needed to get an IV feed into your arm so they can get your blood.”
“Arghhhhhh!” A scream erupted from her lips, her white face coloring with fumes of indignation.
Earlier Adela the saint and I had been sitting in the ER waiting room when another walk-in patient approached. A young woman in a floor-length, stripped jersey dress hanging down off her shoulders, sat down on a planter box next to us. Her blue eyes magnetized mine. “I’ve fallen off too many chairs in my day,” she explained with a manic smile. Scars crisscrossed down her forearm.
From her planter box perch, the young woman watched Bertha rock back and forth. My mother-in-law had been ceaselessly repeating, “help me, help me, help me.” If you didn’t know, you’d really think she was in pain. The young woman’s eyes began to water, and tears crested her sculpted cheekbones. She leaned in to me, “What can I do?” her accent beckoning somewhere between New Jersey and Australia. She added, “Name’s Shoshanna. But they call me Shoshy.” I could see Shoshy wanted to help, but the tracks on her arms made me proceed with caution. Adela whispered, “What kind of name is Shoshy?” I wanted to say the kind of name that would drive you to drugs if you grew up in Beverly Hills or were from Jersey hiding out in an Australian accent. But, I could see there was sweetness in the dark soulful eyes.
I smiled, offered my name. “Do you have a Kleenex or something?” The young Jersey-Aussie woman smiled though her tears, her incisors bright in the ER glare. I searched in my bag for a napkin, handed it to her; she dabbed at the tears as I explained that my mom-in- law had a wire loose, probably the effects of a bladder infection. Happens to old people I said. Her brain is stuck on auto-replay.
“A UTI,” the young woman said. “I am an empath,” gesturing to her tears, “I lost my meds. I can’t help myself.”
“Are you in pain?” She got up into my mother-in-law’s face. “My father’s an oral surgeon. If that’s her problem I can hook her up no charge.” The word “hooked” seemed appropriate.
“A rich drug addict,” I whispered to Adela, who had looked to the door where an emergency vehicle had pulled up and was unloading a gurney through the open double doors. I touched Adele’s hand, and whispered, “Keep an eye on Bertha’s ring, who knows, this woman could be a pick pocket.” And added a little loudly, “In case you’re wondering, that diamond ring on Bertha’s hand is Zirconium.”
Shoshy ignored the comment, wiped some Jersey snot from her own nose, and shot up and accosted a volunteer. “Take her. Please take her next.”
“We can’t,” the woman in green candy stripes said, “There is an order to it all.”
Shoshy flopped on the chairs, nestled uncomfortably close to us, and addressed Bertha, “You have so much love all around you, look how many people love you.” Adela and I watched, indulging the young woman, who seemed to have no boundaries. With the drug-induced, love-obsessed, dewy-doe eyes of a long lost relative, she patted Bertha’s ninety-two-year-old arm. “You are beautiful. Ha’Shem knows you are beautiful. Do not forget Ha’Shem.” The young woman said softly, in perhaps the most comforting voice I have ever heard.
Later, when I was finally home from the hospital. I asked Bertha if she wanted to change into her bedclothes or stay in what she was wearing. “I want to keep it on. Keep it on.” We tucked her in, the caregivers and I, and now that it was only she and I, she said “thank you.” And she was so grateful. But did I see they did all those horrible things to her? What could I say? It was true, for her, all the medical procedures where invasive, inserting the IV, the drip, the catheter, the EKG’s sticky tabs on her chest to read her heart – all of it, I had to admit was horrible.
I recalled a moment many years ago, when I had asked God what my purpose was; I had not understood the answer that floated back to me: “To be a witness to suffering.” And tonight, Bertha had acknowledged that I was there with her, calling me a bitch, implying how could I let this happen. Why had I not defied the horror?
I reached under the covers and put my hand in her hand, “It’s okay now. We are home. You are safe.”
She awakened for a moment. Her eyes landed on my face like a frail hummingbird’s wing. She looked upon me in the darkened room. “I’m sorry I said those things,” she’s practically blind but I knew she knew it was I. And I knew she was looking at everything horrible. Her mind reviewing, consumed with her perceived breeches against God and her fear of judgment. Her fear of punishment and her guilt over not doing Mitzvoth…
I told her again. “I am here. Don’t be afraid.”
And in that moment.
That was the fear – fear of death, fear of being alone, fear of it all. That was my/our deepest shared truth.
She was simply scared.
And for me to be there, quietly, there. It made a difference. I was scared, I felt her fear and that fear-bond was sacred.
Somehow, I thought about those two words – they chalk-marked the inside of my brain, simple black letters on a white billboard.
“Scared — Sacred.”
There was only one letter difference. Two letters flipped in a literary circus act.
Was there something sacred in being scared?
Scared – Sacred. And I realized that the emotional scars she felt, it was obvious, “Scar” being part of scared. Those scars were still with her from the night’s terrible adventure to the ER room, “those monsters,” and I thought about how those scars triggered earlier scars still with her from her mother’s abuse, her husband’s death march and hell ship experience, her Meningitis that kept her in a hospital for two years and her nearly drowning and fear of water; and thinking about the faces of the ER nurses trying hard to be compassionate. “Those monsters,” she had called them; but in their minds, the nurse’s faces held the thought that Bertha was acting demented… “Mentally impaired, temporary or not,” is how they had treated this brilliant woman whose brain blood was all going to help her fight the infection – who would seem like a fool to them… or anyone looking on. And, yes this confused, frightened elder, had endured all this medical procedural stuff, an un-Passover dinner, with the stripped drug-addict bringing her a baloney sandwich, which even its kindness, for her it seemed, no it was like an alien invasion and –
I suddenly said without thinking, “I know it was horrible.”
“It was horrible.” She repeated, her eyes fluttering awake with the recognition.
“They did such horrible things to me.”
“They did, and I am so so sorry. But you are here now, and you will get better, okay?”
“Okay? I am okay?”
“Yes. You will be okay soon. They know what is wrong, now. And you are getting better.”
And now, all I could do was hold her hand.
“I’m scared,” she repeated.
And hearing those words, I realized that her admission to me was sacred.
That this is where Ha’Shem lives.
Devo has been a stand-up, a poet, an author, a studio exec, a painter, an exec producer and a dedicated educator, teaching at USC and UCLA Extension, among others. Her documentary, NOT AFRAID TO LAUGH, about turning to standup comedy to heal breast cancer was nominated for a Peabody. She co-wrote the book DATING YOUR CHARACTER, a new character-based writing tool with Marilyn R. Atlas and Elizabeth Lopez. She has dedicated her life and her art to challenging people’s perceptions about their world, themselves, and their relationships.