In memory of my mother, Rosemary Steele Sheppard, who passed away four years ago tomorrow, I’m re-publishing this blog post about a wink I received from her a few months after her death. Since then, a few more winks have come my way. A splatter on one of her hand-written recipes for “Gourmet Goulash,” a cardinal flying slow and low over my shoulder while I’m walking and trying to work out a worry, a never-before-seen picture of her peeking out of a photo album with a familiar wave just for me. As time goes by it gets harder to see Mom winking, but I have pay closer attention. As I age, I need her love and wisdom more than ever.
An old friend hugged me at Mom’s rosary in January and said, “She’ll wink at you every now and then.” I immediately thought that was a cute idea, but doubted it would ever happen. A few weeks went by, then a few months, and I forgot about her prophecy. Then, my dad got sick. In April, three months, almost to the day, after Mom died I found myself at my father’s bedside at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. He’d apparently fallen, although he couldn’t recall, and had suffered a subdural hematoma, or bleed in the brain. It would need to be drained, and at his age, 90, that was no easy feat, but the neurosurgeon was optimistic. Sure enough, it wasn’t easy; in fact, it was extremely difficult, and Dad endured nearly every setback that anyone could have imagined over five weeks in the hospital. Shortly after surgery he lost the ability to swallow food, water, medicine, secretions, anything. As a result, he aspirated and acquired double pneumonia, which necessitated that his lungs be suctioned every few hours. This was a horrible experience for him and for anyone who happened to be near him at the time. When he breathed or spoke, all you could hear was a terrible drowning gurgling. He became so weak, he couldn’t even turn over in his hospital bed without assistance. Eventually, he was able to be fed through a tube placed directly into his small bowel, and slowly, ever so slowly, he began to regain strength. Dad was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where he worked with therapists for three or more hours everyday for four weeks. Initially, he did well; then, his hallucinations and anxieties overwhelmed him to the point that we, his offspring, decided he should just go home. Nothing could be worse than his daily terrors that he was being held captive, that his children and grandchildren were in grave danger, and his abject disappointment that there was nothing he could do about it. So, in late June, we hired an ambulance to carry him 80 miles to the home in which he’d lived for 60 years with my mother.
Upon arriving, he asked where he was. We all assured him, “You’re HOME, 302 E. Sarah Street,” then tucked him into his bed for a nap, saying that he’d feel better after a good rest. Visitors began arriving, all joyously asking, “Isn’t it great to be home?” To which he’d respond by looking around the room and saying, bluntly, “Am I really home?” or “Is that where I am?” We suddenly realized how naive we’d been to think that upon his arrival home a shift would instantly occur and all would be well again with our father.
Eventually, Dad grew a bit stronger and we grew used to the aides who came every 12 hours to look after him. But I, ever the control freak, had stayed for several days to “oversee” the help. I made lists and posted them on the kitchen cabinets, organized pantries and pillboxes, bought supplies, interviewed the Home Health nurses, and spent hours at a time at Wal-Mart shopping for items to make Dad’s transition home easier. One afternoon in early July, when Dad had gone to bed for his nap, I, completely exhausted, melted into the swimming pool in the backyard. I swam lap after lap in the warm bathwater-like pool, finding comfort in the physical exertion. Suddenly, I saw a fluttering disturbance in one of the overgrown bushes surrounding the pool. I stared for a few seconds and a beautiful bright crimson red bird lighted on a parched branch of one of the remaining shrubberies, and seemed to stare at me while I treaded water in the middle of the pool. I smiled; cardinals were one of Mom’s favorite birds to watch from her perch on the patio. Then, the Polaris pool vacuum swept up that side of the pool and sprayed an arc of water into the air, scaring the red bird into the air. I laughed as I recalled an afternoon late in Mom’s life when I persuaded her to leave the comfort of her bed and come outside for some fresh air. With much difficulty we got her on her walker, outside the back door, down the ramp and settled into a deck chair when the Polaris spit its stream of water right at her. Squealing, and wiping drops of chlorinated water off her hair and face, Mom muttered, “A lot of good this did me,” then stood up, grabbed her walker and went right back into the house. I found myself smiling at the memory and suddenly took in a small gasp of surprise, “Did Mom just wink at me?” I think she did. I smiled to myself and turned around for another lap. Before going under I saw the cardinal’s mate on a fence opposite the shrub looking towards us. “Don’t worry, Mom,” I whispered; “We’re taking good care of him.”