Arlen Gargagliano ~
Aisha is lurking in the kitchen just outside my home-office door. I hear her rattling dishes and speaking to herself in Twi, a language of her native Ghana. I know that she wants my attention, but I've told her that I need time to work. I try to focus on grading my college students' papers, but I'm distracted.
Aisha is one of my mother's aides. My mother requires care twenty-four/seven, and Aisha is one of several women, primarily foreign-born, who care for her in shifts. Mom's had this arrangement since 2012, when several ministrokes disabled her brain and self-care abilities, and a broken leg left her mostly bedbound. My father's recent death, ending their marriage of more than five decades, prompted my husband and me to bring Mom into our home. She's been living here with us for the past five months.
In Mom's younger days, the word "dynamo" wouldn't begin to describe her. She orchestrated countless gatherings and large-scale fiestas at home for our family (my parents, my four siblings and me), our large extended family and friends and Dad's Mad Men clients. She bossed us all around with prep tasks, and delighted guests with tales of her exploits as one of the youngest female art directors at the iconic ad agency Young & Rubicam, and her adventures in the worlds of painting, children's book illustrating and teaching ("Every child is born creative, you know!").
Fiercely proud of her intellect and accomplishments, she exhorted my sisters and me--and our friends--to aim high, personally and professionally. She was unsympathetic to whining: Whenever I moaned about menstrual cramps, she'd say, "Don't complain about your period, or we'll never have a female president!"
I thought she'd go on being her bossy, controlling, clever self forever. Now, all that's changed. This reality, and knowing that, even ten years ago, Mom would never approve of the woman she's become--passive, dependent, forgetful--pulls on my insides.
I enjoy telling Mom's aides about how she used to be. I point to her artwork on the walls and pull out old photos that show her looking stylish and Audrey Hepburnesque, pen in hand, in front of a storyboard.
The aides ooh and aah. They take her hand, carefully unfolding the curled fingers, and exclaim, "Wow, Mamma!" She smiles back.
Sometimes I wonder whether Mom's aides can provide what she really needs, given the person she was. As loving and appreciative as they are, they come from such different cultural places. And, naturally, they can't know or understand her as I do.
Can their conversation and companionship satisfy her? I often wonder. Does it feed her mind and soul as well as her body? Or does she feel something missing? Would she be better off if I took on more of her care myself? I toss these ideas around in my head several times a day, and often at night.
Aisha, in her mid-forties, looks quite youthful. Her resonant baritone voice is as bold as the reds, pinks and yellows she wears. Prompted by Mom's smiles, she'll often launch into a one-woman show of singing and dancing, calling me to see how much Mom likes this.
At first I doubted that Mom would enjoy Aisha's forceful speaking style (produced partly by her struggles with English). I've seen how deeply Aisha's care for my mother is laced with love, gentleness, respect and concern. Still, I find it hard not to harbor moments of doubt.
Sitting at my desk, I hear Aisha clinking pots and pans in the kitchen. Most likely she's making one of her standard dishes: fried plantains, which she always shares with Mom and me. As much as I appreciate her generosity, I need to focus on my work. I turn up my music a bit--my signal, I like to think, for "Please don't bother me."
After a while things quiet down, and I begin to think it's safe to come out for a cup of coffee. Then I hear Aisha call my name, and a less-than-delicate knock on my office door.
"I need to talk to you," she says in her usual commanding tone. I don't hear panic in her voice, so I say, "Okay, just give me a minute."
Emerging moments later, I spot her outside at our patio table, sitting across from Mom, who's in her wheelchair as always.
"Please, Arlen!" Aisha calls. "Mamma say I don't need a stamp here."
She waves a crinkled envelope in her hand, then passes it to me. The envelope, containing her timesheet, is addressed to her employment agency. The upper right-hand corner reads: "Place stamp here." I think I catch my mom smirking, but I'm not sure.
"No, you do need a stamp," I say, and smile at Mom.
I return the envelope to Aisha. She studies it, then waves it in the air again.
"Ah!" she cries. "But Mamma say me no stamp!"
"Oh, well!" I respond. "You know, Aisha, she can't really read these days."
"But she know so much!" she exclaims, her words vibrant and reverent.
Mom is smiling broadly. I lift the brim of her big straw hat so that I can see her eyes. The right one is still chocolate brown; the left--which lost its sight many years ago--looks cloudy, almost blue in this light.
"Okay," I say. "I'm going back inside, but I will get you a stamp, Aisha, and mail that for you!"
"Thank you, and God bless you," she shouts after me.
Later that afternoon, trying once again to grade papers, I can't help but glance outside at Mom and Aisha, still sitting on the sun-mottled lawn.
Aisha is gesturing wildly, her red shirt's gold studs and glitter reflecting the afternoon sunlight. Her face is animated. Turning down my music and opening the window, I can hear her rich voice, but not her words.
My mother is snuggled a bit lopsidedly in her wheelchair, facing Aisha; I can't see her face.
I just have to go outside and find out what's going on, I think.
"Aisha, you look so cute! What are you telling Mom?" I ask. "It looks like a good story!"
"I talk about God!" Aisha declares, smiling in delight. "I tell Mamma about the word of God!"
In the old days, Mom would probably have quieted her: Though she's always been spiritual, Mom was never religious, nor did she tolerate proselytizing. But when I walk around to face her, I see that she's smiling broadly. We exchange a glance, and I know that it's all okay.
In fact, I think, it's better than okay: It's good.
I touch Mom's shoulder; kiss her forehead and turn to go back inside. Then my mother speaks.
"I love you," she tells me.
I'm surprised. It's the first time in several years that she's said this without my saying it first.
I step back to look at her, then say, "I love you, too."
Can I put my worries to rest? Maybe, despite losing her independence, Mom is really getting a lot from being here. Maybe Aisha's raw exclamations of happiness and caring, and the other aides' devotion, have reached Mom--reawakened her feelings and helped her to express herself.
Then I walk away, because I don't want Mom to see my happy/sad tears.
About the author:
Arlen Gargagliano, a cookbook and textbook author, food writer and blogger (inthekitchenwitharlen.blogspot.com) and former restaurateur, is passionate about her family, friends, food, students, writing, reading, running, traveling, music and dancing. "Writing is something I've always needed to do; it's the way I sort the world. Cooking is a close second!" A longtime ESL teacher and teacher trainer, she has just started a seven-month educational consulting project for the Institute for International Education that will take her back and forth between New Rochelle, NY, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She's also working on her first novel.