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Black Lamb


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The look

Denial in old age

May 1st, 2016


Susan’s mother, Barbara, was in Santa Barbara visiting us in late June 1990 when all hell broke loose up in the pass northeast of us, and what became known as the Painted Cave Fire roared down the mountainside, incinerating homes in its path and threatening to consume part or perhaps most of our city. Our neighborhood, Hidden Valley, was expected to take a direct hit, which I learned on our car radio out in the driveway, because all power was shut off and so were our phones. The radio ordered all residents of Hidden Valley to evacuate immediately.

I brought the news into the house and told Susan and Barbara by candlelight that we had to leave right away. We didn’t even have time to gather together the things we could not bear to lose. I filled a gallon plastic jug with drinking water, put two flashlights in the glove compartment, and urged Susan and Barbara to grab their toothbrushes, a change of underwear, and whatever else they needed for an overnight in whatever motel still had room for us.

Barbara didn’t move. She sat on the couch, petting Jessie, her yellow lab.
“Barbara, let’s go,” I said. “We’ll take Jessie with us. She may have to spend the night in the car, or maybe we’ll find a motel that will let us take Jessie into the room, but we have to get going. Right now.”

Barbara looked up at me and gave me a look I’ve never forgotten, even though I saw it only by candlelight. It was the first time I’d seen that look of hers. That kill-the-messenger look. That was the first time, but I came to know that look well over the next decade.

The reason Barbara happened to be in Santa Barbara that week was to look for a house to buy. She had decided to leave her home of many years in Orange County and claimed to be deciding between Santa Barbara and Monterey as her new hometown. In fact, Susan knew perfectly well that Barbara had made up her mind to move to Santa Barbara, to live close to her oldest child. Her home in Newport Beach was in the same county with Barbara’s three other children, Pete, Julie, and Stephen; but the three of them hardly ever telephoned her or visited her. Well, Pete and Steve were boys, so what would you expect, and Julie was under the thumb of her husband, Don, whom Barbara detested. But Barbara phoned Susan at least twice a day, to share gossip she’d heard from her sister, Estelle, about other members of their far-flung family. We joked that Barbara might as well move to Santa Barbara; at least it would cut down on long-distance charges.

I’m happy to say we did get out of the house and into the stream of traffic headed for the motels downtown. I’m happy to say we found lodging and the innkeeper allowed Jessie to spend the night in the room, which was big enough for us three humans. I’m especially pleased to report that the fire was stopped before it could reach our doorstep, and we were able to return home the next day.

Soon thereafter, Barbara bought a fine house in a pleasant, quiet neighborhood not far from Mission Santa Barbara. She and Jessie settled in and she became a regular part of our daily and weekly routine. The two of them came to our house every Sunday for dinner. Barbara still phoned Susan daily, but usually only once a day. She joined our work team, and Susan and I elected her Vice President of our corporation, in charge of photocopying mailing labels and other routine chores. In time, Jessie died and Barbara adopted the new love of her life, a spoiled, yappy little Brussels Griffon named Maggie. Maggie sat in Barbara’s lap and ate bites of her every meal. Maggie followed Barbara everywhere and stayed within inches of her feet wherever she walked. Maggie also barked non-stop whenever Barbara tried to carry on a conversation with anybody but Maggie. But Maggie got credit for making Barbara happy, which was not always easy to do.

In the mid-1990s Barbara developed a tumor near her stomach and was told by her doctor that it should be surgically removed. She didn’t want surgery, but her four children insisted that she go to UCLA Hospital and have the operation. Susan was Barbara’s closest relative, geographically and emotionally, so it was up to Susan to convince Barbara to go through with it. For which she got the look. Under duress, Barbara agreed to go under the knife. The look.

After the operation, the medical experts strongly suggested that she receive radiation treatments to polish off the cancer for good. Barbara didn’t want radiation. Her children insisted. Susan was the enforcer, and Barbara gave her the look; but she underwent radiation, under protest.
Barbara, it turned out, had been right to resist the radiation, because it caused lymphedema to collect in her legs, which made Barbara’s life miserable. Susan and I offered to rent out our house and move in with her, so that we (by which we meant mainly Susan) could take care of her needs. She turned us down.

The lymphedema condition continued to worsen, until Barbara found it difficult to walk. She didn’t want us to come live with her as caregivers, but there came a time, in January 2000, when she conceded that she might occasionally need someone in the house overnight to attend to her in the middle of the night if she was in distress. I bought a set of walkie-talkies for her to use if needed; she could call the guest room at the other side of the house, and Susan would wake up and come to her aid.
That very night we decided to give it a trial run. Sometime during the night I woke up and needed to pee. En route to the guest bathroom, I noticed that a light was on in Barbara’s side of the house. When I returned to bed and told Susan about that light, she got out of bed, pulled on her robe, and went to check out what was up.

She found Barbara sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering in the cold night, staring at the floor. Maggie sat shivering beside her. The bedside lamp was on. “Would you help me get to the bathroom?” Barbara asked. Of course. How long had she been sitting there? About an hour. “Why didn’t you use the walkie-talkie?” Susan asked.

Barbara answered with the look.

The next morning Susan called Barbara’s doctor, who agreed to meet them at the emergency room of the hospital. She was booked into the hospital for observation. She never returned to her house.

A friend volunteered to give Maggie a place to stay as long as Barbara was in the hospital.

During her final six months Barbara moved back and forth between the hospital and rehab. She didn’t like either one, for who would? The hospital was both boring and grim. In rehab she resisted the exercises, didn’t socialize, took her meals in her room, and repeatedly returned to the hospital for more tests and more grim boredom. All she could look forward to were visits from Susan, which happened once a day or more.

Sometime that spring our telephone rang in the middle of the night. It was a doctor in the rehab facility calling for help. Barbara needed a transfusion, and she needed it soon, very soon. The hospital had been called and was waiting, but Barbara had refused to sign the papers authorizing the transfusion. Could Susan come quickly and convince her mother that this was necessary?

We dressed and drove to rehab. I waited in the reception area while Susan talked her mother into submitting against her wishes one more time. Barbara signed the papers, she gave Susan the look, and she took her last trip to the hospital, a block away, in the back of an ambulance.

She survived the transfusion, but with her new blood she had acquired a meeker disposition. She quit complaining about all the gurney rides to nuclear medicine, she ate some of her food, and she rested. Her children all visited her during her final month. Susan visited her twice a day or more.

During one visit, Barbara asked her daughter, “Am I dying?”

Susan answered, “I’m afraid you are,” and waited for that contrary look.

But if Barbara felt contrary, she didn’t show it. She simply nodded. She had used up her last look. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Animal Issue, Daniel | Link to this Entry


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