(by Bex O'Brian)
My first operating room, to go along with my first operation. I was fascinated. There was the tray with an electric saw, what looked like a crowbar, and the more delicate tools: scalpels, scissors, and retractors, all shiny and gleaming under the bright round lights. A masked man sat ready to monitor my vitals. Machines beeped; nurses looked busy and concentrated. The walls of the room were green tile. I sat on the operating table, my legs dangling, my soon-to-be-gone hip giving me no trouble at all after years of demanding constant attention. One lovely nurse asked what my favorite music was. I generously said, “Let’s listen to the doc’s fav.”
I wasn’t thinking of my mother then.
A second later, I wasn’t thinking of anything at all.
When I woke in my hospital room to the incantations of the woman in the next bed calling for Jesus to come and get her, I had my first glimmer of what Mother went through 20 years earlier when she had her hip replaced. I’m not sure how she pulled off affording insurance as a freelance writer, but in the weeks before her surgery, I remember her telling me that it would be minimally invasive. That doesn’t sound too bad, we all said.
My older sister, whose relationship with our mother was beyond complicated, drove us to the hospital and stared stonily straight ahead as Mother struggled to wrest herself from the low bucket seat. Finally I rushed around and popped her out like a cork.
Once inside the hospital, I said, “See you on the flip side,” as she limped off through swinging doors.
We had so little clue what was about to happen that I waited at the hospital, expecting her to appear a couple of hours later, jaunty with her new hip and ready to go out to dinner. Eventually, a nurse coming off her shift asked who I was waiting for. “Honey, come back tomorrow night. Maybe your mother will be up for seeing you then.”
My first night with my new hip, Jesus making no appearance, Mother floated through my morphine thoughts, amorphous and lost to me. But she snapped into focus the next day when a nurse arrived to get me "upright.” By now, I was friendly with the woman in the next bed who had suffered a head injury, which had done nothing to dampen her pious fervor, so all day, I strove to keep my swearing in check.
Then I was made to “get upright.”
“Jesus, Mother F**ker, Holy F**king S**t….” The barrage only stopped when I fainted.
I awoke back in bed to a cheerless meal on a tray in front of me. Not wanting to dribble tepid soup and pudding all down my front, I tried to “scoot back.” Yet more evidence of the ordeal ahead, and the guilt flooded in.
Visiting my mother in the hospital, I had done nothing to help her scoot back, hadn’t plumped her pillows, and, what haunted me most, threw the soup I had made for her down the toilet.
Just a chicken soup, she had said when I asked what she desired. Well, I thought, I can do that. In went the chicken, carrots, onions, celery, and a couple of cabbage leaves. Thick, rich, full of goodness. I packed up the container of hearty fare, glistening with bone-building fat.
I arrived to find her sleeping and looking for all the world dead. It rattled me. Finally, she woke up, and I presented her with the one thing she really wanted, needed.
“Take it away.”
“It’s making me sick,” she said, pushing my hard-won soup to the edge of her tray table. “I just want broth, clear broth. How hard is that?”
I snatched up her soup, and into the toilet it went—an overreaction for sure. I wanted to be the good daughter, the one that wasn’t simmering with anger over the perpetual evidence that Mother could be difficult in the best of moments. I wanted her to swoon and get tears in her eyes that I, as broke as I was back then, had sprung for expensive organic chicken and vegetables.
After she was released from the hospital, she came and stayed with me. My sister was in no mood to deal with adult diapers. I wasn’t much better, leaving my mother to sit in the spare room for hours on end. Insufficient insurance meant that she wasn’t offered the greatest physical therapy, and as a result, her new hip never really settled in, and she walked, though pain-free, with a pronounced limp. Why, I thought, breathless, having scooted back, hadn’t I realized just how much pain she was going through and been more helpful, more involved?
My husband arrived as my vanilla pudding exploded in my face. Who knew a foil top could put up such a fight?
“I brought you something, my love.”
He started unwrapping a colossal sub sandwich.
“I walked all the way to the good Italian deli, told them lots of hot soppressata, extra cheese, and don’t be cheap on the chilies. I know how you love it spicy.”
I squeezed his hand, “I think I might save this for a midnight snack,” I said. What I wouldn’t have done for some nice comforting, clear broth! My nurse, on the other hand, enjoyed the sub immensely.
All-In Chicken Broth
(Back in the 1980s, while working for C.B.C. Radio Canada, I interviewed the "Beat Generation" poet Allen Ginsberg. While we spoke, he threw into a pot unpeeled onions, garlic, carrots, and celery, along with a couple of chicken carcasses. I've been making my broth the same way ever since. Throughout the month, I save all my chicken bones in the freezer until I have enough to make a broth.)
a few outer leaves of a cabbage
the outer leaves and tough tops of a few leeks
2 yellow onions, cut in quarters, skin still on
2 - 3 large carrots, washed but not peeled
a few stalks of celery (better still if they still have their leaves)
whole head of garlic
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 organic chicken bouillon cube
1 small whole chicken, organic, free-range
In a large stockpot, put everything but the whole chicken.
Cover with water, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to simmer, and skim off the foam.