Mandela, My Mother, and Baton Rouge

The year was 2000. My 83-year-old mother had broken not just her hip but her pelvis, only we didn't know that, because she couldn't tell us. She was on the downward path with dementia anyway, and the pain meds were making her hallucinate without relieving the pain. She was yelling things like "smooth out that sheet underneath me" and "pull up my socks." She was trying, in other words, to locate the source of that pain and fix it, but the pain wouldn't fix, and my mother would start the whole sequence over again: "Smooth out that sheet. Pull up my socks."

She was in her half-tester bed at home in Baton Rouge, screaming and crying through the nights, and my stepfather had had it up to here with taking care of her. Not that he was so good at it to start with. Her losing her mind scared him so much, I guess, that he went all ex-military on her and kept commanding her to get a grip.

I took my vacation days and flew down to give my stepdad a reprieve. I was going to show him how somebody with real compassion took care of somebody they loved.

I'm ashamed to tell you that within two nights I wanted to wring her neck. The repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition -- the intensity of the pain, the senselessness of the requests -- she worked my nerves and I turned right back into a sulky teenager.

I did see that she was too ill to be home. I called the ambulance and rode with her to Our Lady of the Lake hospital. Finally, finally, they got a morphine line in that got her to sleep. Her lips kept moving as she went under, her fingers gesturing as she spoke to a person or persons in the ether.

At three in the morning she woke up just enough to revive the "smooth out my sheet" routine. I was sleepy hungry angry lonely mean about it: "I'm not pulling your socks up again, I just pulled your socks up!" Finally we both dozed, and when I woke up, the sun was up and a doctor was looking her over. "I told your father she can't be cared for at home," he said. "We're going to need to get her into skilled care."

"What, like a nursing home?" He nodded, and pain hit me so hard my knees shook. One instant, many impacts: Wait my mother NOT GO HOME? no more not go home? And: Her last night of freedom I spent yelling I won't pull up your socks? And then: My god, my plane is leaving NOW.

Racing back to the airport, blind with tears, I kept reciting, Don't wreck the rental car you fool.

The scene at the Baton Rouge airport distracted me from my own drama. A long line of motorcycle police idled in formation outside Arrivals. What, a dignitary in Baton Rouge? Who the hell? Inside I could hardly get anybody to take my keys. Every employee in the airport, it seemed, was lined up and jostling at the escalator, waiting to see whoever had just landed.

"Who is it?" I asked the person nearest me, a young black woman in a Popeye's Fried Chicken uniform.

She said the name like a magic spell: "Nelson Mandela."

And it was. The great man swept through, smiling that smile, and his passage sent a visible wave of energy through the mostly African-American crowd. Baggage handlers, fry cooks, gift shop clerks, janitors. I saw their faces upturned, awestruck, suffused with ecstasy.

Then he was gone, vanished into his limo, with that uniformed police escort roaring into motion, all those white cops riding off to be his honor guard. My hometown, Baton Rouge -- the same Baton Rouge where I'd lived through riots when my high school was integrated, where I'd listened as a child to politicians holler the n-word on TV -- that same Baton Rouge had somehow evolved into a place that knew how to welcome Nelson Mandela.

My mother was going out, and Mandela was coming in. A great soul departing, a towering soul arriving. A small soul, weeping on a plane to L.A., with so far yet to fly.