Two Against One

Hilda Reinhardt flopped onto a plastic and metal chair, knocking into the office’s pale green wall with a bang. Her feet planted firmly on the floor, her arms crossed over a massive chest, her broad shoulders pushed the chair’s back erratically. Hilda’s daughter, Hope, hunched because of scoliosis, sat next to her in an identical chair, ankles crossed, hands folded. She gazed at a picture with abstract shapes in soothing pastel colors while they waited for the doctor to finish reading Hilda’s chart and give a diagnosis.

Hope was an only child. Her deceased father, Oscar, had been an electrical engineer. Hilda was a retired civil engineer. She had left a German immigrant family and begun training for her profession in the days when women didn’t do such work. Oscar, also a German immigrant, and Hilda planned for their “Hope” to become, at the very least, a fine architect. They later always referred to her chosen field as “one of those ’ologies.”

At Chambers Community College, Hope taught sociology, a position she loved, rationalizing that she’d never married, at soon-to-be forty, even though she’d been proposed to many times, because of devotion to her students. A longtime boyfriend, Jasper Strand, also an only child, who she saw once a week on Saturday after his chores were done around the house, was an anthropology instructor at the same school, and lived in an apartment over his widowed mother’s garage. They spent time together at Hope’s townhouse, away from Mrs. Strand’s watchfulness.

After several minutes, Dr. Marlys DeGuise looked up from the test results, probably trying to figure out how best to broach the subjects indicated. “Your MRI and brain imaging show abnormalities compared to the tests administered five years ago.”

“What kind of abnormalities?” Hilda barked.

“Now, Hildagarde, I know this is hard for you to hear. You’ve always been so organized, so on top of things, so in control, but I have to tell you there’s been changes.”

“What kind of changes?”

Hope reached over and put her hand gently on Hilda’s knee.

Hilda jerked away.

Hope sighed. Personality traits often strengthen, like wine or vinegar, as a person ages.

“Vascular disease with extremely high blood pressure. You are not getting enough flow to your brain.”

“I feel exactly like I’ve always felt.”

“That’s part of it. You know, this is called the Silent Killer.” Dr. DeGuise paused and looked at Hope, who only gave a slight shrug. “It’s imperative that alterations to your life be made sooner rather than later.”

“What kind of alterations?”

“You need to stop driv…”

“Stop driving? I just bought a new car!” Hilda’s Honda Accord was five years old. She had purchased it after going in the ditch and totaling her Buick—thankfully, with no injuries. A fireman and a police officer called to the scene failed to detect alcohol on her breath. This was a familiar smell to Hope, who despite Hilda’s protestations of “Don’t contact my daughter!” had immediately come to the accident site. Medical tests soon after showed everything to be normal, and she reasoned that her mother, after a noon drink, must have fallen asleep at the wheel. This was the first time, ever, for Hope to issue a directive to her mother: No drinking and driving!

“With blood pressure in the two hundred range, you could have a major stroke at any time,” Dr. DeGuise went on. “Lose control of your car. Kill an innocent bystander.”

“Hmmmpf.” Hilda’s pressed lips failed to soften.

“And, you need to move into a retirement ho…”

“Retirement home!”

“Someplace where your meds and readings can be supervised daily.”

“You mean assisted living.” Then, “I do a fine job taking care of my pills. Each morning I swallow them with toast and coffee.”

Hope didn’t mention chauffeuring her mother to Minneapolis for the MRI and brain imaging. They started off in the early morning. Hilda forgot to eat breakfast and take medicines because of the shift in her routine. By 6:00 p.m. when Hope got her back home, Hilda’s systolic pressure had shot up to two hundred and eleven.

For fifteen minutes, she and Dr. DeGuise verbally sparred. The doctor took every stance trying to convince her 85-year-old patient of what needed to be done, always focusing on blood pressure as opposed to memory loss. Hilda relentlessly insisted she was fine and fully able to take care of herself in the house where she had lived for almost fifty years. “I’m going to leave feet first and not breathing. Until that time, I will not give up my automobile.”

Looking at her watch, Dr. DeGuise said, “I have another patient waiting, Hildagarde. You must make these changes as soon as possible.” Then, turning to Hope, “Do you have anything to add?”

“Only that Mother’s drinking seems to exaggerate her forgetfulness.”

“I barely drink a drop!”

“How much is a drop?”

“One at my noon meal. Oscar and I always did this.”

“What kind?”

“A glass of wine…sometimes a martini.”

“How much alcohol?” When Hilda didn’t answer, Dr. DeGuise held her thumb and pointer finger up, first with a space of one inch between them. “This much?” She stretched the space into at least three inches. “This much?”

Hilda clenched her hands into fists and refused to answer again.

“I’m not going to say you cannot have a drink. A glass of wine with your main meal—four ounces—is fine. But it will be in the retirement home dining room.”

“I’m not going to that place.”

“It’s absolutely necessary.” Dr. DeGuise clapped the file shut.

“What about her forgetfulness?” Hope recalled countless missed engagements.

“Approximately thirty percent of all people who reach Hildagarde’s age experience moderate memory impairment. This may turn into Alzheimer’s, but I’m not concerned about that right now. The blood pressure needs to be controlled or your mother won’t be around. She’ll either be in a nursing home, completely disabled, or in a funeral par…”

With a grunt, Hilda lumbered to a standing position, grabbed her big black purse, and marched out of the room, purposefully neglecting to say good-bye. The automatic door clattered shut.

“You’re going to have a hard time,” Dr. DeGuise said.

“Tell me about it!” Hope clasped her hands tightly, as if in prayer. “I don’t know how this possibly will be accomplished.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

“No, I’m all alone.”

“Call me if you need assistance. In the meantime, get her signed up to move into Pheasant’s Nest as soon as possible.”

Chambers, Minnesota had one retirement/assisted living facility. Hope put her mother on their list for an apartment immediately after the car accident. But every time availabilities came up, Hilda told Burt Anderson, the manager, that she wasn’t ever going to leave her house. Hope told him, “Please keep calling. Mother possibly will have to relent. I just hope a crisis that causes this won’t be too bad.”

While she worried about a fall or a stroke or another car accident, the years slipped by. At last, it was the diagnosis of vascular disease with accompanying dementia that forced a decision. This also pushed Hope into a place she had never been before—arbiter of her mother’s well-being.

The next day, she met with Burt and signed paperwork to rent an apartment the beginning of July. Hope had a month to prepare.

First came several visits with Hilda to see all that Pheasant’s Nest offered: three nutritious meals along with snacks; a van that took residents on outings for supplies, doctor’s appointments, and interesting places like Red River Valley Casino or an afternoon symphony at the Chambers Performance Hall; and, most importantly, a nurse on duty at all times to monitor her health.

Hilda stomped through the halls, bellowing things like “Pheasant’s Nest. Whoever came up with that stupid name?” And, “All these cripples wobbling around on walkers.” And, “This place smells like dirty old people.”

Hope whispered things like “We have lots of pheasants around here. I think it’s a nice name.” And, “Mother, please, you’ll hurt their feelings.” And, “It’s the disinfectant. They have laundry service provided for residents and apartment cleaning once a week.”

Hilda resisted with things like “I will not live someplace that sounds like it belongs in the aviary of a zoo.” And, “They’re probably deaf too.” And, “You act like I can’t manage my own chores.”

During Hope’s daily phone conversation to make sure her mother was still among the living, after much useless coaxing, she realized the car would have to be taken away without consent. Late one Saturday afternoon, she made a surprise visit to her mother’s house with Jasper (his assigned duties completed) tagging along for help and support.

“What are you two doing here?” Hilda, still in her old gray housecoat, seemed surprised to see Hope and sneered at Jasper. That Casper Milktoast boyfriend. No wonder my daughter won’t marry him, she’d often said.

“We’re taking the car.” Hope held shaking hands behind her S-curved spine.

Hilda stumbled for a rack in the kitchen where she and Oscar had always hung their keys. Grabbing the set for the Honda, balance regained, she charged toward her bedroom with Hope in hot pursuit.

“I don’t want to have to take them. Please give them to me, Mother.”

“You can’t have my car. I won’t let you. I called the sheriff and he said you can’t take it away from me.”

With the power of attorney her mother had signed shortly after Oscar’s death of brain cancer, when Hilda was still thinking rationally, Hope was almost, but not quite, certain no one would keep her from carrying out this task. While Hilda still looked as substantial as ever, arthritis had stolen the strength from her fingers. One big yank and Hope took possession of the keys, tossed them to Jasper, and the two of them made a beeline for the garage. Jasper backed the Honda out and followed Hope in her Subaru to an auto parts store, where she purchased a device called The Club #3000 to disable the steering wheel in case Hilda plodded over to the townhouse and tried to drive off in her car.

There were times when she picked up the phone and immediately hung up on Hope. There were other days when she called many times, leaving troubling messages if Hope was out: reasserting that she would not move to Pheasant’s Nest, stating that the sheriff would back her up, and boasting that she still had her legs to go anywhere she wanted to go.

Hope tried to reason with her mother but, after repeatedly covering the same territory, came to the conclusion that Hilda would only hear what she wanted to hear.

On another Saturday, in the morning, leaving Jasper’s mother miffed about unwashed windows, the pair arrived at the house. Hope directed which furniture to put on the truck while Hilda clumped behind, repeating her mantra, “I will not leave my house!”
The movers had serviced other clients going to Pheasant’s Nest and seemed blasé about Hilda’s recalcitrance, even when she grabbed one by the arm, causing him to drop an end table. Jasper hovered next to her, distracting with comments about “downsizing.” And, “living more simply.” And, “how much easier life will be.” Hilda shot back with “You are annoying as all hell.” And, “Stop driving me crazy with your nonsense.” And, “Shut up, you twerp.”

Jasper, bless his heart, continued the nonstop banter, and after three hours, a loaded truck headed for the retirement home. In her Subaru, Hope, Jasper, and Hilda (fuming in the backseat about having “to retrieve my belongings”) brought up the rear.

Once there, Burt kept her in the lobby with talk about an addition that soon would be started and structural problems encountered. Like a tag team, Hope hurried through instructions for each piece of furniture’s placement as Jasper stood guard in the apartment’s entrance.

At the all-clear sign, Burt brought Hilda to her new home. “Doesn’t this look great? Your daughter did a wonderful job arranging things.”

“Tell those movers to come back here this minute.” Hilda glared at her Trinitron television, her bookshelf to be loaded with manuals, and her cabinet that would hold awards received from various engineering projects.

“We’re leaving.” Hope grabbed Jasper’s arm and they bolted for the exit as Burt said, “Hilda, let’s take a look at the construction site. Maybe you’ll have some suggestions.”

That night, Hope and Jasper toasted each other with a favorite merlot. Somehow, according to a phone call from Burt, Hilda had been settled in for her first night’s sleep at Pheasant’s Nest. About this time, a conclusion was reached. Jasper’s 86-year-old mother, a cantankerous retired schoolteacher, had begun to constantly make the same remarks and lose her keys and forget to bathe. She would be joining Hilda at Pheasant’s Nest before too much longer. Hope and Jasper’s first joint effort seemed to have succeeded. Feeling positive about a similar win with Mrs. Strand, they shared another toast.

The next morning, the couple left in the Subaru for a trip to Bemidji, a town in Minnesota’s far north. After a spontaneous hurry-up wedding they embarked upon a weeklong camping trip in order to decompress. However, before starting the drive into no-cell-phone country, Hope parked near the statues of Paul Bunyan with his mighty blue ox and called Pheasant’s Nest. The report was not good. Hildagarde had gone missing in action, presumably to squat at her old, mostly empty, house.

Jasper said, “I know this has been brutal, but we must turn around, return her to Pheasant’s Nest, secure the residence.” He held Hope against his concave chest as she wept, completely dampening his buttoned-to-the neck, pale blue polo shirt.

At a pause in her tears, between hiccups, she snuffled, “There’ll be more butting of heads. Her dementia’s not keeping Mother from going another round.”

 

published by Epiphany