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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Sainted Son

"Phillip," the elderly lady named Margaret whispered in a hoarse, coarse, needy, weepy voice, "is she gonna look at my eyes?"

"She is going to look at the skin around your eyes. We're here for the scalp, not the eyes. We've been to eye doctors, now we're at the dermatologist. We're trying something else."

It's 6:12pm. My wife and I have been in the dermatologist's office for just over forty-five minutes. My wife is trying to pretend she's reading "Glamour." There's a man in a black Porsche sweatshirt leaning his head up against the wall. There's a twenty-ish young man iPoding and texting. I stare over and over again at the cover of some magazine with a cartoon of Sarah Palin at a swearing-in ceremony with her hand on a bible with the caption "Is This Possible?"

I don't want to be here.

Neither, apparently, does Margaret. She says so approximately every seven minutes. Margaret is probably around eighty, maybe ninety, and her two sons who have accompanied her to this doctor's appointment are easily in their sixties. One of them, Donald, pretends to be asleep, leaving his brother, Phillip, to reply to their mother's incessant complaints, questions, fears, and repetitions.

"I wish Ernie were here."

"Mother," replies Phillip with a finely-tuned mixture of deft compassion, palpable exhaustion, and factual stoicism, "Ernie has been dead for twenty-four years. He's been gone a long, long time."

"Phillip, is she gonna look at my eyes?"

Margaret is like a Chatty Cathy doll from the 1980s. She has approximately eight or nine phrases that she recites when there is a silence lasting longer than thirty-two seconds. This is Margaret's repertoire:

"I'm scared-- I don't wanna be sick. Let's go home."

"Phillip-- I'm suffering. I've got so many things wrong with me."

"Is she gonna look at my eyes?"

"Is Donald sleeping?"

"I want to die."

"I wish Ernie were here."

"Where's Roseanne? Where's Brendan? Nobody comes to see me. Nobody cares."

"Why should other people be okay and happy and I'm so miserable?

"Does she know what's wrong with me?"

Phillip could have chosen to ignore his mother. He could have gotten frustrated and shut down. He could have woken up Donald and said, "Hey-- your turn" and walked out of the waiting room. He could have suffocated her with a throw pillow. Instead, he deftly, calmly, rationally responded every single one of her redundant observations or comments. It didn't really matter what he said-- nothing changed her outlook or altered the manner in which she expressed herself, and nothing changed the content of her utterances. at 5:46, he could have answered "Does she know what's wrong with me?" with "Yes." and, at 6:04, he could have answered the exact same question with "No." and it wouldn't have mattered, but he was consistent, and factual and he was doing the best he could.

If I had the power, and the sword, I would knight him tomorrow. Forget W. S. Gilbert, Paul McCartney, and Elton John. Loudly let the trumpets bay and make way, please, for Sir Phillip, the Sainted Son.

There are Sir Phillips all over the world, performing homespun eldercare services for their parents who are in advanced stages of mental and physical decline. Our modern, American society espouses the philosophy that, when you're old and used up, the nursing home is good enough for you. I hear people moan and cry about "how hard" the decision was to put mom or dad away in a home, and I'm not trying to judge, for Christ only knows what the hell I'm going to do when/if the time comes-- but I'll bet it's a damn sight harder to do what Phillip does.

"You're always so busy," Margaret says to him.

"Busy? What am I busy with, Mother?" Phillip asks, not confrontationally, just really asking.

"Busy with me."

"You're right," he says, "I am busy with you. That is what I do."

"Is Donald sleeping?" she asks, because it's 6:14.

"Yes, Mother-- he's probably tired. We were up all night with you, do you remember?"

She looks at him.

"And you were hungry at 4:15am, and we brought you up the toast and the cantaloupe and you ate in bed-- do you remember that?"

She looks at him.


"Okay, Mother," Phillip says, putting her dry, trembling, gnarled hand in his. "Your left hand is cold, from the surgery."

And Margaret says, "I'm scared."


  1. Oh man, great story. It gives me hope to know that people like this still exist. I sometimes begin to wonder. Thank you for making my day just a little less jaded and a little more human.

  2. That hurt my heart. Bless Phillip. I only hope he has someone to love him as well when he gets older.

  3. The power of the short story. You have a gift!


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