Life and Death

Becoming Berta

We received a phone call night before last informing us that my 90 year old mother-in-law is in the hospital.  She had gotten sick during an outing with friends, paramedics were called and she was sent to the emergency room.  But there weren’t too many details really.  So we loaded up the car and made the drive north to Phoenix.

Abbie has been hospitalized periodically over the past nine years.  Walking down Thomas Road a couple of years ago she passed out, fell into the sidewalk and crushed her cheekbone.  But when we went in to see her she was unaware of her injuries, seemed to feel alright, and was anxious to get out of the hospital.  One pacemaker later she was sent home.  So, I was not prepared for how she looked yesterday.

The first thing I noticed was that she looked so small.   She had sunk down into the hospital bed and seemed to have shrunk under the hospital blanket barely making a ripple in the heavy cotton.  Her eyes were shut, deep in their sockets, her jaw was set,  and she was pale, as white as marble.  I reached out to assure myself that she wasn’t alreadymarble cold.

Martin sat down beside the bed and took his mother’s hand in his.  He leaned in close to her ear and began to talk, “I’m here mom.  It’s me, Martin, your favorite son.  A pause.  It’s me, your second son.  Pause. Okay, It’s me.  your second favorite son?

He kept on this way, talking softly, holding her hand.  “Mom, can you hear me?  If you think that was funny just give me a smile.”  And Abbie’s mouth, almost imperceptibly but unmistakably twitched in an attempted smile.  The young nurse glimpsed the movement and nodded at me in surprise and confirmation.

Martin used to tease me, telling me I was becoming just like my mom.  I would disagree, insisting I was not turning into Berta.  But as the years passed my attitude changed.  I would be happy if I turned out like my mother–warm, caring, concerned for the well being of those around her.  I was with her when she died nearly seventeen years ago.  My aunt, married to my dad’s youngest brother, twenty-five-years younger than my mom and orphaned as a youngster, came to say her good=byes.  Leaning down she whispered,  “I wish you were my mother.”  And Berta reaching up from the depths whispered back,  “I am your mother.”

I wanted to speak for Abbie:  “You are my son Martin.  I love you.”  But no one else could speak those words for her.

We called the brother and sisters, forewarning them to perhaps expect the inevitable. After speaking to his older brother, Martin leaned in again toward his mother.  He told her that all of her children loved her and were concerned for her.  He talked about each one, where they were and what they were doing with their lives.  He told her that her parents, her brothers and her sisters loved her and were  waiting to greet her. What a great reunion they would have.

At that point Abbie’s eyes popped open and shifted left then right.  In a barely audible voice she whispered, “Who’s going anywhere?”  She has some serious health problems, problems that aren’t unusual at her age, problems that doctors don’t want to tackle.  But for now she is choosing to stay with us.

Abbie has never been an easy person to live with.  She didn’t make life easy for her children or for her husbands.  Martin, nicknamed el Martillo–the hammer–often ended up as her caretaker, and as the steady influence in the lives of his younger sisters.  He learned early to guard his feelings.  He is not a warm and cuddly guy even now.

But as I watched him with his mother, comforting her, loving her despite the difficulties in their lives I saw his tender side.  And I wanted to pay him my highest compliment.  So here it is–Martin, you are, in your own unique way, one step at a time,   becoming Berta!  And I love you.

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About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States" in Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, and a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico. Karen and her husband traveled extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, spending many summers in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala . Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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