The Chronicle Review

'English Professors Aren't Good for Much'

Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

October 07, 2013

In February, after routine back surgery, my mother developed a hematoma in her lower spine. Having suffered a cauda equina injury, to what her doctor described as the horse's tail of nerves at the base of her spine, she is now effectively a paraplegic. The injury, which sounds almost lovely, like the gentle switching of a horse's tail, entails the new reality of wheelchairs, suppositories, and bedpans.

To be with her during the surgery, I drove the eight hours from southwest Illinois, where I teach, to northeast Wisconsin. That evening I rushed to the nurses' station repeatedly when her postoperative pain became excruciating, but I knew of no surgical complications to fear. The next morning, she could not move or feel her legs, feet, or toes. After ordering an MRI, her surgeon discovered the hematoma.

Now, nine months later, she can rotate each leg slowly and raise the right one but not the left. With the help of slippery polyester pants, she can transfer from her bed to a wheelchair, but the stickiness of bare skin makes transfer to a toilet and back again impossible. Wheelchair-bound for life, she will never return to the two-story suburban home that she and my late father lovingly remodeled and landscaped. We sold her house, culled her possessions, and moved her into an assisted-living facility near me.

My mother, wishing that I had "more of the nurse" in me, needs me now as her advocate, chauffeur, errand runner, and occasional caregiver. She wonders if I have it in me to wipe her bottom.

English professors, I think, aren't good for much. I am ready with pep talks about resilience and grit; I can offer reading lists—Nancy Mairs and Flannery O'Connor come to mind—but I am scared of her dependence and of the degradation of incontinence.

Raised in suburban Chicago, my mother graduated from Wellesley in the 1950s with a major in English. She never left the house without lipstick and purse. She never swore, never mentioned sex, and never dressed (or undressed) in front of me. After the paralysis and her first bout of rehab, a young man with tattoos covering his forearms taught her to catheterize herself. Having lost the physical company of her friends in Wisconsin, her home, dog, church, and privacy, she now often sits alone in her tiny room hunched over her iPad and laptop.

My attempts to commiserate and motivate her sound like platitudes. Perhaps it is that her experience, more than any other, reminds me of our aloneness, that, in the voice of Faulkner's character Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying: "We had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching." I call my mother every morning, share with her the daily catalog of living, and yet this experience I cannot span.

I hope, of course, for a new normal. After she becomes more comfortable navigating in her wheelchair, I imagine her enjoying shopping trips, lectures, movies, concerts, and dinners with my family. Her upper-body strength will compensate for her lower-body weakness. As she adjusts to her new life, becomes active in the local church, and joins book clubs, she will find support and new friends.

I will grow, too. I am working with others to start a disabilities-awareness group on my campus. My children, two boys ages 11 and 13, will become more compassionate as they take on additional responsibilities. I will grow even closer to my mother and to my siblings as we engage with her care.

And then I talk with my mother on the phone and hear the weight in her voice, now uncharacteristically taciturn. A psychologist comes to see her only every few months at the facility where she now lives. I rue my split-level home, which requires six steps up to the main floor. Getting to my office on the campus means scaling two flights of stairs. Shops in our quaint, historic downtown contain aisles too narrow for wheelchairs. She asks me to deposit some checks she has received, pick up distilled water for her CPAP machine, and reschedule a doctor's appointment.

Three stacks of papers await grading, and I haven't started the paper I will be presenting at the annual MLA conference, in January. My youngest sullenly asks me why I am always on the phone. My husband comes home from work, and I tell him we need to order a pizza. A pile of clean laundry spills off a living-room chair. Seeing that I am distracted, my eldest embarks on a marathon Steam gaming session. I feel a sudden, irrational resentment toward my siblings, both of whom live hundreds of miles away, for not taking more time off work to help our mother.

I imagine adding "caring for my mother" to my biannual faculty-workload report. When my colleagues ask how I am doing, and I say, "OK, but my mom ...," they look at me sympathetically. But the conversation pauses, dangles. I try to be succinct.

Few want to hear about the challenges of helping an elderly, disabled parent. Caring for children, yes—that generates talk, especially quick, laughing hallway conversation between classes. If unable to attend school, children trail their faculty parents to class or hold court in their parents' offices, the doors of which feature their artwork. Departmental parties often include children. They are accepted as part of faculty life, part of the continuum of youth culture culminating in the college experience.

I don't blame my colleagues.

Who wants to hear the details of appealing Medicare's denial of coverage because my mother's progress in rehabilitation has stalled? Or about her becoming forgetful because of the medication she takes for nerve pain? Shall I confess that I sometimes want my mother to get a colostomy so I won't have to clean up her liquid stools leaking from her Depends? Shall I tell my colleagues that last month my mother, who has read and discussed Flannery O'Connor with me, couldn't remember who O'Connor was and asked me if I had heard of him? After I told her that we had talked often of her work, she tried to save face. I winced.

I'm not very good at this.

On my way to class, my phone vibrates, and I see it's "mom cell." With a tinge of worry that she needs something and relief that I am too busy to respond, I turn it off, enter the classroom, and greet my students.

Never has teaching been so easy. For an hour and 20 minutes, I lead a discussion on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cocooned in the lyricism of the text and the youth of my students, I strive to motivate and explicate. The end of the novel affirms the pain and joy of experience: "She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!"

Then class is over. Back at my office, I retrieve my phone messages, check my e-mail, gather my belongings, and head out the door, knowing that I am leaving much undone. My fish-net shawl too heavy, I call my mom as I trudge to the car.

Martha H. Patterson is a professor of English at McKendree University.