The weather in southeast Missouri is a constant topic of discussion around these parts, mainly because it tends to change so frequently and unexpectedly. Alas, it hasn’t changed at all for the past few days, and we’re getting sick of it, in some cases literally. On Sunday the bank thermometers touched 100 for the first time this year, and they weren’t kidding, either. I drove up to St. Louis at midday to cover a production of Henry V for The Wall Street Journal, and the weather on the far side of my windshield put me in mind of this passage from Louis L’Amour’s Hondo:
It was hot. A few lost, cotton-ball bunches of cloud drifted in a brassy sky, leaving rare islands of shadow upon the desert’s face.
Nothing moved. It was a far, lost land, a land of beige-gray silences and distance where the eye reached out farther and farther to lose itself finally against the sky, and where the only movement was the lazy swing of a remote buzzard.
Fortunately, no buzzards pursued me to St. Louis, nor are they wheeling in the sky over the hospital where my mother is recovering from an operation on her spine. Be that as it may, she had a rocky time of it last week. At one point a misjudged combination of painkiller and muscle relaxant caused her to hallucinate off and on for the better part of two days, and even after what she saw started to tally more closely with what was really there, I had more than a little bit of trouble persuading her to stay in bed.
Never having been a parent or spent more than a day or two at a time nursing anyone, I didn’t know how enervating it can be to take care of a loved one who is for all practical purposes helpless. Nor can I imagine what it would feel like to nurse someone with no hope of recovery (my mother has every expectation of returning to good health). The hospital is a forty-five-minute drive from the front door of my mother’s house, and I come home each night so tired that it’s all I can do to take my clothes off. In addition to giving a lecture on Tuesday, I’m supposed to write three pieces between now and Friday, when I fly back to New York, and though I’m sure I’ll get them finished, I’ve only managed to come up with a single sentence so far. Blogging is easier, but not so easy that the prose comes spurting merrily out of my fingertips, polished and ready to upload. I generally have to sit in my late father’s easy chair for at least an hour after coming home before I can think of anything much more coherent to say than My God, I’m tired!
Part of the problem is that I’ve been ripped out of my daily routine and plunged into a radically different one. I sleep in an unfamiliar bed to the accompaniment of unfamiliar sounds, surrounded by shelves full of unfamiliar books. My iBook rests on a creaky, ink-stained card table, plugged into a sluggish dialup connection that makes Web surfing a chore. My stereo, CDs, and DVDs are halfway across the country (though not my iPod and miniature speakers, glory be). So are my friends. The restaurants here close early, the stores even earlier. It’s as if I’m experiencing the disagreeable parts of a vacation without any of the offsetting novelties.
Of course it’s for the best of all possible causes, and no sooner do I catch myself complaining than I remember why I’m in Smalltown, U.S.A., and feel a pang of shame. For years my mother took care of me whenever I needed taking care of, wiping my brow and mending my scrapes, listening to me gripe about the slightest ache or pain (I was no better a patient as a boy than I am as a man). If she ever complained, it wasn’t to me. Now it’s my turn, and you’d think I’d be able to face the moderate rigors of two weeks’ part-time nursing duty with more grace.
If I were a better person, I could at least assure myself that this is a spiritual exercise, a refiner’s fire that will toughen my character and make me more considerate and forgiving upon my return to Manhattan. Would that it were so. I’m sure the sheer relief of shedding my cares will leave me dizzy with joy come Friday, but I’m no less sure I’ll be my old impatient self within a week at most, wondering why the world isn’t capable of ordering itself with a more comprehensive regard to my immediate needs. We singletons have a way of expecting such consideration, especially those of us who keep neat apartments in which everything is just so. Solitude makes finicky, self-regarding connoisseurs of us: it’s our compensation for living alone.
Interestingly, I haven’t thought much about the Teachout Museum since returning to Smalltown, perhaps in part because the drive from here to the hospital is so pretty. I steer clear of the interstate and take Highway 61, known to southeast Missourians as “the old highway,” through a couple of dozen miles of rolling farmland. The trees along Highway 61 are so green this week that Technicolor couldn’t begin to capture their intensely saturated hue, while the fields really are the “amber waves of grain” New Yorkers sang about so ardently in the days and weeks after 9/11. Art, I’m sure, means more to city dwellers who live far from such natural pleasures, and when I return home to the city, mine will mean more to me. At present, though, I’m happy to revel in the world around me as I drive to and from my temporary job as a caregiver. That seems to be all the beauty I need.