I was making dinner. My mother called in great distress: "I can't get it open. The chicken."
Meals having become an issue, on my weekly visits, I'll either bring her meals to freeze, or pick up precooked meals like recently, a roasted chicken, that came in a convenient plastic storage container.
Well, I assumed it was convenient....
"It has a lid on it," I said. "You just have to take the lid off."
"I know it's got a lid, I haven't completely lost it..." she snipped, the kind of comment she can make when I remind her about an upcoming doctor's appointment; one she may remember is on a Friday, but unable to find her datebook, she neglects to write down what Friday.
I've resorted to these precooked chickens for ourselves, so I was familiar with the "convenience" of this container, a plastic lid fitted over a black plastic base.
There was a loud raucous crackling of plastic. "I've been struggling with this for hours..."
It could actually have been hours. Or at least as long as it can take for her to get dressed in the morning, her aching hip making it hard to pull up her socks and tie shoes; as long as it could take to settle into the passenger side of my car, her feet just inside the jam so I could finally shut the door; as long as a short walk could turn into a long one, barely getting us back before dusk; as long as she could pour over charitable solicitations or the fine print of medical side effects of her prescriptions.
"The lid has a little lip or handle on one corner," I said. "Lift that up."
"There's no lip. It's sealed shut tight."
These days, I'm rarely right. I win few arguments. Like the one we have most often, about her leaving the phone off the hook. Even after a Verizon customer service rep confirmed for me that a busy signal means it's off the hook, not call waiting.
"It's not off the hook," she always asserts. "It's broken. I need new phones."
Okay, so we buy new phones every six months or so....
I put my own phone on speaker, as dinner was burning – too late. The rice was stuck to the bottom of the pot. The broccoli reduced to mush. Just how the boys refuse to eat it, "puke green and mushy." It was hard enough to produce for them the perfect palatable texture without simultaneously having to help my mother open a plastic chicken container long distance.
With the speaker on, the plastic crackling grew louder, like a super bad phone connection.
Kenny came in, opened the refrigerator. "What's that noise?"
"Gramma. No snacks. Dinner's soon." Daily, we have this refrigerator confrontation, when one or the other of my boys wants cheese sticks just before sitting down.
"I'm taking a steak knife to it," Gramma said.
Kenny's big blue eyes grew wide. "A knife? To what?"
"A chicken," I said, distractedly, cursing internally, somewhere deep down in my bowels, or maybe in the core of my liver – I'd neglected to put our own main course in the oven. Chicken. Drumsticks.
My little six year old's big blue eyes grew bigger. "Gramma's killing a chicken?"
"This is so stupid!" came Gramma's voice too loud and succinct from the counter beside the sink where I'd laid her down. Precariously close to a pile of chopped onions.
We both looked at her. A cordless phone. Such a large dreary contraption compared to my sleek iPhone, but whose speaker mode nonetheless was far more effective.
Kenny's surprised look turned to one of scorn. "Why's it always ok for Gramma to say stupid and not us?"
"No cheese sticks."
"Then what's for dinner?"
I was at a loss for words. "Rice and broccoli."
He crinkled his nose. "Is that it?"
"You can have cheese sticks." That now was the main course.
Then came my mother's voice small and tinny behind the loud crackling of plastic. "You have me on speaker?"
She hates when I multitask. To keep from doing so, I often resort to the cord phone upstairs so I'm chained to a wall. Except when I'm making dinner. Which I'd forgotten to put in the oven, anyway.
The crackling stopped for a moment. "Kenny, was that you? Stupid is not a good word, you're right...."
"Gramma, what are you doing to a chicken?"
"Just trying to open it, Dear." Her voice was even and joyful as when they'd play double solitaire together.
I took the phone off speaker, turned off the stove and left the room. I heard Kenny opening the refrigerator, rummaging through a drawer for the cheese sticks, and anticipated the trail of wrappers he would leave behind as he would his dirty socks.
But when my mother is upset, my brain seizes and I can only focus on her crisis at hand. Last week, she'd called to announce that she couldn't find her purse. I'd suggested she look under the bed.
"Of course, I looked under the bed. There's a gremlin in the house. It's not under my bed. Neither are my slippers. He took those too."
The purse was under her bed, where she couldn't see it, and so were her slippers, both which her cleaning lady found the next day.
I sat in the hall, on the bottom stair. I was whispering now, in my most pacifying voice. One that I try to hold just steady enough so that I can sound daughterly without patronizing. "Mom, I don't think it's actually sealed shut."
"Of course it is. Then why otherwise would it take me hours to open a container of chicken?" I could hear her stabbing now, at the plastic container. "Oh, why does everything have to be so complicated?"
There was truth to this. As much as she would argue with me about the phones, I could see how it would seem reasonable enough to put the phone back in the cradle having forgotten to press the off button. Or with all the buttons phones have now, even being able to find the off button.
Then there are the simplest of things that have become near impossible, like opening a bottle of tonic water; working a can opener, her dominant hand greatly weakened by arthritis; opening a chicken container.
I thought about walking her through dissecting the chicken container, as through a surgery (having been watching too many Grey's anatomy reruns). "Mom, take the knife and slip it in between the clear plastic top section and bottom section."
"Don't you think I tried that? Just horrendous that anyone would do this to a person." She was near tears, complaining as she does about the childproof pill bottles that she claims not even an adult can open. "This is not good for my blood pressure!"
Ryan came downstairs, "Mom –"
"Not now." It was happening. I was going into snappy mode.
From the living room, from our food-and-drink-stained couch, where I knew Kenny sat peeling string cheese sticks, he said, "Gramma's killing a chicken. She's opening it up."
"Pick up your wrappers," I called out snappily, getting up to move into another room.
The gerbil room. Oddly, their incessant chewing can calm me more than the $5 little fountain I bought on sale at CVS bubbling next to their tank.
"Wait, I'm getting it," my mother said. "I'm just going to...hold on. I need two hands."
She was the one to put me on speaker now.
"There. I got it."
There was a moment of quiet, calm at both ends of the phone. That quiet of recouping after another little crisis in my mother's daily struggle to retain her independence. My mother would be able to enjoy her precooked chicken now. And knowing how important it is for her to do just that, be independent, the survivor, really, that she's always been, I was ok with overcooked rice, mushy broccoli and cheese sticks for dinner.