Last night I heard the most hilarious not-funny thing I’ve heard in years. After a long and mainly unsuccessful rehabilitation, my mom is back in her home. That is not the hilarious part, by the way. Unable to stand, my mom and her scooter and her permanently busted leg now wage war against the features of her home that she once loved. Her beloved Keurig coffee maker looms on the kitchen counter like Heartbreak Ridge, repulsing her when she wants to press the control buttons and insert the neat little single-serve coffee buckets. If I thought it would help her storm the thing, I’d buy her a flamethrower. When she wants to get into her nurturing recliner she must hurl herself trembling into its depths from the seat of her scooter. Getting back out of the recliner is like climbing K2. Her lovely bathtub is now a pit of horrors.

She ended up in this nasty little conflict partly because of the way she approached her rehabilitation. For 15 weeks she refused to eat nearly everything placed before her, despite her stated intention of walking out of the damned rehab facility with a healed leg. We almost immediately dismissed the hospital food, instead bringing her food from all across the vast spectrum of things humans can digest without dying. With this bounty brought before her, she occasionally ate a few grapes, part of a chicken strip, a few bites of a baked potato, and several spoonfuls of the broth from a bowl of Wendy’s chili. She had an appetite. Her doctor had prescribed appetite enhancers for her, so she was starving. But she typically reacted to food by making a please-stop-beating-me-with-that-stick face and moaning something like:

“That tastes just horrible.”

“This has too many spices.”

“It’s cold.”

“It isn’t spiced enough.”

“The toast is too thick.”

“I can’t stand to look at it.”

“My mouth just refuses to open.”

Fifteen weeks later and 30 pounds lighter, my mom sported a protein level rarely seen outside dusty third-world countries. It was low enough to kill a Kodiak bear, let alone a finicky 75 year old woman. When her surgeon saw that her leg had healed not at all, he told her to forget rehab and just go home. She and my father packed up her housecoats, her remote control lamp and her chap stick, and they initiated their vicious police action against the house they’ve owned for 51 years. They refuse any direct help from allies in this conflict, although they have accepted logistical support.   Just to be clear, none of that was the hilarious part either.

When I called my mom last night she told me that she’d been eating more. I interpreted that as eating eight grapes for breakfast instead of seven, but I merged into the traffic of her careening recitation of events and asked what “eating more” meant. She told me her breakfast consisted of two boiled eggs, two pieces of bacon and some toast, presumably not too thick. They were cooked how she liked them and tasted delicious, enabling her to eat them.

“My God!” I thought. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Great!” I suppose that was the right thing to say, since any act that might lead to her survival could be called “great.”

In the next breath she brought me up to date on my sister’s health. The flu had been pummeling my sister like an angry kangaroo, and she’d been sweating in misery on her couch for a week. My mom told me that my sister’s husband had cooked a hamburger and brought it to the couch where my sister lay, and she ate it. She hates meat and hardly ever eats any. In fact, she hasn’t eaten any meat for quite some time. My mom relayed that the hamburger cured my sister almost immediately and that her infirmity must have been caused by low protein. She stated this with all the authority of Charlie Sheen discussing hookers.

That wasn’t the hilarious part either.

Then my mom recounted, in detail, the sermon she had preached to my sister about the importance of proper eating. She emphasized the fact that my sister must eat meat, whether she wanted to or not, and that not liking something was no excuse for not eating it.

That was the hilarious part.

After this happy phone call ended, I found my wife in the kitchen. I told her that I’d just heard the most hilarious not-funny thing I’d heard in years, and I explained what had happened. I told her that I now felt some optimism, although my parents still refused any help, which was driving me crazy. I then said something that I thought clever. I said, “Maybe wisdom is taking what you see in others and applying it to yourself.”

My wife agreed that was a clever statement. Then she mentioned that since I wished my parents would accept some help, maybe I could try applying that to myself, as she’d been suggesting to me almost daily for the past two decades. At least I could let someone bring me a can of Diet Coke when I’m watching TV, or bring me some aspirin when I have the flu or hamburger deprivation. Just once in a while.

Well, that conversation didn’t go the way I’d anticipated. But my wife wasn’t wrong, so I smiled, nodded, and surrendered. I had failed to qualify for wise. I might or might not have a chance for clever. Whether I could identify hilarious was debatable. But having the effrontery to compare your mom to Charlie Sheen talking about hookers? Maybe that’s my defining characteristic.

My mom, before The War Against The House, and with both legs intact.

When a bull gores you, you always lose. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how hard you’ve worked all your life, or how independent you consider yourself to be. You’re screwed. You’re doubly screwed if you’re 80 years old, like my mom’s uncle was when the bull caught him looking the wrong way. He then spent the last three years of his life in a nursing home. Those places are called “skilled nursing facilities” now, but 30 years ago nobody felt like taking the “skilled” part for granted.

Over those three years my mom wore out a new car visiting her uncle every other day. She brought him all kinds of things he wasn’t supposed to have, like candy and a shaving razor and his pocket knife. Among my people, if you don’t have a pocket knife then you’re more crippled than if you can’t walk. He used his knife to take apart the TV remote one day, in order to see what made it work. He wasn’t able to get it back into working condition though. The nurses took his pocket knife away, along with his candy and razor and about every other thing that gave him a little pleasure. He was known to tell his nurses, “I know I’m going to hell. The only thing I regret is that all you god damn nurses are going to be there too.”

On to the next tenuously connected observation…


I grew up hearing the phrase “knocked on the head.” I never heard anyone but my family members say it. I gather that it’s used in some circles today, and it means things like to be smacked on the head so as to leave a bump, or even to have sex with the partner of your choice. In my family it meant only one thing: to kill someone. Actually, it meant to kill someone deader than hell. It’s not that my family killed indiscriminately, but knocking someone on the head is a mighty efficient way to kill a person, not to mention tidy. One of my uncles expired in short order after being whacked on the head with a beer bottle. And my father told me the story of his cousin who was put in a family way by a fellow who left town soon after. Her daddy then left town with his ball peen hammer and returned a few days later without the hammer, but with a satisfied expression.


When I was 24 I tore my knee up in a magnificent fashion. Well, the way I did it was as stupid as anyone can imagine, but the actual wreckage was spectacular. After completing his symphony of pins and sutures and blood, my surgeon gave me lots of warnings about a careful recovery. I ignored them all right away. I threw aside my crutches and just hopped on my good leg everywhere I wanted to go, and I only crashed into a wall two or three times a week. Since a gigantic cast encased my right leg, driving was impossible. So of course I drove all over town using my foot’s pathetic range of motion to mash pedals as it poked out the bottom of my cast. Don’t even ask me how I handled the clutch. I told my body, “shift or die,” and then I headed for places like the mall and Dairy Queen.

Being a stupid and contrary gave me one advantage. Rehab hurt like a cast iron bitch, so out of meanness I embraced the pain. After the nurse cut off my cast, she turned her back to put away the saw, so I stood up to test my leg and plummeted straight to the floor. But apart from that, I spent three weeks bending my knee, lifting weights, riding the bicycle, and getting some sweet, healing electricity passed through my leg. If smacking my leg with hammers would have helped, I’m sure I would have done it. Every day I couldn’t walk was a day I couldn’t make any money. It was about to be July in Texas, and electricity might soon become an unaffordable luxury for me.

A fellow in rehab with me had wrecked his knee the same time I did, and to the same degree. He made zero progress while I was working on mine. He couldn’t even bend his knee. This concerned me quite a bit, because I feared I might hit a wall in my rehab or something, so I cajoled some whispered gossip out of the therapist. It turned out that the guy just couldn’t take the pain. He went to the point of hurting and then stopped. That knowledge relieved me a bit, and I asked the therapist how the fellow had suffered his knee damage. I myself always lied when I was asked that question, because the truth sounded so ignorant. I might instead say that I fell off a house, or that I tripped over a dog, or something reasonable like that. In any event, the gentleman with the negative pain threshold was a karate instructor, and he’d massacred his knee doing some karate move. When I walked out of rehab, the sensei was still trying to bend his leg, and the surgeon was preparing to anesthetize him again and bend the thing for him.


Almost four months ago my mom broke her leg. A powder-blue carpeted floor can’t intimidate you the way a bull can, but it did the job on her leg just fine. I wouldn’t say that it snapped her leg. That’s too mild. Shattered is a better description, but not quite there. Let’s say that her femur was somewhere between pulverized and obliterated.

My mom’s surgeon put her leg back together with enough titanium to armor a guided missile cruiser. Then, despite the fact that she’s owned this femur for 75 years and it’s way out of warranty, my mom set out to walk again. She’s moved through a variety of hospitals, rehab centers, and “skilled” nursing facilities since her surgery. For hundreds of hours she’s lifted weights, stretched, cycled, and done stupid dexterity games involving pennies and Play-Doh. She’s smarter than me and doesn’t embrace the pain, but if a therapist lies to her about how many minutes she’s been working so far, my mom will keep on working until she craters.

But—she will not god damn eat.

My people like their food. Their food is almost a religion. If the bacon’s not crisp enough, then it’s inedible. If the potatoes don’t have enough salt, they might make you sick. If the soup has weird spices, then your mouth will just refuse to open and let you eat any of it. This is inconvenient for three days. For three weeks, it’s aggravating and concerning. When it goes on for three months, you’ve reached “concentration camp victim about to die of malnutrition” territory. Literally everyone she comes into contact with tells her she must eat, including me. “Eat or die.” That’s the message. If I could tattoo it on the backs of her fingers I’d do it in a minute.

Like any two family members, my mom and I disagree at times. We have issues that may be a little out of the ordinary, but that’s not really pertinent here. She has demonstrated to me that someone can crumble to sand while you’re watching them, and that frustrates me. It causes me to not want to visit her too often. But when I consider that she drove all the way across creation every other day for three years to visit her uncle, I can’t stand thinking that nobody might do that for her.

Yesterday my mom’s surgeon read her tea leaves, otherwise known as interpreting her x-rays. My mom did not get the interpretation she wanted. She got, “Your leg hasn’t healed at all. It’s probably not going to heal, and you’re not going to walk anymore. Stop your therapy, go home, and live your life the best you can. And Happy Fucking Holidays.”

That news disheartened everyone, except maybe for the guy who’ll be selling my mom a new wheelchair soon. I feel a bit guilty for thinking that things might be different if only she’d consumed a little more protein for healing, rather than trying to rebuild bone on seven grapes a day and all the chap stick she could absorb through her lips.  I feel less guilty than I might, since every other person who knows her is thinking the same thing. But it may not have mattered anyway. Her leg might not have healed even if she’d eaten an entire codfish at every meal. Who knows?

So Monday my mom will go back home after an enforced holiday of 15 weeks—over a third of the time it takes to hatch a baby. If it had been a real holiday, it wouldn’t have been the kind where it just rained all day. It would have rained white-hot razor blades and insane scorpions trained by mean old church ladies. She’ll need some help at home now, so I’ll try to keep a few things in mind as I help out. She’s not 24 years old. When you get down to it, what she does or doesn’t eat is none of my damned business. And I ought to give her a pocket knife.

For someone whose leg bone resembles a sock full of toothpicks, my mom smiled a lot this morning. She splintered that femur a couple of months ago. Officially, she’s hanging out in the hospital rehabilitating. To me it looks like she’s working hard and then negating her hard work by lying in the bed a lot, complaining about meaningless bullshit, and keeping quiet when she needs real help. At least she’s eating more. Yesterday she ate nine grapes, three bites of chicken, and a Dorito.

This morning she complained from within the embrace of her bed, maligning the bacon (not crisp enough), the toast (not thick enough), and the eggs (not made of real baby chickens). I leaned back in the stiff hospital armchair and listened as she savored her frustration and disdain. I only needed to grunt a few times and nod occasionally to keep things going. She was like a barnyard goose, for which honking and biting are the signs of contentment. All she needed was something to honk at and bite.

She spent a few minutes complaining about Jay, the aide she had called 10 minutes before. Then Jay arrived. Rather than pouring displeasure upon Jay, she smiled and laughed to see him, and she greeted him like another son. As he helped her from the magnificent bed to the torturous wheelchair, my mom told him how much she appreciated his help, and how well he did his job, and how much she’d miss him when he went on vacation next week. Jay smiled in return and prepared her for her day.

As Jay left, my mom said, “Don’t forget to get your candy!” She pointed to a narrow table that held a bag of candy as big as a cement sack. Jay nodded and reached into the bag, pulling a tiny Milky Way from all the infant chocolate bars in the bag. Jay left with a wave.

I didn’t think that odd. My mom feels that the Apocalypse is near if everyone around her isn’t eating. I’ve seen her weep when someone left her house without taking the entire pizza she pressed him to accept. I am not kidding. So the world would actually seem stranger if she didn’t have a giant horde of food to force on people while she starved herself.

My mom explained how the hospital was a place of horrors, and she revealed that the people who worked there were coming into her room and stealing her things. Nurses had stolen all of her uncle’s things when he’d been in a home, and they were doing the same thing here. After some concerned questioning, I determined that the extent of her loss was one diaper that had disappeared four nights ago. I suggested that this wasn’t exactly the Brinks Job, but she clutched tight her fury towards the thieving staff.

At that moment the nurse, Nesi, walked in with my mom’s morning medication. She grinned at him like he was Santa Claus, and she gushed her joy at seeing him. That joy faded when she saw the two pills as big as cockroaches he wanted her to swallow, but she choked them down and instantly forgave him. As he left to take his insanely huge pills to the next patient, my mom said, “Don’t leave without taking some of your candy!” Nesi grinned, grabbed two Snickers, and left.

After my mom had spent several minutes bitching about her leg brace, which an aide had slapped on like she was making a burrito at Taco Bell, the physical therapist, Ann, popped in. My mom greeted her as if they’d stolen apples and skinny dipped together as girls. It wasn’t yet time for therapy, but Ann was just passing by and thought she’d check on my mom. My mom chatted with her for a minute, insisted that she take candy, and nodded approval as Ann left with a Snickers of her own.

My mom was only able to complain about her wheelchair for a minute before the doctor entered. My mom did not offer her a cheerful welcome. In fact, she looked as if a bad smell had walked into the room. The doctor listened to my mom’s heart with fierce efficiency, bragged about how cool her kickboxing lessons were, and swept out of the room without being offered candy. My mom considers the doctor to be some kind of management, whereas the nurses and aides are working people who deserve chocolate.

Five minutes later another aide, Olivia, joined us for no particular purpose that I could determine. My mom effused about how pretty Olivia was, and how good she was, and how smart she was to have just passed her entrance exam for grad school. Olivia held my mom’s hand and beamed at her for a minute before leaving with two Milky Ways and a Three Musketeers.

A few minutes later an aide poked his head to ask how my mom was doing, to bask in her adoring thanks, and to nick a little chocolate. Ten minutes later it happened again with a different aide. During these visits, my mom lavished sincere praise and affection on them. Between visits she explained to me the awful, crushing oppression of this institution and the callous contempt that the staff cherished in their hearts.

Perhaps an hour into my visit the nurse, Nesi, stepped back in, looked uncertain for a moment, and asked my mom how she was doing. She assured him all was well, and Nesi snagged another Snickers. Then he asked my mom to tell my father not to buy any more candy. It wasn’t good for the staff. My mom said she’d ask, but she didn’t have any control over what my father did or didn’t buy. Nesi sighed and grabbed another Snickers for the road.

I finally asked my mom about the candy, and she told me that my father had brought it in before Halloween, three weeks earlier. I observed that the bag was close to empty, so it shouldn’t be a problem for Nesi and his staff much longer. She looked surprised and explained that this was the third bag my father had brought. They only cost seven dollars a bag, so that wasn’t too expensive.

As I was contemplating that, my father arrived. After a round of greetings, my mom told him that Nesi had asked for a moratorium on the Milky Ways and such. My father shrugged and said, “They don’t cost much, and everybody seems to like them. I’ll just keep bringing them.”

My mom exclaimed over what a nice man my father is, and he continued, “Hell, seven dollars is buying you more service than any other money we’ve ever spent. Everybody on the floor’s coming by to get some of that candy. They can’t just walk in and ask for it. They’ve got to ask whether you need something.”

Then I realized what I was seeing, and why it looked familiar. You can be nice to people, and you can be a calculating son of a bitch, all at the same time. I’ve done it myself a thousand times. I must get it from my father.

My mom and my father, and their pets. Moments later the photographer gave us this photo for free when my father offered to fix his light meter.