I HAVEN’T SAID goodbye yet, but I am waving goodbye in my heart. My mother wouldn't take my call tonight at the nursing home. "She's all tucked into bed and she told me to take a message," the nursing home attendant told me over the phone.

"Did you tell her it was her daughter?" I said, hoping for something different.

"Yes, I did."

"Oh, ok."

I don't think I even said goodbye. I just hung up. The tears started building. My chest got tight and I began to whimper. It was the last call of the night for me on my 37th birthday. Truth be told, brain tumors or not, dementia or not, past fights and problems, I needed my mom to get in that wheelchair and come down that nursing home hall and wish me happy birthday.

But I didn't get that. Instead, I have this pit in my stomach and this wall on my heart. Like a shield, tin in its exterior coat, hardly a shield at all.

Earlier in the afternoon I called her and finally reached someone. I had left two messages before that. She never called. The thing is she can't call me. She doesn't have a phone set up yet. So I left messages with nursing home workers for Harriet Donaldson to call me. I left my number. I left my heart.

When I finally reached her, she was on her way to the shower. I hoped she would want to talk for awhile. Like we did the other night. We had such a nice chat. No fighting. No tension. No insults. But she whisked me off the phone with, "Can you call me back in an hour? I am on my way to shower."

Prior to that our conversation started like this:

"Hi Mom."


I don't think she knew it was me—Margo.

"How are you?"

"Good." Then I paused,

"What's wrong?"


"What's new? Is he walking yet?"

"Not yet. He's still crawling around everywhere."

Another long pause.

Another long pause.


More nothing.

Do I really have to tell her. I'll give her a hint.

"Why are you calling if you have nothing to say?"

"I'm calling to remind you of something."

Still nothing.

A long pause.

A longer pause.

The longest pause.

"Mom, it's my birthday."

"I don't even know what day it is. I'm so sorry. I'm all mixed up in here. Happy birthday. Happy birthday dear Margo, happy birthday to you. Can you call me in awhile? I am on my way to the shower."

"It's five o'clock here. We are going to dinner soon. I don't think I can call you in an hour."

"OK. I love you."

"I love you Mom."

I heard her say something as the phone clicked off. I just wanted to get off the phone. I felt so rejected. So sad. I went to my facebook page and wrote a heavy status update I never posted. It read something like, "I had to call my mom at her nursing home and remind her it was my birthday. This makes me sad."

I wanted to post it. I wanted some sympathy, inter-twined among the happy birthdays and joyful greetings. I just wanted my mom. Just my mom on my birthday. To hear her voice. To hear her life. To feel her presence, even if it was over the phone. I picked up my feelings and stuffed them in my shirt, all ten gallons of them. Heavy, they hurt. I walked the wood floors, back and forth, back and forth. Back and forth. The feeling still beat fuller. Fuller. Fuller. Each breath gave it more life.

I was stuck between tears and tantrums. I wanted to scream. I wanted to kick. I wanted to cry. I felt like a hybrid of 16 Candles and a Lifetime movie about aging parents with dementia. But she doesn't have dementia. She has brain tumors.

I packed up my son in my front carrier, all twenty pounds of him. Top heavy and cold, we went outside with a bag of soil and two six packs of pansies. I dug into the dirt, deeper with each layer, each thought. Dark black under my nails. Dark black under my heart. We patted the earth; we planted the flowers. Still my tin shield did not protect. I felt the ting of each pelt of emotion.

I felt sad.

I took photos of the dogwoods as the late afternoon light reflected on the whites of the petals. Panning out and zooming in, showing each cluster closer.

Inside the flower, was the green bulbs of the center. This truth right there. For only me to see.

Then my husband drove in the driveway and was outside on the porch with a bouquet of tulips. My tin shield went down.

MEGAN MILLER-OTERI grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and then moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming when she was fifteen (what were her parents thinking, she thought).  Although it took her time to adjust to the altitude and the wide open spaces, she soon fell in love and Wyoming has drawn her back ever since. She divides her time between her Victorian Wilson home built in 1880 and a 2,000 acre ranch in Wyoming, where wild hearts and horses roam free (not really about the ranch, but if she wins the lottery or writes a best seller).  She has a BA in Elementary and Special Education from Providence College.  She is going to graduate with an MA in Creative Writing from ECU in the fall of 2011. Her blog can be found at Memomuse.com. About “Tin Shield,” she says “This is a piece I wrote in a series about my mother's transition to a nursing home and the struggles a family faces in the midst of the family matriarch declining in health.  It's not easy, folks, to see your parents get sick, old, or worse, die.”

copyright © 2011 by Megan Miller-Oteri  / all rights reserved