There has been an ongoing conversation for years regarding aging, healthcare, and the end of life. Films like The Savages explore those topics with a mix of humor and sadness. “The Ice Worm” by Lore Segal is another voice added to the conversation, but it steers away from humor and centers on the surreality of loss amidst bureaucracy.
The story is in third person limited, and follows the perspective of Maggie, Ilka’s daughter. The beginning gives the us a few facts right away: Ilka is in poor health, she is staying with her daughter, her daughter has a family, and they read the bible together. It’s an opening that doesn’t jolt the reader, but provides a snapshot of the intergenerational relationships, the quiet happiness of being together, and what’s at risk of being lost. Moreover, the passage Ilka reads from the Bible is about King David aging and being taken care of by Abishag. While the overtness could be off putting, Segal creates tension between Ilka and Maggie as the two argue about militarism and feminism. It’s a deft touch that keeps the theme of aging from being broadcast in loud tones. Instead, Maggie is upset that Ilka is talking about war and death in front of Maggie’s son, and then Maggie is further upset at Ilka’s explanation that “maybe Abishag was one of those people who stay and take care of people, like your mommy, because she is good, which is a great mystery to the rest of us.”
The next major scenes develop the idea of how bureaucracy intrudes on our lives. Maggie and Ilka are stuck in a system like something from the film Brazil. The person Maggie needs to talk to regarding her mother’s care is never in the office. When she does contact Maggie, it’s always at a time when Maggie is unavailable. This back and forth continues until Ilka is re-admitted to the hospital. Maggie is told to go home for the night, but when she comes back in the morning there is no record of her mother.
What follows is a surreal scramble as Maggie becomes frantic. For the most part, the hospital staff are described as overworked, over-burdened, and looking to minimize their own stress. Maggie is stress personified. Segal does a great job creating a tense atmosphere and plays on the maze-like nature of hospital complexes.
As the story concludes, the reader realizes that while Maggie has lost Ilka momentarily, Ilka has lost Maggie perhaps permanently. Dementia has infiltrated Ilka’s mind in a greater degree. Adjust and readjust is all Maggie is able to do. Amidst all of the hard choices we are faced at the end of life, we have to face them somehow. Maggie is coming to terms with this as she watches her mother. It’s as if the camera pulls back and we see Maggie, her mother, the other patients, and then it pulls further away, and we see her husband at the nurses station asking if it’s okay for the kids to see their grandmother.
Segal takes a topic that we will all experience and delves into the fear and unknown. No one prepares Maggie for what will happen to Ilka and no one will prepare any of us. We can read articles, listen to friends, but it’s the unknown which we will face, because at that time it will be our story, our family, our experience. Even though it may mirror the experiences of others, as Maggie is able to take in through seeing the patients around her mother, it will be unique to the individuals involved.