Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tip No. Seven: Acceptance

Accept that this is really happening. Whatever "it" is. And whatever your opinion of "it" is. Meaning, whether you're saddened or frightened by what is happening to your loved one, or whether you are saddened, frightened, frustrated or downright angry at what is happening to you as a result, accept that it is really happening. If you are a Type A personality, acceptance of a stressful situation may not be a problem. You may be used to quickly assessing a situation and making concise, confident decisions what to do about it. But, for others of us, denial is an art form. But, acceptance is a building block to most of my other tips. Think of it like taking that deep breath before leaping off the high dive. Getting set, steeling yourself, and then taking the plunge head first. Some of us just don't want to take that final step off the board. Problem is, you're up there, so you have to get down somehow. People are waiting on the steps behind you, getting really aggravated that you're hesitating. You've got one practical way down. Might as well accept it.

Of course, the difference between a high dive and dealing with an ill relative is the timing of it. A high dive lasts seconds. I, for instance, have no idea how long Mother will live like she is now, but assume that we are hunkering down for a few years. So, I have to worry about money for long term care, trying to juggle work (assuming of course there will be work in my future), family, and Mother's care and finances for an indeterminate length of time. The sooner I accept the fact that this is just the way it is, the sooner I can absorb it all and try and find a way to make it all fit and still have a little quality of life mixed in there.

For me, accepting the reality of an unpleasant situation has always been a problem. Just the other day, I illustrated that to myself when I realized I had, in a sleep deprived stupor, set a glass of cold water where it could sweat onto my nightstand. The solid wood nightstand that my father had made three quarters of a century before. The nightstand I have had and kept in good repair since I was little. When I picked up the glass the next day and realized it had seeped water onto the wood all night long, I stood there staring at the damage for a full ten seconds or longer, blinking a few times as though that would make it go away. Finally I realized that standing there like a blinking statue wasn't going to make it go away. So, I spurred myself to act. I do this a lot. Sort of stare vapidly for a while waiting for something or someone to come along and make things better, or maybe waiting for time to reverse itself so I can undo what has just happened.

I blame it on reading too much fantasy as a child. I seem to always be waiting for Aslan to breathe on Mr. Tumnus and bring him back to life. But, in real life, it doesn't work that way. Aslan expects us to make our own miracles. And, sometimes, in the land outside the wardrobe, hesitating to act quickly can be dangerous for our loved ones. Of course, an extreme example of that would be if someone is suspected of being in cardiac arrest or a stroke. Seconds count. But, even in the case of my mom, it was superficially easier for me to let her try and hide the damage growing from the broken toe. If I am being brutally honest with myself, I just didn't want to know. Given her brother's history, the second she told me she thought she'd broken a toe, I should have pushed it much harder. Maybe I could have forced the issue and gotten her to a doctor sooner. But, I let her cover up the toe and the legs until she just couldn't any more. Ironically, had I made a fuss earlier, who knows, maybe she'd still be living on her own and both our lives would be very different. But, that's not where we are. So, I need to accept the way things really are so I can move on from here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tip No. Eight: Follow the Golden Rule, but...

...cut yourself some slack when you slip up. I am a big believer in karma. I try to think that the energy I put out will be the energy I get back eventually. In this case, this translates into my trying to be cognizant of the fact that eventually I will be in my mother's shoes, or drooling on them as the case may be. Odds are, I will be old or ill or disabled in some way and need the care of others. So, I want to be respectful of Mother and her co-residents in the same manner I want someone to treat me eventually, and I want to handle Mother's affairs as though they are my own. And, I need to do these things not just because I'm trying to build up some cosmic goodwill, but because it is the right thing to do. But, man oh man, some days it just is harder than others. I have to learn to forgive myself for those little evil thoughts and resentments that creep in because, honestly, it's just hard to have this added to an already full plate, and we're all only human.

Now, do not misunderstand me. It is not okay to abuse an elderly charge. That is not an excusable situation. But, for those days when you say, as I did just last Saturday, "You know, I'd rather have my face shot off than go deal with Mother today." cut yourself some slack. And, I did say exactly that too. At the moment, if the two alternatives had been put in front of me as a real choice, I seriously would have hesitated passing up the excuse not to go over and see her that day. She had been irritated at me for days, primarily because I left the dog home for a couple of days in a row so I could piggy back errands to the daily visit and that made her mad, and she was also aggravated that she hadn't gotten any mail lately. The fact of the matter is that once I glean out the two to three Danbury Mint solicitations she gets daily and the bills I now have to pay on her behalf, she just doesn't get a lot of mail. But, that's a connection to the outside world for her, so she gets upset without it and suspicious that I am withholding information from her. I am, of course - there is no way I am letting her near a Danbury Mint order form. They are just going to have to figure out a way to turn a profit without her. But, add that tension to the long term friction we have had for years, it can be less than fun to do what I know is the right thing. That doesn't excuse me from doing it, but I do think I can be forgiven the occasional bad vibe.

Bottom line for more than a few of us, our relationship with our parents isn't the picture perfect loving relationship. As I have mentioned before, Mother is complicated. I am not easy. Together, we can be explosive. Mother was always sort of an enigma, and one had to walk a fine line so as not to offend her. She wanted a certain level of attention to be paid her, but not too much because she was very, very proud of her independence. The older she got, the harder it was to reach the right balance. I was always afraid I would fall out of line too far to recover, and a couple of years ago I did. I will save the details for a post of their own, but that flash point temper of hers, almost like the Eye of Sauron, fixed itself on me and would not look away. It was withering too. She is my mother, so it's not like we could divorce one another, but it was a very trying time. And, if she didn't know on some level that she would eventually need me, she would have completely cut me out of her life, of that I have no doubt. This was the atmosphere in place when the accident happened. But, that didn't relinquish the level of responsibility and commitment I feel I need to put into caring for her during her hospitalization and her current situation. Because, for all her faults, she did the best she could to raise me. She really did, and, for all the emotional baggage she left me with, I know that is true. So, I owe it to her now to do the same. I just will have those days, you know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tip No. Nine: Find a Support System

What, you say? Isn't that what family is for, and you just told us to be artificially close to our siblings? This is different. This is part of the kit that you need for yourself - that and a compliment of movies where stuff goes boom. After a really frustrating day with loved ones, there's nothing like a good explosion. But, seriously, because for the most part I am being serious, what I mean is a series of connections who help you get through the chaos. I have one piece in place personally, which is I have friends who have been there for me.

It will be inevitable that, even if you are lucky enough to have family support and help with your parent(s), there will be a time you really want to smash their face in. I have seen it play out plenty of times before. For one thing, the situation is stressful. And then birth order will kick in. There is almost always a sibling, that by temperament or geography takes on the primary caregiver role. Then the others fall into various other parts in the play; maybe the passive, "I want to live my life for me" role, or the "when can I get the house" greedy role. But, whatever role you play, there will inevitably be conflict. And, trust me on this one, if you are still married at this point, taking care of an ill parent will strain the marriage. My husband and I have gone through hell and back in our marriage. We have participated in countless hours of therapy to pull us back together, but from the time of the accident until I was laid off we hit another low point. Initially very supportive, eventually he began pulling away. The reasons are complicated and probably could be a post all in and of themselves, but suffice it to say for now, we hit another low point in our marriage, and that left me even more all alone. Ironically, once the strain of juggling the job with everything else fell away, I must have relaxed in some way, and he came back around. But, I digress. The point to all of this is, you will need your own, your very own, group of people to bitch to. People who know and support you, who are there to listen to you, and can share their issues back at you so you can be reminded that you and your family are not the center of the universe, because that is a dangerous perception to fall into.

I'm lucky. I have great friends. Some of them I haven't seen face to face in years, but give me cyber-love. Others draw me out of the house from time-to-time. Some listen to what I have to say with an uncritical ear, others call me out on my b.s. They are all patient with me, because I get easily distracted with my own drama. I know lots of people who have a larger number of friends and acquaintances, but I'll pit the quality of my friends against anybody any day. But, for others, maybe a pastor or church support group would be helpful. You are less likely to be able to be a mean-spirited gossip that way, but maybe that's a good thing.

What I don't have per-se is a support group of individuals who have or are going through the same experience as me and can talk me through the pitfalls, give me practical guidance and resources, and let me know what I can expect going forward. Of course, some of my friends have elderly parents of their own, and we informally share our experiences with one another. But, if my friend Diane's mother lives in Dallas, we can't reciprocally help one another with doctors or social services, etc. So, Internet chats or blogs can probably take you just so far. I don't have that kind of support in place. And now that Mother is settled, it's not such a big deal, but earlier on I would have appreciated it. Major decisions had to be made at what seemed like lightning speed, and I had no real clue as to what I was doing. And, even now it would be nice to get some practical advice on the best way to navigate the waters of a parent who still wants to behave like they're the parent and I'm the child, but in fact needs the level of care of a toddler. Doing a Google search on senior care support, I can find lots of resources on finding facilities, etc. Searching Senior Support Groups in Austin, TX didn't really come up with anything much. I think it's harder to find, but if you can find one, I would recommend checking it out.

The main thing about all of this is not to do it alone. Surround yourself with support or you will not remain strong enough long enough to see your task through.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Things I've Learned From Elder Care

I hope that somewhere along the way I picked up some knowledge that will help others who follow me. I would like to share some of these tidbits with you over the next few days, beginning with Tip No. Ten: Love Thy Brother!

No matter what your relationship with your sibling(s) is, if you have any, get down on your knees and say a prayer of thanks to your higher power that you do. And then go and nurture that relationship with your sibling because they are going to be the ones who help you get through taking care of your elderly parents. Not your spouse, not your kids (probably), not even your best friend. You'll need that best friend for emotional support, but he or she cannot and should not be counted to be there to help change diapers or spoon feed your relative. And, when those really hard decisions have to be made, those life or death moments, it will be family that can help make them. For my part, I knew since I was 11 that I would face all of this on my own, and I have dreaded this time ever since. Not the actual physical handling of Mother and her affairs, although for reasons that I will enumerate later that has been a challenge, but rather the weight of the singular responsibility that falls to me with no one to share it with.

When I was 11 my grandfather fell down the stairs while staying at my Aunt Eleanor's house in Madison, Wisconsin, and Dad got an urgent call to come as soon as possible. Now my grandfather had a thing for falling down stairs; I remember him taking a nasty tumble down our basement stairs before, and Aunt Eleanor's stairs were carpeted and much less lethal, but this time was different for some reason, and it was pretty clear this was likely to be a final vigil. I was yanked out of school, and we made a hurried trek from Bozeman to Madison to join Eleanor and Dad's other sister, Gladys, and their families at Grandfather's bedside. For the next two weeks, a throng of family members hovered around the hospital while my grandfather languished in a coma. I amused myself by making friends with an elderly woman who was in the hospital recuperating from something or other and hanging out with her all day or sitting in the waiting room reading. But, I was watching too. Watching how the family supported one another emotionally, helped one another making decisions and arrangements, spelling one another so they could get some rest or something to eat. I knew right then that my parents would someday end up in a bed like that, and there would be no throng of people around to help me. I would be totally on my own. I was already pretty unhappy about my only child status for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was I wasn't strong enough to punch kids in the face for calling me a spoiled only child, but it hit hyperdrive on that trip. Add to it the side trip we took back to Pennsylvania to see my Aunt Sally, who was suffering from breast cancer at the time. Mom's other two sisters came up while we were there along with some of my older cousins, and I remember one night in particular where the sisters sat around the kitchen table dissing on their mother. They told several amusing stories at Grandmother's expense about growing up, almost all of which I have long since forgotten. What I remember was the easy camaraderie they shared. I think they were trying to distract Sally actually. She was at a point where most foods made her sick, but they had that shared life experience to use as a tool. And then, when first my grandfather and then my aunt finally passed away, there was a ready-made support system to help grieve.

Of course, there is also the ugly side of family. When grandfather's will was read, Dad, the only surviving son, was awarded Grandfather's railroad watch and a gold ring. He also got the portrait of his mother that I have mentioned before. Eleanor wanted the portrait apparently, but Gladys had her sights set on the watch as the eldest. The fight that ensued between Gladys and my dad was bitter. I am not entirely sure, but she may have sued Dad over it. She certainly threatened to. They never spoke a civil word again. Neither Mother nor I heard from Gladys or any of her family when Dad died, but Mother became convinced that Eleanor switched the watch out from the bell jar where it resided on our mantle when she came for the memorial service. Maybe she did, probably she didn't (and who really cares if she did), but the very fact Mother worried about it indicated that wounds opened up 22 years before had not healed. Then there is the famous feud Mother and her sister Merle began shortly after Dad died, but that's another story all in and of itself.

But, none of that nasty family melodrama dissuaded me from my firmly held belief that being an only child totally sucks. So, tell your brother or sister that you love them, even if you don't, and do it right now!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mom, the Final Act

If you wonder why I could not place Mother in assisted living or somewhere less institutional than a nursing home, let me describe her condition to you. She can no longer walk or support herself to any extent. So, she could not help herself to the toilet or shower. As a matter of fact, she cannot really take care of her own toiletry needs, and has someone help her shower (as do most of the residents there). She wears an adult diaper at all times; she is completely incontinent. Her stubbornness causes all of us - myself and the staff - issues here. She will not call them when she soils herself, so she'll sit and "stew" in her waste until they make rounds to check on her. They do this fairly often, because they know this about her and know that it will cause infections. The nurses have kindly fussed at her about it, but as far as I can tell, she hasn't changed. Diapers for adults are prone to the same problems diapers for babies are, only much, much bigger. Enough liquid in them and they will leak. Her clothing, which I bring home to wash, reeks of urine and waste. I brought her laundry home last night to do, and it was so noxious, we had to leave it outside in the garage. When I carried the dark load in, I had to change clothes immediately after. So, wearing latex gloves and an apron, I put the lights in to soak in the mop bucket and left it outside over night. The deer who hang around any time I am outside literally jumped back when I lifted the load out of the car. At this time of year, they are not shy around me, so we think they were reacting to the strong ammonia smell. I have learned how to treat smelly laundry by experimentation. Currently, I have the best success with a combination of baking soda (a lot of it), Oxy Clean and detergent. I soak each load for several hours before I actually wash it. I spray her laundry bin with Febreeze and will often spray the inside of the dryer with it as well. Add the scent of the fabric softener, and that generally makes it bearable. They change her often during the day, so I have to do her wash every few days. Since we are on a septic system, I am less than happy about this, but even if I get her clothing inventory to the level where she could go without me washing for a week or more, the smell would overwhelm the little bathroom in her room. It already does.

The worry when I met with her care team to decide where to house her was really whether she would know when or what to eat or take her medication. Assisted living of course provides nurses to help with medications and standard meal times, but other than that, you are on your own during the day, so she would likely wander off or nod off and skip meals. Here they bring all of that to her.

Then there is her mental capacity. The last really cogent conversation I had with her was in the emergency room the second time she checked into the hospital. I think she was expending great effort to be clear and communicate with me because she was scared she was about to die. Given her condition at the time, it was not an unreasonable fear. But, even then, she wandered off down memory lane, and the conversation turned to her brother Jack, who had died of a heart attack when I was only six (so a long, long time ago). Since then she has days that are better than others, but that's all relative. Add that to the fact that she is notoriously hard of hearing, having a conversation with her is nigh on painful. I visit her every day, but confess that some days I have to grit my teeth to do it. Because she doesn't leave her room often (she is a little freaked out by her co-residents' conditions), doesn't really read anymore or watch the news channels (which is my doing, I'll explain why later), there just is not that much to talk about. And, if I do try to have a conversation with her, I have to yell it. I bring one of my dogs with me most days. Mother loves my husky mix Cheyenne, as do many of the residents. Cheyenne is pretty sensitive to my moods. If I am upset, she will be very quick to comfort me or try and distract me. When I have to raise my voice to speak to Mother, Cheyenne always interprets this as a confrontation. She will paw at me almost to say, "Calm down, calm down. I'm here for you." I have scratches on my arm from where she's tried to intercede when I talk to Mom. One recent conversation I actually was amused by and repeated often right after it happened went like this:

Mom (in discussing the American Idol performances from the night before): Who is that woman who likes all the boys so much?

Me: That's Paula Abdul. She's a pop star from the 80's.

Mom: She doesn't look 80.

Me: No, she's my age. She was a big pop star in the 80's.

Mom: You're not 80.

Me (louder): The 1980's.

Mom: Well, she doesn't look like she's 80.

Me: Sigh.

There are days when she can connect most of the dots, and it really is her hearing that is the biggest problem. She refuses to wear hearing aids, by the way. Other days, she just doesn't seem to be in there any where. I worry that the potent cocktail of medications she is on has something to do with that, and it probably does, but what is the right answer there? You take her off any of those medications, and then the physical ailments worsen. The senior Catch-22.

So, I generally go up there so she can see the dog, check on her and sit around and watch television with her until I can make a gracious excuse for leaving. I always feel a little guilty for fleeing just as soon as I can, but until I can come up with some activity that we can do together, sometimes it's just agony being up there under those circumstances.

By the way, I generally leave her television on the USA network. They have a pretty good line up of interesting syndicated shows that she finds acceptable, but steers her clear of current events. I try, as much as possible, to minimize her contact with news concerning the current administration. While I supported the Obama campaign and am a full fledged member of Texans for Obama, Mother disagrees with that viewpoint. She goes into a nearly Apocalyptic rage when she sees him, and my President is all over the television every day. So, we just avoid the news for the most part. But, that doesn't really help in the brain stimulus department, so I probably contribute to her decline to keep the peace. So sue me.

So, there is my Mother in a nutshell. The final act in a long life. She lead an interesting one, actually. She wasn't particularly well traveled, which was more my father's doing than her own, but she came through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate. She worked as a nurse and did a stint in a defense materials plant during the war. She was a military wife for 22 years, including during WWII and the Korean conflict, then while Dad was a test pilot during the mid-50's. Then she raised me, for better or worse. She is a proud and strong woman. But, her body and now her mind are not in league any longer with that spirit. Her spirit wants to be living on its own somewhere, but we have to attend to the body, and a nursing facility was the only practical place to do that.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Senior Life

For those of you who wonder what happened to my mother as I diverted off to several sidebars, she is currently living in an nursing home facility that is walking distance (it would be a long walk, but...) from my house. After two operations to open the veins in the left leg, the circulation was restored enough that amputation is no longer an imminent threat. The horror show on her legs has receded to just her entire left foot and her right heel. In speaking with her wound care specialist, who is a gem of a girl who cleans and wraps that nastiness every day with no complaint, the sores on the feet come and go. She will look better one day, and then they will return to their previous state the next. This is in keeping with what hospital personnel told me to expect. Anything - a casual bump, or her general health - can impact their status. And, while her circulation is better, it's not particularly good. This is typical of generic diabetes, as Mother knows since she lost a brother to it some years ago during an operation to amputate his second foot. But, I have to say, in a way, it's a good thing because it keeps her from fighting where she is. Because she does not want to resign herself to living in a nursing home, but the reality of her situation is that she is not mentally or physically able to live anywhere else without constant care. So, her attending physician counseled me to tell her that she is just there until she is well enough to live on her own again. It is not a lie. If that day does come, I will move her. But, we all know that day will likely never come. Mother is blissfully unaware of that fact, even though I decorated her room pretty elaborately. She will occasionally mention "getting out of here", and I just smile in response. I am not sure how many of her fellow residents labor under the same delusion, but probably a fair number. Of those who don't, there is a high percentage that just don't live in the same reality with the rest of us any longer. They have no idea where they are or what is happening to them, so their living situation is completely irrelevant to anyone but their family.

Mother is in a good facility. But, I have to confess that I got lucky in that regard. She first checked in as a rehabilitation patient, and we chose it because it was close, but also because it had an opening - and I do believe it was a single opening at the time. Another facility fairly close by was totally full. My cousin, a retired nurse, checked it out online and told me it was highly rated when I was trying to make the decision where to place her permanently. Additionally, it is less expensive than the natural average, which is $188/day. If you do the math, that is not chump change. And, that doesn't include her medications, which are provided through a third party, or her three (count 'em) jammed storage units to house all her stuff. I always knew her hoarding would have a price to it, and now I see that in action. But, when I priced out what arranging for full time care in her own little apartment would be, it was much higher. So, this is better care at a lower price. So, despite spending all our lives with Mother telling me she never wanted to live in a nursing home, and me insisting I would honor that, here is where we find ourselves. Mother's doctor has run into people like us before, and she was relieved that I saw the light on my own because she knows that reality can be a far sight different than the ideal. Bottom line: we never want to accept that our minds and bodies will break down to the extent that they sometimes do.

While I truly believe the staff takes great care of Mother, make no mistake, this is not the facility Benjamin Button grew up in. I mean, who wouldn't want to live out their days there? A charming old house, full of quirky, engaging residents whose families come and visit in a picnic-like atmosphere every Sunday. The reality is much different, mainly because the residents are much different. I was a little shocked at first by what I found the average nursing home resident to be like, which is not much more animated than - well, I hesitate to say it, but it fits - a corpse. Some of them don't speak at all, others only ramble incoherently. Almost every one is wheel chair bound. Of the few who do seem fairly alert, you find yourself wondering what they're doing there. And I think that's the reason Mother's neighbors are generally like they are. People are living longer and living independently or in assisted living centers longer. So, by the time they wind up in a home, they have outlived their bodies and their minds are betraying them. You realize as you walk past them, some of them literally falling asleep in the hallway as they nodded off from whatever short distance Point A to Point B was, that these are the people who fought to keep the world safe or perhaps invented new technologies that my generation built upon so I can have my iPod or this computer, or at the least took care of us when we were young. Now, they drool and wear diapers and dignity is a thing we afford them, but their own situations do not.

How does Mother fit into that dynamic? Stay tuned, and I'll tell you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What do roses smell like?

I realized with a start the other day when I was speaking to a small group that I have a tendency to hang my happiness on outside events, not on any sense of inner peace. For the first time that hit me as a bad thing. That behavior has been ingrained in me for a long time, and was a pretty time honored tradition to get me through tough times. The fact that it has largely worked may prompt some to say, "Why mess with a good thing?" But, the startling realization was that I was reliant on things totally outside my control to get me through, and I need to take better control of my own sense of well being. What do I mean by all this? Allow me to illustrate:

As you have likely guessed, I am a Steeler fan. I have not missed watching a game in I don't know how long, but it was before this century, that I can say for sure. This past fall, I had to do some pretty amazing things to keep that streak alive, including watching the second Bengal-Steeler match up on my phone. But, I completely live and breathe Black and Gold. As the team goes, so go I. Obviously, they gave me a good fall and winter this past year. But, it's a long off season. So, I fill up some of the void with American Idol, as you have likely also guessed. I transfer that Steeler Nation fervor to the ultimate American guilty pleasure. I choose a contestant and hook my star to his or her success or failure. I'm pretty good at it; generally speaking, my favorites do well. But, when they don't, I sulk. This year, Adam Lambert was totally my man. So, yesterday everyone had to walk on egg shells around me, and I caught myself saying somewhat tacky things about Kris Allen that I didn't particularly mean - he seems nice enough. But, I will move on, now pinning my hopes on the Penguins in the NHL playoffs and the summer movie season. By the time the last of the blockbusters roll out, it should be close to training camp, then pre-season, and then finally, finally, life can begin anew. This is the cycle I have followed for a long time. But, what happens when there is a crack in my carefully constructed system? For instance, the year after Super Bowl XL when Big Ben was in the motorcycle accident during the off-season, and The Bus let it slip early in the season that Coach Cowher would likely retire? The team didn't even make it to the playoffs that year. I was miserable. Rush, my favorite rock group, eased the pain that year with Snakes and Arrows. But, bless them, they can't ride to my rescue every year, and the Steelers can't make it to the Super Bowl every year (well, maybe...), and there isn't always going to be a David Cook or an Adam Lambert to capture my attention. When left to my own devices, the pressures of the family dynamic I find myself in threaten to overcome me. I tend to become overwhelmed and often rather maudlin.

So, when I made some simple statement the other day that alluded to the Steelers and Super Bowl XIII as my outlet, it suddenly came crashing in on me; any happiness I glean from life is totally outside my control. Inner joy? I totally don't know what that is. Sense of self? Who am I without the Rooneys, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and all the rest of the roster? They make me proud, I realized, not anything that I do myself. If I can tell you anything with absolute certainty, it is that this is not a healthy way to go through life. But, I don't think it's as easy to change as it might seem. For my part, I'll work on changing that after I see how the Penguins fare in the Eastern Conference finals...I'll keep you posted on how it goes.


Now, this is what true happiness looks like to me!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

David Cook's Mom

2008 American Music Awards - Red Carpet

David Cook's mother has been on my mind a lot lately. I had missed the news that his brother Adam had died until I saw his performance on American Idol tonight. That was a rough way for me to find out. Nothing in comparison to how it must have been for him to get up there and keep it together under the circumstances. But, I must have felt it somehow - some ripple in the space/time continium or some such nonsense, because I have been thinking about his mother for a few weeks and considered mentioning her in this blog several times. For one thing, she gave us David Cook, whom I have a very cougar-esque interest in. More than that, I always admired how she conducted herself during the competition last year. There she sat, proud as punch, week after week, while her son competed, never knowing whether she would be congratulating him or consoling him on Wednesday night, all the while juggling the stress of his performances with the stress of another child dealing with a devastating terminal illness. Always with a smile on her face. One of my staff, Sheila Brosie, got a chance to attend a performance last year and ran into her and her husband in the terminal. They chatted with one another and Sheila mentioned why she was there. They asked her who her favorite was and she told them David Archueluta. Only then did it come out who they were, and they handled her favoring another competitor with grace and humor. But I think I really came to admire her earlier this year when the cameras showed her in the audience when her son performed his new single on the show. I knew things weren't going well at that point for Adam, but there she was singing along, just adoring her little boy and enjoying that moment. She was the picture of grace under pressure, and my heart just bleeds for her now. Nothing, in all my eight plus years of struggling with kids in crisis and hard times with an aging parent, compares to what she has endured. I highly doubt there is any sadness in life compared to losing a child, no matter how old that child is. I would not have been so gracious, calm and pulled together in her shoes. May David and his family find peace in knowing that the suffering is at an end for Adam Cook. I will try and absorb the lesson I have learned from their amazing mother.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Clans

I am back from a trip to hot, humid Houston, Texas where I helped my friend Francine run her booth at the Highland Games and Celtic Festival. I was not sure what to expect, but she promised me there would be animal rescue groups there, so I threw my hat in the ring. What I found was more evidence that family connections are important to a lot of us, and the weird disconnect I feel since learning of my adoption would be the same for many of us. Of course, a unique group of people attend this thing, so they may not be indicative of the majority, I grant you that. For one thing, these Americans of Scottish descent are fierce about their heritage. And I do mean fierce. I listened to two days of stories about their ancestors, watched people point on a map where their family was from and where that family's castle is. Those who had been to see the old lands were quick to point it out, their chests puffing out in pride. Francine, whose business caters in clan specific prints, has a lot of research and reference books at the show with her, but more than once over the weekend, clan members tried to school her on their specific family, countering what her research showed. This is a little frustrating for her, because debating one's heritage doesn't pay the bills, but for those who spurred the debates, it was clear that it was important for them to show the depth of their knowledge about their ancestry. Almost like a validation that they are real and actual members of their respective clans.

I played a middle ground, using what little I knew about myself to lure people into conversing with me. I showed one man the tiny little island of Gigha where Francine told me the McGuigan's sprung from, and he was nearly giddy that I knew about it. At another point in the weekend, Francine pointed out that my mother was Clan Davidson. So, where do I really belong? Do I belong any where? Which clan would recognize me as a legitimate member, or would both reject me? It was little wonder that I fell so head over heels with a collie puppy there who had been mis-bred and discarded by the breeder when she was born Albino in appearance and totally deaf. We were the misfits there.

I feel much the same way when I attend a pow-wow. I watch the dancers and their families and, despite the horrendous legacy they came from and the less than ideal situations many, if not most, of them still live in, I always envy them. I envy them their camaraderie and sense of belonging. They know who they are and what their history is and choose to celebrate it in a beautiful and dignified way. I love pow-wows, but always have a little bittersweet feeling when I'm there for I can never be more than an outside observer. Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the people I met in Houston. Everyone was relaxed and friendly. And, my sense of loss was not poignant to the point where I fell to hand ringing despair. Rather, it was more a contemplation of my situation tinged with just a hint of sadness, and a general observation that people need to feel rooted to something. They need to know their family history because it allows them to know that they are a link in that chain and, therefore, they will live on. Whoever that McGuigan woman was that gave birth to me all those many years ago failed to take that into account, and I realized over the weekend I have not completely come to terms with that yet. But, I'll get there.

Finally, just a brief note about an important event taking place tonight: GO ADAM LAMBERT!!! You rock.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pink Slip

For months, trying to juggle job, home and Mother had been an issue. If I had to choose one word to describe it, it would be guilt. I felt guilty when I was at work because I felt as though I was neglecting my familial obligations, guilty over the job when I had to leave work for one crisis or another (Mother made so many trips to the emergency room for a while I thought I was going to be on a first name basis with the entire staff), guilty that I would let the small staff left to me down if our bosses in Dallas got wind of what was going on, but guilty that my bosses were paying me for a job I didn't have my head totally wrapped around. A secondary word would be: relieved. I didn't hide what was happening from anyone. I was pretty up front about the situation if only to save me and the staff from any recriminations later if I wasn't. But, I knew my tiny little department wasn't their biggest fish, so we could fly under the radar to a certain extent. I wasn't working just for fun, after all. I did like my job, but I needed the income, so everyday that slid by with me still being gainfully employed was something to be grateful for. But, truthfully, I knew something would have to give eventually. It would have crumbled even without my mother's situation to complicate matters. I headed a small department that was set up originally to gain a marketing edge over our competitors. It had never been profitable, and a lot of brighter people than myself over the last several years had tried unsuccessfully to turn it around. By the time I was plopped into the head of the department, it had been written off by the executives of the company, and they thought I would oversee its death throes and then move on to what they truly wanted me to be doing. But, I saw a value in it and wanted to try and revive it. I had butted heads a few times trying to breathe new life into a patient everyone else wanted to die, but for the most part they left us alone as long as we were quiet and didn't call too much attention to ourselves. Once the economy collapsed, it was inevitable that would change. However, what my boss wanted was for me to take the tattered remnants of my department and fold it into new responsibilities, but I couldn't take on more at work when I was the only one looking after Mother's affairs. The security and potential for more money was tempting, but there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a house of cards. I would not be able to dedicate the time I needed to the job they envisioned for me, and I saw what was happening in the area they wanted to slide me: it was going to take a lot, whole lot, of hard work, to set right. I would end up neglecting one obligation or the other, family v. job, maybe both. So, I held firm. One thing about Corporate America that is an absolute - turn down a promotion and you have effectively committed professional suicide. Knowing I was under a death sentence didn't lessen the impact when it finally happened.

There were signs it was coming. Suddenly nothing I did was right. I had been read the Riot Act so many times in the last few weeks, I jumped every time the phone rang. I answered directly to the CEO of the company. Like a lot of CEO's, intellectually he can wipe the floor with the rest of us and has to make decisions that are for the company's well-being sometimes at the expense of the individual staff, so some people admire him, some are envious, and everyone is slightly on edge around him. But I liked him well enough. I was aware of all the balls he had to juggle and felt that he was trying to do what he had to without a lot of hubris on his part. He does know he is smarter than everyone else, I think that is true, but he works hard, keeps his office and his personal affect modest and has flashes of concern for how his decisions impact his staff. So, I wasn't happy when he and I began constantly conflicting. And, I have to say, when he fussed at me, he did it with a lot of empathy and compassion. Truly, he acted like a gentleman and took no discernible pleasure in what he knew he had to do. But, when he called on a particular Friday in mid-March, he was set on carrying it out. And, for all the signs that the End of Days was coming, I still was shocked and reacted accordingly when he told me.

So, I was cut loose. My resume: I am middle aged, under-educated, with enough baggage to fill a stadium. In this economy, I wouldn't hire me either. Now the decision would be what to do about that.

Readers: what would you do in my place? Ponder that over the next few days while I am out of town. We can discuss on Monday.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shock Waves

So, still reeling from the information I had tripped upon, I made my way downstairs to the main lobby of the apartment complex. Mother lived in Building One where the dining room and most of the social rooms are located. I noticed my mother-in-law sitting with a couple of people I did not know having dinner. I stumbled in and silently handed her the letter I had found. She asked me if I was going to tell Mother I knew. When I told her I didn't know, she advised against it. I took that into account as I drove to the hospital.

By the time I got up to Mother's hospital room, I had all but decided not to say anything to her directly, but see if I could coax it out of her. She had been alert and all there the day before in the emergency room, but, probably overwhelmed by her condition and on a lot of medication, that state of mind had really broken down since. Honestly, I thought I could get her to slip and say something. We called her sister in Washington, Pa. to let her know where Mother was and, believe it or not, Mother commended me to her saying, "She's so good with the paperwork, I'm not sure where she gets it. It must be from [her father] because she certainly doesn't get it from me." Wow. Really, Mom? Try: I didn't get it from either of you! But, that told me right out of the gate that this might be a little tougher than I thought. I reasoned there was no way possible that my aunt did not know I was adopted. So, she was either so intent on keeping it from me that she could keep up the act even whacked out all kinds of medications, or it is a fact that she has repressed even from herself. But, a while later, I gave it a shot. I always had spotty visual recollections from Roswell, where I was born. Just fragments really. I can recall things from the base where Dad was stationed: the air control tower, the red stained concrete flooring in the base housing, my waiting in my crib for Dad to pick me up when he came home for lunch. When I was younger, the debate always was whether those were true memories or visuals I had conjured from stories I had heard. Who can say for sure, although the latter is more likely the case, but it was discussed more than once when I was growing up, as though it was proof that I was bright, so I assumed she would remember it and tried to bring it up. I figured that she might pick up a thread of remembering the old days and let something slip. But, she's too good for me. All she offered was a faraway smile and the comment that she used to get so frustrated with Dad because he would forget to take his jacket off before he'd swing me up and she was always afraid his medals would scratch me. I gave it up for the night.

In the ensuing months, I have never confronted her with it. Nor has she betrayed it. I became buried in the stress of taking care of her, her affairs, packing up her apartment, dealing with two kids of my own who were in various stages of crisis, and it became a back burner issue. But, for the first couple of days, I felt as though I was in a constant state of shock, and I looked at everything with slightly different eyes. The eyes of a stranger. What was my true background? Who were my parents? Why did they not want me? How old were they? Did my adoptive parents know my birth parents? And, of course, the two Big Ones: do I perhaps have half siblings out there somewhere and what really is my medical history?

Over time, my curiosity over my birth parents has faded to just wanting my medical history for my two daughters' sakes. They didn't want me, I don't need them. It would be interesting to know my whole and true story, but I can live without knowing. After all, I did for a long time. And, I accept that Ruth and Graham Bleiler are my real parents. My friend's mother, I realize, said nothing to me that was not completely true. Maybe they are more real than most parents. They went to a lot of trouble to get me.

The anger has faded a bit. I still think that, as soon as I announced I was getting married, Mom and Dad should have told me what they knew. If not then, certainly when I was pregnant with Kelsey. And, at the very latest, when Kelsey first began having problems. But, it is what it is. Now it is up to me to try and unseal the records to discover what I can.

I did not go back into the lock box to dig through the rest of the papers until recently. I wasn't sure I could withstand any more shocks. But, I dug up two more papers pertaining to the adoption, which is how I know I was labeled Baby Girl McGuigan. So, the physical resemblance to my Scottish descended mother makes sense at least.

There are still those odd disconnects, that sense of being adrift. I have a portrait of my Father's mother that I love. I never knew her; she died before I was born. Mother has nothing good to say about her, and Dad actually avoided that kind of personality based recollection (he'd gladly tell you about setting fire to the porch, but not really anything intimate), so this was all I really have to know her by. She is dressed for her high school graduation. The dress is very reminiscent of the first long gown Lara wears in Dr. Zhivago. The time period is the same. She stares back at me demurely, the power of her youth radiates off the canvas. Now I look at it and realize I have absolutely no claim to this woman, nor she to me. I have similar pictures of my other grandmother, but at least we knew one another, and I don't feel as though I am being a cheat by displaying them. But, when I look at that beautiful portrait now, I feel lost somehow. I am not sure when that will change.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Baby Girl McGuigan

I look like my mom and dad. I have her weak chin, his bad gums, bad temper and, I am happy to say, his lack of grey hair. I am clearly of northern European descent. They don't come much paler than me unless their name is Edgar Winter, so to envision my ancestors wandering the Scottish Highlands as part of the Davidson clan or goose stepping in rigid Prussian efficiency is no big stretch. So, it was without any suspicion at all that I rooted through Mother's lock box in early November looking for a Power of Attorney document she told me would be there in order for me to be able to handle her affairs while she was in the hospital. There was no such document. What I found instead pretty close to the top was a letter from the Department of Public Welfare for the State of New Mexico informing my parents how to obtain a new birth certificate for me in my adoptive name. Enclosed was the stub from the money order she sent to get a certified copy of the certificate, which I have had with my records for years, and a little adoption announcement. I read the letter, which opened with the statement, "We have received the Orders of Adoption indicating that you have completed legal adoption for the above-named child." It went on to detail what steps had been taken to alter the birth certificate with my adopted name and that any records referencing the birth parents had been sealed.

My shock was palpable. For a minute the world stood stock still while the blood thundered in my head and my vision narrowed to a pin prick. When my senses cleared enough to think, I realized that the world had suddenly shifted in its entirety. For me, everything had just changed. Everything I thought I knew about myself was no longer true. I was not who I thought I was, but worse still, I didn't know who I really was.

I had seen a copy of that announcement before. I recognized it immediately. When I was 11 or 12, I was rummaging through my baby book, which Mother kept in the bottom of my chest of drawers and it had fallen out. This was right at the time when I was starting to realize that my parents were not perfect, and some natural rebellious tendencies were surfacing. I confronted Mother with the little announcement, but she denied it. I didn't let it go. I am not sure how long I kept at it, badgering my parents to fess up until finally the mother of a friend of mine pulled me aside and reasoned with me. Very calmly she explained that it was natural for kids my age to begin to see differences in themselves and their parents, and most go through a period of believing they must come from another family as a result. She pointed out how much I looked like my mother and father and assured me they were my real parents. I don't think anyone ever bothered to explain why the announcement specifically referenced adoption, but I accepted her explanation with some disappointment, and more or less decided the announcement was just meant to be funny, since I was already well aware that they were older when I came along and guessed that most of their friends had long given up on them ever joining the parenting ranks. In the meantime, I did notice that the baby book disappeared.

Over the next three plus decades there were plenty of times I wished I could claim some sort of genetic distance from my parents, but never again doubted that I was really their issue. If I thought about that incident at all, it was to marvel at the hell I dished out to my poor parents over things they had no control over (I hated being an only child from an early age, and bugged them incessantly to give me a brother or sister, as if they could simply go to the corner store and pick one up). Until that day in early November, that is.

That evening, sitting in Mother's empty bedroom, I felt rudderless, so I tried calling my husband I think just to be able to reconnect to something that I knew to be real, but he was in a meeting and could not talk to me. So I called my daughter at her college in North Carolina and told her. That perhaps wasn't fair to lay at her feet, but somehow being able to verbalize it helped to get the world kick started again and make my brain try and begin wrapping around this. In the meantime, I still had to try and find the document I was looking for and get back to the hospital. I didn't have time to let it sink in properly. But, as I tried to get myself moving, I continued to feel as though I was slogging through a fog. Nothing seemed right. Maybe my reaction would baffle some people, but for me, a lonely only child of older parents who had been raised across the country from either parents' respective families, my belief in my lineage gave me the little sense of belonging I had. Even my allegiance to my beloved Steelers was built on a foundation of my western Pennsylvania roots. Now, suddenly, I find that I have no real Pennsylvania roots! (My husband later calmed me down by assuring me no one would question the legitimacy of me belonging to the Steeler Nation. Thank God!)

As I tried to get my head wrapped around all of that, anger sunk in. For the last eight years, my two daughters had struggled with a series of issues, some psychological, some organic, but all requiring each specialist to have a detailed family history. Everything I had told all of those people in order for them to try and help my girls had been a lie, at least as it pertained to my side of the family. I had never told Mother all the gory details of the kids' struggles. I didn't want her to pass judgment on them unfairly, but she knew enough. As a trained nurse, she certainly should have known that keeping this tidbit of information from me was stopping us from having accurate histories.

So, now I had to somehow pull myself back together with all of this new knowledge bouncing around in my head and go back to the hospital. Do I confront her? Ask her about it nicely? Or let it go?

I'll tell you my decision tomorrow...

(This is me the day the adoption became final.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mother's Day

Before I take a break for the weekend in order to geek out on Star Trek, I thought I would acknowledge Mother's Day by reflecting on the mother-daughter dynamic. Not that I have it figured out. I really do not have a clue. Growing up, my relationship with my mother was so complicated and full of ups and downs, I read My Mother/My Self by Nancy Friday to try and help me understand it. I don't remember a word of it, but just the fact that someone wrote a best selling book detailing the difficulties of the relationship between mothers and their daughters is enough to tell you that it's not easy. Pity the poor man who, like my husband, lives in a household with nothing but women. My husband might explain it away by blaming it all on hormones, but of course we all know it is not that simple.
I have such disparate memories of growing up in the Bleiler household. Some are so wonderful. Some are not. And some, I learned when they came flooding back during a parent's workshop at my daughter's boarding school, I repressed altogether because they were just too hurtful. Mother is a very complex person. When you meet people who know her they either completely love her or cannot abide her. She can be warm and generous, but also vindictive and very cruel if she feels she has been crossed. For my part, I got both sides of her. She said some really damaging things to me growing up. But, she simply said what she thought. No one taught my parents or my friends parents what to do or how to behave around us, and as we grew up and naturally tried to stretch our boundaries they reacted to us according to their own upbringing and their own personalities. Mother did not have the best role model to base her parenting skills on. My grandmother was a notorious grump and Mother has often said that, despite having six children, "Ade" as she was called did not like children. Mother loved me, of that there was no doubt. She just didn't like me very much a lot of the time. I was always prone to being emotional. If I liked something, I really, really liked it. If I didn't, I hated it. If I was happy, I was ecstatic. If I was sad, my eyes and my mood were both black. That level of passion is exhausting, and Mother had her owns worries during my teenage years, so I got on her nerves a lot. For my part, well, I was a Drama Queen, so no relationship was easy for me because I was a natural pot stirrer. Maybe that's a reaction to being brought up in a small town with little real drama (we did have a serial killer in our midst in the early 70's), maybe it's just in my DNA, but whichever it is, it didn't make for an easy road with either parent.
Growing up in a household with two people who were not naturally nurturing made me intent on not repeating their mistakes. (Sound familiar?) Maybe I didn't, but I certainly committed fresh ones. And, my kids have struggled a whole lot more than I did to grow up, so if you want to point to which of us did a better job, I would have to say my mom gets the prize. I was also dead certain that I would maintain a better relationship with my children during their teens. In that category, I was not even close. She wins hands down. But, despite all the conflict and tears that all of the people in that picture have shed as a result of the intertwining relationships, none of us has walked away completely from any of the others. The closest is Kelsey and my mother who have very, very limited interaction. I find it interesting that mothers and daughters can rail away at one another, yet remain connected. We are curious creatures.
My relationship with Mother continues to be a roller coaster ride. We have had good times, but some bad times too. I did some things that were very hurtful to her and vice-versa. I could probably read a hundred books and we'd still never get off that ride, but, in the end, the fact that we're still in the car together proves we have a bond that rivals Super Glue. So, happy Mother's Day Mom, for better or for worse, it looks like we're in this thing together.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Happy Anniversary

Mother pointed out to me with some sadness yesterday that today would have marked her anniversary. Graham Bleiler and Ruth Davidson were united in wedlock on May 7, 1942 in a rushed midnight ceremony in the basement of a nightclub in Miami right before he was due to be shipped out during World War II. This was not the wedding they had planned before he got his orders, but I like this story; it is romantic in its way. I have a photo of the wedding party on my bedroom wall. Different people than the ones I came to know a couple of decades later. The impact of war had already touched them, but not nearly to the extent that it would. However, I digress.

What I was more interested in was the reminder. She will need me to make a fuss today. Had she not reminded me, candidly, I would have forgotten it. The same routine would have happened on the anniversary of Dad's death (January 31, 1992), but she was confused about the month during that time, so I got a pass. It will happen on his birthday (September 25, 1914). For her, despite the fact that she doesn't always have kind things to say in Dad's memory, those dates are key in her calendar as days she marks and grieves. For my part, I don't really get that and will tend to forget the significance of them in her mind, which has caused some friction in the past. My dad, for better or worse, is with me always. Not just on those days. I don't keep the memory of him on some mental shelf to take out, dust off, examine and then put back three times a year. Not that Mother does that either, but the fact that she will likely mope around all day just because it is May 7 is just beyond me. I was good about it at first. Dad died months before their 50th wedding anniversary, and I knew that would be a horrible time for her. Still living in Montana at the time, she drove herself down to Texas and stayed for almost a month. Long enough for her to get up the will power to face the empty house again. That year on his birthday I was good and remembered to call and let her do her thing. But, after that I have been spotty. I know that this is her way, and no matter what, I should just go along, but life moves fast for me, and, no excuses, I just forget.

But, I am curious. Is this a generational thing? Or is it really a difference in how two women deal with loss and respect for those they have lost? I would invite readers to comment on loss and grieving and how they have personally coped.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Monday Blues

The Monday after the NFL championship games should have been a great day for me. Not only had my beloved Steelers advanced for a chance to earn an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title the day before, the next day a man I supported unequivocally would be sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States. Instead, I was depressed. Now, granted, I was nervous about the Cardinals. I thought they had some weapons in their arsenal that made them a real threat, and the very fact that they would undoubtedly be a heavy under dog would mean that if the Steelers lost to them it would be hard to live down. But, on the flip side, the very fact that they had beaten the hated Ravens to get a shot at the Lombardi trophy should have given me an adrenaline rush to carry me through at least 24 hours. But, alas, not so.

Instead of thinking about the good things this January brought to me and my fellow residents of the Steeler Nation, I was worried about my family situation, my job and, like a lot of us, money. The fact that I still had a job sort of amazed me. But, on a daily basis I was torn between whether I thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. One thing is for sure, the income was a necessary thing, so I struggled daily with what to do.

About three weeks after Mother's accident, she called my oldest daughter and asked for help. The fact that she called Kelsey, who is not close to my mother, was a prime indicator that she would still rather go to any length to avoid hearing me potentially say, "I told you so." But, Kelsey was in no position to handle anyone needing medical assistance, let alone someone with Mother's limited movement. So, Kelsey called me at work. Turns out, Mother was complaining of pain in her leg. She had mentioned before that she thought she had broken her toe either as a result of the accident or right after, but I knew from having my own broken toe adventures, there's not much one can do with a broken toe and she wasn't walking, so she wasn't putting weight on it, so I didn't fret over it too much. What I failed to take into account was her diabetes. Additionally, she was falling often, probably because the toe threw her balance off. She didn't walk independently, but she did hoist herself from the scooter to her easy chair or her bed or to the commode. She had fallen a couple of times before and called me, and I had then called an ambulance, which made her furious. So now, when she fell, she managed to keep it to herself. But, every time that happened, she would scrape or bruise herself. No one noticed because she always wore slacks. For most of us, that would be no big deal, time heals all wounds, right? With an elderly diabetic, that is wrong. I was about to find out how wrong it was.

The emergency room was a nightmare. There is a hospital right by her apartment complex, so that's where I headed, against her wishes. She had wanted me take her to the hospital near my house, about a twenty minute drive compared to five minutes. She was right, in hindsight. We waited for hours, Mother increasingly in pain the whole while. They were busy, but appeared under-staffed to boot. Mother wasn't quite forthcoming about her situation, so she had been triaged to the bottom of the list. A retired nurse, Mother hates hospitals. She will do anything to avoid them. Emergency rooms make her particularly irritable for some reason. Then, just to put icing on the cake, the television in the waiting area was set on Fox News. I hate Fox News. It was truly a nightmare, only there was no waking up from this one.

Finally, I complained a little and got them to push Mother up in the order. When the nurse pulled her slacks off to take a look at the leg she was complaining about, we both were audibly shocked. I could tell by the look on her face that this was serious. It was like something out of a horror movie where the character had been dipped in acid. Lots of blood and gore. Both legs, up to the knee were covered in puss oozing sores. Her toe was black. From that point, things moved a little more rapidly. A stream of nurses, technicians and a doctor or two came pouring into the bed space they had put her in, all of them with that same shocked look on their face when they first looked at her. One nurse in particular was very adamant that I not have direct contact with any of the clothes we were bagging up for me to take. It really was like acid, it seemed. And the smell. The smell of rotting flesh was overwhelming. How I had not noticed it before was amazing to me, but probably had something to do with her hoarding tendencies. I was forever fighting back nausea in her apartment because she bought more food than an army could eat and refused to throw anything away. I had successfully cleaned out her refrigerator the weekend after the wreck, but there was always a suspect smell around the place still. I guess I just put it down to that. But, then, confined in that small space, it was beyond bad. I have said it before, I'll say it again: whatever they pay nurses, it is not enough. I would faint or puke on a daily basis.

Needless to say, she was admitted. They tried to prepare us for losing one if not both legs and, at that moment, it looked like that was a likely outcome. Again, odd and inappropriate thoughts tend to pop into my head at times like these. That day, a little voice whispered to me, "Well, at least you don't have to worry about her driving again."

What that day in mid-October signaled was the beginning of a long saga of trying to save not just her legs, but her. She checked herself out of that hospital two days later against medical advise, and I had tried to take care of her at her apartment with a night attendant and a daytime nurse for a few days. When the nursing service fired us because her legs were too bad for them to accept the liability, her doctor convinced her to go to the emergency room near my house and they admitted her. This time she stayed and was even relatively docile about the whole experience. Two surgeries and a lot of big gun antibiotics later, the likelihood that she would lose either leg lessened, and she was released to a rehab facility for seniors right before Thanksgiving, and there she remained as the Super Bowl approached.

In the meantime, I had packed up her apartment (no small feat since she never met a piece of a paper she didn't think she needed to keep), dealt with the holidays, brought my youngest daughter home from college on a medical discharge, only to have her be arrested on a DUI not long after, watched my oldest daughter becoming increasingly rail thin as she continued to succumb to an eating disorder, all the while trying to hang onto a full-time job. Oh, and tripped across paperwork in all Mother's piles and piles from my adoption 47 years before, which I knew nothing about. I was exhausted. So, when that Monday came, I couldn't muster up much strength or enthusiasm for much of anything. And if the Steelers couldn't make me happy, I wasn't sure there was much hope for me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Scales Tip

For years the fact that Mother took "Stubborn as a Mule" to a new level had been frustrating, but her independence was the only thing keeping me from total self-destruction. I was smart enough to know that I was walking a razor thin line between a demanding job, two teenagers who were in various stages of crisis, and a marriage that was suffering, if not crumbling, under the pressure. I always thought that I could keep it together as long as nothing else got added to my plate, so I was grateful and proud that Mother made her own friends, ran her own errands and amused herself apart from the rest of us. I always knew it wouldn't last, but I prayed it would wait until the kids were grown and out of the house. (By the way, I didn't manage to keep it together, but those are completely separate, complicated stories.)

Anyway, the immediate aftermath of the wreck was that stubborn streak was ratcheted to a whole new level. Mother refused to go to the hospital, but was complaining of a pain in her side. The paramedics on the scene had told me that her vital signs were stable, but the worry was internal injuries. I called her doctor whom she loves and figured he could talk her into it; once again not getting a real human and having to wait for a call back. Then I called in reinforcements. My mother-in-law lived in the same complex and is a retired nurse, so I snuck down to the vending machine and called her. She came right over and tried to coax her, but to no avail. The nurse at the doctor's office called back and echoed what the EMT had said, strongly recommending she go to the emergency room. Nope. So, that left me, with no medical training, to monitor a woman who was hopping mad at me to begin with.

She was mad that she missed the hair appointment she had been driving to, she was mad that she had spent all that time out in the hot sun, she was mad that I talked to the emergency workers more than I talked directly to her (true story, by the way - I will fully confess that I said very little to her at the scene because I thought I might say something I would regret like, "This is why you shouldn't be driving." or "You happy now?"). Ironically, the fact that I didn't say those things didn't stop her from accusing me of saying them. A point which I vehemently defended myself against. Not a fun day. Nor was it a fun weekend. But, after watching her pretty closely over the next couple of days, I was satisfied that she wasn't bleeding to death from the inside out and went back to work that Monday tired, but feeling like life could resume.

But that scales had already began to tip. For one thing, there was the hassle of dealing with the aftermath of the wreck. I had to deal with the insurance company and the wrecker company. I had to clean out the van on a work day, which took longer than it should have because, in my deplorable lack of direction, I couldn't find the tow yard right away. For another, Mother now had no way to get around on her own. She immediately made noises about getting a new van, so I cajoled her with promises of trying to find her a driver. That didn't turn out to be an easy task, but it was calls one had to make during the workday. The scooter that had been damaged in the accident had to be dealt with. And so on. In the meantime, the rest of my life wasn't cutting me any slack. I wore my stress pretty openly and began to see the gray in my hair are lot more easily than I ever have and I began to wonder if I could truly handle it all.

I had no idea that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hurricane Ruth

From my fifth floor office window I had an interesting, if not scenic, view of the highway. To the east of my building there were two fire stations on either side of the highway. To the west and behind me there was the mall and several strip centers developed around some interestingly designed intersections. I had a birds' eye view of some very amusing human dramas played out in glass and steel. It is amazing what a human will do encased in the heavy metal armor of a car. When I needed a respite from my computer, I would often glance up and watch the madness on the highway. Occasionally, when I was really bored, I would count how many people got pulled over within my viewpoint during a given period or count how many times one or the other ambulances was dispatched. So, it barely registered when first a firetruck and then an ambulance followed by two police cruisers made their way past me toward the mall on a hot September Friday right before noon. I remember glancing up and watching them wail by, then returning to whatever it was I was working on. Little did I know at the time that they actually signaled a paradigm shift in my life. I had about fifteen more minutes of blissful ignorance before my cell rang.

My husband was calling. He began the conversation by saying, "Your mother's been in an accident." He assured me she was all right immediately, but as the adrenaline began pumping, my mind flooded with a million different thoughts and reactions. Among them: well, she's okay, but what about the other person, was she at fault (and the natural mental follow-up of realizing that she almost certainly was) and why in the hell did my husband know about it before I did?! But the main thought was, "Well, here you go. Your life just changed forever." Turns out, she was at the intersection less than a quarter mile from where I was, but she had called my husband to come help her rather than me. She knew what my reaction would be, and she was resolute on not hearing it. My husband, who was busy with his own work, trying to prepare two communities he managed for the possibility of Hurricane Ike hitting over the weekend, offered to go and help her, but pointed out that I was much closer. I told him I would go, trying to imagine the look on her face when I showed up instead of the warmer, fuzzier son-in-law.

The day was hot and muggy, with the noontime sun heating up the asphalt when I got there. The first thing I saw was her gold van up on an embankment at an awkward angle smashed into a power pole. The entire engine compartment had caved in. The oddest things go through your mind at times like these and mine was, "Now I know why Volkswagen puts the engine in the back." I indicated to a policeman directing traffic around the scene that I was a relative, and he directed me to the Denny's parking lot where the other vehicle was. I could see it off to the side; a large manly truck. I did not immediately see a corresponding large manly man to go with it, but I saw a woman dealing with paperwork and talking to officers, so I figured she was with the other party. Then I saw Mother. She was sitting on her scooter, dressed in a white sweater that was entirely too warm for the Texas heat surrounded by several fire fighters and ambulance workers. The other random and wholly inappropriate thought I had at the time was, "Wow, those guys are good looking." I immediately regretted my Friday casual attire and the fact I hadn't taken the time that morning to do much with my hair as I walked up to them to see what was going on.

I have to say right here and now, everyone working that scene was fantastic. Without belaboring the details, the ambulance workers gave me an assessment of her medical condition, the policemen talked me through what they knew of the accident and made sure I had what I would need for the insurance company, and the firemen helped me get Mother into my car and folded her scooter and lifted it into the back for me. All of them treated her with a high level of respect. Handsome and polite, wow.

My one complaint was that they offered several times for me to go over and look at the other truck. I had absolutely no desire to do anything of the sort. Later I would realize why they kept offering when the insurance company asked me about its condition, but at the time all I knew was that I was mortified that this had happened, and wanted nothing to do with the other driver. Turns out, the woman I had seen was the driver's wife. He was off to the side somewhere. I spoke to her briefly to make sure he was okay, but I could not bring myself to speak to him any more than I could bring myself to inspect his truck. It became clear that, while this was not going to be any day at a picnic for them, that macho truck of his had done its job and protected him. I was grateful for that. Judging by Mother's van, this could have been much, much worse.

Bottom line, Mother failed to stop at a red light. She says that the brakes failed. My mechanic had just done some extensive maintenance on the van, so that cast him in the play that would unfold over the next several weeks, but to the best of my knowledge, there was never any conclusive evidence to support her story. It was an accident like any other. Somebody makes a mistake, reacts too late and hits somebody else. It happens. But she has always stuck to her guns on this point. For me, it hardly mattered. I knew this was a watershed moment for the two of us and things would have to change.

The thing I asked the officer I was dealing with more than once was, "Are you sure she had a legitimate driver's license? You saw it?" He was, and he had. The State of Texas had issued her a new license. She was wholly within her rights to be on the road.

How can that be, you ask? Who in their right mind would give a 90 year old woman a driver's license? I had thrown up every passive roadblock I knew of to prevent it, but she had coaxed someone into driving her down to the Department of Public Services and got it renewed without me. They probably had to. I cannot even fathom someone feeling good about handing someone in my mother's condition a new license, but every 90 year old is different and Mother met whatever requirement Texas sets to renew one's license at that age. I met someone recently whose father was driving a cab into his 80's. I guess that is the hard part for any state: some of us probably shouldn't be driving who are in our 40's. Others of us remain alert until the day we die. There is no bright line that, once you reach it, indicates that you are are no longer able to handle a potentially lethal big metal box.

Trust me, I get it. I know why no one wants to give up their right to drive without a fight. I know what it represents. Particularly for a generation who came through war and depression. My mother represents a group of people forged in the hardest of times. They worked hard for everything they have. They will not lay down their independence easily. Where she and I came into conflict is that I took the position that if you want to be treated like an adult, you have to accept the responsibilities of an adult, one of which is to know and accept your limitations and act in ways that do not place others at risk. It was never a conflict we resolved. I will tell you why when I resume.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mom Literally Drove Me Crazy

Mother celebrated her 90th birthday on August 31, 2008. Well, I use the term celebrated loosely. She was out of sorts for weeks in advance of it. She kept insisting she didn't want a party or any sort of fuss, but I knew her well enough to know that if I didn't do something I would never live it down. So, with the help of the Activities Director at her seniors' apartment complex and my mother-in-law, I planned a small, low-key open house in a small cafe in the complex. She threatened to boycott the affair right up until the moment she actually showed up, and she actually filed a complaint with the management against the Activities Director and tried to get her fired. I was mortified. She was so ugly about the whole affair, I literally was choking back tears during the event. But, it came off and in the end, I think enough people came and made sufficient fuss over her that she felt gratified and was happy about it. My mother-in-law gave her a gorgeous flower arrangement that we used as a main centerpiece and the management kept in the main lobby for a while, which elongated the comments and praise, so she eventually calmed down, although she never fully acknowledged she had a good time.

In all my stress over the event, I lost sight of why exactly she was being so ugly. The obvious reason, of course, is that no matter how well you are doing at the age of 90, you come face-to-face with the realization that there isn't much time left. For Mother, that glass is definitely mostly empty. She is not one to be able to look back and be grateful for the time she has had, she is looking forward to the short time she has left and despairing at how brief that probably is. And then, there was the matter of the driver's license. Officially, it expired that day.

Now, for me, that was great cause for celebration. I had lost untold hours of sleep over the last dozen years or so worrying when I would get that call telling me she'd been in an accident and had been killed or, even worse, killed someone else. But, I had not been able to conjur up a way to get it away from her. I had tried talking to her about it, cajoling her and even blackmailing her (I'll support you doing this or that if you promise not to drive anymore). Water on a duck's back - whatever I said rolled right off. And, admittedly, I was timid in my attempts. She was my mother after all, and I was raised in a strict household where there was a clear hierarchy. Those lessons die hard. I had considered hiring an attorney and getting her rights terminated legally, but I knew that would destroy our relationship. Finally, a co-worker told me about how she and her husband had solved the problem with his mother: they got the doctor to do it. The family doctor had stepped in and made it clear that she was no longer able to drive safely. That allowed the family to steer clear of direct involvement. Great idea, but I still hesitated. Finally, one day I had a conversation with her where she just wasn't all there. She had moments where all the cylinders weren't firing for years; normally centering around times of high stress, like holidays. But, this was an ordinary day and she was just not cogent on any level. I can't remember exactly how that conversation went, but I remember my sense of alarm during it. It steeled my resolve, and I immediately called her doctor. Of course, you can't actually speak to them; you go through voice mail maze and finally are allowed to leave a message for the nurse. So, I did. And then waited, crying a lot of the time because it felt like a betrayal. After a few hours, the nurse called me back to say that she had spoken to Mother, everything seemed fine and, essentially, there was nothing they could do. She even managed to sound dismissive as she told me, which was probably more my imagination, but it made the news that much worse. I was deflated. Not really knowing what else to do, I continued to fret over the situation and wonder how long her guardian angel could continue to watch her back.

Now granted she didn't drive that much, but she did drive every week at least a couple of times a week, and she wasn't in some small little compact. She was driving a handicap van, so it was a little like a gold colored tank. I would take it occasionally and wash it because it had gotten so dusty one could barely see out the windows. The tires would be under-inflated routinely. So, the condition of the van was one reason to freak out. Her condition was the bigger cause for concern. She is diabetic and suffers from Parkinson's Disease. She has not taken an independent step in 15 years and, by the time of her birthday, was completely confined to a motorized scooter. Her limbs were weak, her hearing poor, her eyesight suspect, and her reaction time was, well, that of a 90 year old woman. But, she had a legitimate driver's license. I had seen it (I had snuck into her wallet to make sure). And it expired on her birthday. I was sure no one in their right mind would renew it, so I waited anxiously for that day, believing that if I could just make it until then, I would be home free and could take that one worry off my plate.

But, not so. And, that is where I will pick up tomorrow...