Sunday, December 27, 2009
About 10 p.m., I went in and she was rolled over in her bed with her face against the security rail.
I touched her hand--it was baby soft--and said, "Mom, move back over. Yu're going to fall out."
She woke up briefly and smiled and grabbed my hand. "Am I dreaming this?" she said. I smiled and said no.
"My baby girl," she said. And she went back to sleep.
I dozed until about 3 when I heard her again and went in.
Did she need to get up? No.
Did she need anything? No. No, wait. Yes.
"I need you," she said.
So I said, "Why don't I get in bed with you?" She nodded and so I did. She reached over stroked my hair. "My Christmas bedfellow," she said.
All at once, I was 5 years old again. The stockings were hung on the sofa with care, and I knew in my heart that Christmas was here.
Monday, November 23, 2009
I see people like me all the time—in the elevator, in the hallways, in the parking lot.
They are the daughters of the mothers who live in this complex.
They come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they are just like me. Their faces are a strange mixture of apprehension and fatigue and concern.
And they sound just like me
“Are you warm enough, Mom?”
“Wait, I’ll get the car. I have some junk In the back, though, that I’ll have to clear to get your wheelchair/walker/cane in.”
“Yes, it’s lovely out. Isn’t it? I mean, it’s just beautiful. Good day to go out, don’t you think? I said GOOD DAY TO GO OUT, DON’T YOU THINK?”
We have the same vocabulary. We’re mostly the same age. We drive the same car (mostly Priuses or mid-size SUVs), we have the same cell phones.
So if people like people who are like themselves, why don’t I like them?
Because they remind me too much of what I’ve become. I am the helicopter parent—not hovering over my children, but hovering over my parent and not always as gracious as I should be.
Once, on the long elevator ride downstairs, I said to a daughter, “Is your mom in here? How’s she doing?” (“Yes. OK.”)
“You know,” I said, “we really ought to have some sort of group for us daughters.”
She looked up at me, and her eyes flashed. “Who has time?” she snapped.
I smiled and said, “Good point.”
The woman was rude. I’m a serial overreactor, but for once, I wasn’t offended because I knew it wasn’t really lack of time that ticked her off. And it’s not a matter of who has energy. Or even who has patience.
It’s a matter of who has answers, and the answer to that is that none of us does.
Putting on a brave front has turned us into a bunch of bad actors with bad attitude.
If we had an award for Best Performance by a Daughter Who Doesn't Think Old Age Is a Complete Disaster, I couldn't think of one nominee.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
About three days before a business trip, I was scrambling to make sure my mom had all her meds and that I had placed them all in the proper containers so her caretakers could dole them out at the appropriate time. Three needed to be refilled, so I called them in and went to pick them up.
The pharmacist, who is sometimes my BFF and sometimes the Spawn of Satan, apparently had chosen Personality No. 2 and would not, not, not refill the Lexapro, an anti-depressant, because it was too early. But, I said, I'll be out of town. Way too early, she said.
So I was two for three. If Manny were that good, we wouldn't have had that cliffhanger vis a vis winning the division. But in the world of elder care, two for three isn't quite good enough. She had enough for five days, and I would be away only for seven.
So I went off and came back. And then I did the bad thing.
I forgot that the one script that remained unfilled was the anti-depressant, and I didn't remember until the first Sunday I spent with her. We could have made a movie called "The Devil Wears Depends" that day.
I quickly had the script refilled and re-started her on it. This Sunday, she is like a different person. She is smiling and laughing, and a moment ago as I was standing near her, she reached out to pat my hand.
She should have slapped my wrist.
Because 88 is no time to lose a day to depression.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Blue (a.k.a. Puppy Girl) is a rescue Dalmatian who came into our lives about six years ago. She was a quivering mess. Still is, somewhat. We're not sure how old she is, but we believe that she was one of the puppies born shortly after the last "101 Dalmatians" movie, which was 1996. Which means neither she nor my mom is any spring chicken.
From what SavetheDals.org tells me, Blue was used as a puppy mill and when the family moved, she was kicked to the curb. We don't know much more, except that the hair is gone from her joints because she apparently slept from concrete; that she is afraid of brooms and sprayed water, which may have been used as discipline; and that, despite it all, she lives to please. Her tail could challenge any metronome and win.
My mother was furious with me when I showed up at her house with Blue (so named for her blue eyes). "You work too many hours to have a dog!" she barked. (My mom, not Blue.) And in one of the more famous nonsequiturs, I said, "Let's go to the beach." And we did. As we sat on a bench, I told her what I knew about Blue, and her heart melted, as she heard the sad story of puppies taken away and punishment meted out.
Puppy Girl was in. They've been the best of friends ever since.
When my mom still lived in her own home, P.G. would say with her. Nowadays, Blue comes for short visits or my mom comes to the house to see Blue. Absent a personal visit, we have photos of Blue in the apartment and a Dalmatian calendar and a Dalmatian blanket that Mom has dubbed "Puppy Girl."
At 5:45 this morning, my mom is ready to get up. I am not, but it doesn't matter. We get up anyway, and she totters into the TV room. The blanket is ready to assist. Its companion is a blue blanket, which my mother has dubbed "Puppy Girl Part 2."
As I spread them over her legs, I say, "Here comes Puppy Girl!" and then "Here comes Puppy Girl Part 2!" and my mother says, "Oh, Puppy Girl. Oh Puppy Girl Part 2. I need you. I am so cold. You warm me up."
You do too, Mom.
Friday, July 31, 2009
My cousin Rosemary, after reading my last post, sent this e-mail to me about caring for her mom, an elegant, raven-haired lady who always seemed to me to have a magical quality that she passed to her children. I wanted to share Rosemary's note to me because it’s full of the kind of wisdom we need more of.
“You have a child who won’t get well, but who will love you -- as no one else ever will -- for loving her,” Rosemary wrote.
“In my final days with my mother, I realized that she had always been the endearing, willful, complex, difficult child she was then, but I hadn’t ever seen it before because I needed her to be powerful. When she needed me to be powerful, I fell in love with her as never before -- and now, as time passes, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to know and love her as a child.
“Though it was all so scary and sad, she was enchanting – as she always had been, but I hadn’t fully realized it. Of course, in a way it made losing her even more painful, but it was an important lesson in through a glass darkly.
“Life is what it is and you’re making the best of it now – even if you can’t know it because it’s so hard.”
Thank you, my cousin, my friend.
Friday, July 24, 2009
As women, we often discount that inner voice.
But I'm writing today to tell you a story that has reminded me to listen.
Many of you recall that my mom was transferred to a convalescent hospital in June 2008, after hospitalization. I was so unhappy with the care that I removed her from the place against medical advice. When the hospital tried to place her in the same facility after her hip break and replacement this spring, I refused, vehemently.
Meanwhile, a work colleague recently moved her 80-something mother to the same senior residential facility as my mom, partly on my recommendation. Her mom was there about three weeks before she fell and broke her ankle. She also was having some other medical problems, and she was hospitalized. When the time came to discharge her, they sent her to the same place my mom was sent in June 2008.
New name, new owner.
Same bad care.
After a few days, my colleague told the personnel she was taking her mother out. They told her that her mom was getting better, so against her better judgment, she left her mom there.
A couple of days later, she found her mother slumped over in a wheelchair. She called 911 and had her transferred to another place, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Her mom died last Sunday.
My colleague is a wonderfully nice person. She doesn't have a hot little temper, she doesn't overreact, she doesn't have screaming matches with nurses. She doesn't just walk into a place and put her mother into a wheelchair and take her home, never telling anyone. I confess to all of that.
I wept when I learned that her mom had died. Her mom isn't suffering anymore, but she is.
It's a huge lesson. I hope to God I've learned it. My intuition tells me to share it with you.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
"Oh, look at those roses. They smell wonderful! It's so good of you to share. You do have some beauties."
"How am I? I can't complain. Oh, wait, I'm me, so I probably will."
"Don't push yourself so hard. You have lots to do."
"I love you so much."
And that, my friends, is the cruelty of this disease. Is it better to see her as she used to be, only to be surprised when someone else appears in her place the next time? Or is memory better than reality, if reality is fickle?
Friday, June 26, 2009
Today was a good day. Why can’t all of them be good?
My prayers fall on deaf ears.
You promised you would always give me what I need, just not always what I want.
I need my mom.
But do I really?
Or do I need to grow
Wiser and more patient?
Less judgmental, less reactive?
Do I need to become
A woman in the image
Of your very own mother,
Selfless and true?
Pray for me.
Pray for her.
Pray for us.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Against the enemy.
It is Sunday,
and it is printed,
Blocks and clues
bring us together.
A four-letter word.
Slang for safe cracker.
Starts with a Y?
Yegg, she says.
Yegg? I ask.
Yegg, she says.
Huh? I say.
It's a criminal, she says.
How'd you know ? I ask.
Crosswords for years, she says.
And I look at her.
And she knows I am thinking
That she cannot remember
what I said two minutes ago
But she can remember
this obscure little word
and somewhere in there
My mother still lives
And I smile so
Thursday, May 28, 2009
"My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me. And as the president mentioned, she worked often two jobs to help support us after dad died. I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is.”
I'm never quite sure how much my mother understands, but she looked directly at the Supreme Court nominee and said, “Giving credit where credit is due—I like that in a daughter, whether it's due or not.” And then she smiled impishly.
I left the room.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The days are marked by the tiny triumphs and tragedies of caring for my mother. Until today, the tragedies--the broken hip, the fading memory--far outweighed the triumphs.
"What day is this?" she asks.
And minutes later:
"Is today Sunday?" she asks.
"No, it's Tuesday."
And minutes later:
"Was I at your house yesterday?" she asks.
"No, you were at my house Sunday."
"So Monday was the 16th?"
"No, the 16th was Saturday."
"So what's today?"
"What does the paper say?"
"I don't know. What does it say?"
And on and on until I want to scream. I don't. But I do snap. "What does the calendar say???" I ask, extra question marks of exapseration in my voice.
"I don't know. I can't see that far."
"Look at the one near your chair."
"NO, IT IS NOT MONDAY. IS THERE A CROSSOUT THROUGH MONDAY?" I ask.
"WELL, THEN, WHAT WOULD THAT MAKE THIS?"
"Right, Tuesday." My blood pressure comes back down.
"NO, IT IS THE 19TH." My blood pressure goes back up.
She can't understand why this is frustrating to me. In fact, in my least charitable moments--and there are many--I know she understands nothing about her predicament and hence mine. Worse, I believe she doesn't want to.
She reminds me of David Finch, the writer of Sunday's "Modern Love" in the New York Times, who wrote that his Asperger's syndrome is marked by extreme egocentricity, an inability to emphathize and an inexplicable interest in obscure topics.
My mother isn't suffering dementia. She has geriatric Asperger's.
So this explains why she is so demanding, why she can't see my exhaustion and why the calendar is so endlessly interesting.
This explains why she isn't my mother anymore.
It doesn't, of course, but it's so much easier than believing she has dementia, so much less painful than believing she just doesn't care.
After another of our unending rounds of medical appointments, we return to her apartment. She is exhausted by the effort of getting there. I am exhausted by the effort of engineering it. We return home and both fall asleep, she in her chair, bundled up in blankets, me on the day bed, uncovered. I am cold but I don't care.
I hear her get up because I am never really asleep, not really. She's off to the bathroom, her other favorite room in the house. Besides the calendar, she seems intrigued by her bodily functions and her hemorrhoids, which hurt her and make her cranky. I have dubbed it "'Rhoid Rage." I think this is hilarious. She thinks I am insensitive. I revert to my 7-year-old self: "Takes one to know one," I tell her.
Tap, click, click. Tap, click, click. She is coming back. I can tell where she is by the number of taps and clicks from her walker. But this time she's not running the usual pattern; I hear extra clicking and tapping. I don't open my eyes, but I'm listening.
She is in front of me, and I feel a sudden warmth as she spreads a blanket on top of me. Then she taps and clicks back to her chair, sits down and pulls the covers over herself.
I keep my eyes closed. It's better that way.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
I want to tell you about a couple of things that will make your life easier.
Item No. 1: The telephone receiver—and I don't mean for a landline. This gadget is shaped like the telephone receiver of yore but it plugs into the headphone jack of a cellphone. The familiar elongated U-shaped tube allows my mom to talk comfortably. (She has digital hearing aids and they create terrible feedback that make it impossible for her to hear.)
I found the one above at left at ThinkGeek.com for about $30, plus shipping. (You can find other vendors by Googling "retro handset" and cell phone.) It was a godsend when she was in a hospital room without a phone and my sisters wanted to talk with her. She could hear and felt comfortable, and the sisters could hear her. We still use it when I get a cell call and the caller wants to say hi.
Item No. 2: A lightweight, folding wheelchair (above, right). The first time I needed to take my mom to the doctor I was petrified I was going to drop her, but I should have been more worried about picking up the loaner wheelchair without straining my back. (She's not confined to a wheelchair but she does need one occasionally.) I found one at Amazon.com by MedMobile.com. (It's called Transport Folding Lightweight Wheelchair With Carbon Steel Frame, Dual Handbrakes, Padded Armrests, Detachable Footrests, and Drop Back Handle.) Amazon lists it at $299.99, but discounts it to $99.99. Shipping was $26.73.
It is all the things it says it is and one more: Because it folds, I can easily get it in the car. Plus I like its handbrakes, which sort of remind me of riding what we used to call an English racer. This may not be the model for you, but my mom is about 100 pounds, so she's only about four times as heavy as the chair.
More info on items as they come to my attention, but meanwhile, if you know of anything, please e-mail me at CatHamm@aol.com. Thank you!
At first, she had to be assisted because she couldn't do the simplest tasks. Later she had to be assisted because the fall that took her hip out also stole her self-confidence. She's afraid of falling, with some justification. But she should be more afraid of those who think that just because she's old and very hard of hearing, she has no feelings. Poppycock. Of course she does.
So, caregivers of America, please don't talk to her as though she's a baby. Don't talk about having to change her diaper. (Could just call it a pad instead?) And when she does ask for assistance, please respond. She generally doesn't ask for help unless she needs it because she's of that generation that doesn't ask. So don't stand around the nurse's station laughing and talking about last night's par-tay while she's doing her best to keep her bodily functions at bay.
It may not make one whit of difference to you that you're hurting, not helping one old lady, but wait about 60 years and then you'll know that it matters. It matters a lot. Every day. Remember that.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Thank you for fixing my mom’s broken hip and for being so kind to her. She’s 88 and while not quite as with it as she once was, she’s a human being who deserves the best care, and she got it.
I have just one tiny request for your support staff, however: Having an elderly parent means you must be flexible enough to deal with whatever comes next, but it does not mean that you can abandon your job or your life.
Having a roadmap of what comes next is helpful. For instance, if insurance says it will pay for two weeks in a convalescent hospital and you do the math and then base decisions on that date — decisions about when family members should buy a plane ticket and come and help with home care and such — it would be good to know that the hospital got permission from insurance to extend the stay. It’s especially good to know you got permission to extend the stay before the day it’s thought she’s being discharged. Especially if you knew it two days before that and never bothered to say anything. Especially if her daughter has been asking and asking you when this will happen. Especially if her other daughters have already bought their plane tickets.
Her hip is healing, but your communication is broken. I hope you’ll give as much attention to fixing that as you did to repairing the damage from her fall. We’ll all feel better.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
But as my father grew older, I found his behavior increasingly unattractive and worked hard to get my own temper under control. I centered myself with a combination of prayer, music and the occasional glass of whatever had been fermented for my drinking pleasure.
As his health grew worse, I was well-prepared to understand that his death would be the normal progression of things. He would get sick and he would die and we would miss him and life would go on.
All of this eventually happened, but not in the way I envisioned. Plagued by heart trouble since the age of 48, he would, I surely thought, have a final heart attack and die. But just as in his own life, nothing ever went quite as planned.
Instead, he caught a cold. The cold turned into pneumonia. The pneumonia turned life-threatening, and he needed to be hospitalized so he could be on a respirator. For reasons that are unclear to me this day, his doctor, sedating this frail little 73-year-old man, put him too far under, sending him into a coma from which he could not be aroused.
A day went by. Then two. Then my mother called and told me to come home but things were looking grim. I got on a plane and was there quickly, and when I saw him, I knew he would never wake up again. The doctors knew it too, but because he showed some brain activity, they couldn’t just turn off his respirator because there was no advanced directive for health care.
And so we waited. Day after day, we sat by his bedside—first my mother, then my sister, then I. It finally became clear to me that I needed to do something—anything—besides hector the doctors so I decided to plan his funeral. I called the funeral home and started putting things in place, but there was one piece of documentation I couldn’t find: his naval discharge papers.
When I asked my mother, she looked blank and said she thought they were in the safe deposit box.
Easy enough. I was listed on the box and would have no trouble gaining access. If only she remembered where she put the key. She didn’t, and I had no idea where it might be. So I marched down to the bank to ask them to drill through the box. It was at that moment that I knew my father’s legacy to me may have been prayed and sung and drunk into submission but that this was but temporary.
I approached the teller, a doe-eyed young woman whose name was Tiffany and Heather or Bambi or one of those unfortunate names that followed doe eyes into the business world where they either wanted to be taken seriously or taken away, somehow, whether by a handsome, rich prince or a pharmaceutical.
This Tiffany or Heather or Bambi clearly fell into the latter group. I approached her and told her that I needed to get in the safe deposit box but that I did not have the key. She sighed. “It will cost you $50 to have it drilled through.” I was fine with that, I told her. “We’ll have to call someone to come and do it. It will take three days.” I was fine with that too, I told her. She sighed deeply and tsked slightly. She asked who were the signatories. My mother, my father and me, I replied. “Don’t they know where the key is?” she asked with a slight whine in her voice. “My mother can’t find it,” I said, tipping toward that line that I didn’t want to cross. I waited a beat, hoping T or H or B would close out our proceedings.
But she didn’t. “Why,” she said with that slight whine, “don’t you just ask your father?” All the rage—the rage at him for getting sick, the rage at the doctors for making a mistake that now held all of us hostage, the rage at myself for not being failing to fix any of it—came boiling over.
T or H or B never knew what hit her. “You idiot!” I screamed. “Don’t you think I’d ask him if I could? My father is in a coma. In the hospital. And I need to get into that box so I can plan his funeral. So if it’s not too much much trouble, how about you call the locksmith and get that box open for me?”
All of this, of course, was punctuated with profanity--any noun that could be modified, any verb that could be intensified.
Life in the bank stopped. People stared. Mothers with their children turned away. Tellers froze. Tears welled up in T or H or B’s eyes. I didn't care. I turned, shouting over my shoulder as I left, “I’ll back at 3 on Friday. Have the box ready.” I slammed out of the bank.
I got in the car and sat, shaking and purple with rage. I peeled out of the bank and drove home, setting a land speed record for the short trip.
Throwing the car in park, I grabbed the keys and opened the front door, where my mother greeted me. She was smiling for the first time in days.
“Guess what?” she said. “I found the key to the safe deposit box.”
I was stunned. And now I faced this terrible choice: Would I wait the three days, spend the money and get the box opened that way? Or would I crawl back and say how sorry I was?
In the end, practicality won out, and I crawled back, apologizing. I don't remember now what H or T or B said to me—indeed, even if she was in the bank when I returned.
Looking back, I now believe, maybe because it's easier or maybe because I want to, that he didn't like that part of himself either. But in any case, it was his parting gift to me. I am better for it. I think the world may be too.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
I fly home and we go and when Kaiser ascertains that his throat has not swelled shut, they let us sit for eons. But in the middle of this, I need to pick up Blue, our lovable but incredibly dumb dog, from the vet, where I have taken her to have her get a shot for the pinched nerve in her neck (she now needs cortisone every eight weeks). I figure I can get her groomed too and have all her shots. So I go to pick her up and she's still damp (and groggy because they have to sedate her to give her the bath--we know this) and they say, "Here, just let us blow dry her," whereupon she immediately has a seizure and turns into Cujo.
Meanwhile, back at the ER, Carl is about to die--of boredom. And they finally call his name, and this other man (who earlier told the security guard that he was "f---ing ugly" and that he would not be "ordered around by someone who looks like a terrorist") jumps up and says, "Yes, I'm Carl Skolnik." Thus begins the lightning round of "To Tell the Truth" as the real Carl Skolnik stands up and says, "No, I'm Carl Skolnik." The real Carl Skolnik finally proves who he is and the fake Carl is vanquished back to the waiting room.
Meanwhile back at the vet, the real Blue emerges and we wipe the strings of saliva from her mouth and I lift her into the car, whereupon we have a total transfer of evidence to my black slacks and burgundy angora blend sweater. I look like Santa has shaved over me.
Then I drive back across town (five miles, 45 minutes) to the ER; Carl is now in Room 11, where, they say, "Gosh, the swelling seems to have gone down." Of course it has. It's been five hours. They say that it might be the result of the antibiotic he's been on for the last three weeks or it could be his blood pressure medication that he's been taking for three years but that he needs to see his regular doctor immediately and they'll get him an appointment. Which they do. For Jan. 20, first available. And he kindly points out that he has had both a heart attack and a stroke and it probably isn't a good idea for him not to be taking blood pressure medication and they say, "Yes, well, good luck with that."
My boss asked me if I wanted to work from home the next day. Between Cujo and Carl and the workmen, I think being in the office, which on most days resembles the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, will be a welcome relief.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Some of you may have missed the very tense drama at our house on Tuesday when Beatriz, the Wonder Cat, became Beatriz, the Wander Cat. Carl was getting food for Blue and Bea shot out the door and was simply gone. After much recrimination (self and otherwise directed) and a frantic search, he went to get posters printed and I went to work, furious, upset and furious, because of course, the cardinal rule of the house: Do NOT let the cats out.
He distributed the posters. He talked to people in the neighborhood. He even had a tip from a Jehovah's Witness.
When I pulled in about he was standing on the front step scanning the neighborhood. My headlights caught a glimpse of a fluffy white butt under his car so I sprang from my car, grabbed her, and we both carried her inside, where one of us sobbed openly and one of us--the atheist in the family--openly admitted that he had been praying all day.
Now to put this in further perspective, I must tell you that Carl was NOT a cat person when he moved in after our marriage. He loved Bella, but she was easy to love, and even though he went with me when I got Bea, they hadn't really bonded.
Until baseball season.
That's when she began sprawling on his morning newspaper, flirting, begging for attention, charming him, twirling him around her paw, until one morning, I heard him say, "You have to move, hairbag. Daddy has to read the baseball box scores."
Daddy? Yes. And then, improbably, Dada, as in, "Dada will move you so you're comfy and he can read the box scores."
Carl is not a sentimental man, as many of you know, nor is he given to gushing or mushy stuff.
So that's all the more reason to look at the attached photo and smile…and know that all hearts can be moved.