We’re going to take dad to the hospital today as he’s been complaining of stomach pains for a few days now. While mom and I think it might be good old-fashioned constipation, and he’s been drinking more fluids to help things along, the pain hasn’t really gone away. Mom suspects all he needs is some hydration by way of an IV. That, and the overall stimulation that another atmosphere and new people might provide. I’m not so sure this will have a happy ending. Martha, the other matriarchal figure in our lives, is also in the hospital today. She awoke around four this morning because she was having difficulty breathing. Martha knows the drill well. She pushes the button on the pendant around her neck, calls her friends Doreen and Mike, and shortly an ambulance arrives. She’s been in the hospital – admitted through ER – many times over the past couple of years. Sometimes things appear dire, yet she always ends up returning to her large, historic farmhouse in Greenfield. And every time she enters the place, I pray she makes it home again. Above all things, Martha is a woman who must die in her house. And no matter how infirmed her state, it seems she always has the resolve to make sure that one day she will.
My father, on the other hand, might have a different story. If admitted, he might be considerably disoriented by an extended stay in the hospital. Mom’s hope is that he ends up staying for a few days. She’s even posited his going then to a rehab facility in town (Martha’s done that herself several times). But if he can be made well by a simple round of hydration, then why would he need to stay there? My suspicion is that mom isn’t even aware of her own secret wish to be relived of her care-taking duties, if only for a couple of days. I’ve been lobbying hard for a weekly visit from an private nurse, but mom continues to say ‘we’re not there yet’. ! A few days ago she began to acquiesce, and told me her intention was to call the office of the aging and schedule an in-home interview, yet every manner of obstacle has prevented her from doing so. She doesn’t work, dad doesn’t get up til way past noon. What on earth could be preventing her from calling, save her own, deeply-embedded fear of entering this next phase? This is all a sad new territory for sure, and it’s made even harder to navigate by virtue of my parents’ values and upbringing. They are not a generation that discusses their feelings. And my mother is definitely not one to accept help. This creates a challenging environment when it comes time to deal with these issues of aging. Man, if there’s one thing I’ve made good and clear to my own son, it’s that he should do what he needs to do when the time comes. If I don’t know who he is and I can’t wipe my own butt – then by all means ship me off. And honestly – you may think me morbid, I do not care – I am all in favor of assisted suicide (however loathe that term) if a person should face an irreversible, debilitating disease. It’s even my hope to be able to sock away enough money to have that be a viable option one day (one possible place is in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s legal there). After all, looking to my father and paternal grandmother, the genetic possibility for growing old with dementia is a potential reality for me. I cannot pretend it isn’t.
Thursday, early evening
I’ve been at the hospital for much of the afternoon with mom and dad. The staff at Saratoga Hospital continues to impress me, and I’m so very grateful for their service today. Turns out dad just had a hernia. Not a big surprise, he had one on the other side years ago which he had fixed surgically. The doc massaged it back into place, and dad felt relief right away. He had a CT scan which showed some ‘white matter’ around his brain; the ER doc surmised that it may have been many ‘tiny strokes’, but mom and I wonder if it might not simply be evidence of his memory loss and the related diminishing brain volume. Either way, my feeling is that it doesn’t so much matter. In my eyes, it’s my father’s quality of life and comfort that is most important now. Little prevention can be done to stop the progress of what’s probably inevitable. Guarding against falls is another concern of mine now too (mom and dad have a tile floor, argh. Knock on wood). In the end, dad’s cheerful, as well as he can be, and most importantly, feeling better. And I for one am relieved that he didn’t need an overnight stay in the hospital. (Although mom might feel differently.)
Martha was just down the hall, and on the way out, we wheeled dad into her room for a visit. It only just occurred to me right now – that it might have been the last time that dad and Martha will ever see each other in person. On Martha’s 87th birthday, just a few weeks ago, it took dad nearly fifteen minutes just to get inside her house. It was a huge production. I think we all knew as we watched his incredibly slow progress to the car afterward, that this was probably his final visit to the farm. This whole chapter is bizarre and bittersweet. I realize I’m lucky to have both of my parents alive and doing relatively well. So many of my friends are in that stage of life when they’re losing theirs. I watch, I wait, I worry. Nothing to do but try to savor the time remaining. It’s tough for me, yes, but I think of my folks. My dad is actually blessed by his dementia; he can’t truly appreciate that his life is reaching its end. And my mother, while she herself is actually doing ok (in spite of bad arthritis and chronic back pain), I can’t help but I wonder if there’s not a low-grade worry present in her thoughts about how her own end will come. An occasional passive-aggressive aside will come out every now and then which betrays a darker side to her concerns. On the face of it however, she jokes, she makes light… There is a mildly haunting sense to this time in all of our lives, although none of us ever says as much. But even if we were to talk, what would we say? I’d like to think that Elihu and I will face these tough conversations with absolute honesty when the time comes, but I can’t know that for certain. I cannot begin to assume that I will behave any differently, or approach the last years of my life with any more candor than my folks. I just don’t know how it will feel to be in that situation. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to face it, but it’s been a bigger challenge than I’d thought just turning fifty!
For now, I cherish the little things that have been so familiar to me all of my life. That certain, charming way my father has of laughing. The way my mother always shows concern, the way she always takes care of things, and makes me feel in the end like everything will always be alright. I can’t grasp in this moment, today, that one day they will be gone. And as frustrated as they can make me, they are my only parents, and I love them so. Every remaining moment is important, because you never truly know when the other shoe will finally fall to the ground.
I am a fan of Saratoga Hospital. The staff there have all been so kind and gracious.
Dad was in good spirits all afternoon.
There’s his gallbladder. All looks just fine.
Now we’re in Martha’s room for a visit. Note how she raises her hand for emphasis as she speaks. She is still in control! And she remembers the name of every last person who comes into her room – not only that, but she remembers where they live! Martha always inquires where people are from. That’s signature Martha Carver. !
You can see what a production it is to move dad.
Aaron was so kind and patient.
Mom needs a cane these days – she can’t walk far without it. Even so, she’s the rock in the duo so far.
What a relief. I asked mom if she needed help on the other end – getting him back inside the house – but she insisted she didn’t; she said it simply took a long time. I can’t help but wonder each time he leaves the house if this will be the last time he does. You just can’t ever know for sure.
4 thoughts on “The Other Shoe”
Lack of communication can be quite difficult for us of the younger generation, while for the older generation, they must see it as a sort of buffer against things that are hard to express or face. We who were born in the ’60s and afterward are more open in our discussion of our feelings, and that’s a good thing. We speak more openly with our kids about all sorts of things, and naturally, our kids will understand us better than past generations understood their parents. Forgive me, but one little point in your post was slightly amusing, and that was where you said that you didn’t know if you will speak with your son of your future aging “with any more candor” than your parents have done. You probably won’t have to worry about that! Apart from being a very thoughtful, caring person, another consistant quality that you have is that you express a lot of what you’re thinking and feeling about things! I mean, just look at this online journal you’re writing! I’m sure that unless you totally lose your marbles (and I certainly hope that you don’t), you will most likely talk to your son about any difficulties and changes that you might be going through as you get older.
As you stated, you are going through a “sad new territory”, and I wish you and your family all the best as you go through these hard stages and hard stage-changes in your lives. You are doing your best with all the different areas of your life, and your parents are fortunate to have a daughter like you. Cool kids are a wonderful thing, and you’re pretty cool (yes, from their perspective, you are still a “kid”). Don’t fret about not being able to work any miracles, because miracles are beyond our ability, anyway. Just keep on being who you are, and that will be a great help to both of your parents. Sometimes, just being there and understanding is the most that one can do.
The only case of dementia that I know of in my family is my maternal grandmother, who is 98, and has mostly lost her memory in the last year or so. She was always good at conversing on all sorts of subjects (we would talk about how we didn’t want to be in the war with Iraq, among other things), and she seemed to be quite alert. Only a few years ago, when we talked on the phone, she told me about how things were getting overwhelming for her, and she would conclude by saying, “I guess I’m just getting old!”, and she was already in her 90s! The last few times we talked, she would go on and on, in a sort of stream-of-conciousness way of talking (and all of a sudden, I couldn’t get a word in edgwise!), and I could tell that she wasn’t all together anymore. She started to forget where she had left her heart medication, and was certain that staff members of her assisted living place were breaking in and stealing it from her. Even though my mom and her brothers would find forgotten, misplaced pills in different drawers around her rooms, adn point them out to her, she would insist that people were stealing her medication. She has been living at a special “community”-like place for people with dementia/Alzheimers-conditions in California, where the enviornment is happy, friendly, non-demanding (some arts, crafts, music and dancing), and fortunately, she has become quite tranquil and sweet in her diminishing capacity. Some people get aggressive and angry as they lose their memory, but others simply relax and enjoy the time that they have. It’s like they slowly let go and enjoy the ride. It all seems so awful to us, but I hope that all goes as smoothly and peacefully as possible for your dad.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Eric. Yeah, a day at a time. Probably nothing to be done to emotionally prepare for the inevitable. For us, having a sense of humor does help lighten things up sometimes. (Monty Python references are still always a hit in our household – with all ages. !) I wish you well in your challenges too..
Terry Jones or Graham Chapman policeman: “All right- what’s all this, then?”.
A Great Radio Drama, Presenting The Death of Mary, Queen of Scots:
Thug (after greatly exaggerated sounds of violent smashing of various objects): “I think she’s dead.”
Mary, Queen of Scots: “No, I’m not!”
(sounds of exaggerated smashing of various objects resumes).
“I saw your advertizement in the bolor supplement.”
T’ai-Chi and Dancing are two activities associated with a reduced incidence of dementia. All kinds of other exercises are good for health, but don’t seem to prevent dementia. I think it is the combination of concentrated attention to the body in motion as well as on the music and one’s partner. It might also have to do with increased circulation and good posture…not sure…but the evidence is increasing. Just read an article the other day about T’ai-Chi preventing the dreaded D. Although Timothy Leary claimed, I think only half joking, that senility was the best drug he had ever had. ;~) Best of luck to you in this process…GB