Sunday, March 29, 2015

My Mother

Dear Teachers,
My 87-year-old mother had a "spell" about three and a half weeks ago that ended her up in the hospital for a couple of days. I had thought that this episode was the Beginning of the End - the capital-E end: she was extremely confused, couldn't put a coherent sentence together, had no memory for anything, and was so weak she couldn't even get up out her chair without a good deal of assistance.

But in the past ten days, I was happy to see that she had rallied quite a bit. She still had practically no memory, but could carry on a conversation, and with physical therapy and some round-the-clock caregivers was much stronger. She hadn't been out of her retirement community since she came home from the hospital on her birthday on March 7, so I had told her that we would at least go for a ride in the car yesterday because it was such a beautiful day. I wasn't sure where I could take her that didn't have steps or a long walk involved, but she has always loved the Arboretum so I had been considering giving that a try if she would consent to a wheelchair.

But sadly, I didn't get the chance to do that. While I was driving down to see her, I got a call from her caregiver saying that she had fallen. My mother is a somewhat stubborn person, or perhaps this time it was just sheer forgetfulness, but she had come back from lunch in the dining room and walked into her apartment without her walker. Her caregiver was pushing the walker through the door of the apartment when my mother turned and tripped on her own feet, landing on the tile floor and cracking her head on a corner of wall. So instead of going to the Arboretum (perhaps a blessing in disguise), I followed her ambulance to the hospital. She has six staples in the gash in her head, a broken clavicle (with a bruise on her shoulder/chest to beat the band), four fractures in her pelvis, and several small fractures at the lower part of her spine. There was also on the x-rays some evidence of previous spine fractures. We are awaiting a visit from the spine specialist today to see if surgery is in her future. All of this from one fall, and when things had, just 24 hours ago, been looking so much better for her.

I try to imagine how frustrating this fall and general lack of balance must be for my mother, who all her life was an athlete. Although she never taught, she was a P.E. major at SMU. Her reflexes in many instances are still quite good; I remember at the previous hospital stay a nurse whose eyes were wide with astonishment, impressed that my mother was able to grab something in midair that he had dropped.  "She's still in there," I remembered saying to myself at the time.

I haven't always looked forward to spending time with my mother. She can be very unpleasant to be around, and her social skills have never been great; in another time she might have been diagnosed as "on the spectrum." She has said some jaw-droppingly hurtful things to me and to my children (her grandchildren!) - and her attitude has always been, "that's just who I am; take it or leave it." When bad things have happened, I have always weighed carefully how long I can go without telling my mother because I could almost certainly count on her to make me feel WORSE about the situation, at least in the short term. She is not in the least bit what one could reasonably call "emotionally supportive."

But now as she is lying in the hospital bed, none of the unpleasantness of the past 54 years seems to matter all that much any more, as so many people in this situation before me have realized. I am remembering only the ping-pong table on our screened-in porch, and how many times she played with me when she would probably rather have been doing something else. She worked at a small church near our house and would bring me with her sometimes during the summers; it was on that church's pool table that she taught me how to play. (For the record, I played pool for the first time in about 25 years not long ago and was pretty darned smug when I beat my [male] opponent who had previously beaten everyone he'd played. I remember at the time thinking to myself, "Thanks, mom.") I was given tennis lessons, swimming lessons, and horseback riding lessons (and I have long forgiven her for not buying that horse I was so insistent on getting when I was 10).

A daughter of the 1940's and '50's herself, my mother did not encourage me to have a career, did not allow me to spend a semester in Europe, did not understand when I got divorced or had problems with my children. She has lived in the same 7-mile radius her entire life and does not like to travel; consequently her world view is somewhat limited. But I know that she loves her family with all her heart.

I do not have memories of ever being a fun family; our family get-togethers are filled with bland discussions about the weather, and no one wears silly hats, makes music together, or ever EVER laughs till milk comes out their nose. When I hear about other people's raucous holiday celebrations, I've always been a bit envious of that freedom of emotion. On the other hand, I do not have memories of people flying into a rage and throwing things; my family, as far as I know, is completely free of physical or sexual abuse; we have had no financial scandals; we have always gone to church. I try to live within my means, I think manners are important, and I like to think my integrity shows; all of these attributes were instilled in me by my mother, the woman I have so often characterized as boring and difficult, and who is now lying in a bed in ICU down the highway. At this point it's hard for me to imagine that this will end well.

This blog is perhaps not the best avenue for my thoughts, but it's the one I have, and I needed to write this morning. So thanks for taking the time to read. Perhaps I will have updates soon.


P.S. If you are going through similar times with aging parents, I can't recommend highly enough Roz Chast's wonderful Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There's a reason it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

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