Last night I found a note I’d written to myself at least two and maybe three years ago, at the end of a beach vacation.
The ocean’s so vast – we can’t imagine it fished out. Mom has been with me so long – I can’t imagine I will lose her. We don’t want to imagine these things. We tell ourselves all is okay even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary.
I knew, from the moment we first got the diagnosis of congestive heart failure for mom, that we were at the beginning of the end. I knew that CHF could be managed, but not cured. And even if it could be cured, there is no cure for life. I knew but as my father-in-law says when we offer information he is not thrilled to receive: “I don’t hear that.”
This was maybe in 2004. As one does, I resolved to treat time as precious. Resolutions waver, especially in the face of one’s own chronic illness. I often think about the four relatively good years of mom’s life that I let slip by.
In the summer of 2007 she expressed a desire to go to Cape Hatteras once again. It was a family vacation spot with many happy memories. My younger sister and I managed to take her there for a week in September. We did everything. She didn't even want to wheel by a little yellow flower without a closer look.
One night she had food poisoning from some bad shrimp. We feared that she would be out for the rest of the week; I knew how long a similar bout would knock me down. The next morning she up was up, ready, and determined to go. Perhaps she knew this would be her last vacation trip ever. I thought it would be her last. But I didn't hear that.
It was January of 2008 when she moved into assisted living.
I became her power of attorney and as time went on, became ever more intimately involved with her affairs and her life. She called me often, sometimes several times a day, and left little voice messages if she didn’t catch me. Suzanne, it’s me, I just called to talk a little bit. Okay, I’ll talk to you later. Bye-bye. Suzanne, it’s me. I just called to see if you’re watching the Steelers. Okay, talk to you later. Her Reader’s Digest subscription needed renewal; send a check to the KDKA Turkey Fund at Thanksgiving; donate to the Red Cross for the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami in Japan. She would remind me to pay the hairdresser at the assisted living home, tell me to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot got high (“and one for yourself!”), and ask me to “bring some extra cash” the next time I visited, to pay for some handmade cards purchased from a friend.
Her health status oscillated, each time the peaks scaling a little less height, the troughs diving a little deeper. The cane left at home when she moved to AL; first a walker, then sometimes a transport chair or wheelchair, then almost always the chairs, while we were out and about. She said she dreamed of being at a home town wedding in the firehall, walking around and saying hi to everyone seated in the chairs around the edge of the dance floor, and I just walked and walked and walked! It was such a good dream! But it's never gonna be. I listened and I sympathized and I felt sad. Still, I didn't hear that, not really.
Last October she was in rehab; at the end of my visit, she tried to coax me to stay an extra day. In my mind I had to get back home for some damn thing. I'm not going to live forever, Suzanne she said. I really did not hear that.
Even as late as last Thanksgiving I was still not hearing so nicely. She'd gotten as strong as I'd seen her in years after a round of PT at the rehab facility and was so happy to be back at her assisted living home. She surely had at least another year yet. We had a glorious feast in her home with many family members present, and she tasted the pleasure of every moment. We made silly art sculptures from vegetable pieces and she laughed.
The next day she fell and broke her arm. In the ER she said to me "This ruins everything" and my heart broke.
I knew broken bones are often the death knell of the elderly; but I didn’t hear that. “It’s only her arm, not her hip” I soothed. “She will recover! It will just take time!” In the nursing home she experienced excruciating pain at the slightest jostling, and by Christmas she was a shadow of the vibrant woman she had been one holiday earlier. By the first week of January, when Dr. Bones pronounced her healed and said the sling could go, she didn’t give much of a good goddamn about anything. Or perhaps more accurately: she would have given it, but she was clean out of goddamns, good or bad.
I knew for sure then that the end was very close, and yet, I was not having any hearing of that. Maybe she needed her meds adjusted, or she wasn’t getting enough attention at the nursing home, or the right attention, or she needed to be encouraged more in rehab. Or a pony, or a unicorn.
One afternoon of the week I was to leave for Science Online 2013, waiting at a red light, I saw an unusual number of cars go through the intersection before me. I saw, but I didn’t see that. The light turned green and the line of traffic just kept on going through the intersection. One, two , three cars…what the hell…red light runners are so fucking annoying…I honked my horn. And then I saw that. I saw the last two cars with little flags attached to their hoods. Flags that said “funeral”. Oh! Sorry, sorry, I mouthed, hands waving wildly as if that would both communicate my apology and magically ward off some kind of bad karma I had just created.
A few days later, during a meal at SciO13, my cell rang, and it was my younger sister. She told me mom had had what looked like a stroke, and she was having trouble talking, and they had taken her to the hospital for observation. I knew what that meant. And this time, I heard that. I heard everything my sister said, and some things she didn't.
I was on a plane the next morning and at mom's bedside by the afternoon. A few days later she had a grand mal seizure, and by the end of the week we had moved her back home with the help of hospice. Just one week more came the moment when I traded my role as power of attorney for that of executor. Tomorrow will be the half-year anniversary of the transition.
She lived a long life. I know how fortunate I am to have had that much time with her, to have been with her at the end, and for her end to have been in her own home as she had wished, as peaceful as we could make it. My grief is not exactly that she should have had more time in her life - not more years of increasing disability and sickness, for sure - but that she should have had more time in her life when I was more present, more respectful, more attentive to her as a person and not just my mom (but also my mom).
Some of you may know I wrote some things in her memory on Twitter; they are collected here in a Storify.
Thank you, dear Zuskateers, for reading this.