I’ve got David Sedaris’s newest book, Calypso, nearby for courage. If you are not familiar with him, he writes some of the funniest essays I’ve ever read. He spares no one from his witty judging, especially himself. And in a way that’s easier. When you know you’re odd, and you own it, that’s humor gold. But in this latest book, he also tackles midlife and his aging father moving to assisted living in his irreverent, sarcastic, and sneakily self-effacing way. That’s talent, mining these life stages that can often be grim for a vein of humor or lightness.
So there I was heading to CT to join my sister after getting the call that my mom had fallen at night in her assisted living. This was not new — she’s done it several times before and luckily didn’t break anything. One of my sisters claims she is made of rubber. Any of you who have an aging person you’re caring for who is older than 85 — you know this territory well. This time, though, my mom fractured her pelvic bone, which is still better than breaking a hip, so maybe she’s just made of hard plastic. The good news is it heals on its own. The bad news is it heals on its own, which is fine if you’re 60. At 89 with moderate Alzheimer’s, that shit hurts like a mother effer, and you can’t even remember that you broke it. Oh, and you can’t get any pain killers worth having because it messes with your head. Great.
Add to all that, my brother-in-law, usually the solid co-caregiver, was down for the count with a virus and a hurt back. If it were a play, we’d call it “6 Days, 3 Sisters, and a Fracture.” Or “Waiting for Godot, the Health Insurance Authorization Representative.”
So we spent long days in the hospital, trying to keep my mom oriented, because in addition to pain, changing scenery for a person with Alzheimer’s also messes with their head. She mostly recognized us, though, so that is something.
As the hours passed by, the situation started to feel familiar, and I realized that parenting a small child was really good training for this. I love my son, but I was never one of those earth mother types who knew she wanted children and would have been devastated if she didn’t have them. I found much of it difficult in the sense of, “holy crap, I am responsible for ensuring another person is a decent human being.” I mean, I’m not really sure I’m a decent human being a lot of the time, so there’s a lot of pressure there. But there were also those highs — when my kid would do something funny, or amazing, or just noticed something in the world I’d long forgotten. I often felt like parenting a small child is like taking hard drugs. There’s highs and lows and little in between. And as I don’t have an addictive personality, that wasn’t really a plus.
But I appreciated what I’d been through as a parent in a whole new way after being in a hospital with my mom.
- Witnessing their pain. Every time the hospital staff had to move my mother, she screamed holy hell. It had to be done because she couldn’t move herself, and not moving comes with a whole host of things worse than the pain. They did it as carefully as they could, but there’s no help for it. It took me back to being a brand new mother and bringing the kid to the wellness visit when he was 2 months old. Nobody was sleeping, and I found out from a mommy group, my kid was the only one who took 30 minutes naps. The other mothers were complaining when their kid took a “short” 2-hour nap. I was only 8 weeks into this gig, and I was already screwing it up! I showed up at the appointment, bleary-eyed and semi-conscious and what did the doctor do? Stick my tiny, fragile baby with 5 different vaccine needles. Talk about screaming holy hell — the kid, not me — I was ready to cry. Oh, and the look on his red face. Panting because he could hardly breathe from the screaming, and he fixed me with piercing eyes: “Why are you trying to kill me? You are really bad at this! I want a new mother!” Eventually he calmed down and was back to his usual not-sleeping self. Meanwhile, I was scraping the pieces of my heart back together and patching it with off-brand duct tape, that was never really sticky enough. But then it became routine, and as he got older, I learned I could talk him through it or bribe him, or both. I also realized that of all the things that will screw up my kid, the pain of the needle sticks is not one of them.
My mom’s yells were hard, but I knew we’d both survive it. And we could help her in a way I could never help my infant son. We could hold her hands, put our face close, and talk to her through it. We could sit with her afterward and empathize. And she thanked us after — no red-faced cutting look of betrayal in sight.
- The repetition. My mom has a hard enough time remembering things, never mind when she is in a brand new environment. The days took on a certain timeless rhythm where we had to answer the same questions about where she was, why she was there, why did everything hurt, where were the other people in our family. And then she’d start telling stories about people she knew or places she’d been, until we’d circle back to and answer the same questions about where she was and why she was there. It reminded me of reading every night to my son when he was little. Most times it was fine, but there were nights when all I wanted to do was go to bed myself and not talk or think. And on those nights, invariably, he’d pick a book I was least fond of, like the Berenstain Bears or some department store checkout aisle story with bad writing and even worse illustrations. I’m writer, what can I say, I have certain standards. Nothing emphasizes lack of quality like having to read a book multiple times — there is no place for weak plots and one-dimensional characters to hide. Sometimes I wanted to scream and cry like a 2-year-old, but that kind of behavior is frowned upon, so I learned to suck it up and build up my patience instead. Listening to my mom, I realized that if I could survive multiple readings of the Berenstain Bears, I can stand anything. And actually, my mother is a much better story teller.
- The unanswerable questions. Sometimes my mom asked questions that were grammatically correct, but had incomprehensible reference points that only had meaning for her. Little kids do this too, and you have to be careful with any followup questions. If your question indicates you have no idea what they are trying to say, they get frustrated and won’t continue. And as an adult with ego and pride at stake, this is not a good outcome. My mom and my kid also have a high BS meter detector. When she asked such a question, she’d lean in and look me dead in the eye, squelching any noncommittal answer I thought I might get away with. As tempting as it was to say something that sounded like I knew what she and I were talking about, I had learned long ago from the kid that sometimes it’s best to just say, “I don’t know.” Then you just get a semi-withering look of, “What use are you?” rather than an angry or exasperated, “Nevermind!”
You might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah, that’s all terribly interesting, but about the dang chocolate?” Well, the one thing that did seem to transfer to the hospital from her time at the assisted living was a love of chocolate ice cream. It came with her lunch and had an almost magical effect on her. One minute, she was complaining about the pain and that the food was hard to eat, and if you could get a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth, she’d close her eyes and lean her head back and sigh. I kind of wished it would do that for me. We discovered chocolate pudding had a similar effect, and I started to refer to at as crack pudding, it made her so happy. I will admit that we used it as a weapon to distract her when she started to get too grumpy. On day 4 or 5, we were all kind of hitting the wall with the situation — at that point we were waiting for the health insurance company to authorize her move to a rehab (not the cool rock and roll Amy Winehouse kind, the physical therapy will make your life hell kind). We were also hitting the wall with each other. I offered to get my sister and I coffees — it was going to be a long afternoon and evening. When I got back, my mother said, aggravated, “What did you bring me?” Back to the cafeteria I went and found a big cup of chocolate pudding with whipped cream. When I returned with it, her eyes lit up, and she finished the whole thing. Let’s just say, the balance of the Force was restored.
She finally moved on to rehab facility that is a caring place. It was built in 1960 and looks like a bunch of hippie artists were given some LSD, paints, and brushes and were allowed to run a muck — interesting to say the least. But that’s for another blog. More importantly, they have crack orange sherbet.
Photo Credit: Mel’s Kitchen Cafe.
Absolutely one of your best. Glorious piece of writing.
Awwww. Thank you! That means a lot.