This is the long story. The one that answers, as well as we can, the tough question that comes from my mother periodically – the question we wish we didn’t have to answer because it would be so much easier if we had a better answer – better than, well, that’s a long story. I started writing my thoughts down over the summer, after a visit with my family in Georgia – when I knew without question that things were changing. I just wasn’t aware, at that time, how quickly that change would come. She’s preparing to come home this week after three months in acute rehab and with no clear picture of what’s next. Three months that she hardly remembers – and of which she often asks, How’d I get here?
I’m not sure when it started. I was actually laying in bed last night trying to remember when things started changing. I flashed back to the hotel parking lot on December 7, 2013 – when we were saying our goodbyes – you and Dad parents off to catch a plane to catch a cruise somewhere overseas; me off to catch a new life in Somewhere, Virginia. We knew that was a turning point for us, you and I, switching from Mother/Daughter with frequent visits for shopping or lunches to a more distant relationship in which you would spend the bulk of your time in the camper making jaunts around the Carolinas while I would spend the bulk of my time figuring out a new family.
It didn’t start then – you had many more good years.
Was it with the beginning of the joint replacements? A knee one year. Another knee the next year. Did that create just enough instability to make you a person prone to falls? I tried to think of the first fall – it was actually brought to my attention while we sat at a lunch date in Raleigh (pre-new-lives) – when you casually told me that you’d been walking out to you car that morning and had suddenly found yourself sprawled across the gravel driveway with no recollection of getting here. Did you tell Dad? No. But you seemed no worse for the wear, save a small forehead bruise, so we kept on with the chips and salsa. That was pre-new-knees as well, so maybe they weren’t the culprit. There was the first big fall that I’d witnessed – at Jeff’s house – blamed on the combination of socks and hardwood stairs and resulting in a huge tumble that ended with a very loud bang of the head. No, you weren’t fine after that one – though you insisted that you were. Hindsight indicated a likely concussion – glimpses found later in the day when you mentioned not remembering the morning. Weeks later, complaints of headaches and feeling bad. Did you tell Dad about that fall? No. Though you seemed to be having symptoms months later of head trauma. Also pre-new-knees.
Each fall did seem be another check on the hindsight chart that we obsess over today. They were minor checks, though, for quite a while. The last few years have brought much bigger checks. It started to become common for me to call you for our daily check-in and hear about the fall of a few days prior. I can’t remember when the falls started equalling a call to EMS for assistance in getting you back up, Dad having reached an age where common sense told him not to try it alone. I don’t even know which order the next two big ones came other than they landed within the same calendar year. Was it the plummet down the RV steps or the trip over the landscaping timber? In either order, the result was the same – small fractures in your arthritic back, each fixed with super-glue-surgery that enabled a quick heal on the bone but could do nothing for the screeching halt in ability to keep up physically. And with the loss of physical mobility (and perhaps the anesthesia load), a loss of mental aptitude seem to follow.
I began to understand that feeling that grandparents have – seeing grandkids after months and running down a list of changes…you’re so much taller, look how you’ve grown, you’re voice has changed! Except I was having the same reaction when seeing you…oh, okay, you’ve gotten a little short, a little slower, it’s okay if you don’t remember that, can I help you walk over there? Visits and phone calls started including a quick assessment – how does she sound today? – and required a quick change to adapting to the latest status – not real with it; totally normal; sounds tired. You had no interest in talking about it – angering if I brought to you any suggestions on what you might want to get checked out and what kind of doctor. You told me I was paranoid – that I was just projecting what we were going through with Rich’s grandma. Yes, there were similarities – but what if they were a cosmic provided roadmap? I began to wonder if you already knew what was wrong and just didn’t want to say. Maybe – you would have learned that from your parents – keep it quiet and on a need to know basis.
Dad will be nominated for saint hood. Every time we were together, I wanted to pull him aside and say we see it – we see how much you are doing. Up and down, anticipating your needs, repeating himself, reminding you of things – all done while the exhaustion of just being was clearly wearing you down. I didn’t tell him. I should have. I’ve told him now. It’s just that pulling him aside was awkward – he also with a preference not to acknowledge the hard parts and to just carry on. Dad will find sunshine in every storm. Talking to him on the phone was difficult thanks to retired ears and emails with questions were left unanswered, leaving Jeff and I to speculate on exactly what we should be doing. We should have pushed harder – but then again, why? We’d have gotten here anyway. At least this way there was no pre-event paranoia.
I knew you were both working hard – off to physical therapy, off to another doctor, off for a shot, off to start a different prescription. How annoying and exhausting, especially when it must be obvious that the days of being spry had been left far behind. What was the goal? I’m sure it’s a question you asked over and over. I wanted to ask as well – but only because I needed to know, not because I thought you were doing anything wrong. What was the goal? Should you use a cane? A wheelchair? A walker? A scooter? Had Dad already tried all that (probably)? What about the physical therapist? How could I get her number? How could I dial it without someone thinking I was nosing in or not trusting what I didn’t know is going on?
I don’t know when it started.
I want to go back there – to when we could shop all day with lunch in the middle and come home with bags of stuff we talked each other into. But that went away long ago. A day of shopping dwindled down to one store – so pick the most important – and it meant a drop off at the front door, fingers crossed that you’d would make it to the carts without a misfire while I parked. It meant sending you on your way (at your insistence) – not wanting to slow me down and probably wanting a minute to feel normal – just a woman out shopping solo, list in hand, purse in basket, a bit slumped. It meant sprinting through the store collecting my items in order to track you and watch from afar, making sure you weren’t toppled while also witnessing the lost steadiness and stamina until you had checked out and found a chair. Only then did I feel sure enough to continue my trip, exhausted and stressed.
The last time we did this dance was on our trip to Georgia and we did it twice – once to Walmart and once to the camp ground gift shop. I realized the following day that you didn’t remember the second half of that trip, as you tried to hand over the items you’d purchased while asking if they were something I’d left in your car by mistake. No, they’re yours, you bought them, I said. We said our goodbyes later that morning and I promised to visit soon.
I wish we had more time together, you said when we hugged good-bye.
Yes. Me too.
Late July 2020:
Another week, another phone call with news that you’d had fallen sometime in the days before. I’m not sure why I got this news days and days later, though it was likely your stubborn side. Or Dad’s. A need to not interrupt my life. Please, interrupt. The idea that, at 2:00am on the previous Friday night, you were lying prone waiting for an ambulance to arrive because was terrifying. Add to that your insistence that you were lifted to your feet only – no follow up trip to the hospital for a quick check up and, well, what? And then five more days of waiting before Dad finally convinced you that yes, you needed to be seen. I have come to realize that these falls will always end with bad news – a broken this, a bruised that, a loss of minutes or hours, another check – but felt forced to keep ignoring it and resisting the urge to insist on some sort of treatment. For what? I was relieved to hear that there was no break that time. But also leery, because this was usually the story – no break, oh, wait, yes, a break.
And in the days that followed, it became more evident that something wasn’t right. I spoke with Aunt T – who again sensed that her ear was needed. Which is insane – as she lives in her own mud – that she even has time to tap into her sisterly senses. T had just spoken with you, hung up and immediately dialed my number, your mom sounds awful – totally incoherent – what’s happening? Yes, I told her, it’s not great. I’d just had two phone calls in a row where I’d had to just hang up – you’d forgotten I was there or had gotten lost or fell asleep or maybe it was the painkillers. This couldn’t have been good for you. This couldn’t have good been for Dad – feeling like he shouldn’t leave for a minute in case you decided to wander the house in this state.
I’d emailed again him offering help, but didn’t hear back. I didn’t know if he was overwhelmed, stubborn, just not wanting to accept it, or just not aware that he could really use it. I told him often, Jeff and I are right here, ready to step in and plan and offer whatever we could. Not to take his job away, not because he wasn’t doing it right – but because we couldn’t end up with him going down as well.
Early August 2020:
But it was a broken bone. Rich and I went away for a weekend confident that all would be fine. Maybe I should have known better – there is always something to think of – but maybe my brain just wanted the respite? I’d called Dad one morning and could tell he was off – you had woken up but that was about as far as you’d made it – incoherent, non-responsive. He didn’t know what to do so he called the ambulance back. Vitals were all good, but clearly something else wasn’t. Off you went, not very willing, but without a choice. Dad wasn’t allowed to accompany you due to Covid protocol. Which is when I caught him – home, alone, worried, waiting for the phone call which came later in the morning – another vertebrae with another hairline fracture. Too small to see with the ‘normal’ x-ray of days ago when it seemed you were sent home over-medicated. Why does this keep happening? Why are the breaks never found initially? I wanted to know so that we could insist on the right tests. I wanted to know so that I could start working on preventative measures for me.
Thus began another round of ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ Go South? Stay home? Always a struggle. Dad always insisted no, neither of us knowing how I’d even be useful. We had so much going on. I was torn all the time. My shrink said I had to take Dad’s lead – understanding that there was a reason you lived further away than I’d like, understanding that there was a reason we were sometimes given only bits and pieces of the ‘need to know’ stuff.
August 17th, 2020:
We’d descended on Myrtle Beach for our annual family summer showdown. We weren’t sure if it was happening until last week when Dad said, yes, you were packing up to head down and would see us there. Okay! Sounded like things were looking up. Except, no, that wasn’t it. Things were looking down. Very down. Worse than ever. 24 hours in and I’d spent more time crying than laughing – not an ideal way to start vacation. It took three men and two women to get you up the stairs and into your camper. That was after an hour of sitting together at dinner – except that we were never really sure if you was in there. Lucidity equals low. We weren’t sure how to interact with you because we sounded like ‘those’ people – talking loudly and slowly while patiently waiting for an answer to a simple question like Mom, do you want some water? Did you? We didn’t know. You’d start to answer and then drift off to somewhere else – glazed over.
You were sent to the hospital again.. A decision made when Dad couldn’t make contact with you nor get you into bed. We (and half the campground) stood and watched as you were loaded into an ambulance – my last sight of you through the window on the back door. Were we this close? When did we get here – to a point where I am standing on Rose Street among other campers, blowing you a kiss, just in case.
Were we here? At the ‘just in case’ part? Where the end of each moment is specifically marked in ‘if this is the last time, I need to remember how we said goodbye.’
I’d told you I loved you earlier – you said it right back, with authority. I immediately flashed back to saying it to your mother for the last time – and being surprised at how she responded so quickly and authoritatively with a returned I love you, too.
We talked about how this happened purposefully – stars aligned – landing the whole family together at this very moment to watch the curtain pull back. Dad, finally lifted off this burden that he’d taken on without complaint. This was the first time I’d ever heard him sound defeated – admitted it was getting harder than he thought possible – confused as to why all his efforts to fix you were not working. He seemed so small right now – I finally understand what Rich means when he tells me I look small. Dad was small. He was confused and scared and trying to figure out what questions he should have asked and when and why didn’t he know how to. We pulled him along, resigned to the parent the parent role, while we made everything as ‘okay’ as possible.
We are proud of him. Endlessly.
But we are trying to save both of you.
Part Two to Follow