Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sincerely Irene

The Beginning:
On April 5, 2001 we celebrated Mom’s eightieth birthday in grand style.  Family friends and neighbours gathered round to fete this vivacious petite woman who could often be found at the centre of three or more conversations at once.  Exactly one year later on her eighty-first birthday we gathered sadly and reluctantly in a small conference room in Southlake Regional Health Centre, and signed papers placing her to long term care. 
            Hindsight is indeed a marvellous thing and today as I look at the photos of Mom taken at the grand birthday fete, I wonder how we could have missed it.  I wonder how I could have missed the thin fingers of dementia worming their way into my mother’s life, because the signs seem so obvious to me now.  A very thin yet smiling woman looks out at me from the photos.  I trace my thumb over the image noting the way she is holding herself, that odd angle of the left hand, and the subtle vagueness in her eyes.  “Oh Mom,” I say to the photo, “I wish I had noticed earlier, then maybe the journey might not have been so hard.”

The First Revelation – a little tumble

            At Christmas 2001, eight months after the birthday fete, I remember noticing that Mom was even thinner, almost painfully so, and I did ask her about whether she was eating properly and what her doctor thought about her weight.  Predictably she reported that all was well and that in fact she’d just been to the doctor and “he was very pleased.”  Mom was a diabetic and as such there were frequent and regular visits to the doctor, so I accepted what she reported.  At times she seemed a little overwhelmed by all the noise and confusion of grandchildren in full Christmas spirit, but hey I thought, she’d just been to the doc, so all must be okay, right?  A mere seventeen days later all that would change.  It would be like some gigantic, invisible inter-galactic wormhole suddenly opened up and sucked us all far away from the place we called ‘home’.  And it all began with a phone call on a sunny Thursday afternoon in January.

            “Hey, have you been talking to Mom this week?” my sister Cathy asked.
            “Yeah, I spoke to her a couple of days ago.  Did she tell you about the tumble she took New Year’s Day?” I asked and then continued on, “She told me her hip was a bit sore and that she was going to the doc on Friday, that’s tomorrow, to get it checked out.”
            “Well, are you sitting down?” Cath’s words and tone put me on alert.  “She told me this morning that she has to take a cab!”
            “Shit!” I said.
            “Exactly!  This means she can’t manage the bus.”  After Dad died, Mom never took a taxi anywhere.  Through rain, sleet, snow or wind, she took the blessed TTC buses and subway everywhere, day or night.  Cath continued, “I, um, think I’m going to offer to drive her to the doc tomorrow.  Wanna come along?” 
            Without a nanosecond’s hesitation, I answered, “Yup, you bet.”

            I did not sleep that night.  Fear, uncertainty and dread absconded with the known facts, and set up an anxious game of ping pong in my head that reverberated around in my heart. 

Ping: What if the hip is broken?  Surgery is going to be very dangerous.  She’s got very poor circulation and has been told by a vascular surgeon that she’d never survive a general anaesthetic.  I must tell the doctors that. 

Pong: The hip’s not broken – she’s been walking on it for ten days.  No one I’ve known with a hip fracture could move without excruciating pain, let alone get up and walk. 

Ping: She’s a very poor surgical risk.  She could die! 

Pong: She’s fine! 

Ping: Even if she survived the surgery, so many elders never fully recover from hip surgery and are dead within a year. 

Pong: Mom’s fine – she has to be. 

Ping: And this kind of surgery often hastens the development of dementia.  It addles the brain! 

Pong: She is fine.  Please -- Mom’s got to be okay. 

Ping: But...

            And so it went, on through the night.  I stumbled into the morning, slurped down a double espresso and wrote out supper instructions for my husband and teens just in case I did not make it home that night,  then I drove the 45 minutes to Mom’s condo in Etobicoke.   I parked beside Cathy’s car, happy to see that she was already there.  I really didn’t want to be first this time.  I’d been first through the door when Dad was dying eighteen years ago and I wasn’t interested in a repeat performance.   “Shush!” I murmured as I stepped out of the car, “this is not the same at all.”  I marched up the walkway, into the lobby and right into the open door of an elevator.  I punched the floor button and then waited for something to happen.  Finally the doors oozed shut and the car inched upwards at a snail’s pace, or so it seemed to me.  At the third floor, I pushed through the doors before they were fully open and strode briskly out into the hallway, impressed with my confidence and resolve.  I paused at the door of suite 301 at the end of the hall and looked at my watch – it was 10:30.  I took a deep breath and exhaled heavily, “Well, here goes nothing.  Que sera, sera.”  I knocked on the door with my usual three ‘ba-dup-bump’ knock. 
            Cathy answered and Mom was right behind her, cheerful and chatty as ever – both of them!  This was looking good.  As I hugged Mom I asked her, “Is the pain bad, Mom?”
            “I haven’t got any pain”, she answered quickly, almost shrilly but then more quizzically said, “I’ve just got this dumb limp.”  I looked at Cath who shrugged in a way that communicated the relief we both felt.   What had we been worried about?  It’s her sciatica, the bane of her existence for more than forty years.  And I instantly regretted that I had wasted a whole night’s sleep over a vivid imagination.   We made plans to have a great lunch after the doctor’s appointment then headed out.  There was no doubt that Mom was limping and not just a little, but she managed without complaint, in fact she said very little as we made our way to the car and drove to the medical centre.  But Cath and I more than made up for her silence by keeping up a non-stop blathering, all our nervous energy spewing out in silly chater.

Mom and Me, January 13, 2002

A Well Honed Skill

York Regional Forest 2008
©April Hoeller
I've been spending a lot of time lately practising a great skill of mine -- Procrastination!
Of course such a well honed talent really doesn't require any further practice, perhaps a quick touch up here and there would suffice, but that doesn't seem to matter.  In my life, these practice sessions arrive as an intensive study program of at least a week's length.  Furthermore this package deal is never booked in advance but rather shows up unannounced. 
"Never do today, what can be put off until tomorrow." is the ultimate procrastinator's mantra, but this really does not describe what happens to me.  My procrastination never seems deliberate at all -- it just sort of happens.  Take the writing of this blog today for example...
It's been well over a week since I posted anything, so I was getting a tad antsy about writing something, anything really just to let folks know I'm still alive and writing.  So at 12:20pm I sat down in the living room with my pencil, paper and tea (Earl Grey - such a lovely soothing comfort tea, that feels like a warm cozy blanket on a grey, damp Autumn day.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.........
Oh!  Then I wrote the first sentence.  Then I had to pee which was followed by a pass through the kitchen during which my computer announced the arrival of email.  Of course I had to look at it!  Useless piece of info but while there, I dashed off two emails (hopefully not useless), then checked Facebook (well I'm there aren't I??), read the new entries and followed this up with two games of sudoku.  I yanked myself out of cyberspace at 1:30pm, only to be told by my gut that was time for lunch.  I set about that task.  Oh but wait! -- Can I have that slice of swiss cheese?  Back to the computer I hastened to consult my food diary.  NO, I can't have the cheese and YES I did put it back in the fridge.  I enjoyed my well balanced repast and returned to the living room with another mug of tea. 
The time now was 2:20pm. 
It is indeed an admirable thing that I have returned to writing this blog, but what I really ought to be doing is writing the 500 word piece for my writing course.  It's due tomorrow evening.  Oh, but that's tomorrow...yabbut I'm in Erin most of tomorrow...hmmmmmm...Now I have to pee again, the consequences of 6 ounces of tea in a vintage bladder.  So look folks, I gotta go -- I mean really I gotta go!  Wonder what things I'll discover need doing on my way back this time?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Thelma & Louise Do Alzheimers - Reprise

The writing class assignment due ten days from now is 1000 words, on a topic of the writer's choice.  An open canvas on which to paint whatever wordscape comes to mind...

In class Sunday night I wrote a piece of dialogue from 'Mom's Story' and I'm thinking I'd like to expand on that for the assignment.  To that end, I've been reading and re-reading the text of a presentation my sister Cathy and I created some eight years ago, chronicling our journey with Mom through those early months of Alzheimer's disease.  We called our presentation, "Sincerely Irene -- Thelma and Louise do Alzheimer's".  I think we presented our work maybe ten times between 2003 and 2005, always to rave reviews! 
Reading through the text now stirs up a soft sadness along with flood of memories rich with poignancy and love.  What a long, sad and challenging journey it was, yet Cath and I managed to laugh -- A LOT! -- and find the gems amongst the rubble of it all.  I suppose that was the key to my survival -- the laughter.  Cath has always been able to make me laugh and prevent me from taking myself and life too seriously.  It's what I cherish most about her.  Oh make no mistake,  we've cried and cursed and cringed in fear together too, but it's the laughter, that fall on the floor, pee my pants kind of laughter, that has been the life saver. 
Like the time just after Mom had broken her hip, and of cousrse just as we were just beginning to get caught up in the tangles of dementia.  It was in that first week and we were very tired and somewhat shell shocked by the week's revelations.  Mom was supposed to be non-weight bearing, but we hadn't acquired a wheelchair yet, so we were assisting her walk to my car, both of us focussing very intently on Mom.  We were so worried she would slip and fall.  There was a little skiff of snow on the ground so we were verbally cueing her every step, "Now, careful Mom, there's a bit of snow here. That's it. You're doing fine."  Then it happened!  No, Mom did not stumble. Cathy did!  She tripped over the curb.  There was maybe a two second silent pause before we caught sight of each other, then we both let go of Mom and fell to the ground, all the pent up tension of the week pouring out of us in laughter.  I managed not to pee myself, but only just! I remember looking up at Mom and glimpsing one of those moments of clarity that I would soon learn to cherish and celebrate.  Mom was standing there, looking at us with a profound look of exasperation, yet a twinkle in her eyes. "I thought I was the one who needed help.  You girls are impossible!"  She laughed with us (or was that at us?) and then said, "Come on now you two, we can't stay here all day."
And indeed we couldn't, though I truly wanted to stay there in bright winter sunshine, ignoring the gathering clouds warning of the storms to come.  We were entering the strange and troubling world of Alzheimer's disease and eldercare.  Nothing and nobody could stop this from happening. 
Fasten your seatbelts -- it's going to be bumpy ride.