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

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