The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.
Today, I continued my preparations for my trip home to be with my dying mother. Just to write those words hurts. Even though she has been old and frail for quite a while now, in my mind, my mother is always young. Partly, that's because she was only 19 when I was born and so for much of my life, she was young. Now, I'm nearly 60 and she's nearly 80. The last five years, my mother has been in and out of the hospital so many times I've lost count, fractured her hip, had numerous stays in a rehab center and always, always, has pain. She's gone from that vibrant woman who once left one of my young friends standing gape-mouthed at our front door, saying, "Is that your mother?" in a tone of awe, to a woman who cannot get to the dining room table without help, has trouble eating, and had a hospice intake about a month ago. Even now, I resist writing dying and mother in the same sentence. Yes, my plane ticket is booked even if I am in denial. When I booked the ticket, I was afraid I was going too soon. Now, I worry that I will be too late.
I wasn't worried about that until my sister called tonight with her latest update on Mom's health. This is the sister, about four years younger than me, who is coordinating my mother's medical care. Mom is having trouble swallowing properly, my sister told me. Actually, she used a technical term since she's an occupational therapist, but it translates into not getting your food down your throat properly, which means you are at risk of inhaling food, thus, raising the specter of aspiration pneumonia. And, indeed, my mother seems to have inhaled some of her food. She doesn't eat solid food anymore because her dentures have become too uncomfortable to wear. Instead, she subsists on a diet of smoothies, yogurt, pudding, Ensure, and mango sorbet. Sounds safe, but whatever is wrong with Mom is causing her swallowing reflex to deteriorate, hence, aspiration. My sister thinks Mom has final stage dementia, perhaps Lewy Body Dementia. She could also have Parkinson's disease. She definitely has severe osteoarthritis, multiple joint replacements, and is on too many pain meds, although Hospice is working with that. Whatever the reason, Mom is becoming increasingly confused and having trouble swallowing.
Aspiration pneumonia is a frequent cause of death for people with dementia (or Parkinson's). My sister told me that Mom sounds like she has something in her lungs and Hospice is starting her on antibiotics. At one point in our conversation, I asked if Mom could use a straw. No, my sister told me, that would be dangerous and then she asked me when my son first used a straw. I couldn't remember, but almost immediately we both thought of - and said - sippy cup at the same time. Tomorrow my sister will go in search of an adult sippy cup and, at this end, I will go in search of adult bibs.
After I hung up the phone, a happier thought popped into my head. "Do you know," I asked my son, "Grandma was the first person to make you laugh?" I pulled the blue baby journal that I maintained during the first two years of his life off the shelf and there, on the page labeled, "Baby Laughs," I had written , "first laughed at Grandma Wheelock" - my mother. I didn't note the date, but I'm pretty sure it was in May of 1994, when our son was about two months old. Mom and Dad had come down to visit us in Bloomington, Indiana where we were living then, and we all went for a picnic. It was a beautiful day and Brendan was sitting in his baby seat on the picnic table and my mom was talking to him and getting him to smile at her and, then, he laughed. His first laugh. That day seems both a long time ago and only yesterday. It's like a friend said when I showed her a picture of my young beautiful mother, "life sucks." Yeah, it does sometimes.
"oh antic God" by Lucille Clifton
Oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties . . .
I can barely recall her song the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother's calling,
her young voice humming my name.