Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013, With New Meanings

This year, the holidays saw a swift and unexpected change. They will never be quite the same again.

Soon after Thanksgiving, I hauled out the decorations, with an underlying mixture of eagerness, sadness, and even impatience. I have always looked forward to seeing the items that evoke memories of personal or family events, but this year I felt as if I would be doing this just for me, without much opportunity to share the displays with others. The fact that Mom was now bed-bound and rarely out into the rest of the house. The "kids"--my son and daughter-in-law--are busy with their jobs and live nearly an hour away. Other friends are surrendering to aging and limited mobility, and so their visits are becoming pretty rare. The thought of Why bother? crossed my mind more than once, especially as I pushed the bulky box with the prelit tree from my garage along the back walkway to the house, and then feeling the effects in my arthritic hands. Still, everything went up in its ritualistic place, and I felt an odd comfort after sitting back on the sofa to take in the full visual effect.

The house wouldn't look the same without the numerous hangings my mother made in the early 1980s, when latch-hook was all the crafting rage. We have small rugs, wall hangings of every design and size, Christmas stockings, and even a tree skirt, all done by Mom to relax after she would come home from her nursing shift.

And the intricate knitted stockings that Mom made over the course of three decades, lovingly, for each family member, are stuff of family legend. Now there are only three that get hung on the mantle. Others are poignantly stored in a sealed box in Mom's closet, with the label in her handwriting, "Christmas stockings for deceased family."

Then, this past Sunday at approximately 1:30 AM, I was awakened to the alarming sound of Mom coughing. Her cough is not a new phenomenon, but this time there was an alarming difference. There was a desperation to the sound, an insistent struggle. I went in to find Mom in the throes of projectile vomiting and respiratory distress. After doing a clean-up and then sitting briefly at her bedside with the "barf bucket," I put my foot down and called the EMTs. Mom, in keeping with her pattern of not wanting to accept help for herself, tried to downplay the breathing difficulties as "just a little cold I've had recently." I stood at the head of her bed and gave the EMTs a different take on it. One of them said to me, "Well, it's whatever your Mom wants, and she seems pretty clear to me." My fear was that we would get so caught up in a war of opinions that Mom would have worsened quickly, and it would have then been too late for intervention. At the end of this debate, off the ER she went.

It turns out that Mom's almost-89-year-old constitution was under full assault, with bilateral pneumonia and two virulent infections. The ER staff went to work and launched their counteroffensive, with two days of inpatient follow-up. I'm grateful for the staff at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center here in Burbank, and have already sent a letter to the head of the nursing department expressing my deep thanks, with special mention of one particular nurse, Melinda. At a time when I was, frankly, scared about what was happening to Mom, Melinda's calm, cheer, and competence was itself good medicine. It's so important, despite whatever our many preoccupations, to stop and express thanks to those who help us. It feels good to give well-deserved praise; it boosts the morale of those receiving it, and it makes the world a more compassionate place.

Mom has been transferred to a rehab facility, and her absence from home has given me time and space to reflect -- not just on what this illness means medically for her, but what it means to me. The amount of vulnerability I feel has taken me by surprise. Certainly, at our ages (Mom, 89; me, 59), this turn of events is not unexpected. A part of me wants to hide behind my education and work experience as some kind of theoretical buffer against my visceral feelings. Still, the harsh reality is that someday, my mother will die. I will lose her.

I've taken to sleeping on the couch after work, as if being in the living room, closer to the street, will keep me in touch to the world. My taste in TV and music is now determinedly (or maybe desperately) brighter, the more comedic tone the better. I've probably reached out to my Facebook friends with more openness than I had since I signed up in 2008. Wherever I go, even to errands about town, I have found myself making more connections -- saying "hello" and smiling to passersby, and being more engaging with store staff. Even my "big brudda" is hearing from me by phone, text, or email at an unprecedented rate.

First thing in the morning, I have to remind myself that Mom is not waiting in her room for me to come and check on her. Who knew that the absence of a person could be so profound, so palpable? And yet, since the onset of this illness, it's only been three days.

At home, I find myself staring at the homemade decorations, and memories of sitting near Mom and watching her creative process come flooding back. Because they are such vivid reminders of Mom, I wonder when I'll bring myself to put them away after the holidays.

When I visit Mom, I find myself becoming the proverbial "parent to my parent." She resists eating, despite my pleas and my cutting up her food. She wants me to leave only minutes after I get into her room, saying that I "shouldn't have to be here." I see this woman, who once seemed so formidable and protective of me. Now, lying in her hospital bed, Mom is delicate and alone. I am now her protector.

The first night she was at the rehab center, Mom stated, "I wonder if I'll ever be allowed to go home."

That broke my heart.

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