Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One-footed emotional balance

While I'd missed the tour of the assisted living facility—its floor plan was great for seniors, but too much walking for the recently wounded—two of my sisters determined it was a good fit for my mother. If we moved her in by the end of the month, she could lock in a lower monthly rent. "The siblings"—all five of us, including my brother in Denmark—decided this was the route to go. We had just two weeks to get her moved. From that point on everything seemed to happen in fast motion.

This put considerable stress on my mother, who had only recently returned home to a condo that no doubt felt quite empty. We'd kept her busy in the weeks after my father's death in the spring; she saw a lot of family and friends at the lake this summer, especially during the week of my dad's memorial; and as the summer waned she'd had a nasty adrenaline surge to recover from as her daughter/caretaker lay screaming out in the rain, requiring an ambulance and then surgery. Now, recovering in the convenience of her one-floor living, that daughter was no replacement for my father's constant adoration.

One day she broke down crying. I'd seen my mother cry maybe three times in my life prior to my father's death; since then her tears came readily. She said, "I'm trying to be good about all this, because you all think I should move. But I need time. To..." She couldn't go on.

"To grieve Dad's loss," I offered. She nodded.

I told her I wished that we could give her that time. I remembered the advice from when my own husband died: don't make any major life changes while you're actively grieving. I'd stayed on the farm another twelve years. But my mother's memory decline had been relentless since my father's passing. Some of that might be temporary, due to grief, but the result was clear. She needed more support.

We were at a loss as to how to provide it. If she were in a wheelchair, we could bring someone in to bathe her and make a hot meal. If it were only that she couldn't drive, we could hire a driver. But how do you support someone whose daily life constantly confuses, whose medications overwhelm, whose diet is degrading, and who needs a sane sounding board for most every decision? We felt she needed the support services of assisted living, so I once again told her so.

"But I need to be here," she said tearfully. "Around his things. I can't take all this with me."

This woman had looked me straight in the eye before my first wedding and demanded that there be no tears. I now wanted to put down my head and sob right along with her, but choked it back. I laid my hand over hers and said, "I know. But we'll make sure you take enough."

Unable to put weight on my fractured ankle and still struggling with the walker and crutches, I could do so little for her. But on my last day there, before Dave came to pick me up and take me home, I sucked up the pain and accompanied her from room to room in her condo. We catalogued all the furniture, lamps, and artwork (there was a lot of that; my Dad was an artist) and, on a clipboard, divided items into three categories: things my mom hoped to bring with her, things she hoped would stay in the family, and things that could be sold at auction.

Once she got going she wanted to plow through the whole six-room, two-bath condo (yes, there were even multiple artworks in the bath). I worried that these emotional decisions would overtire her.

"Do you want to rest?" I'd ask.

"No, I'm fine. Do you need to rest?"

Frankly, I was exhausted after the first two rooms. Physically and emotionally. My ankle was throbbing; this was the longest it had been dangling down since the surgery. But I popped another pain pill and pushed on. Undertaking this task seemed to energize her, and I would not stand between her and its completion. By the time we reached the living room I sank to the floor and stretched my broken ankle out in front of me. And when it came time to move to the bedroom, rather than strain that overused ligament on the outside of my "good" hip to stand, I crawled on my hands and knees, pushing the clipboard along in front of me like a trained dog.

By the end of the day we had finished cataloguing the whole condo. The next day, when Dave picked me up, he dropped off the three colors of bright Post-Its I'd requested so my brother-in-law and nephew would have no trouble identifying the items that needed to be moved. The next day another sister arrived; using the list I provided she went through the condo and affixed labels to every single item.

I left knowing I had pushed myself to do what I could. The sibs were really pulling this together, with an extraordinary team effort that continued over the course of the final preparations that next week. E-mails flew between us. Everything was set. It would go like clockwork.

The day before my brother-in-law and nephew were slated to move the furniture, I called my mother, sensing she might need another pep talk. But she was already in a great mood, and asked how I was doing. After my report, she said, "And oh, have you heard my good news?" It had been so long since I heard such enthusiasm in her voice!

"No," I said. "What good news?"

"I'm not moving after all! I'm staying right here, in my condo. I just finished throwing away all the tags Nancy put on the furniture."

I reeled as if I'd just been sucked inside a cyclone; she'd knocked me completely off-kilter. There had been no e-mail chatter about a change of plans among the sibs. And all our work, gone! "How? Why?" My recent surgery had sapped my powers of speech; I was now monosyllabic.

"Someone called me and said I didn't have to go. And I never wanted to move anyway."

All I could think to do was hang up quickly and tell her I'd be back in touch. Then I quite madly started calling my sisters to find out what was going on. I left messages everywhere then simply had to wait it out. My mind and gut churned in turmoil.

One of my sisters called back in an hour. She followed up with my mother and got back to me—apparently, to the abnormal short-term memory loss that instigated her doctor's initial diagnosis of dementia, we could now add the symptoms of creative memory and wishful thinking. It had never occurred to me to suspect anything of the sort; as evidenced in her comment before my wedding, my mother had always been frightfully direct. While I ran and hid, my sister was able to face my mother down and straighten her out.

Her husband and son did indeed move my mother's furniture the next day, completely winging it—and they did an amazing job.

And I learned that "winging it" was not at all in my post-surgery emotional lexicon. Moving about on one leg was not just a matter of physical balance; I'd been thrown for my own loop. I needed rest, away from my mother, in my own home and with my husband, to restore a desperately needed emotional balance, as well.


New Classics said...

Wow, we (two sibs and I) just spent months helping our parents 'downsize' for a move to an independent living community; with two parents and no grieving involved--the process was still quite challenging.

You folks really did well to move things along under what were clearly very difficult circumstances.


Marie Gilbert said...

I've been a busy bee and was late reading this post. My heart goes out to you,your mom and your siblings. We just recently handled a problem with my mom a few months ago, but our situation was doubled by the fact, my mom took off some forty years ago and moved as far away from her young children as she could. She kept in touch, but at her own convenience. When her mind began to fail,it was suspected by her family doctor that she suffered from paranoia, and personality disorder, we stood by helpless to help until the courts stepped in and had her placed in a small residential home. My sister, who lives in California with my mother, visits her everyday and takes her out for day trips. It's hard to see a parent, who was strong, independent,and ahead of her time,so confused and weak. I'm still having a hard time with this.

Your posts always give me something to think about and I enjoy reading them. I hope your healing well.

ben buckle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ben buckle said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read the article.HEALING