19 May 2016

Learning to fly...

This is me, opening the door just a smidgen. It's been a heck of a strange, bewildering, surreal five months. Here it is May 2016 and there are still so many moments when I feel as if I've been wrongly cast for a supporting role in a play I didn't audition for and how I got here is still, after all this time, a profound mystery to me. 

If you would have told me on January 6th, 2016 everything that was about to unfold in the next twelve days, I would never have believed a word of it and then, just on the slim chance you knew what you were talking about, I would have run like hell. Fast. I would have sprinted, in fact. Which of course isn't true at all because this was always going to be part of our story. It just wasn't the part that I was looking forward to, but as painful as it was, I honestly wouldn't have traded places with anyone. 

One of my favorite episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" is one called "Opie the Birdman". While playing with his new slingshot, Opie accidentally slings a stone at a mother bird who has three babies in her nest. The mother bird is struck dead and Opie is devastated. Later that evening at the dinner table, Andy mentions to Aunt Bee that as he was picking up the newspaper from the walk he noticed the dead bird and assumed that a neighbors cat was the culprit. Opie abruptly asks to be excused from the table and Andy puts two and two together. He goes up for one of "those talks" with Opie and confirms his suspicions that Opie killed the bird and reminds him that those three baby birds are waiting for their mother who's never going to come back and take care of them due to his carelessness. (insert tears). The next morning Opie regroups and rescues the baby birds and, after accepting responsibility for his huge mistake, sets about feeding and raising the birds. A few days later, with the birds thriving and fluttering around their now very small cage, he is finding it very hard to imagine not having the birds as pets and doesn't want to relinquish his caregiving role. Once again ole Andy steps in and, while respecting Opie's attachment to his adopted flock, he reminds his son that there's one important lesson left that the mother bird would have taught her fledglings. When the time was ready, she would teach them to fly, even though it meant leaving the nest. (cue more tears and maybe grow a lump in your throat). Opie struggles but realizes his dad is right and screws up his courage and does the hardest part of all - helping the young birds transition from the cage to the wild. I love the last lines of this episode...

Opie: "Cage sure looks awful empty don't it, Paw?"
Andy: Yes, son, it sure does. But don't the trees seem nice and full?"

After my parents died and I walked into this house for the first time, knowing both of them were gone, those last lines from "Opie the Birdman" came to me...slightly edited.

Me: "Wow the house sure is quiet and empty.
Me: "Yes, but heaven must be brighter today and I imagine everyone is gathered around, listening to my Dad tell the masses how he proposed to my Mom on the third date and how it took her until the fifth date to accept".
Side note: I hope heaven has a pipe smoking section and rocking chairs. 

Of course being around for the "end game" wasn't something I thought about often and when I did, I dreaded  the notion more than a mouthful of root canals, but it turns out that a gentle transition is also an important part of care-giving, no matter how much it tears your heart out. And it does tear your heart out. 

It's painfully hard and somehow profoundly beautiful, Such a paradox. Such is life.

Down deep inside, I knew that someday I would be present and engaged for this part, too. But until January 6th, I chose not to think about it and really it wasn't until January 7th, after my dad collapsed in the bathroom in the middle of the night, that I began to understand Mom and Dad were beginning their own transition. There was no "pause" button - God I swear I searched for it - but just like the transition part of labor that signals the birth of a baby is imminent, my Mom and Dad's transition suggested delivery into a new realm was closing in fast. Inside I was silently screaming, "Whoa...no, wait, slow down please. What's happening here? I'm REALLY not ready for this." but the reality is that when everything is set in motion, there's absolutely nothing left to do but hold on and simply do the best you can. 

No matter how hard and exhausting the days of taking care of my parents were becoming, both for me and for them, I just couldn't begin to imagine what life might look like without them in it. They were tired and had very limited mobility. My dad could no longer navigate much on his computer and his world was shrinking exponentially from not being able to hear or walk outside unassisted and there had even been a few days when he had completely forgotten to smoke his pipe. My mom was becoming listless and even with substantial pain medication on board she still suffered every time she tried to move from the chair to the bed or the bathroom. They began sleeping more and more, waking up later and going to sleep before dark. While they maintained a sunny disposition right up until the end, they're conversations with each other and with me were becoming shorter. Looking back on it, I believe they were preparing for their next adventure and, as it turned out, they intended to begin it as they had done everything in the past 69 plus years of marriage - they were going to set off together...well, nine days apart, but that's basically together. It always took Mom a little longer than Dad to get ready for a trip. 

Even though I knew deep inside we were on our last legs, I still couldn't fathom or begin to imagine "the end" was looming right before us. I refused to consider how it might happen and determinedly focused my thoughts on micromanaging our dwindling savings and wondering how I could pinch more pennies and just praying over and over that I could keep them at home before our funds ran out. Or, for a change of pace, I would consider what their fate would be if something happened to me, if I got injured or seriously ill and was no longer able to care for them? What would we do? What would happen to them? To consider their deaths...well, I had plenty to distract me from truly focusing on the the end. My days were regimented and packed with meals, meds, hospice nurse/cna/social work visits to juggle, groceries to grab while they were being showered, light distractions to implement and for gosh sakes, I had to DVR "The Lawrence Welk Show" so I could play it for them several times a week!! If something were to happen to me, who would make their ice cream sundaes and play a loop of Lawrence Welk???? To imagine them actually dying? No, I had plenty of other concerns. 

I became the Queen of Denial. I also read a LOT of books and focused on my favorite genre - survival at sea. I've always loved reading about people who beat the odds in the most daunting and challenging of situations, particularly after their sailboat has been knocked down in a storm or rammed by a pod of whales or any other horrible disaster that could put you in survival mode offshore and in the middle of a really powerful, mercurial ocean. Aside from the adventure, books like this are rich with great advice on how to confront dire and horrifying situations; they are chalk full of coping mechanisms and believe it or not, they're life-affirming. They're terrifying but inspiring. 

I have reviewed my Facebook postings in the weeks leading up to January 6th and it's crystal clear I was aware of a gathering storm. If our house had been equipped with an "event" barometer, I think ours would have registered in the "batten down the hatches" range. I knew something was about to happen, but I had no remote clue that the "gathering storm" was going to be a dual Category 5 hurricane. Come to think of it, I'm grateful I didn't know. If I'd known what was about to happen, I couldn't have handled it. As it turned out, I actually did handle it and frankly no one was more surprised than me that during the following twelve days I didn't fall completely apart. Rather than a testament to my strength and fortitude the simple truth is that so many things were happening at such warp speed, there was absolutely no time during those days to squeeze in time to fall to pieces. I mean, there just wasn't an opening. It was a luxury I couldn't afford...thank God. 

I know the facts; on the morning of January 6th my mother fell getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. This wasn't new - she'd fallen several times in the past few months and I practically had the paramedics on speed dial - but she always seemed to land well...i.e. no broken bones, maybe a few minor bruises and sore muscles for a day or two but she'd never fractured anything. Yes, she was becoming more feeble and wobbly and watching her walk often made my stomach tense up but I just didn't see this mishap coming. Again with the denial - massive helpings please.

I was sitting at the kitchen table chatting with my Lower Cape Fear Hospice Social Worker, Kim, and my son had dropped in and was sitting on the sofa in the living room. He heard the "thud" and quickly alerted us that Mom had fallen. Kim and I ran to their bedroom and there was Mom on the floor and on the surface it looked just like every other fall except this time...she winced a little. I quickly called our hospice nurse Olga as Justin, Kim and I helped Mom up to the seat on her rollator. Mom denied any sharp pain and simply said her leg "hurt a little" but that she was OK. Olga arrived in short order, along with our CNA Patty who was on a routine visit because Wednesday was "shower day". Olga carefully examined Mom and concluded that although she didn't think anything was broken, she couldn't be sure and felt it would be prudent this time to call the EMT's and take her to the ER at New Hanover Regional Medical Center for x-rays. 

Now I was in a quandary. I couldn't leave Dad alone while I went with Mom to the hospital so Patty told me to call our caregiver sitter and see if she could make a quick run to the house. Fortunately she was free and made it to the house in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I made the 911 call and the paramedics arrived for the 2nd time that week. My dad was actually asleep through all this. He hadn't woken up for the "morning" yet, even though by now it was noon. 

Shortly before the paramedics arrived, he sat up in bed to find the bedroom filled with people and groggily he realized something was wrong with Mom. I quickly brought him a cup of coffee and explained (loudly because he was almost completely deaf) that Mom had fallen and I needed to go with her to the hospital but that Kathy was going to stay with him and we would be back home soon. He was still sleepy but when the paramedics came in with the stretcher and loaded Mom on it, he snapped to attention. He was scared and confused but everything was happening so fast. Kathy took her position right beside him, held his hand and told him they would get to spend some good time together and she brilliantly diverted his attention to old photos, navy stories and did her best to keep him distracted. Kathy Pope is an angel and was my parents' favorite sitter, hands down. 

Justin was using my car that day so CNA Patty gave me a ride to the hospital. We followed the ambulance and she dropped me off at the entrance to the ER. It was a chilly, gray day, typical early January weather, and I imagined we would spend three or four uneventful hours in the ER, the x-ray would possibly show a deep bruise and we would be on our way back home by dinner time. 

I couldn't have been more wrong on all counts.

More to come...