After an exhausting two-week road trip and the rush of the kids starting school, I didn’t think I could be more tired. Was I wrong. In the early morning hours last Tuesday, the phone rang. 3:00 a.m. calls are never good. Out of a dead sleep, I answered the phone to heard my sister say, “Amy, it’s Leigh.” Without a thought, I asked, “Is she gone?”
I guess when you’ve lost one parent and the other is quite elderly, it’s a creeping thought at the edges of your mind, always subconsciously present, always lurking. I’ve always been acutely aware of my parents age. The last of nine kids, I’ve never known either of my parents without full heads of gray or white hair and both were commonly mistaken for my grandparents when I was a child. “No,” my sister answered. “But she’s scheduled for emergency surgery in the next half hour and they’re not sure she’ll survive it.” I can’t even cry at this point. I notice my hands are badly shaking and my husband told me later he could see my heart rate increase through the skin on my chest.
I guess that’s the thing about life. You think you have control. You think everyone you love is safe. And then you get a phone call that dumps enough adrenalin into your system to make you want to vomit. It was a long hour and a half. Another phone call let me know she’d survived the surgery, but every day would be a test, and if she recovered, it would be long and arduous.
I was already exhausted and running a fever, so I couldn’t get on a plane for two days. Then, a blackout affecting nearly 5 million people in Southern California and the top of Mexico hit the day I was supposed to fly out. By the time I finally arrived at my mom’s beside, she opened her eyes and smiled. I bit the insides of my cheeks hard so as not to cry at the image of my darling mom, so visibly tired, lying in a hospital bed amid a maze of IVs and tubes.
The next several days were precarious. A hospital staff to whom I have extreme gratitude, took care of my mother as if she were family, reassuring and encouraging her. “How are you doing?” her nurse Noah asked her. My mom didn’t answer but positioned her hand like a gun and held it to her temple with a smile. And that’s pretty much my mom. Down to earth, funny and slightly irreverent.
My mom’s companion for the last seven years is a ninety-three year old man named Merritt, the second love of her life. He is at the hospital daily, beside her bed, holding her hand, spending as much as eight hours a day with her. They look at each other with such love and devotion that it makes me weep. I am deeply grateful to him in a way that is difficult to articulate.
When you are caring for someone you love so much and are exhausted and done crying, you reach that tip of insanity where laughter is your only recourse. I discovered this when I lost my dad. The heart can take only so much grief before some safety valve intervenes and protects it from breaking entirely. As our family grappled with the prospect of losing our beloved matriarch, in the bed on the other side of the curtain was another woman, fighting her own battle through stroke and heart attack.
Ironically, this roommate provided a constant source of wonder to my mother. The stroke had left her badly confused, resulting in what sounded like a Turrets infused geriatric cocktail with a dementia twist. Profanity flew freely from her mouth, forcing my mother’s eyes to pop open. The sheer frustration of having a thought and not being able to express it would make anyone curse like a sailor. But for us, it provided a wealth of distractions. “I haven’t heard that word in years,” my mother whispered, when I thought she was sleeping.
Hospitals are the great human equalizers. Your level of education, social status and income matter here not at all. Bowel functions, urine output and windy, dignity-stripping hospital gowns rule the day. All of this produces a sort of camaraderie between families caring for their loved ones. We walk the hallways like ghosts, our hair messy and matted, make-up smudged beneath our eyes, cell phones in hand. “Hang in there,” I whisper to the stroke victim’s exhausted daughter, who barely has the strength to nod back at me.
My five days at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis are a coffee-stained blur. I became a texting machine, keeping my siblings informed, then finally tag-teaming with another sister who had already been tending to my mother for the five days before I arrived. 30 hours without sleep made it nearly impossible to actually sleep. Plus, there was my constant, lurking companion…the question of my mom’s life. Her actual life. Then something miraculous happened. It was as if a daisy finally got the drink of water it thirsted for. She blossomed back to life. Ten days earlier, her face had become suddenly animated with wonder at the very bright light in the corner of her darkened room (something that made my hair stand up on end when my sister Carrie told me this), to now, finishing a bowl of ice cream for breakfast and asking for her clothes. Within 30 minutes, she simply came back to life.
We packed her up with all the hospital paraphernalia she will need during her recovery. Her doctor told us that he has performed the same surgery on 30 year old patients who were in the hospital longer than my 89 year old mom. “She’s amazing,” he said. “Yes,” I answered. “I know exactly what you mean.”
I left her, happily installed back in her retirement home, a nurse at the ready, with yet another sister, grandson, and her beloved Merritt. I didn’t cry when I said goodbye, which surprised me. I feel sure I’ll see her again, in this life or the other.
I drive the two hours north to Portland, and return my trusty rental car. Through a total stroke of luck, I am upgraded to First Class, which is everything it’s cracked up to be, provided I don’t have to pay for it. I sink back into my chair with close eyes when I am immediately assaulted by the verbal rantings of the gentleman beside me. “Hi,” he says. I answer politely, “Hi. How are you?” Deep exhaustion made me intend this as a rhetorical question. “Just pondering the question of my own existence,” he answers.
With eye dropper in hand, he continues. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing.” Before I can answer, he shows me a plethora of tiny vials containing energy boosting, auto-immune promoting essential oils. “Here, sniff this one. This one’s great. And this one is Blue Solar Water. It’s distilled water left outside, in this special container to absorb the sun’s energy. You spray it and it literally changes the energy. I learned about it on CNN. They did a piece on it back in the 90’s,” he says, giving his face a quick spritz. “Want some?”
Oh dear God. Not one of these guys…for a two and a half hour plane ride. His face is so hopeful, and I am so bloody tired that I simply don’t have the strength to say anything other than, “Sure. Hit me.” And that’s when a total stranger sprays water in my face. To my surprise, it feels oddly wonderful. “Thank you so much,” I say, quickly wedging earbuds in my ear. “I’ll just let it evaporate.” He smiled knowingly. “You don’t let it do anything. It’s not up to you. It just does what it’s supposed to do.” I close my eyes to Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” and smile, because this guy, who could either be highly evolved or a total wack-job, is actually right.
I have great hope that my mom will do as she wishes, which is to reach 90, and beyond. She wants more of the rich, purposeful, independent, happy life she’s had. I pray for the same thing, for her, for me, for anyone I love. But it’s not up to me. What is supposed to happen will happen. But I know that her life has been an extraordinarily blessed one. And so has mine, because I’ve been allowed the privilege of being her daughter.