Monday, September 8, 2008

Taking Care of Mom

All my focus and energy has now turned to making sure that Mom is as comfortable and at peace with the situation as is possible under these trying circumstances. After fighting with us all to be alone during the two weeks we were on vacation, she has now become anxious that both of us will leave her alone. When she voiced this concern a few days ago, Saul assured her that she would never be left alone again even for a few minutes. For the next week, I plan to be with her 24-7. After that, Beth's friend Candy, who was just laid off and is searching for a job, will come and sit with her for a few hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays to give us some time off to go out together.

Mom spent all day Friday in bed. Unfortunately, there is more than just the spiritual component to this job of "primary caretaker" and taking care of Mom's physical needs is a large part of the job description. When I helped my mother physically care for my father for two weeks in hospice 15 years ago, I came to view this unpleasant responsibility as holy work. I have the highest regard for the people who do this type of work for a living. It is truly a shame when children treat kind people they have hired to care for their aged and infirm parents as menial labor.

Saul and I prepared a Shabbat meal based on food we had in the house. When Ken and Randi decided to join us for dinner, I asked him to pick up some tuna to grill on the barbecue. The tuna was delicious and grilled to perfection. The rest of the dinner was deviled eggs, red lentil and vegetable soup, Israeli salad, mashed potatoes and sweet potato bundt cake with brown sugar glaze. I was out of heavy cream for the glaze and substituted coconut milk. It was a good substitute. Although Rosh Hashanah is a few weeks away, I formed the challah dough into rounds instead of braiding it as usual. I made four small rounds so that I could freeze some of them for the High Holy Days. Our long-time friend Faith, who was supposed to have dinner with her family, changed her plans at the last minute and joined us. Mom expressed her desire all day to join us in the kitchen for dinner. When we saw how she was struggling, we suggested that she wait and we would wheel her in at the last minute. In the end, she declined the opportunity to be wheeled to the kitchen. Through dinner, we took turns sitting with her in her room. Randi was able to feed her three deviled egg halves and some soup. When dinner was over we all joined her in her bedroom and sat around the television watching the path of hurricane Hannah on the Weather Channel. Hannah is supposed to be followed by Ike and we all worry about Randi's sister Lori and her husband who live in Florida. Mom was relaxed and in good spirits.

Saturday, Saul and I stayed in bed until 8:30 a.m. and after breakfast, he worked on his laptop in Mom's room while I finished the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle and went back to sleep for a few hours. Hannah had arrived here and we were grateful for the opportunity to stay at home and just rest as the torrential rain poured down. In the afternoon I went upstairs to put away the last of the kids playthings from their theatrical production and was captivated by the sound of the rain on the large skylight. When I went to clean up the dollhouse that Saul's father had built for Jessica, I was absolutely shocked to find it as neat as a pin, a state in which I have never encountered it in the last thirty years of children playing with it. I dearly hope that doesn't indicate that one of our children has OCD. In the evening, I mentioned to Mom that I had had a beautiful comment on my May 15 blog about the carousel in Hunting Park from someone named Lulu in Russia. I read the blog entry to her from Saul's laptop on her desk and we spent some time reminiscing about life in Logan. We tuck her in at night now like we did with the kids all summer. She even has a blue blanket that makes her feel comfortable, just like Izzy. She has become so weak that she began to have trouble inserting and removing her false upper teeth. Saul, somehow, has been able to figure out just where to grab them to take them in and out properly. He is definitely a man of many talents!

Sunday morning, we were awakened by distressed calls from Mom on the telephone intercom at 6:00 a.m. She had stomach cramps. When I called hospice, it took me an awkward full ten seconds to remember my phone number for the nurse to call me back. She called back with a sleepy voice herself within five minutes. She recommended that we give Mom Senakot Sor Milk of Magnesia, a mild laxative. We had neither in the house and Saul drove over to the 24-hour Giant Supermarket to get them before we realized that we had Dulcolax in the house because Saul had a colonoscopy a few months ago. By the time he returned, Mom's pain had dissipated and she was asleep. We decided not to wake her and tried to go back to sleep ourselves. Saul succeeded for an hour, but I just tossed around and finally got up to have breakfast.

Around 9:30 a.m., Mom awoke feeling okay and expressed a desire to be wheeled to the kitchen. Once we got her there, she agreed to eat oatmeal for breakfast as she has done almost every day for the last 15 years. She sipped her oatmeal through a Chinese bubble tea straw and ate the same one-and-a-half cup quantity she usually eats. She also had two bites of the sweet potato cake before asking to be wheeled back to bed. She seemed satisfied that she had been able to finally get to the kitchen and eat something.

When I am overwrought, I cook, clean, and organize. These activities create the illusion that I am in control of my life. I began to prepare lunch about noon using up leftovers in the refrigerator and cleaning the drawers as I emptied them. I made a large bowl of tuna salad and potato salad. Adele had told me that our cousin Anne was coming in from northern New Jersey to visit her mother in Elkins Park, and son, who is at Penn. Anne wanted to visit Mom with her mother, Mom's younger sister. When she called to ask I was very pleased. Adele came for the afternoon at 2:00 p.m. bearing a broccoli kugel she had just baked and Anne and Aunt Ruth came a few minutes after that also bearing food and flowers. We all sat down and had lunch until Mom woke up. Saul had spent a few hours organizing some of the pile of papers we had removed from Mom's room. Mom was up to having visitors and after a short while, they convinced her to be wheeled outside her room onto the deck to enjoy the gorgeous weather that followed in Hannah's aftermath. Beth came over and joined us for a few minutes as well. We all chatted on the deck for about half an hour until Mom grew too tired and asked to be wheeled back to bed. She fell asleep after a few minutes and we all moved to the kitchen to chat for a while longer until Anne and Aunt Ruth left. Adele went to read in Mom's easy chair and Saul and I took a nap.

Several months ago, before I began blogging, I wrote an essay about my mother as my hero for a writing contest about which I learned from my writer's group. I have never read the essay to her because I thought it would be embarrassing. Now, I don't believe I could read it to her without breaking down. I am posting it here now and perhaps one of you will be able to read it to her when you visit:

Wise Words Over Dirty Dishes

“What’s the matter with you lately?” my mother inquires as we stand in our usual places by the kitchen sink, her washing, and me drying dishes after dinner.

“You seem so sullen since you started sixth grade.”

“Don’t you like your new teacher?”

Actually, I like my new teacher, but that isn’t what I’m thinking about. I know that everything I am thinking shines like a beacon from my face the moment I lose myself in thought. She must have looked up from the dishes in the sink as I allowed my mind to wander. I consider whether to even tell her why my face has assumed its troubled countenance. It’s not like she can do anything about it. It’s not like she could understand the pressures and disappointments of my sixth grade day.

I consider the stock answer. I can force a bright, cheery smile and say, “Oh, nothing! My teacher is okay.”

Maybe she will think that she misread my expression and leave me alone—something my eleven-year-old mind has begun to tell me is a desirable state. I consider this for a brief moment, but it occurs to me that this is a rare opportunity because my eighteen-year-old sister has begged off drying the dishes this evening to study for her first upcoming college midterms.

I decide that it will actually be a relief to bitch to anyone at all about my unlucky plight. I plunge into my woeful complaint.

“You know that girl who lives across the street, Karen Horvath?” I ask.

“Yes,” says my mom, “don’t her parents have a jewelry store downtown? She seems like a nice girl.”

“Yes, exactly,” I scowl.

“So what is your problem with her?”

“Okay, she is sitting at the desk right next to me this year. She has been in every class I have had since kindergarten, and my problem with her is that her life is completely perfect. I should know, because I have been with her in class five days a week since we were five. She is really smart. She gets all ‘A’s all the time. The teachers love her. Her parents buy her the greatest clothes, so she never looks stupid like I do with my chubby baby clothes with the puffy cap sleeves. She never has to wear stupid hand-me-downs like I do.

I rant on and on while my mother regards me patiently. She doesn’t even seem to get that I abhor her part in choosing my clothes. She doesn’t even seem to get that I am trying to say that her taste is atrocious. I decide to press on, looking for an argument, so that she will have to defend her taste and I can point out further examples of how ridiculous I think I look compared to Karen.

“She is an only child so she doesn’t have to put up with a bossy older sister and an annoying, mean, younger brother. Everybody likes her. Boys in our class even like her.”

I think about the girls in class who are already wearing training bras, not undershirts, like me. Karen, slim and pretty, has just the hint of development, while a few others in the class have already grown to need real bras. If a person could really turn green with envy, I would have been a florid shade of emerald.

As I rant on about Karen’s perfection and my egregious imperfection in every aspect of life, my mom continues to regard me with what seems to me to be infuriating indifference and lack of sympathy. Finally, receiving no argument, no defensiveness, and not even a reassurance that my life is not as miserable as claimed, I clam up.

She continues for a moment to regard me with a benign, somewhat concerned expression, and I think ruefully, either she hasn’t heard a word and is thinking about something else, or she just doesn’t care that I am a fat, stupid, ugly girl with nerdy friends and bad clothes. I have worked myself into a veritable frenzy of self-pity and have reached for the tissue box in the corner to dab at my teary eyes.

“You know,” she begins, “that in this world there will always be people who are richer, prettier, smarter and more popular than you.”

“Yes, I guess so,” I sniffle.

“Long ago, when I was a girl, I realized that jealousy was a totally unproductive emotion. If you allow yourself to wallow in it, it will make you feel bad about yourself for the rest of your life no matter how you improve yourself. It eats at you and prevents you not only from enjoying your successes, but the successes of your friends and family as well. No matter what you achieve, there will always be someone out there who is better, richer, or smarter. If you want satisfaction in your life, you had better learn how to keep jealousy out of your heart. I learned this at any early age and I have managed to rid myself of it. You will be happier if you do so as well.”

With that, my mother goes back to washing the dishes and I go pensively back to drying them. I start examining what I know of my mother’s life from an eleven-year-old standpoint and I find her faultless. Yes, there are many reasons why she could be jealous of other people. Her brother married a woman who told her point blank that if anyone in the family had a diamond ring, she would have the largest. If anyone had a house, hers would be the grandest. My mother continued to have a friendly relationship with this aunt despite her mean spirit and competitive words. I believe that she truly feels sorry for her sister-in-law who is consumed by jealousy over material possessions. She does practice what she preaches, I decide.

The next morning, I awaken determined to eliminate jealousy of other people from my life. At eleven years old, I have a fighting chance.

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