Downhill

February 10, 1993

It was four or five in the morning. Dark. Quiet except for the whirr of the oxygen machine in the corner. All of a sudden, I heard my mother rustling on the sofa across the room. She was trying to get up.

I popped off of the loveseat where I’d been half asleep and switched on the lamp. “I have to get to the bathroom,” she said, her words thick with sleep and dryness.

I reached under her arm to help her up.  All of the sudden, she moaned.

She didn’t make it.

“It’s OK Mom. Don’t sit down, just stay there and I’ll get some clean clothes and we’ll get you all cleaned up. Stay calm, you don’t want to lose your breath.”

She looked at me with pleading eyes. “This is ridiculous,” she said. “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to do this for me. You shouldn’t have to do this for me.”

I looked at her with my sternest teacher eyes. “Mom, I’m happy to be able to do this for you. And right now, you need to stop freaking out about letting me. I’m here, and I’m glad I am. OK?”

She met my eyes again. “OK,” she said simply, because there was nothing else to say.

As I rushed to get her clean clothes and a bucket with warm, soapy water, I did the mental calculations in my head. It was a good while before I could call my sister to come over and stay with her. Maybe I needed to stay home with her today. But how could I stay home from the teaching job that I was the substitute for? Call a sub for the sub? Did they even do that? I didn’t want to ruin my chances of getting a job at this school. It was perfect; it was close to home, and it was the school I’d attended myself. I loved that idea.

But there was no way I could leave my mother home alone for the usual 7-10 am time frame that I normally did on my work days. We’d set up a schedule of friends and family to come every day, but I didn’t want to ask them to come earlier than ten. And we hadn’t really needed them to; our system had worked well. My mother slept most of that time frame anyway. The friends stayed till about two or three, and I got home at about 3:30 every day after I retrieved Z from day care.

Plus, I didn’t want to ask a friend to deal with a possible day of loose bowels and humiliation on the part of my mother. She would not let anyone else save a family member deal with this for her, and she was having a hard enough time with that. I had to call my sister.

At about 5:45, I picked up the phone. She had a toddler daughter, my niece Samantha, and I hated to do it. It wasn’t easy for her to come over and hang out with my mom; Sammie wanted to grab the long tube for the oxygen and needed to be kept entertained and out of trouble. My sister already took two of the day shifts during the week, and it was hard to ask her for more. She had a house and a husband and all of the things that went along with that.

But I felt like i had no choice. After some tense words between the two of us, my sister agreed to come over at 6:45, in time for me to leave for work on time. I had a time block at lunch where I could come home to check in, and if she was better by then my sister could leave.

I went to work, but my head was at home. I couldn’t help but think that we were at a crossroads with my mother’s illness. This was new on her long list of symptoms. The Hospice gave us a book, with a list of symptoms in it. As you checked off more and more on the list, that meant your patient was closer and closer to the end. I knew I was going to have to say something soon to my school.

I asked my co teacher for my first hour class if I could go speak to the principal. He wasn’t available, but the assistant principal was. I closed the door and told her that I was caring for my sick mother, and that I expected that a phone call could come today or one of the days soon at work, and if that call came, I would have to leave on very short notice. I explained the nature of the illness and briefly that I was the primary caregiver.

My AP gave me the rest of the day off. She told me to go home, to take care of my mother today, and that she would make contingency plans should I be called out of work in the coming days.

So I went home, leaving Z in daycare for the rest of the day in case there were messy things to clean up or hard things to handle that I didn’t want him to see.

But my mom was better when I got home. She was in good spirits and there was no repeat performance of the bout of trouble that had woken us both up this morning. But she knew too, where we were headed. She told me to pick up the phone and call the number in the Hospice book for the medical supply company.

The hospital bed, bedside table on rollers, and the portable commode arrived that evening. The hospital bed that my mother had refused repeatedly because she was afraid that once she got in the bed, she would never get out of it.

I tucked her in that evening, with my good friend B by my side, and knew that we were going downhill much more quickly than I was ready for.

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