There’s a gentle light snow falling this Christmas morning. I have frankincense and sandalwood on the wood-stove and Early Music tunes adding to the ambience. Through the years, since my fishing days on Cape Cod in the early 80’s, I’ve gradually freed myself from the tyranny of Christmas so that now I can pick and chose the elements that I like. For me that is the music and the foods mostly. Some years I put up my hanging wire tree but this year with the rearranging of the studio I haven’t found the perfect place for it.
My last family obligation is my brother and I usually visit him a couple of weeks before Christmas on Martha’s Vineyard, that way there is no craziness with the holiday travel amidst the rookie travellers and the pre-holiday merriment and anticipation lends a generally good vibe to all activities. With that done, I’m free to follow my own inclinations for the day; so, home, alone, is my idea of a perfect day.
Five years ago was a very different Christmas time for me. I was in San Diego dividing my time between sorting my mother’s papers at her home in the plus-55 manufactured home park and visiting her in the nursing facility where she’d been sent following what I can only term an unconscionable back fusion surgery.
That time stands out as one of the most painful times of my life. I am accustomed to dilemmas and problems, setbacks and detours but up until those last two weeks of my mother’s life, I’d never experienced a situation that was beyond my abilities to sort out.
I blame it on the medical service industry in the United States. This industry has nothing to do with the health and well-being of the citizens; rather, it is all about making the most profit. Healthy people aren’t profitable in a medical way. What’s wanted is a population that is not well, but not nearly dead. If you have the insurance, which my mother certainly did, even then you are not really well cared for, because it is not about what will make you well but what will cost the insurance company or HMO the least. And whatever you do, do not get sick at Christmastime. T’was the week before Christmas when all through the land, most doctors are on holiday, not around to command. Do not EVER get sick or go into hospital in December in the USA. It is nearly impossible to get any doctor to talk to you and the only ones in charge are the nurses aides.
My mother’s downward slide began when she retired from teaching elementary school at the age of seventy-two. Most of my memories of my mother are of a dynamic, energetic Type-A super teacher. She loved to travel and dance and I’m forever grateful for the early exposure to ballet, music, art, sewing, knitting, cooking and reading. All the activities that sustain me and give me the most pleasure were introduced to me by my good mother. She was youthful for her age and I ‘m sure that’s why she managed to teach as long as she did. But times change and school politics made the job not so much fun and she was nudged, none too gently to retire.
On the 19th of December I flew from Bangor to San Diego to advocate for my mom and sort through the quagmire of so-called health care. I was beset on all sides with stuff to sort out. On the homefront, my mother and her much younger drummer ‘boyfriend’ had a marijuana grow op in her guest room that I wanted out. Petey had one of her credit cards and was driving her car. Her purse was missing (found at last in the hospital), her papers were a jumble and I was trying to figure out if I had or could get medical power of attorney to make decisions on her behalf. I cancelled a missing cell phone, minimized her cable and also cancelled Petey’s phone that she was paying for.
On the Little Mommy front, she was in a lot of pain, staples up her back that would have made Frankenstein’s monster cringe, being given oxycodone that kept her floating in a mild hallucinatory place. Mornings I spent sorting her papers and trying to get answers, afternoons I was her anchor to reality hoping to cajole her into letting me take charge and find the next place for her to be when they turfed her out of there.
She had a trust that had a provision for a temporary medical power of attorney but it required two doctors’ signatures and I never saw one actual doctor in that time when I needed one. So I tried to go the regular POA route but she was reluctant to follow my advice and worried about hurting Petey’s feelings. I decided to fly my brother Ross out for Christmas. He was experiencing massive grand mal seizures and was a bit dozy himself but understood enough to back me up so once he was there on Christmas Eve whenever I made a suggestion my mother would turn to him and ask him if he agreed and he would nod yes and then she would comply.
The staff at the facility said she could be told to go with 48 hours notice at any time so I needed to find an assisted living facility to take her but I needed to find out what her policies covered but I needed to have the POA to get any information and even with the paperwork in place business as usual does not happen easily from mid-December to just after 1 January. Meanwhile they were still filling her full of oxycodone for her pain even though on Christmas day Ross and I arrived to find her standing in the middle of the hall in full hallucinatory mode “the school board will want to hear my testimony……” she was arguing. I got her back to her room and exhorted the nurses that they needed to stop the oxycodone or her hallucinations could lead her to fall and injure herself but unless I was there when the pills were dispensed I could not guarantee that she was narcotic-free. Ross and I both went with her to see the surgeon and he said to not let them give her the narcotics but I couldn’t be everywhere.
Ross flew home but my friend Dave drove down from San Francisco to help. My mother was determined that she was going to return to her home but I knew that would not be possible. While I dealt with insurance companies and checked out assisted living places, Dave, with his amazing packing and moving and assessing what is essential skills pared down the stuff at my mother’s house to stage it for showing/sale.
On January third I was told that she would need to have an assisted living facility to go to on the 14th. How kind of the HMO to give so much notice. I’d finally got the papers the insurance companies wanted, found out what she could afford and was checking out places and found an agent who helped with that but I was frustrated and tired and had the beginnings of a bronchial infection.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. If only. I didn’t stay long enough with her that last day. I was too glum because of the news that she would be out of there by the 14th and I didn’t think she would be ready. I should have hugged her more and I forgot to do aromatherapy. I’m afraid she might have thought she was too much of a burden to me but I was just frustrated by yet another hoop to jump through. The weeks in San Diego involved butting up against walls only to find when the wall came down that the effort was moot and another wall was needing my efforts. It was all so futile and if I’d known these were her last days I would have just sat with her and made her laugh which I did some but not half enough.
The next day I was scrambling to find a place for her because I was booked to fly home in a couple of days so I got to the nursing facility around 4PM to find her bed stripped and no sign of my Little Mommy. “Where’s my mother?” No calls had come; they didn’t have my information strangely enough. She’d had some trouble breathing, they gave her fluids and found pneumonia in a lung and sent her to the hospital where she was in emergency for a while. By the time I got there she’s been brought to SICU. I was told they’d call me after they’d cleaned her up and while I was in the waiting room I heard “Code Blue” and I knew that was her. I waited an hour and a doctor came and asked me if I wanted to sign a DNR. I went in to see her and she was a broken tiny old person. Her eyes were open-fixed and dilated, they say. I squeezed her tiny foot and held her hand for a while but I felt that her spirit was not so much in her body as in the everywhere place and she’d know me and my communications wherever I was.
So I left. Driving back in the rain and windy dark; a fabulous night for moving a spirit on, inner turmoil mirrored by the outer maelstrom. My Little Mommy’s broken and tired body gave up that last thread at 3:13AM on the 5th. Her last best friend, Petey was there. I got the call from the nurse at SICU.
The next day Dave drove me around; I was too out of it to drive myself. We went to the hospital and I got her stuff and a booklet with information about the options. Ironically, once she was gone everything went smoothly. I had my name put on her checking account and before the death notice I managed to pay for the cremation and a couple of other things. We shipped some boxes of stuff and I got a carrier suitable for planes and brought my mother’s cat Priscilla home with me.
For all the difficulties of that time there’s a lot of good that stands out. Dave was a gift. He knew just what to do, he was great to bounce things off of and he did the things I couldn’t do. He was a shining light in a dark time for me. My friend Julia’s brother Nick, a lawyer in San Diego and his wife Nickie invited me to their house on December 23rd and amidst their holiday excitement allowed me a slice of normalcy and a break from the sorting of papers and the sorting of Little Mommy. Nick did all my lawyerly things regarding the estate and couldn’t have been more helpful and clear for me in a confusing time. Ross, for all his spaceyness of the time, backed me up and I’m so glad I gave him the opportunity to be there for that last Christmas.
There were some good times with my mother as well. I brought her mail and read her cards for her early on. The highlight was the annual Christmas letter from her former mother-in-law Harriet. I am forever grateful to my mother for marrying her second husband because whenever Christmas newsletters come up in conversation, my story can’t be topped. One year Harriet’s letter started with a table of contents and had over twenty pages. This last one, read with the correct emphasis and timing provided much merriment even though it was a mere eight pages. We sang some holiday songs and I wheeled her around the place, making merry as much as you can.
On the wall opposite her bed was a wall of closets for her and her roommate. The family of the roommate had a sign taped up that said,” Family will do the laundry.” My mother would notice it every once in a while and read it, puzzled at first. So I wrote a couple and taped them directly across from her on her closet door. One said, “Excellent Progress” and the other, “Good Job. Continue Improving, Alma.” She would peer over at them and read the message and then start giggling.
Lucky me, that I have so many great Little Mommy memories and at the end I was gifted with the opportunity to do what I could for her and be there. It may not have been what I intended, and part of me might wish I’d done more, but I was there, doing my best and the merriment is remembered, now, more than anything else.