February 3, 2012

Dad's New Normal

This ran as a cover piece and Editor's Pick on Open Salon on Wednesday February 1, 2012.

Forty-eight hours ago I thought my mother was going to die. Soon, just two months shy of her 80th birthday. In the last week, she has lost the ability to walk and feed herself. Her lucidity has seriously declined, she has full-body tremors on and off, and she mumbles to herself most of the time.

I sped the 200 miles north to see her yesterday and she was in terrible shape when I came into her room. , I almost did not recognize her, as she sat in her wheelchair in her room. She was missing her signature pearls, and wearing a grey sweat-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to accommodate her petite frame. She couldn't lift her head.

I said, "Hello, Mom," and she looked up at me and said, "Hello, sweetheart. I love you."

Mom has decided she isn't going to die yet.

After watching her decline for ten years, I've made my peace with her dementia.

But it isn't about me.

Nor it is really about her right now because she is getting wonderful care, and unlike many older adults in the world, has everything she needs and plenty of love.

Now I worry about the new normal for my father, whose entire life has revolved around her care.

He was up an hour before me this morning, and went to the gym to exercise. He huffs and puffs as he walks now, but he is doing as well as can be expected. At breakfast his first cousin whom my father resembles joined us for breakfast and they told stories and speculated on tonight's primary. (I've always suspected my father was a closet Democrat; seven years in a retirement home adjacent to a major university has solidified his liberal leanings. Sssshhhhhhh. Don't tell anybody.)

The change in Mom's condition has wrought one good consequence; as a family, we reviewed Mom and Dad's advanced directives and final arrangements. My dad, brother, and I sat around their kitchen table with a big white binder in which dad had everything organized. Their funeral plans were made more than 15 years ago when everything was different.

The thing I admire the most about my father is his remarkable ability to adapt to change. From the death of his father when he was four to the loss of all of his siblings, Dad has manged to handle life with grace and a sense of humor.

Most of his named pallbearers were already dead or too old to lift a big oak box, and he laughed about that.

As soon as my brother left, Dad went to bed and I could hear him snoring almost immediately in the next room.

About an hour later, he woke himself up screaming and nearly scared the daylights out of me. He had a bad dream. I went into his room and talked with him for a bit, and he was better this morning. We labeled Mom's clothes and took her clothes and shoes over to see her.

While Mom is still unable to walk or get out of a chair, this morning she lifted her head when the physical therapist came to discuss the therapy assessment with dad.

Dad introduced me, and Mom lifted her head and reached out her shaking hand at the therapist, who happens to be quite easy on the eyes.

"I'm Marilyn," she said and flashed him a huge smile, her green-blue eyes blazing blue.

The human spirit is a great mystery, and the older I get the less I understand. For whatever reason, she is not ready to go, and was still quite capable of flirting with a handsome man.