Last night, I came home after an intense couple of days. Spoiler: I’m fine, my mom’s fine, no need to read further unless you want to share in some processing about aging and life in general.
I have been given an amazing gift that I never take for granted. My mom is 90, healthy “for her age,” sharp, and at the moment, living independently in her own home. A few years ago, she and my father moved from a state away to be 15 minutes from my house. My siblings supported the move, which I’m grateful for. I am 16 and 12 years younger than each of them and have always been a bit jealous that in the end, they would have had that many more years with our parents than I. So I figure I’m getting more “quality of time” now.
The pandemic made things a bit harder, of course. All efforts were on keeping Madame safe, so no one went in her house, and she didn’t come into ours. I met her for our thrice-weekly walks on her sidewalk, and we’d visit in her backyard. My sister, who lives about an hour away, would come for short visits (no using her bathroom!) in her backyard, and when it was cold, they sat, masked, in my mom’s garage. My brother once drove straight through from Missouri to stay in a motel and come over for backyard visits. Longer visits were coordinated with 2 week windows of scrupulous quarantining on both sides. I probably don’t have to tell you – you’ve done similar with your family.
But we made it through and are all vaccinated. Madame and I revel in being in each other’s homes again, grandkids (all vaxxed) soak up time with her. She and I have begun slowly making our way out into the world, masked, but going in stores and such.
And then, Thursday, I got a call from my 16 year old who had spent the night with Madame. “She said to tell you she’s confused and can’t understand things.” I asked if she could smile with both sides of her mouth (she could), then jumped into the car. Picked her up and we shot over to the ER near her house, the ER we have visited at least 4 or 5 times this past year for a fall (tip: sit down before pulling a tshirt over your head), high blood pressure, those kinds of things.
They ran her through the tests – CT, blood, ekg – to see if she was having a stroke or heart event. The doctor explained it was most likely a TIA and advised her as to the set of tests she would need to have over the next couple of weeks, or, we could go to a full-service hospital and get them all done at once. Which would also be a little safer, as she’d be under their observation. Mom is always one for efficiency, so she chose the latter.
(Insert boring but stressful details involving my dear sister-in-law who was already on her way for a pre-scheduled visit thankfully, parking lot exchanges of checkbooks and cell chargers, gripes about medical personnel not communicating well, a million texts between family members, my spouse racing back from being out of town, and 2 pugs. Life is messy.) The hospital was not fun, no surprise. We got through it. There were arguments about me staying with her (Madame does not live up to the title I have jokingly given her – she hates being treated like a queen and despairs at being a burden.) I work very hard to make sure that we honor her right to make her own decisions, literally turning my head down when doctors come into a room so they talk to her, not me, but as I explained to her, me deciding to stay with her was in my dance space and unless she kicked me out, I was staying. She admitted to being grateful, especially when her night nurse turned out to have a strong Russian accent, and that combined with a mask was just beyond Madame’s ability to comprehend her speech, so she appreciated me serving as interpreter.
Some notes specifically about “when someone you love, maybe-but-they-can’t-tell-and-probably-didn’t” have a stroke: if the person was on high blood pressure meds, they will stop that, as the high blood pressure could actually be helpful at moving a clot. And they will come in every 4 hours not only to take vitals, but also to lead the patient through a series of tests involving describing what they see in a picture, speaking certain words, lifting up legs and arms, touching nose, answering questions, etc. Even at 4 in the morning, they will do this. “I’m not sure my mom could do that at 4 in the morning even on a good day,” I said doubtfully, but Madame succeeded, albeit with a rather annoyed tone of voice. She has never been a morning person, a trait shared with her youngest daughter.
Ageism is an issue starting much younger than she, but let me tell, the ageism on a 90-year-old is pervasive and infantilizing. Medical professional after medical professional would come into her room, commenting with amazement at how good she looked! And she still lived alone??? She was independent???
“What is that like, on your side, receiving those ‘compliments’?” I asked her.
Madame doesn’t roll her eyes, I’m not sure if she knows how to, but she communicates the feeling with a simple direct look.
(Please do not treat our elders like freaks of nature because they’re still living their lives and looking good while doing it.)
We finally got the golden ticket to go home, hopped (okay, carefully climbed) into my pickup, and took a quaint backwoods trip home, with Madame trying to direct me, and me insisting that we “trust the machines, Mom!” aka follow my GPS, which kindly avoided traffic and gave us an enjoyable hill country drive. She admitted “the machine” did a good job.
I left her in the capable care of my dear sister-in-law and the two pugs. As I said goodbye, she repeated her constant refrain of the two days, that I just couldn’t know how much she appreciated me.
In one of those moments back at the hospital, when she was feeling frustrated and a little low, I tried to explain. “I guess this is just the price we’ll pay for you being 90 – but it sure is worth it, at least to me.” All of this is new to both of us. My dad died 5 years ago, and her own mother died in her 60s. Neither of us has experience, firsthand or secondhand, of going through one’s 90s. We are, each in our own way, going through it together, figuring it out together. With every new experience, we debrief together afterwards about what we’ve learned. (Key learnings from this episode: keep a small “go bag” with toiletries for her and me, snacks, and a cell charger. Insist on better communication from doctors. Insist that when an ER doctor agrees to a plan, that the nurse in charge come into the room so that everyone is on the same page.)
And BY GOD, you’d better believe this is worth it. I know so many people who lost beloved parents far younger who would give anything to have this. A few times a year, dealing with a medical event in exchange for getting to share in the life of a loved one who is still enjoying life? Pretty slick deal, if you ask me.
She’s the only one who can decide if it’s worth it to her. We talk often about what it’ll be like when the bad days outnumber the good. She’s still in the driver’s seat and her kids will never ask her to suffer for us. But for now, she’s choosing to keep up our walks, meeting twice a week with a physical therapist (“and doing those mmph! exercises”), eating her vegetables, taking her meds.
Because living is worth it.