The tree must go up

Ben and I went to get our Christmas tree on Friday, the earliest I’ve ever had a tree. It’s like bringing home a pet. It has to be watered every three hours around the clock for the first 24 hours, or it dries out, stops “percolating,” and doesn’t last the month. As if I needed anything else to disrupt my sleep, Ben and I took turns getting up to feed the baby, er, water the tree.

When I told mom that we got a tree, her first response was, “Christmas is a month away.”

“I can enjoy the tree for a month, then,” I said.

When I start talking about Christmas, she says things like, “Well, you know how I feel about Christmas.” Over the years mom has done her best to put aside her ambiguity around Christmas, but I know it’s there.

Perhaps it has something to do with being raised in a single parent home in the first two decades of the 20th century when divorce was not all that common. My grandfather left the family, returning long enough at one point to get my grandmother pregnant with a third child. When mom was 12 she saw her mother almost bleed to death from an illegal abortion. Those kind of memories tend to coagulate during the Christmas season.

My Christmas memories are also mixed. Mom and I used to go to the Christmas Eve candlelight ceremony, a ritual I loved and a memory I still cherish. I also remember us decorating the tree with tinsel. I also remember that we always bought my stepfather a tie and then he got drunk.

I don’t remember if it was just one Christmas, or several, but I loved visiting my grandmother on Christmas. She had remarried at 65 to Pop, my step-grandpa. They lived in a tiny bungalow in San Gabriel, California. I remember everything about that house including the tiny Christmas tree she placed in the dormer window in the  front room. It is a permanent Christmas memory, tinged with a little sadness that I didn’t get to live with her year-round.

Years of Christmas seasons have come and gone. I became a single parent and every other year my son would go to his father’s house for Christmas. But I would put up the tree, wrap the presents and lay them out, and when he came home, he, mom, and I would celebrate. When we first moved to Washington we began a yearly tradition of cutting down our own tree. The first year Jared and I hadn’t yet learned the rules–trees look much smaller in a forest of giants. We came home with a ten-foot tree and mom, at 84, helped us set it up, the three of us laughing as mom held onto the trunk of the tree so tight we couldn’t move it to set it straight in the stand.

As Jared grew up he no longer wanted to hunt for the tree. I went with friends, brought home the tree, and decorated it myself. We had our tree, no matter what.  It became my offering.

When Jared was home on Christmas, we made it a good time, but as he grew up it was hard for me to balance the needs of an 80 something year-old and an adolescent. Mom was content to sit in a rocking chair and listen to classical music. Jared wanted some action. The best I could do was take him to a movie. For four years running, we went to see The Lord of the Rings. We would come home later, have pie with Grandma and take her home.

Now Ben and I go searching for a tree–this year to a produce stand in the lower valley. Ben put it in the stand, set the alarm for 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to water, and left me to decorate.

It’s nothing fancy, but I see it as a piece of art–the scent of pine, the lights, the ornaments I’ve been putting on the tree for nearly three decades. Angels and homemade stuffed bears, wooden snowmen and and snowmen made from bells with Jared and my names printed on them, musical instruments, a stuffed Santa, and Disney characters from The Little Mermaid provide a mix of childhood whimsy and a spirit-filled tree. The white lights for the light of Christ, the red ornaments depicting the blood of Christ, and the wooden snowmen and Santa Claus depict the pagan characteristics of Christmas. Well, okay, the Christmas tree is pagan as well. Not to mention that Jesus was supposedly born in April.

But I embrace the contradictions and complexities of Christmas, even when it’s hard, even as mom struggles with her mixed feelings, even as my son finds a new path and celebrates with new people, even as others debate the incongruities of Christmas–the tree must go up.


It’s fine

Ben read my last few posts and said, “The’re fine.”

I don’t know about you, but I know the definition of fine, and it’s not, “Hey that’s great.” It’s the acronym for f….ed up, insecure, neurotic and emotional. My brother and I ask each other how we are and we always say, “I’m fine,” and we know immediately that we’re not fine at all.

What Ben is really saying is, “There’s something on my mind and I’m not sure how to tell you.” As in, your blog is really f… .” Well, you get the picture.

Then I say, “Ben, I need you to tell me the truth.”

I begin to get nervous the way writer’s get nervous when someone says, “It’s fine.”

He says, “No, really, they’re fine.”

The neurotic part of fine has just taken over my frontal lobe.

Finally, he says, “I think you’re obsessed with mom.”

To which I snorted, “Hmmmm, you think?”

I reminded him that the blog is titled, Taking Care of Mom. Daily reflections on life with a 101-year-old woman. “It’s pretty clear,” I say.

“If you want to read about politics, there are plenty of blogs. If you want to read about what it’s like to be a primary person in a very old person’s life, then read my blog.”

“Oh, right,” he says.

I hear pathos. I’m thinking that I should make reading my blog an optional activity in our home.
But, you can learn a lot about me by reading my blog,” I assure him.

In the hot tub last night, we talked about other things. First we had to decide whether or not I was obsessed with mom.

Then he segued and asked me whether or not I had thought much about my new garden design. The garden is covered in snow, but Ben’s enthusiasm for garden design was predicated on the need for a new topic.  I was hooked and for ten minutes we mused about where the potatoes were going to be planted six months from now, where we could store them in the fall, and where the tomatoes could be planted. Trust me, this was a surprising conversation.

Then we talked about work, not his favorite hot-tub conversation.

“I ask you questions about work, not to bug you or be controlling, but because it’s something else to talk about….sweetie.”

He wasn’t buying it.

Then we talked about mom.

At least I tried

I set the table on Thanksgiving with mom’s pink wedding china. Each set of dinner plates, dessert plates, and serving bowls has a different 1700s historic scene painted on the china. I used her sterling silver flatware, also a wedding present and cut glass hors d’oeuvre serving dish to serve her cheese and crackers and a glass of wine before dinner.

I laid out her white tablecloth because that’s the only backdrop appropriate for pink china. Ben didn’t understand why I didn’t use my red tablecloth. Pink on red doesn’t work for mom’s generation, I explained. I laid out some of her old cloth table napkins, even though she brought a pile of paper napkins she had saved from suppers at her retirement home. I added the sterling silver candleabras, but didn’t light the candles because the light hurts her eyes.

As I was cooking dinner and laying out the table, Ben went to fetch mom and bring her to the house in a wheelchair. Once in the door, she said, “I’m never going out in the winter again.” I wasn’t sure if that was a pronouncement or a premonition. It’s hard work for her, even when the weather is nice. The high was 18 and she didn’t have gloves because she told me to take hers one day when I was without.

Wherever she is, she’s uncomfortable. She needs to use the restroom frequently, and she didn’t have her special pillows to help ease the pain in her back. Nothing helps, not even the eight Tylenol a day, which she has been taking for years.

After dinner, Mom said, “It all looks so familiar. Many people have eaten on those dishes over the years.” She appreciated my effort, but the three of us sitting around the table felt a little flat. I had trouble breathing as I always do around holidays.

Around 3:30 I served her pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream. She said, “Oh, this is just great.” She was pleased. And then, she was ready to go home. She felt like she was in our way, but I assured her that we weren’t in any hurry to go anywhere. I fixed her a sandwich with a piece of pie for her supper at home later. At her place, I prepared a cup of tea: set out the sugar bowl, a tea cup with a tea bag, and got the tea kettle ready to plug in. We kissed her and I told her I loved her and she said she loved me.  Then we left.

The memory is bittersweet, but at least I tried.

Muddling our way through

Sometimes I have to remind my family of the hazards of being related to a writer, who is writing a very personal blog. It’s a fine balance, to share honestly from my perspective, without forgetting about all the other perspectives. My brother, for example, could write about what it’s like to be 1,000 miles away from his mother, unable to fully communicate with her, needing to work, needing to take care of issues at home, not knowing when he should come up, flying here in inclement weather, especially when he’s sure that pilots navigate by looking at the railroad tracks below. When it gets cloudy, well then, we’re screwed.

My brother said I sounded snippy in a previous post when I related the story of him saying it wasn’t “necessary” to come now. It’s true, I was snippy. I apologize. But sometimes I’m tired and frustrated and feel alone with this. I can’t sleep and things bounce around in my head until I sit down and write them out. It’s therapy. It’s a conversation with anyone who wants to join in the conversation. It’s a story about a family and a woman who has been at the center  of it for a very long time and who doctors say is going to die “at any time,” and we know different.

I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of a writer’s angst either. He doesn’t deserve that. My brother has been the best possible long-distance son a mother could want. He has been there to support me all the way through it, even if he can’t be present,. When things are tough and mom resists change, he’s the closer, the one who convinces her of the next step. He has a tender heart for his mother and for his family. He’s a good man I love with all my  heart. My writing has opened up conversation with my brother in a new way, and for that I’m thankful.

My brother and I struggle with this journey with mom in very different ways. But we are going to “muddle our way through” (a mom-ism) and come out the other side with our family intact.



The unsung heroes of caregiving

Ben and I have known each other six years, married four and a half. He hasn’t known me any other way than caretaker advocate for my mother. Through all her  numerous health issues Ben has been quietly in the background supporting me.

Two years ago I was the editor, reporter, photographer, and layout person for a small community newspaper. Every time something happened with mom I was still required to get the newspaper out. Finally push came to shove and I felt it best to quit my job to be more available to mom and to everything else that needed to be done. Little did I realize that she would be alive more than two years later. I’m still not working and the finances have taken a hit. Ben never complains, never tells me to get a job, never gripes.

When mom and Ben first met, mom wasn’t quite sure what to think about Ben. He “didn’t fit the picture.” The first time he met the family he had allergies. He sounded like a wounded seal, barking out his coughs without covering his mouth–mom’s pet peeve. Every time he coughed, mom would jump and I would cringe, the family with me, all of us knowing he was making a very bad impression on mom. I finally asked him to go outside with me. I shared my concerns, which was embarrassing for us both. We barely got through that first family meeting.

Then Ben began to share his quirky sense of humor with mom, humor mom didn’t get or appreciate. He would sometimes tease her and from there it got worse. One time when the family was here for their yearly visit on mom’s birthday, mom was talking about the environment, one of her causes. Ben, being the pragmatic, and also the jokester, said, “Well, you know what they say, mom. If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” She was flabbergasted.

Ben laughed. Of course Ben loves trees–he’s the one who has the tree book in hand and wants to name all those trees. But he just couldn’t resist teasing her in her seriousness and thought he was just hilarious. No one was laughing. (Sometimes I just look at him and say, “Honey, that’s not funny.” And he says, “Yes it is.” And I say, “No, sorry.”) The rest of the family were in the kitchen, going, “Oh shit, he’s done it now.” If there was a table for me to kick him under, I would have.

Mom was also threatened by Ben because he was “taking me away from her.” Little did she stop to realize that he was making it possible for me to be more available to her. She became nasty to Ben. When he would try to help her get up, she would bark at him, “I’m fine, Ben.” If she was eating at our house and my brother or nephew were here for a visit, she wouldn’t allow Ben to be the one to move her up to the table and adjust her chair. He couldn’t get it right. Finally, Ben would give up, without comment, and my nephew would step in.

At one point her rudeness to Ben reached a point that I had to call her on it. She was in her late 90s and I understood her frustrations, but it didn’t give her the right to bark at my husband.

And then there are the holidays. Every Thanksgiving (except two) and every Christmas for 18 years, mom has been with me. That means that for the past five years, since meeting Ben, mom has been with us every holiday. I don’t mind, except that we are often invited to be somewhere else. It would be fun to share a meal with friends or go south to share a Thanksgiving with family. This Thanksgiving our friends Paul and Katy invited us for their family Thanksgiving. We had to decline. We will love on mom and enjoy one more Thanksgiving meal with her with gratitude. (And, thankfully, we have a yearly ritual of pie and Baileys at Mary’s house after we take mom home.)

Ben will continue to support me in supporting mom, mostly left out of any decisions about what we do. Tomorrow morning he’ll pick her up, love on her, transport her with the wheelchair, transfer her from apartment to car, and then get her from our car to the house. He’ll help me with the food, he’ll serve her, he’ll shove her chair up to the table and she’ll say, “thanks, Ben,” because, thankfully, mom and Ben have worked through their earlier difficulties.

When we take her home tomorrow night Ben will lean down and kiss her and say, “Love you, Mom,” and she’ll say, “Love you, Ben,” even though she still doesn’t think he’s funny.

Sometimes, she’ll ask me how we are doing in our marriage and I assure her that he is my hero. This Thanksgiving I’m even more grateful for my wonderful husband. I couldn’t do it without him.

Thank you, sweetheart. I love you.

And I really do think you’re funny.

What’s necessary?

Sometimes I think the hardest thing about caretaking mom is doing it without my family, and then having to figure out how to coordinate the family when and if it’s necessary for them to come visit mom. I try my hardest to get it right. Is she or isn’t she dying? That is always the question. For years, that has been the question.

The doctor says, “She’s dying, but I don’t know of what.” The oncologist says, “The cancer has returned. She probably has three months (five years ago). The doctor says, while she lies comatose on a hospital bed, “If it was anyone else but your mother, I’d say she was a goner.” Wow, thanks doc.

And then, the social worker says, “She has six weeks.” Somehow, I don’t believe him, even though last week I told him I trusted him. I do, but no one has had it right yet. Several years ago I said that I would believe mom was gone when she had taken her last breath–and didn’t take another one for at least ten minutes. That’s sounds macabre, but you don’t know my mom…or if you do, then it doesn’t sound macabre, just accurate.

Her primary doctor, who didn’t even know she ended up in the hospital last Sunday because no one told him, (which elicits a lot of trust) said the CHF is probably not going to be what kills her, “because we can manage that.”  It’s because she was in “decline,” that he put her on hospice, at my request. My request, however, is really mom’s request because she doesn’t want to see the inside of a hospital ever again.

Obviously, there are no guarantees.If something happens that requires medical care nothing “aggressive” will be done, but if she breaks a hip, we’re not going to leave her to languish. We’ll call 911. Then we’ll call hospice. But if she has a major heart attack, we’ll call hospice. But not 911. That’s the bottom line, if there is such a thing. All of this gets confusing and disheartening to figure out alone with little family interaction except when there’s an emergency and then I call the family and say, “I don’t know what to say, but this is what the doctor is saying.”

Her doctor, knowing mom as he has for the past ten years, says, in so many words, “It’s a crap shoot.” No, those are my words. He simply says, “I don’t know.”

When I called to tell my brother the non-news that CHF won’t kill her, he said, “well, maybe it wasn’t necessary to come now,” although he was saying that rhetorically since I already made plane reservations. I said, “Maybe not necessary, but a good idea.” I also reminded him that he had just told me she could no longer hear him on the phone, so why not visit so you can have a good conversation with her one more time while she is lucid and often humorous. I also reminded him that I had suggested a week ago that we wait a week or two to make any reservations to see what was necessary.

I decided that when Stan and Annie come next week Ben and I are going to take a day and go away together and have some fun by ourselves without our phones on and without me thinking about what mom needs or what the family thinks about anything.

We’ll do what’s necessary.

Is this a woman who is dying?

We got a skiff of snow last night. I think winter is finally here, even though yesterday there were still pea flowers on the vines I planted in August. Today I will watch the unpredictable Seahawks, play Christmas music (while the Saints pummel the Hawks…why do I watch this sport?), and put up Christmas decorations. Mom will tell me on Thanksgiving that, “What, it’s just Thanksgiving, and you have Christmas decorations up?” Or, she won’t notice. Or, she will enjoy them, which is my intent.

Mom is doing well on the medications. And now that she has her own personal social worker, chaplain and nurse, she is doing even better.

Tomorrow I’ll go shopping for her, the usual list that I have been buying for years. I used to order and purchase her medications, but now hospice has taken that job. Instead, I will buy her Ponds Cold Cream and Oil of Olay, which has kept her wrinkle-free, or so she says, Activon for arthritis, a large bottle of Vitamin C, and Soft Soap.

Mom used to do all her shopping until she was 95. That’s when we insisted she stop driving. I had talked to her about it many times and neither Jared nor I would ride with her after she was about 87. Too scary. I would ask her how she got the new dent in the fender and she would invariably say, “Someone backed into me.” Stan, the closer, finally called her and said, “Mom, do you want to kill someone in your old age.” She conceded.

That’s when I started taking her shopping. Every Thursday I would leave work early and take her to her hair appointment and to the store. Then, I would take her just to the hair appointment, and she would wait in the car while I shopped. Eventually we had to convince her not to go to her hair appointment. It involved walking down a narrow flight of cement steps into the hairdresser’s basement shop. I would hold mom around her waist from behind while she held onto the railing and navigated the steps.

One day it occurred to me. If she falls, I’m either going with her, or I’m letting go. I didn’t like my choices. I told her I would no longer take her and she would have to get her hair done at her retirement home. At one point, she tried to go around me and hire Ben to drive her and get her down the steps. He took her a few times (no charge). Finally, the hairdresser simply said she didn’t want the liability. Another hurdle crossed.

Now, mom goes to a fabulous hairdresser 100 steps from her apartment. Wanda says she has never known anyone like mom and treats her with tender care. Yesterday, mom got a perm, which is an ordeal. Is this is a woman who is dying?

And then I realized that when I was making out the list, I didn’t think, “Mom won’t be needing this stuff much longer.” I’m not sure it’s denial, or just dealing with the reality of my mother. She doesn’t concede easily.