Last night my mom fell from a single step leaving my sister’s house. As vigilant as everyone has been, it’s impossible to protect her twenty-four seven. On a split second of a diverted eye, down she went. One look and it was evident she had done some real damage. They called an ambulance and took my mom to the hospital. There’s something in the German culture that must be passed genetically engendering a complete paranoia of any kind of medical care. My mom has this gene in spades. Couple this with her dementia and we all knew we were in for a real struggle.
They operated on her earlier in the day. My sister, Sandy had spent the previous night with her. My sister, Ebby, spent the following day. I took the evening shift. Her left wrist was shattered. They told us we had three choices with her wrist: we could just leave it and let it heal on its own, we could have them put a couple of pins in to insure the wrist would heal straight, or they could go in and try to reconstruct the wrist. Her age ruled out the last option and the first option might leave her with a very crooked and useless hand. We opted for option two. They also discovered a fracture to her left hip. At her age a fall can wreak havoc on those brittle bones despite the amount of calcium she has consumed. For her a meal is not complete without a glass of milk. The surgeries went as planned and now we have to deal with recovery.
I am near the end of my shift. I got here at 8:30 and it’s now 7:30 in the morning. Soon, my brother is supposed to show up to relieve me. I’ve never been so thankful for drugs and modern medicine as I’ve been tonight. Mom is a real creature of routine. When you take her out of what’s familiar all bets are off and it can be a daunting battle for what is real and what she fantasizes is happening. The drugs seem to calm her down. She’s sleeping once again. Selfishly I want her to sleep. I don’t want to have to struggle with the defiance and disorientation I know will come when the drugs allow her to wake in a world she won’t recognize.
When she wakes she won’t remember the accident and when I try to reconstruct the memory of the fall she’ll deny it happened only remembering the time she broke her ankle forty years ago. When she’s awake she desperately wants to get up insisting she’s fine and needs to get home, the place where she feels safe. There are times I look in her eyes and it’s as if I can see right through her. It’s then I know she doesn’t see me but has drifted off to another time and place. She tugs at her gown thinking it’s her sweatshirt, she’s hot and wants it off. She thinks she’s at the Light Haus, my brother’s stained glass studio. Then just as quickly she needs to get back to our childhood home to take care of the baby, which one of us she is referring to is something only she is aware of. There are moments when she calls out for one of her sisters not remembering they passed away one by one leaving only one other sister from what were originally five.
“Oh where, oh where can he be?” she sings as her mind rambles through history in search of old memories. It’s the sweet part of how she deals with such a precious loss. There’s no anger then. It’s a childlike naiveté where time is infinite. The search, like a treasure hunt, has a certain joy and irrelevance, the actual outcome not being important. The smile and the laugh accompanying the little dog song are the endearing moments of a journey through dementia. I brace myself for the inevitable, the reawakening, when she crosses over to the scary side of her mental disease where the confusion and inability to sort out her reality turn to anxiety and fear. In some way, I’ve had the lucky shift. For my shift she’s supposed to sleep. The administering of the drugs is a part of the process. When she wakes from this last dose she’ll have to start preparing herself for another day of struggling with where she is and why she’s here, and what she’ll need to do. When she tries to pull out her catheter or ripe the bandages off her arm we’ll have to try to hold her down resisting the desire to ask for additional drugs to knock her out. She’ll, once again, try to tear off her gown exposing her nakedness to my eyes. No son wants to see the bare body of their mother, but I’m forced to look in an attempt to cover her and restore her dignity. Her legs are a jaundiced yellow and her fingers are now turning black and blue. The medicine is turning her tongue and lips black. I’m amazed by the unwrinkled quality of the skin on her legs. Are they this smooth or has the operation made them swell to a taught youthfulness? I pray I am spared her exposing her breasts. I’m no longer worried of the propriety but of the fear they will be repulsive in their octogenarian state.
It’s 8:00am. My brother should be here in another hour. I just met her doctor, the doctor who did the surgery. He came in to check on the dressings on her leg and arm. His name is Doctor Dockter. I worry I may be in a Mel Brooks film. I worry about my mom and I worry about myself. I selfishly think about what will happen when she wakes and what I will be forced to do. I worry about how she will recover. I worry about what will come next, the therapy, the nursing home, pneumonia.
The TV has been all night. The morning news programs are now beginning their litany of worldly woes. Haiti still dominates the headlines, hundreds of thousands dead, the image of people trapped under rubble still holding onto a hope for a second chance at life. When stacked against the desperation of an entire country, my worry seems petty and moves from big to small.