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Resurfacing

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I wrote another thing this week. It got published on TheMighty.com.

Now for a confession:

There for a few weeks I began to wonder if I would ever be able to write about anything other than grief. It wasn’t necessarily all I thought about–that damn election left me pretty irritable, for sure–but it was all I could think to write about here.

Grief and loss and the delicate, heartbreaking process of giving care to elders is a topic that I first wrote about in junior high. A neighbor’s mother died of breast cancer–after months of at-home care, and my own mother was so moved by my fiction piece inspired by it that she shared the story with the family. That was, with the exception of a play I wrote about Henry XII, my earliest memory of someone “sharing” my work. It left me feeling warm and satisfied. It is at root why I decided, in my thirties, to declare myself “a writer.”

Right now my writing and my life are at a crossroads. Our son is older and more easygoing. He needs me less, it seems, each day. In a matter of years I’ll be free to work full-time again, if I choose. Could I maybe ever earn enough to give my steadfast, hard-working husband a chance in 10 or 15 years from now to let me pay most of the bills? My sweet ol’ daddy has my fantastic stepmother as his partner–and he’s relatively healthy, so he doesn’t “need” me in the multiple ways my disabled mother did. Still, I worry. My mother? She is, of course, dead.

My mother is dead. DEAD. Because of that my most recent job–that of primary emotional, fiscal, and legal caregiver to a woman  who could, frankly, be a real handful–is gone. I lost my mother, my job, my child’s need for me to mother nonstop, and my identity (not to mention my geriatric cat) last year, in a span of weeks.

It’s a lot to take, if you think about it.

But right now, in this moment, I no longer have that feeling that I’m always going to feel like, well, my mother and cat just died and I just lost my job and my son is going to grow up and no longer need me and dear God how will I ever go back to a “regular job”? Those things are still true, sure, but they no longer feel binding, restrictive. They no longer suck the air out of my lungs.

This week I went out with friends to dinner–twice. This week I saw former students and colleagues at a professional conference (I crashed it!) who reminded me that I was a whole person before this Decade that Pushed Me to My Limits. This week I read a book that I wouldn’t normally read but am now almost finished with it and kinda stoked about the lessons it held. This week I did a lot of Zumba at home in my kitchen where no mirror would force me to acknowledge that I’m, well, getting saggy. This week I pitched articles again, this time to new places that I’d refrained from reaching out to because I feared another hospital stay by my mother would keep me from completing any projects. This week I started to kick around an idea for another article so I could help other people wrap their head around eldercare in ways other than financials and how to persuade an old person to move into a retirement village.

This week I updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect the fact that, job titles aside, I’ve been a writer in every job I’ve ever held in adulthood.

This week with fresh pots of orchids on my buffet, a vase of daffodils and a bunch of roses on my kitchen bar, I feel like I’m not hanging around that liminal space between life and death but in a new liminal space between past and future. It’s fresh and clean here, kinda fun, even.

Maybe I’m fun again, too? Maybe I’m also battle-scarred and rambling and back to the size I was in grad school but maybe just maybe this phase I’m in is no longer an ending but actually, truly, and finally a new beginning.

Crank up that Zumba beat, man.

I’m ready to dance again.

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Heartbeat: A Scene from Summer 2016

 

Heartbeat | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.png

I’m sitting again in her room, this time in a wide, beige sleeping chair. It’s the one I confiscated earlier, while she was napping.

Funny, but after all these visits—the emergencies, the simple procedures, the long, complicated surgeries, I know where the staff keeps the “extras” on this floor: the spare chairs; the tray tables; the empty, broken wheelchairs.

Some of the staff on duty today is familiar to us. People like Moses. He’s the guy—the military vet down in the ER—who knows best how to place the needle through her pale skin. He uses a small-gauge pediatric needle in a particular spot on her hand. Like the Red Sea before his namesake, her blood and tissue heed his commandment to move.

Mom never cries, either, when Moses puts the line in.

If only every nurse were like Moses.

***

We’re in Mom’s hospital room—just the two of us, and it’s Sunday afternoon. The air conditioner is on full blast, swaying the vertical blinds. Earlier I nearly broke into a full sweat, simply from crossing the parking lot to enter the hospital.

How many times have I crossed that threshold? Over the last five years, she’s done the impossible again and again. I’ve watched her slip unconscious, struggle to breathe, and cry in agony. Yes, I’ve seen her bleed.

And then, a few days later, she’d be back in her nursing home, ordering me to bring fried okra and lemonade.

Mom’s a “frequent flyer” at the hospital. There are no special perks for this designation; no fancy room upgrades or mileage points we can cash in for a trip to Fiji.

We just know more minutiae: the admissions process, the location of the surgical suite, and how to schedule her meals using the telephone. As an added bonus, I know which cashier in the cafeteria will give me the staff discount on my Diet Coke when I wear my navy suit, when I can pass as a doctor or an administrator.

Frankly, the fuss and bother of this particular weekend has left us both grumpy. Mom’s irritated with the food and the staff. I’m irritated with… well, where would I begin? This is rewarding work but it’s also draining. There are the midnight ER runs, the panicky calls from nurses, Medicare’s gnarled red tape, and the logistics of engaging simultaneously in eldercare and childcare. I’m almost tapped out.

Yet, here we are, preparing to face a fresh bump on our journey. We’ve got a new doctor—for a new problem—and he has just sent an ultrasound technician to Mom’s bedside.

“Another damn test,” Mom mutters under her breath.

***

Earlier this weekend, they admitted Mom primarily for her usual problem: a serious urinary tract infection. There’s so much more going on, however.

Her case is complicated by advanced stage rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that was left untreated for too long. Her RA has kept her bedridden for years. It didn’t stop with her feet and knees and hips, though. There’s barely any cartilage left in her fingers. The top joints on her thumbs? They’re hanging on by a thread. Sometimes, you can hear the bone hit bone, rattling like a cartoon Halloween skeleton.

A few years ago, the RA turned on her soft tissues, specifically her urinary tract. That was when the recurring, nasty infections began and the giant kidney stones began to grow. One of the stones grew to the size of a hen’s egg.

It took the surgeon hours to remove it.

***

The new ultrasound tech begins the process by telling us what we already know: Mom is afib. Her heart is acting up. We need to find out why.

“I’m not looking forward to that thing,” Mom says, gesturing with one bony, visibly crippled hand at the ultrasound probe in the tech’s grasp.

“I’ll be gentle,” the tech promises. The woman makes eye contact and smiles at my mother, first, and then me.

I give them both an encouraging nod.

Reluctantly, the patient consents. The tech places the probe over her heart.

My stomach clinches instantly. My breath goes shallow.

Because I know.

I KNOW.

I know like I know that water is wet. I know that Mom’s end is coming–faster than she wants, faster than either of us is ready for. I know each test, exam, or scan made on this flight is going to lead us closer and closer to having to deal with what we don’t want to deal with: our last goodbye.

***

Finally, after some adjustments by the technician, an image comes into view on the portable ultrasound screen.

I see it and think it’s curious how human hearts never look like Valentine candy boxes. No, they look exactly like what they are: moving lumps of muscle.

The tech fiddles more with the machine. A sound fills the room.

It is my mother’s heartbeat.

Bum-bum.

Bum-bum.

I’m struck by the fact that this is the same heart to which I listened non-stop for 40 weeks almost 46 years ago. It’s the sound for which I used to listen sometimes, back when I snuggled up close to her as a little girl.

This is the last time I will ever hear my mother’s beating heart. My dying mother’s beating heart.

And I know it.

Is this new ache, forming within me, fear? Is it rising grief? Or is it an elemental, existential epiphany? Should I embrace it, breathe into it—or run?

All I seem to be able to do is sit here, paralyzed in this borrowed beige chair. I just sit.

Sit. Watch. Listen. Wait.

And know.

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