Proud and terrified daughter and son-in-law Gail and Brian S. of Baton Rouge, welcome a mother/mother-in-law, Joan O., also known as Mama J or Mama Joan. Age, 76. Weight, 75 pounds. Height, 4’10”.
Back in September when I drove to Missouri to visit my mom, I wasn’t imagining how completely Brian’s and my life would change in just a few short months. I was enjoying the September air and the beauty of the Missouri scenery and was only peripherally worried about my mom’s longtime declining health with emphysema/COPD/an undiagnosed and mysterious spot on her lung, and the concerns of her friend Linda, with whom she had lived for the past 15 years after my stepdad, Gene, died.
Sure, we had had conversations about Mom’s best options “if the time ever came” where Linda felt that Mom required too much care to remain in her home. Sure, Mom had been in first palliative care and then hospice care for six or seven months, and Brian and my brother Mike and I had gone to doctor’s visits with her during the two or three visits a year that Brian and I made up north. I knew that she certainly wasn’t getting any better. And I had already had a conversation with Linda about going to Missouri for Christmas, which she thought would probably be Mom’s last.
I was woefully unprepared, however, for the dramatic physical change in my mom since I had last seen her in February. In February, she still looked like herself — a slightly smaller, older, less hearty version of herself, but still Mom. She weighed perhaps 90 pounds then, and getting around was slow but manageable. She had begun small doses of oxycodone to help relax her chest for breathing and was starting to employ some energy conservation techniques, like not cooking on a day she would have company, for example, but she was still driving, going to church and the store, doing laundry, and generally living fairly normally, if at a slower pace.
In September, when I saw her standing there waiting for me at the top of the garage steps by the back door, I did not understand at first what I was seeing. This little stick-person, this skeleton lady with skin over bone and oversized clothes … this was not my mother. Someone had Photoshopped her face onto a cartoon stick-figure body. Even her hands, in which I had always seen my own hands reflected, had lost weight or volume somehow. How was that possible?
I do not know or remember what words I used to describe her to Brian, when I called to tell him what I had found. I do know that I told him of the humor and love she shared with her hospice nurse, who kissed the top of her head to tell her good night after her visit. I told him about the kindness of the social worker, who told me how Mom would decline and that pneumonia would likely be her final adversary. And I told him how one night when saying goodnight I hugged my mom and felt the tiny ribs beneath her back and how I sank to the floor and sobbed and asked her, “How do you live without a mom?” And how she stroked my hair and said, “I don’t know, sweetheart. You just do.”
I called my younger brother, Robert, who lives in Miami, and told him he absolutely must go and see his mother. And I drove home a few days later thinking that would be the last time I ever saw her.
I could not have been more wrong. Just two months later, Mom and I were making a two-day road trip to Louisiana, where she would move in to an apartment a mere three blocks away from us. Thus began the Adventures With Mama J.
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