Casualties and heroes

Changing your life so drastically can have a trickledown effect on those around you. Brian and I have exchanged our share of tears and difficult conversations in the two and a half months that Mom has lived here. We’ve worried about money, worried about whether one brother would step up to the plate (which he has done, admirably) and accepted that the other cannot. We’ve struggled with the added time to our already packed schedules. On Sundays I get a double dose of church, which I have to admit is a lot.

I’ve missed events, annoyed people for backing out at the last minute, neglected my friends, behaved childishly with my husband, and sometimes let rest and exercise and eating right fall by the wayside. Through it all my mom is hyperconscious of not wanting to be a burden. But let’s be honest–those of you who know her know that “sunny” or “sweet” are not exactly words that would describe her personality. She is Midwestern. She is direct. She is stoic. And, to be frank, she can be a little crabby, like her mother before her. (When Grandma Ruth lived with us, Mike and I would put a picture of a bug on the garage door on particularly cranky days so that Mom would know when she got home that Grandma had a bug up her butt.) Mom comes by her crankiness honestly.

Brian has borne the brunt of some of her difficult tendencies. Getting yelled at to “stop!” in the grocery store isn’t pleasant, particularly if you aren’t used to it. I guess my brothers and I have developed a thick skin. Particularly hard was getting caught between my husband and my mom, wanting to defend him to her (don’t talk to him like that) and her to him (she’s a dying old lady, so cut her some slack). A visit to a counselor (I did say this has been difficult, right?) helped us to learn that I didn’t have to be in the middle, that I didn’t have to “choose sides,” and a couple of frank conversations between Brian and my mom have eased this situation tremendously.

I have found, though, that in the midst of difficult times, there are heroes. Lifelines.

Brian is one of these. What husband and son-in-law signs on for helping to pay for and maintain a second household, or at 46 years old to inherit a full-grown elderly adult to care for? He takes out her trash, checks the water bottle on

B is so very patient with her, even when she snaps at him or bosses him around. For him — for us — it is like suddenly at 50 years having a child. We are, all three of us, making our way as best we can.

her oxygen concentrator, vacuums her floor, accompanies her to the store, pays her bills, all without much complaint, certainly not to her. And meanwhile, he keeps loving me, letting me vent, holding my hand, forgiving my mistakes.

I think Mom is a hero, too. She really hasn’t missed a step, not too much. She’s already baking cookies for my school and Brian’s work, and my father-in-law, and my friends. She has settled into a brand-new place, with new hospice nurses and a new hairdresser and a new church, and only B and me to make sure she has everything she needs. She gets her laundry washed and bed linens changed at the mercy of my schedule.

I’ve also come to learn through this experience that there are doers (also heroes) and sayers. My friend Ginger is a doer. She asked one night if she could come with us to my mom’s to meet her in person. And then she went back, on her own, so that Mom could teach her to play cribbage. She has invited us for dinner and brought dinner to Mom’s. They text regularly, and Mom bakes cookies for Ginger’s husband Paul. Ginger gives B and me a night off sometimes just so he and I can spend time with each other.

Another friend–I’ll call her Kim–is a sayer. She tells me she wants to meet Mama J, and I have no doubt that she really does, but Kim will not actually, in all likelihood, ever meet my mom. I am not placing blame. I have been both a sayer and a doer, as I suspect many of us have (probably a sayer more times than I care to admit). I have had the best of intentions go awry. But I’ve learned so much about human behavior in these past months. And I’ve learned that Kim’s well wishes and good intentions can be meaningful, too.

I’ll miss mentioning someone and regret it, but so many others have been so very kind, and they are my heroes and lifelines, too. My dad sent us money to help get Mom’s apartment set up and is willing to love and listen when things get tough. My dear friend Courtney made a way out-of-the way side trip to Baton Rouge at Christmastime to spend time with us, and her mom, Mrs. Kay, sends me the loveliest words of encouragement and is coming down from Shreveport to meet Mom for the very first time. Sweet Andrea walked up and down the aisles of Target with us and is always available for a text, call, or visit. My friend Tashia sent a Christmas card to a little old lady she’d never met. Our pal Bonnie offered to photograph my mom and me. And wonderful friends from work, Amy and Sarah, have listened to all my woes, gone to eat lunch with Mom and me, and sent goodies her way. Brian’s parents, whom I think of as my own, have been incredibly loving and kind. Other friends are offering love and prayers and a shoulder at every turn. These are gifts and blessings I can only hope to repay.

I suspect there will be more heroes, and more casualties, in the difficult months ahead. I cannot fill my heart with worry about the difficulties or the mistakes I will make, though. The wonderful little book Jesus Calling reminds me of this, just at a time when I need to hear it the most:

“Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god. Worries, if indulged, develop into idols. Anxiety gains a life of its own, parasitically infesting your mind. Break free from this bondage by affirming your trust in Me and refreshing yourself in My Presence.” 

Next post: “The morphine is sticky.”

And Mama J makes 3

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.

Mama J in February 2015

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.

Next post: Casualties and heroes