LOCAL SPIN: Go Gentle
A daughter struggles with her mother’s imminent passing.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
My mother is dying. Not in the philosophical way that we’re all dying, not in a general “the future is promised to no one” way. There is an expiration date – I can’t see this lasting more than a month – but she’s hoping for it to be so much faster.
A hospital bed has been delivered, a social worker and a chaplain are being dispatched, and the visiting nurse who has been going to my mother’s house since a bout of shingles laid her flat is trying to arrange for her palliative care to transition to in-home hospice.
At 84 years, she’s down to 81 pounds and has zero interest in food, not even the cakes and goodies from the Polish bakery that have for years composed a healthy portion of her diet. She’s supposed to receive a new morphine patch every 72 hours for the neuralgia caused by the shingles, but she battles with my sister to accelerate that schedule. Also on a schedule are her pills: one for pain, one for anxiety and another meant to confuse her nerve endings into thinking the postherpetic pain from the shingles doesn’t really exist.
“It’s time to get this shit over with,” my mother told me a few weeks ago when she first mentioned hospice. It was the last time we spoke on the phone; she’s since been too weak to hold the receiver.
“IT’S TIME TO GET THIS SHIT OVER WITH,” MY MOTHER TOLD ME.
What I found when I got to Chicago June 10 was so much worse than I expected, and I’d expected it to be bad. It’s consumed me for weeks, rocketing me awake at 2am (Was that the phone ringing? Is my mother dead?). It’s the second thought I have every morning, the one that cancels out the first thought (Time to get moving) and renders all thoughts that follow irrelevant (Here’s my list of things to do; but wait, my mother’s dying).
She and my sister live in a small condo on the Southwest Side, a building mostly inhabited by senior citizens. I arrive and get my first look at my mother in four months, and then I retreat. I head to the elevator on the pretense of running an errand, and I ride up and down and wail.
My mother and her siblings starved their way through the 1930s, a combination of too many mouths meeting not enough food. Their mother worked in the stockyards at a meat-packing plant. Fridays were a good day because it was payday, and she brought home a ring of bologna; for a day or two, there would be some food.
And now, my mother is starving again. The first day I arrive, she eats half a bowl of oatmeal for lunch and half a bowl of borscht for dinner. She sleeps for 12 hours during the day on the living room couch, bolstered by pillows, towels folded to keep her arms away from her painful sides. She holds my arm to shuffle to the bathroom, and as we pass her china cabinet she says with a tongue made thick by medication, “Take what you want from there.”
I keep waiting for someone to tell me this is a joke, that I’m being pranked. I keep waiting for her standard behavior: She harangues me about my hair and my clothes, asks me if I still love my job. We play endless games of Rummikub, and she wins most of them. We play canasta, and my sister and I cheat, otherwise we’d never win at that either. I keep waiting for her to yell “Maer, let’s go to the library. Maer, let’s go to the junk stores. Maer, it’s 3 o’clock, let’s go eat dinner.”
I sit in her room and look at the crochet projects she will never finish. She loves to read, but she’s now too weak to hold a book. She’s been waiting for my arrival to talk about hospice, but she’s too out of it to talk. Her heart is still strong, but her nurse tells me during a phone call they can classify her as “failure to thrive” based on her refusal to eat. My mother’s friend comes over and tells me I have to force her to eat, or force her to take fewer painkillers, but to what end? She’s angry with my mother for giving up, she says. I think she’s angry because I’m not angry too.
I don’t have time to be angry. In the morning, I have to do battle with the pharmacy, which has lost the prescription for the morphine patches. We were supposed to have a new batch on Sunday, but when we called, they said they have no record of the prescription being dropped off. They apologize profusely, I call the doctor, the doctor says the pharmacy has to contact him, the pharmacy tells me even if he contacts them, because the morphine patches are a Class II controlled substance, I need to have a newly written prescription in hand before they’ll fill it. My brother and I wonder where the prescription went; he’s a probation officer and suspicious like me, and we assume it’s been stolen. The clock ticks toward Tuesday and the decision to enter hospice.
For now, my mother sleeps on the couch because she finds the hospital bed uncomfortable. I throw a pillow down, lay on the floor next to the couch and try to read a book, but really, I’m just waiting for her to call my name.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.