Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's hard to explain who I am or what I'm going through. The simple facts are that I'm a 59 year old woman, divorced for 20 years, three kids, three in-law kids, six grandchildren. Six and a half years ago, I moved back in with my mother, after my father died. I thought at the time it would be a short term thing... I didn't think she would outlive my dad by more than a few months, maybe a year at best. But here she is, now 86 years old, and who knows how much longer she'll be here.

My dad died of cancer. He had numerous surgeries for skin cancer over 20 years. In November of 2001, he discovered a cancer growing in a gland in his neck. In December, his right arm broke when he turned over in bed. There was a tumor growing in the bone. Doctors operated, removed the tumor and set the arm. He underwent radiation for a bit, but stopped it when he realized it wasn't going to give him much more time. He entered a VA hospice in mid-January, and three days later, with my mother with him, he died.

My mother's decline is more subtle and heartbreaking and distressing. She has had COPD for more than 25 years. This May, her breathing became much worse. We attributed it to the fact that there were several wildfires burning in the area; some days, the air was brown from smoke. Eventually, however, she went to her pulmonary doctor, and he sent her to a cardiologist. He said that often a sudden decrease in lung function is caused by heart issues. The cardiologist put her on a heart monitor for 10 days, did an echocardiogram and scheduled her for a 20 minute stress test on a treadmill.

One morning in mid July, I woke up at 4:30 am, to my mother calling me. I hurried to her room to find her shaking uncontollably. She couldn't breathe and was almost incoherent. I called 911. Within 3 minutes, the paramedics were knocking at our door. They evaluated my mom, and rushed her to the hospital. She had pulmonary edema and ventricular fibrulation. Basically, her lungs were full of fluid, and her heart was beating both erratically and much too fast. In 24 hours, she passed 3 liters of fluid, most of it from her lungs. Drugs were used to steady her heart, which had been beating at about 140 beats a minute. After three days in a local hospital, she was transfered to a larger hospital for an angiogram and additional tests and medication.

Finally after a week, we brought her home. But although her lungs and breathing are better than they have been in years, her mind is a mess. She's extremely forgetful, and often misplaces things, forgets what she has been told only minutes before, and alternates between anger, depression, and annoyingly upbeat behavior. After 86 years of being a penny pinching budget conscious person, she's spending money like she wants to get rid of it all before she dies. In a month, she's purchased a new flat screen tv, a stand for it, new clothes, shoes, purses, garden supplies. She had a new kitchen faucet installed, bought a new toilet seat, a new can opener, and had the front screen door rescreened. She loves to go to Target or Mervyns or Walmart, or the Dollar Tree, and just wander up and down the aisles. I have to accompany her, and I hate shopping. But what I mostly hate is the constant chatter that is so much a part of her personality now. Usually, she will ask me over and over again, "What are we looking for again?" Some days, after she's taken her morning meds, she will ask me three times "Have I taken every thing I need to take?"

Shortly after she came home from the hospital with a new prescription for heart meds, in addition to her high blood pressure meds, her prednisone and her baby aspirin, I devised a spread sheet to go along with her pill box. She could check off all the pills she was taking, so that she could keep track of which ones she had taken. I included her "must-takes" as well as the optional things such as Xanax and Ambien. Most of the time it works ok. For several weeks, I would hand her the pills and inhalers and watch her take them. Then, as her memory improved, I started letting her take them on her own, and check them off. But that ended tonight. Last night, Saturday, after she took her evening meds, I refilled the 7 day pill box with the meds for the next week. Somehow, either very early Sunday morning, or this afternoon while I was napping, she took both Saturdays pills, and Sundays pills. She dutifully checked off Sundays checklist, and I have no idea when or why she would have taken an additonal days pills. The only scenario I can come up with is that she woke up early (sometimes she's up at 4am) took her pills, and went back to bed. She made a note that she took a Xanax a 6:30am. Later that day, I saw her standing at her dresser, as if she were taking her morning meds. I suspect she either forgot to check them off at 4am, or she thought she had just checked them off without taking them.

I come out to the living room at 6pm to start dinner, and she was sitting on the couch with her pill case in hand, confused and uncertain. I talked to her at length, and determined that she must have take two doses. The good news was that the only thing she had "overdosed' on was her blood pressure meds. The heart med and prednisone were both half tablets, so she had only taken a days worth all together. She still seemed confused and disoriented, and I had to repeat myself at least a half dozen times before she understood what had happened. She agreed to let me take all her meds into my room, and hand them out to her as needed. I took the Xanax and Ambien too. She may be pissed off tomorrow, but I think its best, and I'm not giving them back to her until I'm reassured that she can be trusted. Which may be never.

I think by far the worst part of this is trying to remind myself that she's not doing this to piss me off. She's not the same person she was a month, six months, a year ago. And she's going to keep deteriorating. I feel like an awful person for thinking this, but sometimes I wish she would just die now, before her mind goes even more. True, there are days when she's still sharp and her old self. But there are other days when she is confused and uncertain, and those are the days that try my patience. I KNOW it's not her fault, but sometimes I want to scream. She starts babbling on and on about things of absolutely no consequence as soon as I get up and sit down with my coffee and paper. She wants me to get dressed and take her here, there, and anywhere, when all I want is to work on my writing, or scrapbooking, or quilting.

In all fairness, I do spend two to three days a week babysitting my grandkids and I know she gets lonely when I'm gone. But taking care of three kids under 3 1/2 years is exhausting. Nash is constantly on the move, wanting me to play with him, get him juice, help him put on his underwear, find his train, etc, etc, etc. His brother Jack is 2 1/2 and follows Nash everywhere, and wants everything Nash wants, except when Nash is next door or at preschool. But Jack also wants books read to him, and needs diapers changed, and when he's tired, he throws tantrums. Baby Alice is almost 10 months, crawling everywhere, standing, pulling things off tables and shelves, needs constant supervision. She needs to be fed, and given a bottle, and rocked to sleep, and diapers changed.

I love my babies, but the point is, on days when I'm not spending 10 hours watching toddlers, I want to do all the other stuff I can't do when I'm there. But Mom is sooooo needy. And I promised my dad before he died that I would take care of Mom. And I know Dad would come back and haunt me if I let him down.

It's just so hard. I spent so many years raising my own family, and now I'm helping raise my grandkids. And on the days I'm not with them, I'm dealing with Mom and her issues. I just wonder when it's going to be my turn? When do I get to have a life? Who's going to be there for me? Oh, I know, I know. My kids will take care of me in my waning years. But I want to have GOOD years before that. I want to travel, live on my own, not be obliged to anyone. I want to eat dinner when I want, sleep in til noon, stay up til 3 in the morning. Go to the grocery store at 10pm if I have a craving for rum raisin ice cream. Go to the gym and swim without worrying that Mom will try to drive herself to the Dollar Tree while I'm gone.

I know Mom won't live forever. But two months ago, I thought it was the COPD that would kill her. Now, with her breathing so much better, I realized she could live for years and years, physically healthy but mentally crippled. I question every moment if I have the strength to take care of her. Not physical strength, but the mental strength to deal with doctors and prescriptions and the ups and downs of Mom's emotional state. I grit my teeth and smile, retreat to my room to cry and cuss and bitch under my breath, and suck it up. I sew when she's sleeping, scrapbook while she's watering the garden, and write while the babies are napping. I just wish I had a strong, empathatic, (preferably male) shoulder to lean on.

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