This. This completely insane wishing of a further medical complication on a woman who's been barely hanging on to life for the past 3 1/2 weeks. Wishing another problem on this small, sweet woman I was told wasn't going to make it, yet somehow against all the odds has. So far. I don't even know what to call this.
When I realize that we're wishing this, hoping for it, discussing it, I suddenly can't breathe. Something is building in me, breaking, and I can't tell if it's laughter or tears. There's a split second when it somehow feels like both. Then the tears come and with them, the rage.
Only in a completely broken, cruel, callous system -- calling it evil would not be going too far -- only here in the richest nation with the "best healthcare" would a bereft family find itself hoping something's wrong. Something, anything, we can show to the insurance company to get them to allow her back into the hospital.
That's how we got in this situation, this insane fucking conversation. Technically, it isn't even our hopes that are twisted, it's the system, the insurance industry. If you're trying to deal with them, get anything done, then insanity is sometimes the only logical response.
I'm pretty sure I wasn't insane 3 1/2 weeks ago, on March 21st. Certainly not to the point of wishing a complication on my gravely ill mother. In fact, I'd been spending the day watching the HCR House Vote on c-span and having quite a lovely time with my beloved. Since there's only so many times you can yell "liar!" at the tv before it becomes tedious, we'd advanced to the fun portion of the event, critiquing ties and hair and making random cruel remarks about people's appearance in general.
So I was just trying to think of something witty to say about that orange fuck, Boehner, when the phone rang. It was my step-dad. He was in the ER with my mom. Severe abdominal cramping, calling 911, the ambulance, it had only been 40 minutes since this all started. "We were just sitting there talking" he kept saying.
I wasn't freaked or anything at that point, but I was concerned. Something made me ask if I could talk to her for a sec. She came on and I could hear the pain in her voice. "Hi, Mom, you just hang in there, you'll be all right, try not to worry" "Oh, thanks, honey" she says, "I'm sorry, I can't talk." "But, wait!" I say "I love you, mom." She says she knows, honey and we hang up.
Now I do have a bad feeling about this. I've never known my mother to want to get off the phone, for any reason. An hour later I get the call that they're taking her to emergency surgery. Maybe a blockage. I spend the next two hours telling myself I'm probably over-reacting, but checking on flights anyway. My dad calls sounding weary and stunned. Mom's bowel had ruptured, they installed a colostomy. She's pretty sick in ICU where she'll have to stay for a couple of days. He says there's something about a 48 hour window to make sure nothing real bad happens. It's his impression we just need to get her through that.
I assure him I'll be there on the first flight I can get out of Los Angeles, which turns out to be early the next morning. I arrive, greeted by rain and my worried-looking step-brother. There's no news, really. He and his wife, my sister-in-law, have been up most of the night. Everyone's relieved I'm there. This all feels too big for our family. The three of them feel more solid now that I'm there.
I'm supposed to be the strong one. The one who doesn't take any shit, who gets things done. The one the family tells funny stories about at holidays. How I scared the insurance company or rattled the doctor or told off this or that person in authority. I'm the one everyone calls when they need things sorted.
I'm this way because I am my mother's daughter. Not because I'm like her, but because she was considered the soft one in a family where soft is used as an insult. That was her mother's family, my grandmother's. Both my mom and I were raised by this hard, Scottish woman and her sisters, and they broke my sweet mother. She never did 'toughen up' as they wanted, instead becoming increasingly unable to cope.
When I came along, I fought her fights and tried to cope for her, becoming her protector. I had a rough childhood and my mother was absent for much of it, which people often think I should resent, but I never once blamed her and I credit her with being the only thing that kept me human in that environment -- no matter her failings, she loved me unconditionally. No matter what happened or what I did, I had one constant -- I knew my mother loved me.
But no matter how strong or tough or informed or brave you think you are, you're never prepared for some things. For me, that was seeing my mother in the ICU. My brother had tried to warn me so I'd be girded, but it was still too much. She was on a ventilator, surrounded by machines, being pumped with fluids to keep her blood-pressure up so she looked inflated, like a balloon. I tried to stay brave, she was watching me and I managed to look in her eyes, stroke her forehead, and tell her I loved her and how strong and brave she was and that it would be alright.
The words were like ash in my mouth. I had to run, to flee, escape my mother's eyes so she wouldn't see the primal fear in me. The choking sobs that were trying to escape. This was so far from alright or ok or any acceptable anything in my small, human experience. This was a horror show. This was hell.
It went that way all day. Us taking turns being with her while the others were outside, crying and decompressing and gathering our strength for our next turn in the room. I kept composing myself and then trying to ask questions, get answers -- how had this happened? why did the bowel rupture? -- these questions were being treated like they were beside the point. I finally got her doctor on the phone in the late afternoon. He was brutal.
When I told him our understanding of what was going on, he interrupted me and said my dad had gotten it wrong. That they weren't waiting to see if something bad would happen, that the worst had happened. She was in severe septic shock and was not expected to survive. That what usually happened in cases this bad was that the organs would start shutting down in about 48 hours. Did I have any other questions.
I didn't. I couldn't think. I could barely breathe. I felt like I'd been punched, or like a marionette whose strings had just been cut. I crumpled then. I don't think I've been thinking since. I still don't have any questions, not any that seem important, whose answers would help.
It's been a blur since. She's defied all the odds so far, my soft mom. She's been strong. In the first week, my son was flown down from Seattle, then went home. My partner drove up to comfort me and I eventually went back home to LA with him for a couple of days, to pack some more clothes and get my life in some sort of order before heading back.
Somewhere in there, the 48 hours came and went and, miraculously, my mother's organs did not shut down. Slowly, they started to work. And somewhere in those first days, my mother slipped away somewhere, perhaps into her mind, her eyes opening, but no longer seeing. Three times one of her pupils became fixed and dilated, then corrected itself in 24 hours. They didn't know, perhaps these were strokes. We were told she might be able to hear and were told it might comfort her to hear our voices, so we talked.
I told her of all the happenings with the family, of all the phone calls with relatives. Of the love sent from England and how Fiona was finally divorcing that jerk and the love sent from the wacky missionary cousins whose whole church was now praying, quite possibly handling snakes, for her. Of our monk friend who had everyone chanting. Of the problems that would ensue when she pulled through and who would get the credit?
I talked and talked until I couldn't find more words and then I sang. I sang all the songs she sang me as a child, and all the songs my Scottish grandmother sang to us both. I read her the poetry of Robert Burns, her favorite, and somehow the first week slipped into the next, filled with the laments and cadences of the auld country and the kindly voice of Burns reaching through the centuries, comforting us both, and providing me solace.
And so it goes till Good Friday, almost 3 weeks in, when she opened her eyes and told the nurse she was pretty. The next day, she was transferred out of ICU to a regular hospital room. We'd been living in the moment, under siege. Keeping track of tests and heart rates and fluid output. The horror of the two weeks of life support, the feeling of hope and relief when she was weaned off the ventilator, the crushing weight of emotion when we were asked our wishes regarding a DNR if she had to be but back on. The small hope bought on by her transfer, her speaking.
But, oh dear god, how incredibly weak she'd become in those weeks. When she got her blood pressure back and they stopped pumping her up with fluids, how shrunken she was. Her bones showing, muscles flaccid, her hands curled in. I wept over those hands, so warm and small, as delicate and fragile as a bird, those hands that had tended me as a child, now nestled in mine as I tried to soothe them with lotion and get them to uncurl.
I stayed with her day and night. I brought her tulips and daffodils, her favorites. She wasn't interested. My worries turned from her body to her brain. She speaks sometimes, but not others. She cries a lot. Her memory comes and goes and has huge holes at best. She has no sense of time, no continuity. But once in awhile she's her -- making jokes, asking after family, shocking me one day with "do I remember you saying Fiona was finally divorcing that jerk?"
Then I came down with the flu. Then I pushed myself too quick and it went into bronchitis. Knowing I was no good to anyone sick, I booked a flight home to recover a few days and plan to return with the car. And that's how I find myself helpless and far away. Since I left, the week has been filled with frantic phone calls. Filled with arguing with a new 'hospitalist' doctor assigned to my mother. Filled with me arguing against her being sent to a nursing home. How can someone so sick, someone who can't communicate or feed herself or push a button, someone who still has an open wound and is unstable, be well enough for a nursing home? I wore myself out tending her in the hospital because the nursing wasn't sufficient. How could this be?
We all strenuously objected. Against our wishes, she was transferred Wednesday evening. My dad and family felt helpless, not wanting to leave her 'stranded' there, yet having to. Then I spoke with the nursing home doctor, who said she was 'surprised' my mother was sent there in that condition, but that they couldn't just send her back without a new 'incident' as a rationale for the insurance.
She was rapidly declining in there -- they aren't authorized to give her the morphine she'd been on and she was in pain. She became rapidly less lucid until she was curled in the ball crying "please." Her colostomy has stopped working. They do an abdominal scan and tell us if it shows anything abnormal at all they can take her back to the hospital, back to where she'll be more comfortable, more tended to, and have her pain managed.
And this is how we find ourselves insane. Wishing a complication on this poor woman who's had enough. And since I started to write this last night, the night has come and gone. The test showed nothing, but my mother became so critical at 2 in the morning that the nursing home called an ambulance. The hospital immediately got her pain under control. They ran more sophisticated tests and found an abdominal abscess. She is currently back, not only in the hospital she was prematurely discharged from, but in the ICU.
She is more lucid again, and talking, and she is telling everyone her one clear memory of last night -- she remembers her 'escape' from "that place." She remembers running to the ambulance, running on her 'own legs,' refusing to acknowledge her condition, that she's still too weak to sit up.
And I'm glad she's taking credit. I'm glad she's seeing herself as strong and brave and capable of running when she needs to. I'm glad she's fighting. Some fights you have to have, her fight for her life being one of them. And we, her family, are in this fight, too, it's just horrific that we have to also fight the insurance industry at the same time. But as soon as I'm well enough to travel, I hope she'll still be well enough to feel me hold her hand, and hear me when I reassure her I'm right there with her and that I believe her when she says she ran on her own legs. I'll give her full credit for her courage, her heart, her brave escape.
And I'll tell her that, somehow, we'll all keep fighting. She's strong and I'll lend her whatever strength I have and we'll both fight for her life, her health. But I'll also be fighting on another, unnecessary, front, to force people to care for her the way they should. And, hopefully, we'll all have the strength to see those fights through to wherever they take us.
But Mousie, thou are no alane
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men
Gang aft agley,
An' leave us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy
Still, thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e
On prospects drear
And forward, tho I canna see,
I guess and fear