Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Home Care Diaries, Part One: The Prodigal Mom

Well, I did it.

My Mom is back on Nantucket, ensconsed in a new bed in our re-arranged dining room, settling in.

I'm happy, but I have to admit that my first response is to feel daunted and a little overwhelmed. Seeing my mother in tne assisted living home, and later on in the depressing skilled nursing facility, it was easy to say, “I’m busting her out of this place.” And in fact, it was fairly easy: just a matter of booking plane flights and hotel rooms and moving vans and boat reservations; buying suitcases and boxes and GPS units; and doing one long day worth of manual labor, broken up over four days of beach jaunts, restaurant meals and movies – almost a vacation. It was enjoyable working with my son, and we paced ourselves expertly. True the apocalyptic California sky – harsh cloudless blue tinged with forest fire smoke – made us uneasy, the streets of downtown long beach resembled a some police staute utopia in a bad science fiction movie, with cops everywhere (I saw one of them harassing an elderly gentleman waiting for a bus, as if he were a vagrant: “What are you doing here? Where are you heading? What’s your plan?”), and bizarre street signs posting a ten O’clock curfew for anyone under eighteen and forbidding a new crime called ‘cruising’, defined as driving by any spot in the city more than three times in four hours. But we ignored all that. We had a job to do and we did it.

The journey east was relatively easy, also, it turns out that there’s a use for all that politically correct, handicapped-friendly, wheelchair-accessible infrastructure. If you’re actually in a wheel chair, it makes life startlingly easy. A local clothing store had to install a wheel-chair elevator a few years ago after a fire, to meet our draconian building codes. It’s never been used. It always seemed absurd to me, before (especially since the second floor sells work clothes). But I’m starting to get the point. In fact, I may just walk Mom down there in her wheel chair, to give that elevator its maiden voyage.

Our flight was delayed by a tropical storm pushing up the North-East coast, so we wound up spending the night in the Logan Airport Hilton. The comfortable beds and flat-screen television smoothed over the convenience, and brought home to me with some force the very different world that rich people inhabit. The motel we stayed in during our time in Long Beach was a grim and utilitarian place by comparison. Walking down the dark, cement floored, cinder-block walled passageway to our room, I remarked to my son, “This is like Cabrini Green”. “But with no gang graffiti,” he pointed out. We were grateful for small favors.

For Mom and me,the Hilton was our last mooring: now we are launched on this unfamiliar sea. I’m getting my bearings quickly though. I knew we would need someone in the house during the day to take care of my Mom’s relatively minimal) needs – help getting to the bathroom, and reminders about her medication schedule. In case she needed me in the night, I put my cell on her speed dial. She had to go to the bathroom at 11:00, 1:30, 3:45 and 4:30. To call this grueling sleepless night a ‘wake up call’ seems both too obvious and wholly inadequate (there were four of them, after all). So now I know we need two shifts, if I’m going to be able to work and stay healthy while this adventure proceeds. The whole routine felt strangely familiar, and then thought occurred to me that this situation is in many ways like caring for a baby. You feel the same stress (Am I fucking this up?) the same lack of experience (You know people have done it before but it doesn’t seem that way), the same constriction of your life: any activity that leaves the person in your care alone has to be planned and organized well in advance. Life suddenly requires a lot more thought, as someone else’s needs take precedence over your own. Of course, the ‘baby’ in this case is a brilliant, entertaining and charming woman to whom I own an incalculable debt, which makes the comparison seem petty and petulant. But it maintains its traction, anyway.

I’ve spent the morning interviewing potential helpers, making initial doctor’s appointments and trying to get someone to fix our dryer -- swamped with details, trying to keep track of first impressions and phone numbers, while Mom chatted with the applicants for the job. She was very frank with them and she said something a few minutes ago that helped put the whole process in perspective:

“I’m happier here than I’ve been in weeks –in months. Years maybe, I don’t know. It’s just so good to be home.”

Well, that’s the point, that’s was why we did it, and that’s makes the whole extraordinary journey worthwhile.


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