We’re having a snowy day. All of the area schools are closed and the roads are said to be icy, making driving hazardous. But this is not Minnesota and we’re only supposed to get 3 to 4 inches. Just enough for the kids in the neighborhood to build a small carrot-nosed snow man, throw a few snowballs or sled down the steep winding hills that surround us. For me, it’s a great day to settle in with a hot cup of spicy tea, a good book, forget about the Christmas Holiday ahead and just be kind to myself.
Yet a restlessness follows me through the rooms of my house like my cat, Pepper, who shadows me as I go about my daily routines and sometimes causes me to trip as I move from one place to another. But this restlessness is a quiet stumbling over things hidden in the passage of time. It is the reminder that December is filled with anniversaries that can take away the pleasure from an already stressful time of year.
Thirty years ago my father died, and was buried on a snowy December day in Hanover, New Hampshire, in a plain pine box that my brother, Reid, built. Five years ago this month, one of my most precious companions, Hannah, had a stroke, while she sat in my lap. She was a Maine Coon cat, who really belonged to my daughter, but came to live with us and stayed, when Lisa was unable to care for her. She had congestive heart failure and I took her that evening to the Emergency Vet and had her put to sleep.
The most difficult event occurred on the 18th of December, exactly four years ago tomorrow, when my mother, who was living with us, had a fall that marked the beginning of the end of her life. She had recently been told by her oncologist that there was nothing more he could do to prevent her lung cancer from spreading. Just before that Bill and I had taken away her car keys because she was a danger to herself and others on the road.
Not a happy camper, she took her suffering out on those closest to her. I was there. Not the easiest person to live with under normal circumstances, she was narcissistic, an alcoholic and was still smoking though she knew she had cancer along with emphysema. She was on oxygen, but would disconnect herself and step outside to have a smoke.
We’d invited her to live with us 7 years earlier when her health started going down hill. At first she was very independent, and took care of most of her own needs. But as time passed and she was diagnosed with cancer, I took on the role of caregiver to my parent. It was something I wanted to do, not knowing that I was still trying to gain the love and acceptance that all children want from the person who birthed them. Against much good advice not to put myself in that situation I began a very demanding, confusing and exhausting time.
I loved her. I was heart-broken that there was little that I could do to help. She was in denial about the cancer and whenever I tried to be helpful, I hit a brick wall. She was a sweetheart one minute, a clown the next, and then a monster from hell.
I was no angel myself. Mothers and daughters have a way of pushing each other’s buttons during the best of times. Oil and water! She was stubborn and afraid of dying. I was trying to help and gain her trust and acceptance, while asking her to see the truth of her situation.
On the day she fell, we had arranged by mutual consent for her to spend a few days in an assisted living situation that would give all of us some space. With Christmas in the wings, the pressure was too great on all of us. As she was packing, she got tangled in her oxygen hose and fell, breaking her left shoulder. She was in a lot of pain and all she wanted to do after her visit to the emergency room was to come home. So back she came, and we all tried to do the best we could.
Three days later, she got tangled in her oxygen hose again, and this time suffered a spiral fracture of her left femur, on the same side as her shoulder break. This time she couldn’t come home from the emergency room. She stayed in the hospital for several days while we were told to look for a nursing home with a rehabilitation program. On Christmas night she called at midnight, telling my husband she needed him to come and get her, because the people there were trying to kill her. He calmed her down and we spent the rest of night dreading what was ahead.
Finding a decent nursing home was not an easy task. Highly recommended to us, the first one we visited smelled of urine right inside the front door. It was obviously a poorly maintained facility with walls needing paint and doors needing fixing. An old woman was wandering around with only a shirt on and none of the staff seemed concerned.
I was not doing well through this process … panic attacks, bouts of crying, and deeply felt grief for my mother and myself. My husband, bless his heart, kept up the search for a facility and found one that didn’t smell, was fairly new and seemed pleasant enough. I visited and was cheered a bit by the plate of chocolate chip cookies that greeted visitors by the front door. The rooms were clean, the patients seemed fairly happy and it was a mere 5 minutes from our home. Regrettably, it and another facility were to be her homes for the next five months. She died on May 21, 2007.