I open my mother’s bedroom door.
“Good morning, Mom,” I chirp, as I part the drapes. The chirp is a feeble bluff. I already know it isn’t going to be a good morning. I know she had a rough night. She was coughing like a ’57 Mercury on a steady diet of low-test.
At about midnight, I had to give her medicine. It was either that, or drive her to the Al’s Gas & Garage.
I retreated to the living room with John Steinbeck. I sat in the recliner until dawn, in a sleeve of yellow light… listening. I keep an eye on her with my ears.
Even with the drapes pulled, this cold Sunday morning in early March offers more gloom than light. I put my hand to her forehead, a slight fever. She is wan, and looks tired. Still, she tries to greet me with a smile of recognition. Recognition would have meant a lot to me. But she coughs instead. I’m not insulted. She’s ill.
I leave her in bed and, as per our practiced morning routine, I tell her I’ll be right back to help her bathe. Another bluff. I call for an ambulance instead.
Mom will turn 87-years-old in a few weeks. She and I both suffer from Alzheimer’s. That is the way with this disease. Nobody is allowed to suffer alone.
Mom has also succumbed to many of the other physical insults that get blithely piled on the hapless, helpless folks who have the effrontery to live beyond their ability to care for themselves. For the most part, though, I can handle all that crap. I have been handling it on a daily basis for nearly five years.
But today is one of those different days. Today, she needs an ambulance. Again.
The neighbors are getting used to seeing the ambulance in my driveway. Maybe they think it lives here. This is the fourth ambulance sighting in the last seven months.
Mom has become prone to UTIs—Urinary Tract Infections. Nasty buggers, and very high on my list of DEIs—Dreaded Elderly Insults. UTIs rob Mom of her balance, produce fevers, and scramble her eggs even more than usual. What’s more, they’re not good for her. Though I can recognize these insults, I cannot handle them all. Sometimes a son isn’t enough. Sometimes the sun and the moon aren’t enough. Sometimes she needs professional care.
“A few days on IV antibiotics will do it,” the doctors always assure me. And, of course, I am always thoroughly assured. Has anybody seen the turnip truck I just fell off of?
So, every time I bring her back home, she’s as good as new. Until I have to call the ambulance again. Have you ever seen Ground Hog Day?
The doctors and nurses tell me there is no way to prevent Mom’s UTIs.
“She’s incontinent,” they explain.
Incontinence: Dreaded Elderly Insult Number One. And, sometimes, Number Two, too.
The lead EMT has been to my house before, and recognizes me as soon as I open the front door.
“Fever?” he says, as he and his buddy wrestle the gurney round the narrow, cluttered spaces.
“Just 99.1,” I answer. “But she’s weak. Disoriented. No vomiting, though. She’s alert and breathing easily. But she does have a pretty ragged cough.”
He grins and nods at my practiced report.
Hell, I know the routine. I even have all of her insurance cards ready.
“Probably another UTI,” he suggests. “But the cough could be something else.”
I like this guy. His says what he thinks. Doctors be damned. Of course he says what I already know. Maybe that’s why I like him.
“That’s my guess, too. UTI. But the cough is unusual. Maybe something she picked up at daycare?”
He shrugs. “All women your mother’s age are pretty susceptible…to everything.”
He doesn’t have to say it, I know what he’s thinking, ‘Dreaded Elderly Insults.’ I can tell that he is insulted, too. Now I know why I like him.
He takes Mom’s temperature. “101.4.”
He has trumped me. “But I just took it ten minutes ago… it was only…”
“It’s good that you called. These things can get out of hand pretty quick.”
It’s good that I called. I’m proud of myself. I’m getting good at this. Mom is in good hands. So why is she so sick? And why do I want to throw up?
Mom is confused by the strange men in her bedroom, and shoots me an accusing look. She even sticks her tongue out. It’s okay, I’m used to it. I chalk it up. Alzheimer’s insult.
Even though she doesn’t know what’s going on, she’s quite cordial and cooperative with the EMTs. I’ve learned that the Alzheimer’s Imp reserves her insults only for the primary caregiver. After all, Mom still loves my brother. She hasn’t seen him since Christmas. And she doesn’t even remember Christmas. But she remembers me. Sometimes I think she wishes she could forget. How’s that for Alzheimer’s irony?
Just before they slide my mother, like a loaf of bread dough, into the ambulance-oven, I assure her that I’ll gather up her essentials, and meet her at the Emergency Room.
“Bring the cake,” she says.
“Bring the cake.”
“Oh, okay.” I have no idea.
I am right on the money with my UTI diagnosis. But I come up craps on the pneumonia and the heart attack.
Heart attack? Where the hell was I?
As a child uber-klutz, I spent more than my fair share of time bleeding and moaning in ‘50’s and ‘60’s Emergency Rooms. And I can attest that things have gotten better. I’m not the one bleeding anymore.
By the time I get past the armed guard (my mother is safe, now), and into the ER, Mom is in a comfortable bed, in a cozy, private nook, and some sort of chicken soup is being pumped into her veins. I hold her hand.
“Oh, Don, what are you doing here?” Don is my absentee brother. Mom can be such a kidder.
Mom seems totally comfortable, and settles in for a nap. I squirm in a hard chair. I pretend to read James Lee Burke’s Two For Texas, but I’m really more fascinated by the clock.
Two hours and fourteen minutes later a very harried doctor introduces himself. He is Indian, and his name includes several vowels I have never heard before. He sees the look on my face and smiles with less humor than an anvil.
“Just call me Dr. Almi.”
My plan had been to just stick with Doctor, but, hell, this is an emergency. I can, and will adjust.
“Your mother is a very sick woman.” And this from a guy who hardly knows her. “She has had a coronary event, or heart attack. She also has pneumonia, and a UTI. We will have to admit her.”
He looks at me sharply. “She is a very sick woman.”
I guess sarcasm isn’t his specialty. I guess he doesn’t watch House.
It turns out that Mom has a hole in one of her heart valves. And it’s getting bigger. Surgery is out of the question. She would probably die on the operating table. Wouldn’t want that. I have a perfectly good TV table. She takes most of her meals there. As good a place as any to keel over, right? Mom, get your face out of the spaghetti!
Six hours and seventeen minutes and thirty-two seconds later, they finally find a bed for Mom. I have already finished Two For Texas. Can anybody tell me what the hell it’s about?
After six days in a hospital bed with nothing to do but watch Cream of Chicken drip into her arm, Mom is in no shape to come home. She’s weak and disoriented. Naturally, the hospital boots her out.
The doctors and the Social Services Director recommend I send her for a couple of weeks of nursing care.
“But, she’s already in a hospital,” I observe. “This place is crawling with nurses.”
The doctors appear to be confused.
“We were thinking a rehab facility,” says the SS Director. Funny, I hadn’t noticed her German accent before.
“Rehab? From what, you’ve got her hooked on Chicken Noodle?”
The doctors all get busy consulting their charts.
“Herr Hill, your mother vill need a lot of care for a few veeks.”
I almost heil. “Ja, then, let’s get her the hell out of the hospital.”