“There I was, cold, isolated and desperate for something I knew I couldn’t have. A solution. A remedy. Anything.” – Brian Krans, A Constant Suicide
You’ve had them. Someone shows up at your front door with some kind of awful news, or you get a phone call you just can’t wrap your head around, or some diagnosis you didn’t see coming. Those are the moments that change the way the air feels in the room and makes the sides of your vision go dark. I’ve had them, too.
The week before spring break and her 75th birthday one of her friends called me. Mom had fallen down the outside stairs of her apartment and had been taken to the hospital. Shit. I called the hospital and was connected to her room. When she answered the phone she sounded different, like hearing someone speak through a tube, and eerily detached. I asked her what had happened and she said she couldn’t remember but her knee was bandaged and it hurt. I asked her if there was a nurse or someone I could speak with and as luck would have it, or not, there was. The nurse said I would have to talk with the doctor, and I asked if she could have him call me with mom’s permission. She replied that wasn’t possible. Okay, what exactly am I supposed to do? I have no idea how bad this is, I’m not sure why my mom sounds weird, and because I was in a degree program with 8 week semesters, I was in the middle of finals. My frustration level was red lining.
She was assigned a caseworker who contacted me the next day. They were planning to discharge her to a skilled nursing facility the next morning. A hundred questions including the most important one…what exactly is wrong? She couldn’t tell me. Then she dropped the bomb. It turns out that Medicare will pay in full for skilled nursing for 20 days. However, and this is one devil of a however, the patient must have been in the hospital for 3 midnights; 3 days and discharged on the fourth. Mom had only made it to 2 midnights and her doctor was fast tracking her right out of the hospital to a facility that would ultimately charge over $6000 for 6 weeks of care. I’d love to know what his motivation was. I’d also love 10 minutes of his precious time. I have a few things I’d like to say.
I finished my finals early and we headed back to Illinois. In the meantime, mom’s friends had been keeping me updated on how she was doing and she was hardly ever alone. Everyone seemed confused as to what was happening to her and I still hadn’t spoken with anyone who could tell me definitively what was happening with her medically. We arrived the day before her 75th birthday and drove straight to the nursing home. It looked nice enough and the people that worked there seemed helpful. They directed us down a long hall and through some code protected double doors. When the doors opened, the smell of urine hit us HARD and there were people parked in wheelchairs everywhere. I had never seen or smelled anything like this.
When we got to mom’s room she was dressed and sitting up on the bed. Her knee was bandaged and she looked so small. 40 pounds gone in 3 months. She used to wash her hair every day and color it every 4 weeks but now her hair was dirty and almost all white. Her nails that she was so meticulous about were overgrown and broken. I didn’t even know where to start. I went over and hugged her; she seemed happy to see us but very confused. She complained a little about her knee but said she didn’t mind being in the wheelchair they had given her. A couple of her closest friends arrived and we made some small talk but I could tell that mom wasn’t following the conversation well at all. I also noticed that there was an obscene amount of chocolate candy in mom’s room. It looked like Easter and Valentine’s Day had made their yearly deposit of crap right there. It was in every corner, every drawer, and even in the small closet they provided. It was the only thing she was interested in eating.
I found her purse and made sure to get her identification and credit cards out of her wallet. Then I asked for her keys. She was reluctant to give them to me but I explained that she wasn’t going to be driving anytime soon and I wanted to make sure her apartment was taken care of and all her things were safe. We finally tracked down a doctor who told us that her x-rays showed a chipped kneecap but it would heal on its own and didn’t need surgery. Great. Then we got the news we knew was coming but didn’t want to hear. Mom had dementia and I needed to get power of attorney as soon as possible so I could start taking care of her and her needs. Wow. I know I shouldn’t have been shocked, we had talked about this, but now it was real.
One of mom’s closest friends is the ultimate take-charge kind of woman. She is also the one person who can almost make me believe in divine intervention. She told Bill and me that her brother was a local attorney and she had told him to start getting ready in case we should need him. I didn’t take her very seriously at first - I didn’t want to seem as though I was taking advantage and I had no idea what I was getting into. But, after speaking with the attorney at Scott Air Force Base and ending up in tears, I knew I needed help and asked her to go ahead and contact her brother.
He met with us and said he would take care of the paperwork and meet us at the nursing home the following day with it all ready to be signed. Not only that, but he would be bringing his assistant and a notary public so that it could be done on the spot. He told me that as long as mom knew her name, her birthdate, what year it was, and who I was that there would be no problem. However, she had to agree and indicate throughout the process that she understood I would be taking control of everything that was hers. I have never been so nervous and scared as I was leading up to getting all of that signed. Mom was on board, agreeable, and visibly relieved.
Xanax now had another super-duper valid reason for existing in my life. If it wasn’t for Bill, medication, adult beverages, my mom’s friends, and the attorney I would have come completely unhinged. I was damn close to it anyhow. When the security guard in a Target parking lot starts paying extra special attention to you while you’re sobbing and hysterical (yes, that bad) in your car you know you’ve turned a corner. I’d say that I’m a strong person but even the strongest have their breaking point. I know where that is now.