Gregory Dennis: When the call comes about mom
You know the call is going to come. If you’re a Baby Boomer with an aging parent, it’s inevitable.
When your mother is 92 and living on her own a thousand miles away, you know the news is out there in the unknowable future.
And then one Monday the phone rings and the future becomes a little more knowable.
“Greg, this is Audrey, your mother’s housekeeper. Miz Dennis is in the hospital and not doing very well.”
I called Kevin, my only sibling, and we pieced together the sketchy details. It was obvious that we needed to head south if we wanted to see mom before she died.
I found a flight out of Albany that would get me to Atlanta that night. Kevin and I could meet there and drive over to Augusta.
He contemplated that for a moment. “Why don’t you come down to Boston this afternoon and have dinner with Rebecca and me?” he replied. “We can fly down together in the morning.”
I immediately agreed to make the four-hour drive, thankful for the brick-like steadiness my brother brings to things.
Because my father had ended his medical career as a colonel in the Air Force, Mom was hospitalized at Eisenhower Army Medical Center. My brother and I got to the base by noon the next day.
But the process to simply get a base pass stretched out for well over an hour.
We should just tell them Mom was dying, I muttered, and that we don’t have time to get one of their stinking base passes.
Finally at Mom’s bedside by mid-afternoon, we contemplated her drawn face and matted hair. She drifted in and out of sleep.
I thought for a moment of her glory days. She could be difficult even then, but she always had something interesting to say. No one knew what to make of her, but they all liked being around her.
Now she was an old woman in a hospital bed.
Kevin and I huddled with a nurse. Mom had had a heart attack the previous day and was in severe septic shock from an infection that had spread to her bloodstream. She’d received an initial dose of IV antibiotics. But now she was refusing all care except for pain meds.
Her passing, the nurse told us, was just a matter of time — a day, maybe two.
Kevin and I spent the night at a local hotel and came back to the hospital the next morning — half-expecting to be told mom had died in the night. But there she was sitting up and semi-alert, asking for applesauce and a Coke.
Two MDs and a nurse joined us a few minutes later.
“I want to die,” my mother said, staring at the doctors. “Nobody ever does what I ask them to do around here. I want to die now. Why can’t you give me something that will kill me?”
As a woman never known for her tact, Mom was at least acting true to form.
“I understand you want to die, Mrs. Dennis,” said one of the doctors. “But we can’t give you anything for that. It would be illegal and unethical.”
Mom knew that, of course, having been a doctor’s wife. She turned her face to the wall in angry resignation.
As that day progressed into the next, it became obvious that despite her sincerest wish, my mother wasn’t going to die anytime soon. The doctors said they’d never seen anyone survive what she had.
Her pure bad luck, I guess.
Kevin and I become regular visitors at the hospital. I told my mother I loved her. She said she loved me and was proud of her sons.
My brother and I got to know the nurses and their shifts. We conferred regularly with the social worker whose job it was to transition mom out of the hospital.
Neither of us could stay long in Georgia. So we scrambled to arrange hospice care and 24/7 home health aides.
Meanwhile, Mom kept downing Cokes and applesauce. And complaining that she hadn’t died yet.
Throughout it all, the hospital personnel proved to be top-notch.
“Why is everyone in this hospital so nice?” I asked a corpsman I met on the elevator.
He sized me up for a moment: “This is the military. And in the military, we put a lot of emphasis on courtesy.”
Being in that hospital changed how I see the military.
They get sent on tragic misadventures to Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. But they still stand, as one hospital poster put it, “Shoulder to soldier.”
They retain a commitment to caring for their own that I found inspiring. I will always be grateful for that.
Today, a little over two weeks after surviving sepsis and cardiac arrest, my mother is back home and spends her days watching Fox News.
She’s a hardcore political conservative who looks forward to voting for Donald Trump in November, if she lives that long.
I joked with Kevin — in the morbid humor that one reaches for in these straits — that if Mom really wanted to die in a hurry, she should just turn the channel to the more liberal MSNBC until she strokes out.
My brother and I track her progress every day. Kevin, as her health proxy, deals with the hospice nurses and home health aides.
Things have stabilized for now.
But we know that one day, we’ll get another phone call.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: GregDennisVt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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