Her voice is whisper thin on the phone and its with great effort that any sound comes out at all. The changes in my mom have come rapidly and have changed her ability to function at her usual capacity. But her stubborn streak glimmers when her doctor tells her maybe she should start trying a cane.
Who me? I'm not old enough for a cane. No, I don't need that. No, no. Not that. I'm fine.
I shrink back a little in my chair at the shrill and razor sharp quality appearing in her voice.
She doesn't want to acknowledge that her gait is unsteady, and she has fallen a couple of times already. Her diseased liver has grown maybe triple its size and grossly distends her stomach. Ascites continue to build around her middle and its clear that walking is a major feat.
She has never been a drinker and yet Cirrhosis has staked a claim on her liver.
Ammonia built up in her system recently and induced confused thinking and lots of drowsiness. At very high levels, ammonia can induce a coma. We quickly got her to the liver doctor. She started a new medication that has fortunately brought her ammonia levels back down, but its a delicate balance calculating just the right amount of medication to keep it at a normal level. I check in with her twice daily.
I am finding its an odd thing when you are walking through your own illness, at the same time your mother is walking through one as well.
Who takes care of who?
She called yesterday. Could I pick up her gluten free bread at the health market? I'm relieved she has listened to her doctor and left her car in the garage for the winter months.
I pick up her bread and she insists I come inside her apartment. The heat blasts my face as I enter and I quickly take off my heavy winter coat. Its stifling to me. But her body can no longer regulate her temperature well and she is constantly cold.
It's the perfect metaphor for our relationship. She can't fathom anyone would think it was too hot. As sweat beads on my forehead, she tells me she is thinking she'll need to turn the heat up soon. I swear there is a glint in her eye as she says this. The word facetious comes to mind...
My past rises up to meet me. I am 12 again. Her traditional and strict rules rub up against my soft heart time and again. She closes off the heat registers in my bedroom telling me it isn't necessary to heat the whole house. I layer myself in long underwear, then sweat pants and quilt after quilt - its a classic Minnesota winter and its -15 outside. My nose is still red and cold when I wake in the morning and race down to the wood burning stove to start a fire.
The 12-year-old in me wants to remind her of her own advice a "little cold" never hurt anyone... and... yet, I'm not 12 anymore. And this too, is part of the reason I chose the word embrace- because I used distance to cope in the past, and sometimes I still just want to run.
She snaps me back to the present asking me which ones do I want to keep?
My eyes adjust to the soft lighting and I see she has been sorting through her Christmas ornaments. She has divided them into piles. Some for me. The rest will go to my brother. Christmases past spill out before me in a jumbled heap of beaded bells, glass ornaments, and delicate wire angels. We've hand crafted most of them, her and I, and they are a concrete reminder that we are deeply woven together, despite our differences. The sturdiness of the beads (her) entwined with the bending of the wire (me)-forming a brilliant and delicate white angel.
I still long for her to desire more. More Christmases, more travel, more time spent with her grandchildren. Its her grandchildren who have carved out a soft place in her heart.
But she makes no pretenses that she might have had her "last Christmas." There is no trace of sadness, merely a hint of resignation to what is. She is merely taking care of what needs to be done.
She comes around the corner as I heave the tote filled with ornaments into my arms. She is carrying her new coat- have I seen it yet?
I pause, with my heart lodged in my throat.
A few seconds pass, and it suddenly dawns on her...
Ohhh, YOU were the one who took me to buy the coat!
It was just last week and I had spent an entire day getting her groceries, picking up her pills, paying her bills, sending off her mail and helping her buy a new coat. Sigh... how will it ever feel like enough?
She awkwardly embraces me as I stand holding the tote.
Clearly, there is love between us.
Bundle up- its cold out there! She admonishes me.
I'm rushing now to get home in time for when Colton gets home from practice.
How will I continue to do this? To care for her when I am so easily transported to the past. I've been wrestling with this for so long.
I'm entrenched in thought when suddenly the wheels on the van lock as I grip the steering wheel, sliding on the ice as I approach the turn to my house. The ornaments shift precariously on the seat. With my heart beating rapidly, a singular, quick thought appears running through my brain.
Care for her as you will one day want your children to care for you.
You will never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment. Maybe I don't need to. Maybe those circumstances made me who I am, like them or not.
As I scoot down the hallway to my bedroom, I pause for a moment at the thermostat. I smile as I turn the heat down a few degrees. It turns out I like it a little more cool when I sleep at night. I realize the very things that used to make me want to run, are some of the very things I turn to these days.
And I'm learning... just keep embracing.