Those 2 unavoidable things

A month ago, Mom is doing great and going for walks in the sun. I’m juggling things pretty well: her stuff, caregivers, condo, writing, friends. We watch Dancing with the Stars on Monday nights and Doc Martin on Fridays. All is well.

Then it isn’t. A bad cough. No appetite. No strength. Doctors agree she has fluid around one lung. One treatment works for a while. Tests don’t reveal the cause. Everything else looks normal. The doctors don’t agree on what treatment next.

It’s a Saturday, offices & labs closed. Mom’s cough sounds worse, like she’s underwater and trying to surface, fighting for breath. The cough medicine makes her sick. I get her to the ER for relief. After more tests, they send us home. There’s nothing exactly to treat.

On Sunday, she sleeps, when she isn’t coughing. I sit and stare. At her, at a picture on the wall that’s crooked, the spots I meant to get off the rug, the gray sky outside. I’d move if I could. Everything feels very far away.

I finally blink. Being 93 is the terminal condition. There’s no permanent cure to find. That’s what the doctors mean, in all the different ways they say it. The indefinite future when she would pass away has become, almost overnight, the foreseeable future. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t Mom’s ability to be right as rain again. The light is the end approaching, the headlight of an oncoming train, the one that’s non-negotiable.

oxygen in use2I’m frozen, realizing its full force will hit me, not her. She’ll be home free. I’ll be the one left with the abyss of loss. I’ll be the one gasping for breath. I can’t concentrate on anything else for days. It’s the opposite of adrenaline. The calmness I’ve gotten from taking care of her is changing to fear.

Our talks take on a scorching intimacy that nearly breaks my heart.

“I never in a million years thought I’d get this old,” Mom says.

“It’s remarkable,” I say.

“I’ve lived long enough,” she says. “I might as well conk out.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” I say. “You can’t just decide to go and then go.”

“I’m not any help to anyone.”

“You are,” I say. “You employ four people now, who all think you’re delightful.”

“They do?” She smiles a little. She knows it’s true, but it isn’t ladylike to boast. “I’m looking forward to Heaven. I want to tell Mother I forgive her.”

After years of trying to find out what she has to forgive her mother for, the explanation that makes most sense to me is that she didn’t have the mother she wanted. Her mother didn’t love her enough. I guess she didn’t know I thought that too, once upon a time. I hope I never told her that, or if I did, I hope she didn’t hear me.

Now we talk quietly every morning when she wakes up, and every night before she goes to sleep. The real world is less distracting then, our world the one that matters. In every conversation, she asserts that she wants to stay home with me, not go to a hospital or nursing home. She isn’t ever alone here.

“What’s making you cough might not have a cure,” I say, inching toward truths. I use the word “Hospice” often, which doesn’t seem to bother her. “Hospice helps people who need more care near the end of their lives,” I remind her. I’m her lifeline, and Hospice will be mine.

I’m inching my way toward acceptance. I think she is too, in quiet moments. The coping skills I’ve learned in the years of caring for her are the same ones I’ll count on to help me navigate the train wreck. Then navigate my life without her.

Staring at death, Mom didn’t like what she saw and chose defiance. She seems better, courtesy of Hospice oxygen and the rallying visits of friends. She’s still having too much fun to conk out.

It’s been a challenging foray into dying. The next fun thing I get to do in April is file our taxes.



14 thoughts on “Those 2 unavoidable things

  1. Carol Montrose says:

    Jennifer, I left a message to you a while back but didn’t leave my e-mail.
    I am the editor of the Lybarger Linkages & was wondering if you might like
    to share some stories and possibly pictures of your Lybarger family for the
    next newsletter?
    Carol Montrose (p.s. I have Lybargers on both my mother’s & father’s line.)

  2. Teresa Hayden Campbell says:

    Jennifer, My thoughts are with you and your mother. It is an amazing and precious love the two of you share.

  3. Dennis Harris says:

    Been there, done that. I did what I could to keep her at home and safe as long as possible, even if she and my siblings didn’t always appreciate what I was doing. When she was gone I suddenly had all this time for myself that I hadn’t been taking!

    The hardest thing was having to parent my parent when she couldn’t think clearly.

    Just keep muddling through and enjoy the time you have together.

  4. Mark says:

    Dear Jenn, You are walking a path that is different for everyone. Mother is gone almost 11 and Pa almost 5 and I still think about them every day. I wish I had been able to spend more time with them as their time grew short. It’s a pain that will never leave. Do what you can and remember that both of you are in our thoughts and prayers.

  5. Victoria says:

    Beautifully, insightfully written. Many of us didn’t have that chance and span of time at the end–but you do, and you are loving and caring and smart enough to know how much it is worth, for you both. Thank you Jennifer for being the person you are and doing this work.

  6. Kari Neumeyer says:

    You are a wonderful daughter and a brilliant writer. Thank you for sharing this experience.

    No need to ask forgiveness, the rest of the world can wait.

  7. John Greely says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    It’s been years since we talked but I felt close to you in reading this eloquent vignette of life with your mom. I think these moments you describe are the definition of family. Thanks for sharing.

  8. susanissima says:

    Hi Jenn. Thank you for sharing this precious process. As I read your posts, moments from my mom’s passing emerge out of the fog of forgetting. Thank you for being that catalyst, because I do want to keep that sweet time alive. You wrote “The coping skills I’ve learned while caring for her are the same ones I’ll count on to help me navigate all that comes after. The rest of my life.” I can tell you that you’re spot on with that observation. Our capability is enriched by having been there, now. Hugs. ❤

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