Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Facing the new year

2008 wasn't the best year I can remember. In fact, it could easily be labeled one of the worst, with a couple of exceptions. My cataract extraction and lens implantation surgeries were the high point. Since I was eight years old, I've worn some kind of vision correcting device and have never had clear, precise eyesight. Now, thanks to the genius of my surgeon, I do.

Once the healing was completed, I was ready to enjoy being retired. Barely a few weeks after, though, my mother-in-law fell in her apartment and ended up needing surgery and weeks of rehab. Howard and I began the six-month-long routine of driving either to the hospital or the rehab center each day, usually more than once, to check on her and spend some time. In between hospital stays, she lived with us, not a good arrangement for either her or us. She had a hard time adapting to our lifestyle and her own lack of independence in a strange house without the benefit of the setup she had so effectively managed in her apartment. We had a hard time adjusting to the presence of a person with specific medical needs in the tiny, over-55 home we'd bought two years earlier. Paper thin walls meant we were awake whenever she coughed or talked in her sleep. We found it impossible to leave her alone unless she was tucked into bed for the night and even then, we worried about her whenever we were out of the house. All in all, it wasn't the best solution to her health-care needs.

Then in November, doctors said she required major surgery. The lead surgeon didn't want to perform the operation because of her age and general poor health, but he had no choice. The entire large intestine had to be removed and an ostomy created on the small one. Mom knew the risks but wanted the surgery to be done and over so she'd have a shot at getting well.

It didn't work that way. From silent heart attacks to staph infection to pneumonia, she slid downhill quickly following the operation until we decided that in-hospital hospice was the only way to ease her suffering. On December 11th, she passed away and went to join her husband Howard and son Bill who'd been waiting for her for over 20 years. From what she'd so often told me, I knew she arrived on the Other Side and immediately lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in Howard's face. He had, after all, nagged her into quitting and she said with a laugh that she'd delight in getting back at him. She was a feisty, independent woman who had more courage than most of us are ever required to muster. We think of her every day, so many, many times as we go about the necessary business of settling her affairs and putting her bedroom back to its former use as a den.

Our younger daughter heard from her grandmother the other day. In the quiet of her room, she was feeling down, thinking of Nana, when the words "Take it easy," in Nana's voice, came out loud and clear. Erica was Mom's "Rose Queen," since nearly every time she visited her grandmother, she brought a dozen roses of various hues to brighten Mom's living room (and her spirits). I can't look at roses without thinking of the joy they brought and the thoughtfulness of Erica who loved pleasing her Nana.

We spent Christmas with our other daughter and her family up north. They were the ones who were trusted with the custody of Mom's parakeet when she moved in with us and couldn't bring him along. We were afraid our little cat, Mitzi, would have the bird for lunch, so Terri and her family gladly adopted him, intending for Mom to be able to visit when she was better. Pretty Boy is thriving and sings and chirps all the time. He also talks ... in Mom's voice with her North Carolina inflections, at once comforting and painful for my husband to hear. In time, when the mourning isn't as fresh, he will welcome this occasional "visit" from Mom.

Now for 2009. I have plans for the year that include some travel for just the two of us and plenty of beach time when the weather warms. In the meantime, lessons learned from this experience will spur me to drafting Advance Directives and wills. I will also decide for my girls who gets what and where everything is to go so they won't have those difficult decisions to make. They already know my last wishes, so that's a done deal, but it should be in writing so memory isn't forced to go back and put together the pieces. I hope they won't need the results of my organization effort for many, many years yet, but no one is guaranteed tomorrow and I want to know they are protected as much as possible from the heartache of uncertainty.

We'll welcome the new year at a formal dinner at our favorite casino. Then we'll come home and start trying to live normally again. There are no regrets for the time spent with Mom ... she had the best we could give her and she knew how much she was loved. Is anything else important?