Today in a school conference for my older daughter, one of her teachers said ‘she seems a little stressed’. This stands out, because more typically, teachers say things like ‘I wish I had a a whole class like her’. I explained to the teacher a bit about the current events regarding my mother
The fact that my daughter is stressed is neither news, nor unexpected. But saying it out loud to a stranger made me think about exactly how much stress this really is.
Things have not gone well in the last few weeks. I’d hoped mom would improve, once she began to get regular care. Once she knew we’d be around daily; once she had a nurse to tend her wounds, medication for pain and anxiety, i figured, she’d begin to feel better.
Mother’s never been long on coping skills; memories of this flood back. Now, suddenly, I remember her complaints about clothing that didn’t fit like she liked, or shoes that were too hot, too tight, too lose. I remembered driving back 300 miles on a family vacation because she’d left the only pair of sunglasses she could tolerate in an egghouse in jackson hole, wyoming.
These scenes were so ubiquitous in my childhood that I hadn’t even considered them in decades.
Yet now, I see what I saw as a child; panic, fussiness, intolerance of any discomfort or frustration or insecurity. I remember now seeing my mother react in screaming agony or howling rane to things I wouldn’t even break stride for.
All of it comes back, now that her limited coping skills are eroded to nothing. With her short term memory almost completely gone, anxiety engulfs her, and every discomfort, every question, every task, leaves her shaking and gasping. She’s alternating between rage and terror, with no clear idea of what’s she afraid of.
And I watch in mute frustration.
I’m ill-equipped for the unsolvable problem. I always describe this – revealing the depth of my geekiness – with a star trek reference. Kobayashi Maru – the no-win scenario. In Wrath of Khan, Kirk refers to having hacked the test in order to provide a ‘win’ scenario for a test that was supposed to have no solution, stating that he ‘didn’t believe in the no-win scenario’. That’s me. Down deep inside, I’m absolutely certain there’s a fix to every problem, given enough cleverness, enough resource, enough refusal to accept defeat. Things that can’t be beaten or out-thought or hacked fall far outside my frame of reference.
Thus, old age and mental illness mock my inability to solve them. Rage does no good; negotiation is useless. Even brute, cave-man force does nothing but worsen a tragic situation.
I lost my temper with my mother last weekend. Even knowing she’s physically helpless, slipping into madness, and utterly miserable, she exceeded my tolerance when she decided a bandage was causing the wound under it. She’d taken off her bandage, and told me proudly that she was going to call the nurses and tell them they couldn’t come and hurt her any more.
I yelled at her. And she yelled back, screaming that I don’t understand, that I don’t know what’s wrong. I wound up in tears, and she looked at me in confusion, not sure why I was mad at her or why I was wiping tears out of my eyes.
I am utterly powerless to help her; and every call I make to her doctor, her social worker, her nurse, leads to another goose chase that eats the hours of my day.
The stress is getting to me. Because I can’t move anything along. The hope of her improvement seems to have been in vain; yet to her doctors feel she’s getting better because the wounds on her leg are closing.
Because they gave her prozac for her depression and codeine for her pain, they feel the fatigue and anxiety are solved. Never mind that she refuses to take her meds out of terror they’ll exacerbate her confusion. Never mind that she’s coming apart mentally and physically. Never mind all the other things that might be wrong with her, given that she hasn’t been to a doctor in years.
And so I’m left to manage nursing care for a patient who won’t follow orders, by an agency that only wants to shovel her into the grave as soon as they can so they can close out a file without any more cost.
Twelve or thirteen years ago, my brother died. And I didn’t morn his passing; he’d checked out, mentally and physically, years before. I’d said my goodbye to him already; his death brought closure and relief. I did not expect to experience that again in my life; and yet here I sit. My mother is in a state of crushing misery, a trap of fear and pain she can’t escape, and I have no tools to ease her pain, no comforting words for someone who can’t remember what anyone said to her five minutes before. And all I can wish for today is that she slips quietly away in her sleep, saving further pain.
Today, we spoke to a nurse – finally someone who seems to recognize the severity and tragedy of the situation. For the fist time, someone from Kaiser agreed that she needed real care, something more that ‘two aspirin and call me in the morning’. Perhaps her experience in hospice nursing will carry weight that my ‘inexpert’ opinions don’t, and they’ll take some action to provide the care she’s entitled to as part of my father’s pension. My fingers are crossed, yet my expectations are very low; Kaiser cares about it’s patients the way a slaughter house cares about it’s product.
And what I can do now, is simply try to manage my own stress, and that of my family. My children have seen too much death and pain in the last two years; this will make the third relative down this path in that time. My job as parent is to tend them, giving what I can’t give to my own mother. And that one thing helps my state more than anything else I can do.