I was developing a case of emotional whiplash.
After her spinal fusion surgery, Mom fell into a cycle of one good day followed by one bad day. These weren’t subtle shifts. They were swings from the highest highs to the lowest lows. When we transferred Mom from ICU to rehab, I had hoped they’d end. No, that’s not quite right. I had expected they’d end. Because with all the tubes out and all the monitors unplugged, Mom would have her body back and, working with her occupational and physical therapists, she could begin making a little bit of progress every day. Just like everyone had told us would happen.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the cycle continued. On and on. For seven days, ten days, fourteen days.
One day Mom and I would be joking about the toilet paper clamp that she now had to use since as her surgeon memorably explained, having your entire back fused means “you’re going to have to find a new way to wipe your butt.”
“They told me to be careful not to flush it,” Mom said one day from behind the bathroom door. “I told them I may be old and on drugs, but I’m not stupid enough to think I can flush a metal clamp that’s as big as my arm.”
“I bet they loved that,” I said.
“Get this: They said some people actually try to flush it. I said, ‘Well, they must be old, on drugs and stupid.”
We both laughed. Because it was a really good day.
But the next day would always be bad. No matter how much Mom’s therapists pointed out how good she was doing, she’d have nothing but negative things to say. She was a failure, she’d tell me, not making any progress at all. “But Mom,” I’d say, pointing to the progress chart on her wall, “look at all these improvements you’re making.”
Mom wouldn’t hear it. “I just feel like I’m going backwards. I’m too old for this. It’s not going to work.”
Fortunately for Mom, she was immune to the emotional whiplash. Because she was on drugs.
I, on the other hand, was coming undone as I juggled Mom’s mood swings along with her care, her bills, her house, all while trying to keep my own life running. I just wanted a wee bit of stability. A little predictability. So I could start to get a handle on things. So I could stop feeling my stomach tighten every time I walked into rehab because I didn’t know which Mom I’d find.
Things fell apart completely on the fourteenth day. I walked into Mom’s room to find her entire care team around the bed. “This can’t be good,” I told myself.
“I’m not getting up,” Mom said when she saw me. “I’m nauseous. I have a headache. No one told me I’d hurt this bad. I should never ever have had this surgery.” All of this within sixty seconds of me saying, “Good morning.”
“Now Mother, I’m sure none of us can imagine how much pain you’re in. But we’ve talked about this. This is what you do. You let your pain get the better of you and then you just stay in bed or, like you used to do at home, you just sit in a chair all day. All of us are here to help you get better, but the only one who can make you better is you. And that’s not going to happen if you just lay there.”
Mom glared at me.
“Well I’m sorry that I do nothing but disappoint you.”
She said the words with such force, such fierceness, that every single member of her care team took a step away from the bed. Rather than try to counter with “That’s not what I’m saying Mother”, I just stared down at my coffee cup, wondering if I’d feel better if I crushed it with my hands and let the scalding liquid burn my fingers.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
I wanted to run away, but I was too tired, too hurt, too overwhelmed to move that fast. Instead, I slunk out of the building, crossed the parking lot and walked over to a small field that was between the rehab facility and an urgent care building next door.
There were a bunch of birds on the field, chirping and having their breakfast. When a car passed, they’d all fly up to one of the wires overhead, wait a few seconds, and then fly back down. They had not a care in the world. Mary Oliver once said of birds, “…each fulfills what it is, remembers little and imagines less. And thus the day passes into darkness undamaged.”
“Lucky bastards,” I thought. It wasn’t even 9 a.m. and my day was already damaged. Because my mother was having a bad day and she knew how to push my buttons so I’d have a bad one, too.
“Why can’t we be more like birds?” I said to myself.
It was a lovely thought, maybe even worthy of its own poem, but I soon found myself chuckling at its irrelevance.
Because humans aren’t birds. We’re flawed, damaged, wonderful, beautiful beings. Who rarely feel fulfilled with what is, almost always remember too much and can’t help but imagine more than what is.
And there’s the rub. Mom and I were simply caught in the cycle of being human.
Except this particular cycle wasn’t working for us or, maybe it was working for Mom, but it sure as hell wasn’t working for me. And, so, my thoughts shifted from wanting to be more like birds to wondering if there was a better way.
To endure the cycle. To take care of Mom. To take care of myself.
Now you, dear reader, may be thinking that I’m about to tell you what that better way is. Because we’re just about 1000 words into this post and my editors always tell me you have to resolve the great tension of your story so readers leave happy.
But moms aren’t editors and life isn’t a blog.The reality is that you don’t get to just click your heels in front of a bunch of birds and have some magical solution handed down from on high.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes, you don’t know what a better way is. Not yet, not for awhile. Sometimes you just have to stand there, staring at a bunch of birds, feeling your coffee get cold and hoping that something even remotely resembling a better way shows up soon.
Because you can’t go on much longer with the way things are.
The Mom Chronicles is a weekly blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.