“My mom will be alive for at least six more days. Now five.”
A countdown had begun in my head.
They were unsettling thoughts, this countdown to…what? A renewed chance at life? Or death. I wasn’t thinking these thoughts; they—and the associated fear—were just…there. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want them.
My 88-year-old mom landed in the hospital multiple times this year, starting in March, when my 94-year-old father got her to the ER just in time. By summer, after multiple hospital trips, doctor visits and medical tests, they had her scheduled for heart-valve surgery in June; told her she needed a new hip; and informed her she had a slow-growing cancer. It was a layer cake of issues.
Three-thousand miles away in a time zone three-hours behind, I wanted information.
I talked with a cardiologist friend knowledgeable about heart valve procedures, the first surgery planned. “This is a stressful procedure,” he said, “especially given all your mom is dealing with and her age.” After hearing “stressful procedure” repeated several times I finally asked, “are you saying there’s a possibility she might not make it through this?” “Yes,” he said.
Dad said the doctors had assessed mom’s overall health and considered her a good candidate for the valve procedure. It was needed reassurance. And fear nagged at me.
Mom’s heart valve surgery was scheduled for a morning in mid-June. The 7:30 a.m. news from my dad was unexpected. “They didn’t do it,” he said. “They’ve rescheduled it for mid-July. A month out.”
Mom usually has a positive outlook, but this news dusted her mind with a grey gloom. Four additional weeks of debilitating pain and limited movement were invitations for further decline. We all knew it.
By now the hip had become the most destructive of her diagnoses, because the pain immobilized her. The doctors realized that living at home was no longer an option. They discharged her from the hospital to a rehab facility, where the goal was to help strengthen her for the rescheduled heart surgery.
Things were suddenly spiraling in ways none of us were prepared for. Over a few months, mom went from living at home, working in her own business, and being personally independent, to living in a rehab facility and needing help with everything.
At rehab, mom did physical therapy and strove to stay active, but when pain hijacks your body and screams its way through your lungs, your body is limited in what it can do. She pushed; her body punished. Her limited mobility led to even more limited mobility; rather than getting stronger for the heart surgery, there were indications mom was declining.
I felt an anxious specter of despair creeping within me. I had to remind myself it was just a thought; it wasn’t reality. Unsettling; but just a thought.
My cardiologist friend’s comment that my mom might not make it, re-surfaced. I hadn’t seen mom since the prior summer. I wanted to see her before she went in for her second attempt at the heart valve procedure. I didn’t want to say to anyone I was afraid she might die. But I was afraid.
I was also afraid that if I said I was flying home, mom would see it as a death-bed flight. I called home. Asked my dad what he thought. “It would be good for mom,” he said. He ran my idea by mom. “Your dad needs help,” she said. “It would be good for you to come.”
I flew east in early July. The crazy spinning of mom’s medical world continued. At the house, we did things to prep for her eventual return, acts infused with hope. I helped dad with things mom normally handled. We organized a family picnic on the patio of mom’s rehab facility, where we all sat outside in the sun, attempting a normal dinner in an abnormal setting.
Mom, in a moment reprieved of pain, reminded us that over several months she’d been sent to multiple hospitals for overnight stays; doctors had installed three screws in her hip.
“So here I am,” she said, “an 88-year-old woman, sleeping around, and screwed three times.”
Mom still had her sense of humor.
Now, the rescheduled July date for mom’s heart surgery was approaching, five days away. And as each day ticked by, those countdown thoughts in my head happened. I wanted to will them away. But they ticked. Ticked. Four days. Three.
My mind felt crazy. I didn’t want to think that mom might die. Other than to Bubba, I didn’t dare speak them out loud; an inner voice screamed that saying them would make them so, even as I knew that wasn’t true.
“She’s alive for at least two more days. One more day,” my mind mumbled.
It was the morning of the surgery. I called my dad, who said they started late, so there was nothing to report. I hung up, in a state of limbo, unable to do much of anything. My mind felt both focused, and disjointed, juggling thoughts of life and death.
Finally, the call from dad came.
“She’s out,” he said. “The surgery went well.”
Day zero. The countdown was complete. Mom came through it. She’s alive; still with us.
And, she still faces huge challenges. She’s closing in on 89. While her hip was successfully replaced in August—a surgery accelerated when the doctor saw the rate of decline she was displaying—she’s still not home. And, we don’t know what to expect with the cancer.
But the countdown in my head stopped. And mom’s life beats on. She successfully handled two serious surgeries in short succession. Between the surgeries and her grit, determination, and attitude, she’s gained an extension on life. How many days, months, years? That’s an unknown; for each one of us.