I’d been struggling with a low-grade cold virus that I couldn’t seem to shake. That virus had invaded my system in December and was still hanging around –- like this snowy winter that refuses to yield to spring –- in the depths of March. I’d wake up after a restless night’s sleep due to my stuffy nose and scratchy throat, feeling like I hadn’t slept more than a few hours. So one morning last week, I was still snoring away when I was jolted awake at 7:30.
But instead of the alarm, it was my phone that was buzzing. I used to turn off or silence the phone but over the past year, as my mother has undergone a series of serious and not so serious health crises, combined with short-term memory loss, I’ve come to keep the phone on, just in case.
My mother’s aide, Vanessa, who visits Mom three mornings a week at the independent living center where she moved last fall, said, “Your Mom has been taken to the hospital. She called me around 5 am, and said she was throwing up and very weak.” Instantly, I could feel my heart pumping, my breath quicken, my ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in. The aide was on her way to the hospital; my mother has no close family in Cleveland, and Vanessa had bonded with my mother, taking her on as virtual blood kin.
Throughout the morning, I monitored email, made phone calls back to my mother’s geriatric care manager/social worker in Cleveland, who arrived at the hospital late that morning, and received texts from Vanessa. I tracked Mom’s progression from the ER to a private room, still weak, and still miserable. Over the past two years, Mom has declined during each hospitalization, becoming disoriented, her shaky short-term memory evaporating in the heat of the moment.
During the afternoon of that first day, I talked briefly with Mom by phone, heard her quavery voice across the miles, each word an effort. She sounded both weak and exhausted, was on IV, and had eaten virtually nothing all day. Meanwhile I tried to focus on my work as I paced around my small office, my head in Cleveland, my body in Porter Square.
Before this latest scare, I’d been feeling overwhelmed with my own life, managing my day job, teaching at a writing center, and arranging various doctor visits as I tried to shake off whatever was ailing me. Now, I looked back on the day before, and the day before that, with a sense of nostalgia; I didn’t know how good I’d had it, hadn’t recognized the luxury of focusing on my own needs until that space was gone.
My mother was ill, the cause still murky, undetermined. More tests were scheduled for the next day. In the mean time, I went to a staff meeting, my phone by my side. I felt pent up, coiled, ready to spring at the first buzz, the first vibration of the instrument, which seemed connected to my body even when it wasn’t in my pocket.
There were moments when I began to relax, knowing that my mother was in good hands, and there was little else I could do. Those moments were fleeting, transitory. I reminded myself that the crisis might go on for a while, that I would need to rediscover my balance and learn to walk on ground that was shifting, like tremors after an earthquake.
And then suddenly, things began to turn around. After three grueling hours in X-ray, the doctors determined Mom didn’t have a blockage; her lower bowel was clear. The GI specialist said my mother simply had a stomach virus. She was given solid food, and was finally able, after two days, to eat a little. The social worker called, to tell me that Mom would be going home that night, with 24/7 care back at her apartment.
Over the course of the next week, practiced walking around her apartment, my and then along the corridors of the center, and regained her strength and appetite. The aides were canceled, except for Vanessa, who returned to her regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule.
As the crisis eased, I felt myself settle back into my body, and into my daily routine. I still had too much to do juggling work, teaching and those doctor visits. But my perspective had shifted. I realized that, for now, I could go back to my own life, my own concerns. I still sleep with the phone by my bed, ringer on, ready to answer at a moment’s notice.
But I feel a sense of relief, knowing that this –- the shaky status quo, and my growing ability to deal with it –- is the best I can hope for. This is my life in middle age, as my mother and I dodge these close calls across the miles, connected by the thread of a telephone line, blood, and obligation.
Judah Leblang is the author of the memoir, Finding My Place. He will be performing his one-man show (open to all): “Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages” at Arlington Street Church in Back Bay on Saturday April 20, 2013 at 7:30 PM. For tickets, go to www.judahleblang.com or call 617-466-9637.