5.18.2010

One widow’s mother-in-law story, part 2

(... continued)

All, every, only: this is the extreme language of my mother-in-law story. It was a period of absolutes everywhere and most of the time, we were alone. Why does everyone abandon grieving people? Why are you afraid? Don’t answer that, I know why, it just hurts like hell to be abandoned by people who you know are perfectly healthy, across town, and have a choice. That's alone.

Compared to my mother-in-law, at least I had a job to get out to. On the other hand, I knew what was going on. There were days that Audrey was obviously disoriented, even before I intervened in her care, straightened out her medications and hired a care manager for her on the sly, on my own dime. Before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the first of two long-term living arrangements, two hospital stays and a rehab facility.

I knew her thyroid was off. There was a day in April, two months before the end, when she was acting really crazy, talking to a stuffed animal about some red dress of mine. Short Stack knew something was up and wouldn’t play with her alone. I asked Gavin to speak to her and ended up accompanying her to her doctor. She wasn’t taking her thyroid medication correctly. We tried to straighten it out.

I don’t know if Gavin ever spoke to her about needing more help or brought up any topics that threatened her independence. She’d been so realistic about it in the past few years, but plans had dissolved as he became ill. She did have an episode, shortly after moving near us, of near-kidney failure due to some error with her prescriptions. After the thyroid incident, of course, that fit together: she was doubling up on some and omitting others randomly, accidentally playing pillbox Russian roulette.

And the visible signs of her decline started to accelerate as his condition worsened. She crashed her car the day before he died; we tried to pretend none of us noticed the cut on her nose but he was too out of it to ask about it anyway. The day after he died I went to her apartment briefly to help her open a stubborn bedroom window and ended up checking her fridge. A pot of special diet cabbage soup on the bottom shelf was full of gray-yellow mass, brimming over with spores. At least we found out that her garbage disposal, newfangled and misunderstood as it was, did work.

Without Gavin around, her cover-ups were removed: she had very little mental capacity left. She didn’t seem to understand how to take her dozen or so medications and insisted to me that if she was someone who needed medicine, she wouldn’t be out walking around.

You can say that I pounced on her in my grief, but she had been losing weight over the past two years. I’d left her largely alone until the thyroid incident because I was overwhelmed, but I knew her history better than she did.

But of course she was hostile to my suggestions that she fill and take her prescriptions.

So Gavin was dead, I was a wreck, and she had no car. To my credit (with her) and my detriment (in terms of good judgment and responsibility to the world) I loaned her my Corolla, the same make and model as hers. It was clear to me she couldn’t have handled any vehicle with differently laid-out controls. It was not clear to me that she should have just been off the road altogether.

Finally some friends talked me into taking my car back from her. She was, after all, most likely to run over my child in my driveway. I had a friend who’d lost a child the same age this way.

Audrey continued to walk over to our house every night for dinner in our grey silence, to enjoy the blessed child, but she was getting weaker and weaker. She’d complain her stomach hurt and then not remember if she’d eaten anything. A block was a long way for her to walk, and her bones were showing through her skin where she’d been round and saggy just a few years before. Conspiring with her doctor, I hired a private care nurse to check in on her once in a while, under the guise of weighing her. She’d refill the prescriptions and check the pillboxes each visit and provide her good ears.

I don’t know why I didn’t understand how dire her situation was during this period. There was nearly a year when the nurse would stop by and update me, but the word “Alzheimer’s” was never mentioned. And every cognitive test, Audrey could fool: she’d do fine and even joke with medical providers, familiar or new. Maybe the nurse was protecting me, maybe she thought the decline would be slower, maybe I just couldn’t hear, again. Maybe I was burned out on caregiving and medical situations overall.

It was clear to me that caregiving an elder, even with no acute medical threats, was different from caring for a young cancer patient (even a “December” spouse) who might, even with a miracle, be cured: Gavin wanted so badly to live. Audrey didn’t even understand that she was old.

Once as I tried to convince her (O rationality! How futile thou art!) that she would benefit from a little help she told me that she was perfectly healthy. She had no idea what all those medicines in her pillboxes were for but she was sure she didn’t need them. In astonishment I tried to echo to her: “So, are you asserting that generally, as someone gets older, they tend to get stronger and healthier?” “Yes!” she asserted with a confident nod.

It was a different world and I just wanted OUT of it, but I felt, absent my husband, that I was responsible for her. I didn’t know how I could do it, but I did know that if I failed, I’d feel a hit I couldn’t manage along with everything else.


(to be continued)


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9 comments:

Sherry Carr-Smith said...

I'm aching now, for you and Audrey. I'm glad she had you, but am sorry you had to take on that role for her. There is a special place in heaven for you. My mother-in-law ans I changed after Mark died as well, and it's something that I'll always regret.

Thanks for sharing.

Kim said...

You have muscled through some "stacked" and harrowing stuff, my friend. The effort you have put forward for Audrey in such a grieving, lonely condition is a testament to your character. That we all should luck into such a faithful companion in our old age.

BTW, if she tricked the Alzheimer’s tests, it could have been just plain old garden-variety dementia.

annie said...

Dementia is difficult.

My father was quite ill in the six months or so following my late husband's death. He was told that he would likely not live past summer though he went on to live another two years. So the family kinda skipped past my widowhood to my mom's impending widowhood without a backward glance. It was fortunate that I lived too far away at that point to be coerced into caregiving on more than an irregular basis. I was the go-to when crisis reared b/c I had a more flexible work schedule. It was me who sat in the ICU after his near death on the operating table while my Uncle's wife died in the room next door (heart failure). Funny how being recently widowed made me the "death expert" that week.

I continue to marvel at the parallels here.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Sherry and Kim, thanks for validating that it was a job worth doing. While it's over, and I'm somewhat at peace with most of it, I still wonder whether I did the right thing to risk my own well-being for her. An equation that should never be calculated, but still.

Annie, you see why I so often think we were separated at birth -- or sooner?

Thanks for reading this. It's hard to write, but I think this is the time of year to finally process it a bit more. Hugs to you all.

mellehcimb said...

Thank you for sharing this.

The loss of my Nelson, I see as I ponder your post, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he left me almost nothing that was his. (His mother got it all.) On the other hand, he also left me with no burdens that were his. I hope his mother and I will continue to keep in touch...but there's no responsibility there. But there's the double-edged sword again...I wish I could have been the mother of his children and the keeper of his legacy.

I think you did well. I think you did very well. I commend you. You did right by Gavin, and you did right by Audrey. God bless you.

(((((((HUGS)))))))

Anonymous said...

I read your story about Gavin's mother. Your love for him manifested itself in the duty and responsibility you took on for her. I am myself in the middle of a mother in law nightmare that just won't stop. I gleaned some insight from your post because the comments about the arrows pointed really hit home. I won't bore you with my tragic tale of woe but let's just say that my Dave's mom has considered me a rival since the moment she laid eyes on me. His death removed any semblance of gloved combat that there had been up until that time. We moved from our heaven on earth to be next to Dave's ailing dad, who died about 6 months before Dave's cancer came back for the last time. Because we came to help out with caregiving, etc. we lived in the little farmhouse next door to them gratis. 3 days after his memorial service, she announced that I had to move and basically gave me 60 days to do so. The 60 days are up on May 31, and I will leave here and never look back. I was so hurt at first that it took me a while to realize that being gone from here is much better than living on here any longer than required. I will never forgive her for robbing me of my widow's right to mourn her son. I am just glad she was hale and healthy so that I didn't feel duty bound to remain in her life.
I don't know how you managed what you did but I have much admiration for you.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Sweetie,
I'm so sorry. Yes, I think the thing about the arrows is so true and most of us just don't accept that positioning like that is often destiny. We think we can work it out, that we're special, and we so want to believe that our family members mean well.
I wish you the best in your escape and I'm sorry she controlled your loss in this way. It's never too late to grieve, and many of us will be here to listen as you go through the next adventures on your own.
I'm so sorry, thanks for your kind words. Obviously I'm still not at peace with this story... chapter 3 is coming, but when?
Hugs.
Supa

cHeRyL said...

I would love to read Chapter 3. ;) Whenever you get to it.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

cHeRyL, it's there! :-)

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