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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