Sunday, 8 March 2015

Caring for my Mother #2

I wrote this several weeks ago and thought I had already posted it, only to find yesterday that I hadn't, so here goes.

A Day in the Life of an Interminable Process
I've been dreaming about emptying Mother’s bedpan. There were dishes and bowls of it all over the bedroom and I spill them on the carpet as I try frantically to clamber over chairs and furniture that aren’t usually there.
I wake. The heating’s on so it must be after 8.  I pull on T-shirt and pajama bottoms and stagger into Mum’s bedroom.  God! Why did I drink so much wine last night?  I’m wooly-headed and a little nauseous as I empty and clean the bedpan, dry it, bring it back for Mum to use again.  At least she doesn’t call me in the night to help her any more. The pan rests near her on a stand I made for it from an old chair and a tray.  She holds her breath for such a long time, straining to squeeze out the last drops.
I leave her to do her breathing exercises and head for the kitchen.  The kettle’s on but I spot a pile of crumpled laundry I forgot to hang up last night after getting back from my afternoon out. No matter. It was pretty dry anyway from the tumbler. I peg it up in the back kitchen by the boiler and head back to bed with my first cuppa.
The milk-thistle I took last night is helping, but I take some more and wash down some paracetamols. Then I sit in bed, looking out at the trees and sky, blue and still, though they forecast gales. I sip tea and mull, enjoying this moment of stillness. Another cuppa then I hear Mum is quiet, no more gravelly huffing and coughing. Breathing physio’s over. It’s around 9 now.
I go down to her and pull on her vest and sweater. She says she’ll go to the loo before putting on trousers, so I put socks and slippers on her and pull over the walker for her to stand. She’s almost bent double as she pushes the frame ahead of her, little bruises showing on the backs of her thin legs, bare under her knickers. But I think her warfarin is ok at the moment.  She lowers herself carefully onto the raised and handled toilet seat, and peels out a used pad from her knickers and carefully rolls it up. I get her a clean one and put the used one in a dog-poo bag.  I run warm water for her to wash face and hands, help her up, flush the loo, steady her as she walks round to the wash-basin. She rocks backwards while scrubbing her face with the flannel. She would have fallen but I have my hand in the small of her back and she doesn’t notice.  Back to lie on the bed, trousers on, duvet folded away and time for leg and core strength exercises.
“If I don’t do them now they won’t get done,” she says.
My stomach lurches with hunger.
Into the kitchen with her neck-pad. One and a half minutes in the microwave – long enough for me to have a poo.
The microwave beeps as I carefully wash my hands. There is a painful split in the end of one thumb from all the hand-washing. Well, it’s because I gnaw my fingernails too. 
I put the heat-pad ready on the arm of the chair and glance into the bedroom. Mum is still lifting and parting her legs. Nip back to the kitchen and start putting out her pills in three different sections, the biggest lot for breakfast.   We’ve run out of one of her heart pills. I forgot to put in the repeat prescription till day before yesterday. I’ll have to give it to her later.
Now she’s sitting on the side of the bed.  She can do that unaided now, better since the last pressure fracture in her spine. She lifts and circles her arms above her head, except they don’t go very far up.  She looks like she’s doing a Mexican wave or signaling for help – not waving but drowning.
She’s ready now.  I help her stand, plod behind her with hands on her hips, steady up the two steps, grab the handrail, bars on either side of the door-frame, pause while I pull round the other walker, then, groaning, she heaves herself up the second step. Her body – tiny and insect-like - is still too heavy for her pipe-stem legs.  She gets across the edge of the carpet that sits on the too-slippery wooden floor, quite easily, but makes an issue of the wrinkle in one place, where I just couldn’t get it to lie straight after the last time I was alone in the house and pulled all the rugs up to clean and polish the floor under it. Seems so long ago – it was only late summer, when she went away to stay with my brother and twisted her back, the spine crumbling in a new place, and the months of pain and immobility since.  She told me yesterday to flatten out that wrinkle and my reply, that I would have done it already if I’d been able, was a little too bad-tempered, so now she edges past it, lifting the walker up as if it were inches high, making a statement.  
She sits with a sigh of relief and fumbles for the electric control.  I lay her fleece blanket over her while she whirrs herself backwards and raises her feet. Heat pad round her neck, other electric heat pad switched on. The sky is bright and clear with winter sunlight and there is a tiny edge of an old moon up there. It’s too bright for Mum’s eyes and I draw the curtain over.
Asthma inhaler, mug of water and spit-bowl. She fumbles with the puffer where it’s pushed into the spacer.
“Next time you wash the spacer can you make sure to line up the hole in the end with the mouth-piece? I have to hold it twisted round otherwise.”
I take it from her while she gargles, rinses and spits. I pull off the end of the spacer, re-position it two millimeters and re-assemble it.
Pills now.  I explain about the heart pill.
“I’ll go and fetch it later.”
Her face goes blank, incredulous. 
“I’m infectious?” she says.
I repeat myself, too loudly and try not to think “It’s not that you’re deaf. You just never listen. You never did, only ever heard what you expected to hear, not what I was actually saying.” (“Mummy, Mr Saunders pulls his willy out of his trousers when he’s teaching me sums.” “You naughty girl, telling such stories.”) 
Maybe never being listened to, is what makes her so deaf to others. It is a habit, ingrained over a life-time that now mimics real deafness.
It’s almost 10 o’clock now.  I need to eat.  Slice a banana into the bowl, small sprinkling of cereal and some blueberries – good for the eyes, I hear – soy milk and spoon.  Mum’s best meal of the day.  I sit it on her tummy.  She wears a small towel on her chest to catch the drips. It looks like a bib, but is more dignified than stains on the front of her jumper.  Tea, toast, marmalade, sliced in half, placed beside her while she chews slowly and noisily, each mouthful 37 times, as she’s always done.  Classical music crashes from the telly, thank God for radio 3. Maybe she is a bit deaf, she has it so loud.  At least it masks the sound of her chewing.
Finally, my toast, peanut butter, some blueberries.  I shift my weight slowly from one foot to the other, stand on one leg, plié and stretch, while I wait for my toast. It always burns because it’s the second lot in the toaster.  I retreat to the bedroom with a plateful and my third cuppa.
“Derek’s here,” Mum calls as I pass.  The gardener had been coming for about 10 years to help Dad then carried on after Dad died.  Mum never once gave him a cup of tea.  That only happened when I moved in with her.  “It never occurred to me,” she said when I first did it.  Her favourite phrase. Nothing ever did occur to her. Now she reminds me about his cup of tea.  But I’m still in T-shirt and pajamas, bare feet. He’ll have to wait.
I sit on the outside of the bedclothes, deluding myself I won’t get the crumbs into the bed. I think. Need to go to the market today, get vegetables, go to the doctors with the monthly prescription, go to the chemists to pick up the one I put in the day before yesterday.   I suddenly think of my own meds and get up to scratch around till I find a repeat prescription form and fill it in.  I pull on some clothes and clear my crumby plate and mug away, picking up Mum’s on the way through.
“I’ll go to the market today,” I say.
In the kitchen I gather towels and shove them in the washing machine with the rest of the pile in the utility room and set it going. The dishes can wait. They sit in water in the sink along with last night’s. I make a mug of tea and write out a cheque for Derek and take them out.  We chat briefly. The sunlight is bright and cold.  When I go back in Mum says
“I’ll use the commode before you go out.”
I fetch it and help her onto it.  The doorbell rings and I think it’s the nurse come to do her blood-test. I run up to the door, but it’s the meter man, come to read the meter. I open the garage door for him – he knows his way. It’s really cold out there, out of the sun.
When I get back Mum’s still sitting there and nothing has come. She holds her breath, straining. She always holds her breath.  Training as a singer means she can hold it for a phenomenal time. I feel myself stop breathing too.  They said at the chest clinic that she doesn’t really have asthma, though she’s been using her inhales for about 20 years. I reckon it’s all those years of holding her breath, not breathing, not speaking out, not crying, not even when she was a baby. It affects the lungs, holding the breath like that.  I have to make myself breathe as I listen to her not breathing.
She swears sotto voce.
“I don’t think anything’s coming.”
I help her up. Pulling up her knickers.  All the straining has made her hemorrhoid pop out.  It looks like a scrotum.  I avert my eyes and pull up her trousers.
“How about a walk?” I say.
“Ok, but only around the room, not the stairs.  I’ve no energy today.”
For a bungalow there’s a lot of stairs in the house, but it is built on the side of a hill.   We toddle round the room, circling out around the sofas and armchair, past the dining table, back to her recliner. I pull the side table out the way using the wheels I put on it. She sinks down in relief.
“Maybe I need another blood test for the heart pills. I just get so breathless these days.”
I nod and go to clean out the pan of the commode, even though she didn’t really do anything.
She tells me to pull the side-table back into place, just as I am doing so.  I notice I don’t flinch in annoyance as she does this. The afternoon off I had yesterday has left me with a little rosy glow - the dance class and the chat in the café after. Another couple of days and I’ll be back to feeling that no matter how much I do or how well, it’ll never be enough. But not today.
Derek’s gone so I get shoes and jacket on, woolly hat, scarf. I hear Mum calling her massage lady for an appointment. She thinks she can manage to get down there for a very short session.  Her neck hurts.  Once I’m all dressed for outside she calls me and asks me to get some birthday cards for 3 of the grandchildren – my nieces and nephew.
Parking is a melee outside the pharmacy and I have to wait for half an hour before they remember I am waiting and bring out Mum’s tablets. It’s quarter to 1 before I leave for Maidenhead market. At least I can park for free in the car park – its electronic eye recognizes my number plate as belonging to a disabled Blue Badge holder. I almost never have Mum in the car and the disabled parking in there is crap, always full up and in entirely the wrong part of the car park. But at least I don’t have to worry about having the right change to pay. I don’t have even one twinge of conscience about this – there have to be some perks to being a full-time carer and I can only hold so many things in my head at one time.  Remembering to keep 70p change isn’t one of them.  
All I need to do is buy the vegetables.  I think I’ll get chips on the way home for lunch. I loiter around the sales for a while but they never have anything I’d wear. I walk all the way up to level 7 with the vegetables, dodging people’s legs with the large bag in the narrow stair.  I feel loose and limber after yesterday’s dance class.  I buy one portion of fish and chips on the way home, quite enough for the 2 of us. No wonder everyone’s so fat these days, the so-called small portion is enormous.  As if she reads my mind that I am really buying for 2, the woman serving me adds a small extra piece of fish.  The car smells of onions when I climb back in to drive home, the smell of vinegar and fat mixing in.
“No time for a gin and tonic, Ma,” I say, “I’ve got chips, OK?”
Mum nods, looking unenthusiastic. It’s ‘Heartbeat’ on the telly, at full blast.  I warm her plate with hot water from the kettle and portion out fish, chips, tartar sauce, cut up her fish and squeeze lemon on it. A few mushy peas, she doesn’t really like them. I explain about the pill I’ve added to her lunch ones, that I have brought back from the chemist.  I sit back behind her at the table while she eats facing the telly. That way I can’t hear her chewing.  Except when she mutes the TV when the adverts come on.  I wish I could mute her and her chewing, but I know this is just me, my weird phobia-like reaction to something other people find innocuous.  I wonder if the reason I hate the sound of chewing is because of all the silent, hate-filled family meals of my childhood, all those years when Mum and Dad regretted marrying each other, before they settled down to numbness.
Finished, I go into the kitchen.  Better clear up.  I slosh the dishes out and stack them in the dishwasher, then get it all tidy and wiped down.
“You ok, Mum?”
“Mm. I’ll use the bed-pan. I can’t be bothered with the bloody commode.”
I’ve no idea why it’s easier for her to pee on the bedpan than the commode, but for a couple of months she couldn’t sit on the commode for the pain in her back, so I suppose she got used to it. I rub Vaseline on the rim of the pan and bring it to her. Pulling down trousers and knickers and hitching herself up so I can slide it under her, all make her slide down in the chair so she’s almost lying flat.  She’s swearing quietly. She always has. When I was little I didn’t believe damn and bugger were bad words, because she used them all the time. Now she says “Shhhhhit” under her breath and she even says “Fuck” – like we all do.  
She’s finished and I pull out the pan, rest it on a nearby sofa and suggest she stands up to pull up pants and trousers.  She takes ages to whirr herself to sitting, then lever herself up, it’s difficult from where she has slipped so far down the chair.  She farts as I help her to stand, my hand pushing her lower back feels the vibration of it.
She says “You’ll miss that when I’m not here anymore.”
I chuckle as I pull up her knickers.
“Yeh, Mum, that’s all I’ll miss, that and the swearing.”
She laughs too, but as she sits back down she says “I’m just feeling fed up with myself today,” and her face just slightly crumples.
I say, “Well, maybe we can go out for a drive somewhere if you feel up to it. A change of scene.”
She says, “I’ve made an appointment to see Ann next Thursday, 11 am.”
She’s sleepy now.  ‘Heartbeat’s’ finished now and she doesn’t like the next programme. She turns it off and settles back for a snooze.
“I’ll go for a walk to the card shop.”

Walking down the couple of miles to the shops I wonder what it would be like to live a life so uneventful. Not just as she is now, but as she has lived for the past 30 or so years.  To be married to the same person for a year short of 60, same job for a lifetime– well, no, more like 25 years as Dad stopped working in his 50s. Then the two of them just fossilized. Same opinions. Same house. Same décor. Same routine. Little holidays.
Just thinking of it makes me feel I can’t breathe. 
I know from most of my women friends that no matter what issues they have with their mothers - and we all have these - they also recognize how like their mothers they are. There is no such kinship for me. I can look at her face, the bones show so sharply through the flesh now, and I can see my own face. But the resemblance ends there. My closest friend, who knows us both, recently commented that she finds it hard to believe we are related as we are so unlike. No wonder I’ve always felt so alone all my life.
I come back from the shops with 3 cards, some sugar snap peas and 2 lemon sponge puddings, just as it’s getting dark. Mum is listening to her audio book on the Kindle I got her. She can’t read any more. The only changes in her life of the last few years have been this gradual series of losses, husband, choral society and choir, driving, friends, eyesight, mobility. Even church is too hard for her now. She once told me she thought this last period of her life would be a time to get closer to God- but reading the Bible didn’t seem to help with that and she had no idea of any other way to do it.
She’s lying back in her chair, eyes shut and jaw slack, like she’s sleeping - or dead, except her breathing is like the sea lapping on a gravelly, pebbly beach. 
I draw the curtains to shut out the dark and make tea. 
I like the book she’s listening to, Bernard Cornwell, something about Saxons and Danes, read by a man with a good northern accent – very Mercian. I slice up a finger cake on a saucer for her and place it gently on her lap, plonking the rooibos tea on the table by her.  She opens her eyes and says “Thank you.”  I take my own tea to the study and the computer.
Another hour playing silly games on Facebook, exploring Twitter, half-listening to the book, then the telly goes back on. A quiz show, then another. When I hear ‘Great Railway Journeys’ I potter back out to her area. I make her a gin and tonic and dole out some crisps and give them to her.  I rummage in the freezer and pull out some mince to make spag bol for lunch tomorrow. I put some salmon tartlets in the oven to cook for supper.  News on 4 now. I potter in and out, hearing about a whole town razed to the ground in Nigeria, so many people killed. More about Islamic extremists in Europe, refugees from Syria fleeing across the Mediterranean. It’s hard not to feel afraid. I don’t know what Mum makes of it.  She used to watch BBC News and thought the BBC was Socialist – but only because Dad told her so. Now I dominate her and insist on Channel 4 because it’s so uncompromising. I don’t want my news watered down.
The tartlets are finally ready. I eat well-back from Mum.  The telly is deafening but I can still hear her chew. Supper over.  Asthma inhaler, water, spit bowl. Electric toothbrush, more water and spit. Her breath is like a snore while she brushes her teeth.  At least she’s not coughing so much today. A warm facecloth for face and hands.  Nivea Q10 night-cream and hand lotion.  I decide to stay and watch telly with her and keep her company instead of going to the study.  ‘Endeavor’ then something about the Incas. 
10 pm and it’s time for the commode again.  She sits there for ages and nothing comes.  I can’t bear to stand around waiting for her.    I can’t think of anything to say or chat about.  Our eyes slide past each other.  I potter and fidget till she says she’s giving up.  I say “Maybe it’ll come if you use the bedpan when you get to bed.”
Down the 2 steps to the bedroom – harder and scarier on the way down.  I hold her tight, walking behind her, hands on her hips, steadying.  I pull her clothes off her, lying there so small on the bed.  At least it’s a single bed now. She used to be lost in the king-size she had before this latest pressure fracture. Her bed is electric now with a special mattress. 
She does go in the bedpan.  One less anxiety.  The other day she asked if I could look in and empty the pan when I go to bed at midnight.  I got really pissed off with her. Told her I needed to have some times when I was off-duty, not to still be on-call at midnight.  She hasn’t asked me again but worries about it getting too full if she has to go 2 or 3 times in the night.  I feel a bitch but haven’t brought the subject up again.
Hand sanitizer now, then eye-drops. 
I search in myself to feel anything for this woman who is my mother, with whom I share a life, mine entwined around hers like a married couple, but with whom I have nothing in common but some DNA.  We don’t even have any shared memories – her versions of anything from my childhood bear no resemblance to what I actually experienced. 
I almost forget to kiss her goodnight.  She always looks so happy and grateful for that last hug and kiss. I can remember her kissing me like that as a child.
I leave her to go back to my computer and my own space.

It’s hard to admit that I just want this to be over before too long.  All I can do is just keep breathing. 

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