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The help.

Last night I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do – I walked out of my mother’s hospital room and headed for the airport. Porter Air gave me an invaluable gift, though – when I called to enquire, they told me the flight, the last one on Sunday night, was 45 minutes late. That gave me 45 more crucial minutes at Mum’s bedside, to make sure she got a sedative and settled. If the flight had not been late, I would have spent the night at the hospital. But that extra time meant that when she fell asleep, I could leave her with her 92-year old sister Do, jump in a cab and just make it to the plane.

When I was trying to decide what to do, I spoke to the orderly Mike, a kind young man with wise eyes and a great sense of humour. Mum was flailing desperately, trembling, hanging onto the bedrails or my hands and her sister’s – terrified, frantic. It was devastating to see. I requested a sedative for her several times and finally they agreed to bring one – no idea when. Before learning of the flight delay, I thought, I have to leave soon or stay here all night.

I spoke to Mike, who’d been tending Mum and all the others. “I don’t know if she’ll pull through,” I said. “I don’t know whether to stay or go,” thinking – how can I balance my mother’s life against the courses I teach Monday and Tuesday? Of course I should stay. But my mother is a force of nature who has come through so many crises. I have to go to work.
“The human body is an amazing machine,” said Mike. “I’ve seen doctors tell people their parent would die tonight, and a month later, they’re still going strong.”
“The most important thing,” he said, “is if you go, and something does happen, do not blame yourself and do not have regrets. You were here. You did your best.”

My guru, Mike the orderly. I went back to Mum’s bedside and relaxed, deciding to let fate decide what I should do. The sedatives arrived just in time.

As you gather, my mother is in very bad shape; she may get through this crisis or she may not. She had a fall, and in Emerg they discovered through x-rays that nothing was broken or fractured, but that her body – to put it bluntly – was as constipated as a body can be. No one knew; my brother thought she was bloated with water. She has always eaten well; we didn’t know that nothing was coming out the other end. Constipation, it turns out, is one of the major causes of dementia in the elderly. And right now, my mother is seriously, increasingly demented.

Of course, there are other causes – shock, her other huge health issues. But the struggle, all weekend, was to clear her body of waste, utterly without success. It was surreal at one point – I won’t go into details, but it seemed like half the ward was gathered around her in the potty chair, chanting encouragement. “This is a poo party, Sylvia,” said Mike. “I’m from Newfoundland. We sure know how to have a good party.” But no luck.

Her sister Do told me that their mother was the same. My grandmother decided in her late eighties that the time had come to die; she stopped eating and she stopped moving her bowels. My mother has only done one of those. As Do spooned supper into her sister’s mouth, we realized that she last did this when Mum was a few months old, 88 year ago.

At first, Mum’s rambling was funny. She thought Emerg was some sort of busy social event. “This is quite a popular affair,” she said, as nurses charged hither and yon. “We shall have some cream tomorrow.”
“Under normal circumstances,” she said, looking gravely at me, “would you be mixing readily with … this sort of crowd?”
“Absolutely not, Mum,” I said, and we both laughed.

On Saturday, upstairs in the geriatric ward, she was still funny, until she wasn’t. She saw things everywhere. “Look at the kitties,” she said, looking at the floor. “What are their names?”
“Boots and Spot,” I said.
“Oh,” she said sarcastically. “Original.” Names came out – Che Guevara, Garbo. “There’s a funny little man standing at the counter,” she said.” She saw things in the air – banjos, moo cows. There was a ceiling air duct that she thought was a painting, and later, a portrait of me. But then she started to get frightened and think she was falling. “I’m tilting towards the wall!” she gasped, hanging on with extraordinary strength.

In the middle of all this chaos, she, too, gave me an enormous gift. As Mum lay beside us, the tall and beautiful Dr. Rybchinsky asked me a lot of questions about her, and I told her that Mum had never been this disoriented or frail. After the doctor left, Mum said, “I do think that Beth was exaggerating slightly when she said I’m confused.”
“Really, Mum?” I said. “You think Beth was being unfair?”
“Yes, a little,” she said.
“And why would Beth do that?” I said. Pause.
“Because she’s a completely honest person,” she replied. My heart thumped.
“Beth is?” I said.
“Absolutely. Honest and clear.” Thank you, maman. Especially because earlier that day, my brother and I had disagreed about how to handle various matters, and he’d accused me of being selfish and self-centered. I did not take the bait, we continued our discussion as if I had not heard, and later he apologized. I reminded myself that he’s under enormous pressure and is carrying most of the load of my mother’s care. But still, words like that go in deep and stab. So, words like ‘clear’ and ‘honest’ were good to hear.

Later Mum looked at me as I held her trembling hands, and said, “I hope we can get through this, Beth.” And later still, “You are doing enough.” She repeated it.

Before putting on my coat, I held her in my arms. “I love you, Mum,” I said.
“I love you too,” she said, the clearest thing she had said for hours.

It’s unbearable, how hard it is. And yet I knew that I had to get out, get back to my own life and work, if only briefly.

What’s also unbearable is the geriatric ward itself, and especially her room, with two lunatic ladies about the same age – Rita, a Dutch woman who is so agitated and paranoid that the hospital pays for someone to sit with her 24 hours a day. “Vere are my cloz?” she shouts. “Don’t leaf me here!” And Maud, who is so aggressive that no nursing home wants her. She bangs her hands on her wheelchair tray and shouts. They mostly park her in the hall when she’d not sedated, but when she’s in the room, it’s like Fellini at his most grotesque. Rita shouts, “I do not vant to be like dis ven dey come!” and Maud shouts back at her, “SHUT UP BABY MOUTH!”

No wonder my poor mother is distraught. Luckily she has curtains around her bed and a big window, with a view of the sky and the green fields of the Experimental Farm opposite.

What saved my own sanity was the thought that painful as this is, it’s the natural course of life. Somewhere in this hospital, I said to myself, children are in pain and dying, something that is incomprehensibly, horrendously wrong. These very old women have lived very long lives, and it’s their time, soon, to die. That’s not wrong, it’s not tragic, it’s the way things are.

The other thing that got me through is the novel “The Help,” that Mum had brought to the hospital. “The Help” is a wonderful read. Whenever Mum fell asleep, I could hold her hand with my left and turn the pages with the right, lose myself completely in the South of the early Sixties.

How blessed, how glorious it was to walk into my own house and climb into my bed last night. When I got home at 11, my son was here to give me a giant hug. I’d texted him, Is there any food? as I hadn’t had supper, and though there was almost nothing in the fridge, he’d cobbled together a hot and sour noodle soup. So many mercies.

Now, home, work, many phone calls back and forth. Ready to jump into a plane.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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