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Mom Winked, part II

img_1043Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. In her memory, I’m re-publishing this blog post which I wrote a few months after she died. She still winks at me every now and then; when I’m looking for a healthy weeknight dinner and her recipe for “Gourmet Goulash” practically jumps out at me, urging me to whip up a dish of sour-creamy comfort, or when I’m walking through my neighborhood trying to work out a worry and I notice a cardinal flying low and slow over my shoulder. I found this forgotten photo of her recently. I like to think she’s waving at me, sharing a private joke, or whispering, “Don’t worry, be happy!” 

For Rosemary Steele Sheppard, 5/22/20-1/28/13.

An old friend hugged me at Mom’s rosary in January and said, “She’ll wink at you every now and then.” I immediately thought that was a cute idea, but doubted it would ever happen. A few weeks went by, then a few months, and I forgot about her prophecy. Then, my dad got sick. In April, three months, almost to the day, after Mom died I found myself at my father’s bedside at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. He’d apparently fallen, although he couldn’t recall, and had suffered a subdural hematoma, or bleed in the brain. It would need to be drained, and at his age, 90, that was no easy feat, but the neurosurgeon was optimistic. Sure enough, it wasn’t easy; in fact, it was extremely difficult, and Dad endured nearly every setback that anyone could have imagined over five weeks in the hospital. Shortly after surgery he lost the ability to swallow food, water, medicine, secretions, anything. As a result, he aspirated and acquired double pneumonia, which necessitated that his lungs be suctioned every few hours. This was a horrible experience for him and for anyone who happened to be near him at the time. When he breathed or spoke, all you could hear was a terrible drowning gurgling. He became so weak, he couldn’t even turn over in his hospital bed without assistance. Eventually, he was able to be fed through a tube placed directly into his small bowel, and slowly, ever so slowly, he began to regain strength. Dad was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where he worked with therapists for three or more hours everyday for four weeks. Initially, he did well; then, his hallucinations and anxieties overwhelmed him to the point that we, his offspring, decided he should just go home. Nothing could be worse than his daily terrors that he was being held captive, that his children and grandchildren were in grave danger, and his abject disappointment that there was nothing he could do about it. So, in late June, we hired an ambulance to carry him 80 miles to the home in which he’d lived for 60 years with my mother.

Upon arriving, he asked where he was. We all assured him, “You’re HOME, 302 E. Sarah Street,” then tucked him into his bed for a nap, saying that he’d feel better after a good rest. Visitors began arriving, all joyously asking, “Isn’t it great to be home?” To which he’d respond by looking around the room and saying, bluntly, “Am I really home?” or “Is that where I am?” We suddenly realized how naive we’d been to think that upon his arrival home a shift would instantly occur and all would be well again with our father.

Eventually, Dad grew a bit stronger and we grew used to the aides who came every 12 hours to look after him. But I, ever the control freak, had stayed for several days to “oversee” the help. I made lists and posted them on the kitchen cabinets, organized pantries and pillboxes, bought supplies, interviewed the Home Health nurses, and spent hours at a time at Wal-Mart shopping for items to make Dad’s transition home easier. One afternoon in early July, when Dad had gone to bed for his nap, I, completely exhausted, melted into the swimming pool in the backyard. I swam lap after lap in the warm bathwater-like pool, finding comfort in the physical exertion. Suddenly, I saw a fluttering disturbance in one of the overgrown bushes surrounding the pool. I stared for a few seconds and a beautiful bright crimson red bird lighted on a parched branch of one of the remaining shrubberies, and seemed to stare at me while I treaded water in the middle of the pool. I smiled; cardinals were one of Mom’s favorite birds to watch from her perch on the patio. Then, the Polaris pool vacuum swept up that side of the pool and sprayed an arc of water into the air, scaring the red bird into the air. I laughed as I recalled an afternoon late in Mom’s life when I persuaded her to leave the comfort of her bed and come outside for some fresh air. With much difficulty we got her on her walker, outside the back door, down the ramp and settled into a deck chair when the Polaris spit its stream of water right at her. Squealing, and wiping drops of chlorinated water off her hair and face, Mom muttered, “A lot of good this did me,” then stood up, grabbed her walker and went right back into the house. I found myself smiling at the memory and suddenly took in a small gasp of surprise, “Did Mom just wink at me?” I think she did. I smiled to myself and turned around for another lap. Before going under I saw the cardinal’s mate on a fence opposite the shrub looking towards us. “Don’t worry, Mom,” I whispered; “We’re taking good care of him.”


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

tree-onlyAs an empty-nester, I tend to romanticize the holidays. I anticipate the reunion of our family of five through a filter that’s been blurred by months apart from my children, one shaded by snow, frosty windows, hot toddies and hugs all around; hurried trips to the airport to pick up loved ones, jovial conversation around the dining room table, late night games by the fireplace. Then, we’re all together again and reality slaps me in the face. WAIT A MINUTE! It’s 75 degrees outside, there’s no snow, no fire in the fireplace, no hot toddies. Just margaritas and beer like in July. No board games…just kids on their phones texting, snap chatting, tweeting, and looking up occasionally to express their opinions on where to send for take-out. Ok, that may be an exaggeration but still. It’s hard to come together as a family after months of everyone living in different states, living lives separate from one another. At first we all talk at once, louder and louder trying to be heard. Then, someone gives up and goes to bed. The next day we start again, laughing, sharing details of our lives, enjoying each other’s company. Then someone (usually me) asks one too many questions and the room goes silent. Everyone scatters like ants whose anthill has been disturbed and it may be hours before we find ourselves in the same room again. Food and a good football game on t.v. help. Slowly we come together, one daughter snuggled under a cozy throw, her feet in her sister’s lap. Another one quietly colors in one of those new color books for adults, designed to be “calming.” Eventually, someone asks if we remember going to see the Harry Potter films on Thanksgiving weekend, and another searches for it on t.v. Before I know it, we’re all huddled together watching “Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone” and all seems right with the world.Then I make a teeny, well-intentioned suggestion that maybe it would be fun if we put our phones away. Even just for half an hour. Before I know it there is yelling, eye-rolling, a phone sails through the air towards me and someone leaves the room, slamming the door behind her. And I feel silly for even suggesting such a thing.

I started writing this just after Thanksgiving. It’s now January 13th, Christmas was 19 days ago, and two of my adult daughters (who happen to be university students) are still home. The sensible one with a job returned to her life in Dallas immediately after Christmas. What are college administrators thinking? Whatever are these young people supposed to do with four to six weeks off? They can’t work, there’s nothing to study, and their friends are scattered. They have no money so they can’t travel. So, what am I left to conclude, except that it’s up to me to entertain them?  Oh it all starts out swell, with the Christmas tree lights twinkling, carols playing softly in the background, delectable food and treats spilling out of the fridge onto every table in sight, that ole anticipation of Santa Claus keeping everyone on their best behavior while feeling warm and fuzzy. (Or is it the eggnog?) Anyway, let’s face it. By January 2 we are all cranky. We’ve started our new year’s resolutions which, typically, involve decreasing our intake of delicious food and drink which made the time before Christmas jolly. We would like to return to work, school, normal life. But, because both Sewanee and Auburn are so rigid about academic calendars, we all sit here staring at each other and asking, “Now what?” As a stay-at-home mom I feel responsible, not only for their wellbeing, but for their entertainment. After all, what if they don’t enjoy being in San Antonio and never want to come back again? The thought motivates me to act in ways I typically don’t. I invite my daughters out to restaurants for lunch – on Mondays and Tuesdays! And to movies in the middle of the afternoon. I celebrate happy hour everyday, making sure everyone’s favorite beverages are available, along with three kinds of cheeses and crackers. I search for new recipes that will delight all at dinner nearly every night. Other nights I order pizza. Just when I’m feeling tired and  missing my usual routine of exercising and trying to eat healthily, watching whatever I want to watch on T.V. rather than the new season of The Bachelor, and getting in my car and not being blasted by alternative music, a friend will call who hasn’t heard from me in six weeks. She’ll inevitably say, “Oh, the girls are still here?  You’re so lucky! How wonderful!” Afterwards, I sit alone for a minute and quietly appreciate the fact that yes, they’re still here. And, yes, it’s pretty wonderful. Then I make another grocery list and head to H.E.B., remembering to turn down the volume before I turn on the radio.

p.s. They’ll be gone on Monday. Give me a call!

Natural Disasters

In this age of constant news and weather reports, I don’t understand why no one seems able to predict 1) earthquakes, and 2) massively heavy rain events unrelated to hurricanes. Lately, I’ve experienced both and I must say, each is rather unnerving. I’m beginning to wonder if the gods are trying to tell me something and I’m just not getting the message?

I. An Earthquake

A few weeks ago my husband and I traveled to Italy for the first time. In August, while planning our trip, we heard about a massive earthquake in central Italy that killed nearly 300 people. It got our attention, but we plotted on. Then, just three days before our departure, another couple of earthquakes rattled the same region. No one was injured, mainly because the area had been evacuated since the initial quake activity. A friend called and jokingly gave me packing tips that included a hard hat, a pickax and a flashlight. Haha, I laughed nervously. We carried on and happily arrived in Florence on Saturday, October 29th, as planned. Following a beautiful Tuscan meal of ravioli, a crisp fall salad and a bottle of Chianti, we strolled past the Duomo to our hotel and collapsed into our comfy bed. 20+ hours of travel had caught up with us. We set our alarm for 7:30 and fell into a sound sleep. All too soon the alarm was ringing. I quickly stifled it, letting my husband get a few more minutes of shut-eye as I mentally planned our day of sightseeing. First, we’d head downstairs for a buffet breakfast, then we’d walk a few blocks to the Uffizi Gallery for a couple of Michelangelos and a DaVinci or two. Then…I felt an odd sensation. The bed seemed to be swaying back and forth. I looked over at my husband to see if he’d suddenly developed a serious case of restless leg syndrome. Nope, he was lightly snoring. Next, I heard glasses in the bathroom clinking in rhythm with the bed. I’d never experienced this before but I knew what was happening. “Bill,” I uttered, “We’re in the middle of an earthquake.” He sat up. “I think you’re right.” I jumped out of bed and looked out the window to see what was happening and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Tourists were walking and pulling luggage, cabs and buses were proceeding down the street. The day was bright and beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. I suddenly realized there wouldn’t be lightning and dark thunderclouds; this wasn’t a weather event. We had experienced an earthquake. Later that evening we watched the news and learned that a 6.5 magnitude quake had struck Norcia, a town in the center of the country, approximately 150 miles away, at 7:41 a.m. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Italy since 1980. Luckily, Florence and Rome were spared and we continued our vacation unimpeded by the shaking of the earth. 31italy-web5-master768

II. Flash Floods

Saturday, my husband and I headed down I-10 for a much shorter journey. We planned to drive to Texas City to pack up his mother’s house. We’d arranged for movers who’d be meeting us on Sunday.  Just before leaving, I thought to check the weather app on my phone. “Honey, rain is predicted both today and tomorrow,” I helpfully called out. “But not too cold, thankfully.” We tossed our overnight bags into the car, grabbed our cups of coffee and a couple of folding umbrellas. Over the next three and a half hours we drove through drizzle, fog and an occasional hard, but brief rain. We arrived safely on the outskirts of Texas City and stopped at the Budget rental office to pick up a 12′ truck, which we’d reserved to help transport our newly inherited furniture back to San Antonio. After getting the truck, we decided to meet at the local Whataburger for lunch. (This is how we treat ourselves in the midst of difficult tasks.) As I approached the city, I realized the sky had suddenly turned very dark – nighttime dark. The rain picked up to a steady downpour. I stopped at a stoplight and as it turned green the cars in front of me proceeded at a snail’s pace.  In an instant, I saw why. The streets had turned into raging rivers, water lapping over the curbs, and rushing in every direction. Cars were stalling right in front of and beside me. It literally happened instantly; so this is why they call it a “flash” flood. One minute I was stopped at an intersection, the next I feared for my safety. I immediately called my husband, who was a mile or so behind me, and tried to explain the situation. “The streets are flooded, they’re like rivers,” I said breathlessly. “I’m going to try to get over into a Shell station across the street.” Driving across those few feet seemed like crossing the mighty Mississippi. I made it. I looked up and saw the Budget truck plowing through the water, across lanes of traffic and pulling safely behind me into the gas station parking lot. We sat there, stunned, watching cars, large and small, try to navigate through the intersection. Amazingly, all patiently waited for the green light before proceeding, then it was a crap shoot to see who’d make it through without stalling out or floating or getting stuck as they pulled toward the “safe” green median. Realizing we’d be here awhile, we left our vehicles and made a dash for a McDonald’s next door. The place was full of stranded, bewildered motorists, all sharing stories of the weather and how they’d ended up here. Then, talk changed to planning how we’d all get out. Luckily, there were plenty of hot fries and burgers to keep us fueled. One poor lady had been headed to the vet with three puppies in her car and she’d been here for three hours! Another young woman approached us and asked if she could follow us home – she was my mother-in-law’s neighbor, and she had some ideas about which roads might be less treacherous. A man helpfully advised us not to slow down or stop in the water, “Keep it at around 28 mph,” he advised, “and try to steer clear of big trucks.” After a couple of hours we bravely soldiered forth. My husband went first, figuring the big truck would create a wake for the two of us to follow. The neighbor went next, her SUV clinging to the Budget’s bumper. I followed, fists clinched on the steering wheel, wipers whipping. We took off through the river/street and back-tracked to higher ground. Eventually, we made it to my mother-in-law’s house. We jumped out of our vehicles and high-fived each other as if we’d just completed a marathon. The rain continued to fall throughout the day. That night, we heard on the news that Texas City was flooded by 11 inches of rainfall – the most rain in that county in two decades. And more was on the way. Thankfully, we made it safely home on Sunday afternoon despite the bad weather.

I’m not sure what message the gods are sending us. Surely not, “You two should stay home for awhile.” I feel like a spoiled child with her fingers in her ears crying, “Lalalala, I can’t hear you!”unknown


Mamas Miss Their Daughters

In this difficult divisive time… in response to a dear friend’s request, I re-post this Thanksgiving message:

Mamas Miss Their Daughters
Posted on December 2, 2014 by Constance
A recent Saturday Night Live video, “Back Home Ballers,” about a group of girls going home for Thanksgiving, made the rounds last week on Facebook and Twitter. My niece, who is also my Facebook friend, posted it and I laughed out loud. (Apparently, my college daughter “tweeted” it, also, but we’re not friend-tweeters, or whatever the social media term is, so I missed her post.) I think I laughed so hard just to keep from crying, because those girls were talking about ME! I’ll break it down for you, in case you missed it.

The clip begins with a group of inappropriately-dressed girls driving up to their parents’ house, and rapping, “Your girls are back. We’re home for Thanksgiving, y’all, and our parents are real glad to see us, so they’re going to treat us like queens.” Next, one of the girls hands her bag to the “valet,” which is really her daddy, then she notices an over-stuffed fridge and exults that her mom went to Costco. Another girl states she’s going to “tear it up, get a plate real dirty and not clean it up,” followed by her desire to do an entire load of laundry “for just one sock.” They all join in to sing the chorus: “I’m a back home baller; if I want something I just holler. I do what I want and I get what I want cause my parents miss their daughter.” And, finally, “They wait on me like I’m sickly, that’s the life of a back home baller.”

Funny, yet sad and pathetic. It’s me they’re talking about/making fun of. It’s true. I booked my daughter’s flight home months ago, and, when the afternoon of her arrival is finally here, I repeatedly check the flight status. I’m waiting in the cell lot when she texts, “Here! Going to get bags.” Then, I drive around and around until I see her standing outside the terminal. I jump out and lift her bag into the back and race home as fast as possible, so that she can have her favorite meal, which I’ve spent all day preparing, starting with a crock pot full of queso. Then, she falls asleep on the couch and my husband and I tiptoe around her, and retreat to our bedroom, even though there’s no high-def in there. The next day, I’m up early, making pigs in a blanket, Kerbey Lane pancakes and reading the paper, waiting to serve breakfast. At noon, I give up and, having missed my usual exercise class, I decide to go on a walk. After a couple of blocks, I return home and open the door to find that she’s still asleep. Ok, time to get on with my day. The minute I jump in the shower, the water pressure decreases and the water turns lukewarm. She’s up!

The video continues to point out truths and there’s a bit about how the returning college student wants queso and chips more than drugs. Uh-oh. And how the neighbors swarm around her like paparazzi when she ventures outside. Also true. Finally, we’re nearing the end when a new character pops up to state that her mom puts out “so many bowls” for her; chips, mints and seashell bowls, potpourri, nuts and M&M’s. “She puts out these bowls for me and any bowl I like I get for free.” Hmmm. I put fall fruit in a bowl on the dining room table and a bowl of red and green Hershey’s kisses on the console in the den. And, sadly, I recently placed a bowl of sea shells from our last vacation on my daughter’s dresser. Who writes for SNL and when were they in my house?

Finally, the skit draws to a close with the girls blowing kisses to their mothers and saying, “See you in a month for Christmas. We’re doing this ALL again.” Oh no; no we’re not. I have seen the error of my ways and it stops here. There will be no queso and no bowls at Christmastime. Join me, fellow moms of collegians. Let’s stop the insanity.

Here’s the link, if you dare:


Who Knows?

I’m 57 years old and have lived through many election cycles. Sometimes my side wins and sometimes it loses and I deal with it, usually taking it all in stride.  But yesterday I was truly shocked. Stunned. Slapped upside the head silly. Sad. Scared. The person I voted for, yet wasn’t totally excited about, lost. I hadn’t campaigned for her or even contributed to her cause in any way other than to cast my vote. So, why did I feel so gobsmacked? Why was I taking it so personally? I’ve been analyzing myself nonstop for the last 24 hours and I think I’ve got the answer: Because the man who won the presidency is like no candidate we’ve ever seen before. He’s crude, crass, has no filter between his brain and his mouth, tweets like a high-schooler at all hours of the night, engages in silly wars of words with nearly everyone who criticizes him or causes him discomfort, is a reality t.v. star, a former co-owner of Miss Universe contests, was unprepared for three presidential debates and whispered under his breath like an 8th grade debate team loser, and generally never conducted himself in a way that seemed even remotely presidential. For heaven’s sake, an entertainer/correspondent from NBC was fired for chuckling while Trump engaged in “locker room talk.” The person doing the talking is now the president-elect. And, because of all of the aforesaid, it never ever, not even for a minute occurred to me that this man could or would be elected. My naivete despite my mature years is astounding in retrospect.

Today, though,  I feel a wee bit better. I’ve heard Hillary’s concession speech which was warm, gracious and sincere, urging all of us to give the president-elect a chance to succeed. I saw President Obama sitting in the oval office with the president-elect, acting civil, practically congenial. I heard Trump say he would look to Obama for counsel and that he looked forward to meeting with him many, many more times. I saw a post on Facebook saying maybe this is what our country needs. When I read that yesterday, I was horrified. Today, not so much. Why? Because who really knows? No one – and I’m sure not listening to the talking heads on cable news for insight anymore. How did this unconventional candidate become our next president? No one truly knows.  I don’t know and neither do you. Maybe Trump will become someone none of us recognized during the campaign. Honestly, I don’t think the man ever truly believed he’d be sitting in the oval office. Maybe we’ll see a smart businessman who will choose to surround himself with knowledgeable, experienced advisors. Who knows? None of us really knows the man the nation has elected to serve as OUR president. His own party doesn’t know him. Maybe he really will make America great again. (Question: when exactly did the greatness stop?) As we wait and see, let’s discontinue the protesting, the hate-talk, the judging, the self-congratulating, the social media shaming. The democratic process has processed, the voters have spoken. Let’s sit back, watch, wait and see. Because none of us truly knows what we’re in for.


Special Delivery

unknownTwo weeks ago I ended a love affair. It had gone on too long and I was beginning to feel guilty. At first, it was exciting hearing my doorbell ring predictably each Tuesday mid-morning; thrilling to guess what might be planned for me that week. But after a few months, it became boring and demanding, and I realized it probably wasn’t good for me or my family. I broke up with Blue Apron.

It all started about six months ago when I heard about Blue Apron’s weekly meal delivery service, which will send a box filled with recipes for three meals and all the ingredients for same to your front door. I was told of the delicious options, and how they could be customized to meet my tastes and requirements. Throughout thirty-two years of marriage I’ve cooked dinner nearly every weeknight. Since becoming an empty nester three years ago, my meal repertoire has gotten limited, as my husband, unlike my children, will eat anything. Monday was always salmon night, and then I rotated four or five easy recipes through the next few nights of the week. I was bored out of my mind so the Blue Apron plan sounded intriguing. I signed up, choosing Tuesday as my delivery day and opting out of lamb. A couple of weeks later, the doorbell rang and there it was. On MY front porch. A medium-size brown box stamped with the words “Blue Apron.” My heart skipped a beat as I bent over and picked it up, carefully cradling it to the kitchen. I slit open its taped seams and found the recipe pages and an informative sheet about some of the exotic produce contained within …carrots. Hmm. I know carrots, so I tossed that. But, the recipes looked good. I tore open the large foil envelope that just fit into the box and when I did, cool air wafted gently across my face. I pulled back a large frozen ice packet to reveal lots of beautiful fresh produce, a cucumber, some kale, two scallions (always just two scallions), garlic, a lemon, and some cherry tomatoes. Next came three small brown bags labeled “Knick Knacks,” containing carefully measured spices and seasonings, for each of the recipes. Then another ice pack followed by wild Atlantic salmon, juicy beef tips and a lovely voluptuous chicken breast. While putting everything away, I danced a jig, joyous with the realization that I didn’t have to spend time planning a menu and preparing a grocery list. I would not darken the door of the grocery store today. Woohoo! It was only 10:30 a.m. and I had the whole day ahead of me. What was happening? Just dreams coming true, that’s all.

I began preparing meals with such names as Crispy Catfish with Kale-Farro Salad & Warm Grape Relish, Beef & Shishito Open-Faced Sandwiches and Za’atar Chicken & Pearl Couscous with asparagus & pink lemon compote. It was fun looking at the recipes and realizing everything I needed was in my kitchen, already pre-measured and packaged. No more rushing to the store at the last minute for smoked paprika. Then the prepping, chopping, and general sous-chefing began, which took a bit longer than I’d anticipated. Our first BA meal wasn’t on the table until 8:45 p.m. but the end result looked and tasted as if a real chef had prepared it. After a couple of weeks, I had the routine down: rinse all the produce, open the bag of knick knacks, put water on to boil, pre-heat the oven, then commence chopping. The hour or so spent mincing shallots, medium dicing cucumbers, coring tomatoes, smashing garlic “until it resembles a paste,” mincing lemon rind and ALWAYS thinly slicing scallions “on an angle, separating the white bottoms and green tops” was worth it. I enjoyed the challenge of preparing new dishes and trying new things. But, alas, after a few months, the thrill began to wane. I was making a glaze and the recipe instructed me to “combine the miso paste, soy glaze, half the vinegar, and as much of the sambal oelek as you’d like.” WHAT? Were they making this stuff up to fool bored housewives, make us feel special? I stuck with it despite my doubts. The weeks rolled by and I got tired of the little things, like standing at a cutting board for 45 to 60 minutes. I cheated and briefly glanced at Rachel Ray’s Thirty Minute Meals. But, I always went back and gladly accepted my box every Tuesday. Two weeks ago I’d been working on Seared Salmon and Fall Vegetables, and had meticulously torn the rosemary leaves from their stalks, dipped them in olive oil (oh, the ever-flowing EVOO), and fried them, only to find at the end of the recipe preparation that they were to GARNISH the fish. GARNISH? I don’t spend 15 minutes on garnish. I can tear off a few leaves of parsley and place it beside the dish in 15 seconds and have a perfectly acceptable garnish. That was it, the last straw. After dinner, when I’d finished washing the ten pots and pans, whisks and slotted spoons used to prepare dinner, I went online and cancelled the whole affair. I suddenly felt lighter; now I could say what we’d be having for dinner and I could even go to the grocery store and pick just the right broccoli crown or pork tenderloin. I could use my own damn spices. Ah, a weight had been lifted.

Two weeks I’ve lived without my Blue Apron box; two weeks spent perusing old recipes and low-carb cookbooks. I’ve schlepped to the grocery store a couple or three times per week, seen old friends who ask where I’ve been. And salmon is back on Monday nights. But, I must confess that I’m having second thoughts. I miss BA and its exotic baby kale pesto, its marinated radishes and shredded collard greens. Maybe we should get back together. I could read the recipe ahead of time and skip some steps, leave out some ingredients. There’s always room for compromise.


Aging & the Inevitable

Posted on

Unknown-1“Nothing in this world can be certain but death and taxes.” This quote from Ben Franklin is familiar to all of us, yet we Americans go to great lengths to try and prolong our lives and combat the Grim Reaper. Life expectancy is longer than ever. The average age of death is 76 for men, and 81 for women. Who knows what it will be in fifty years as scientists continue to search for ways to live even longer. My friends and I are in mid-middle-age, having spent upwards of five decades in the game of Life. We’ve watched helplessly as our parents have faced dementia, confusion, falls, cancer, Parkinson’s disease. We’ve helped them move into assisted living facilities, “God’s Waiting Room,” as a friend’s dad refers to it, and some of us have taken away their car keys. After recounting the horrors to which we’ve been exposed, we aren’t too sure that we want to live forever. Old age ain’t for sissies, this we know to be true. “Just put a pillow over my head,” or “Push me in front of a bus,” are phrases I’ve heard uttered by some in our group. Due to my religious convictions, none of these are options, so don’t ask me to assist in hastening your demise, please.

My mother-in-law, aged 90, lived alone, drove herself around her mid-size town, read several books per week, and was extremely independent. On Friday morning of the 4th of July  weekend, her housekeeper noticed she was unable to speak a coherent sentence, she had trouble “putting her words together.” She called a relative who took her to the emergency room. That night my husband received a call from a neurosurgeon who said his mother had a large brain tumor. We were shocked. Despite her age, she had no real health problems and took no medication other than for high blood pressure. Arriving at the hospital early the following morning, we found his mother comfortable in her hospital bed, reading a book and seemingly content. Then came information overload. Her doctors explained that the tumor would be biopsied to determine the type, a full body scan would be done to check for metastases, surgery would be scheduled to treat accordingly, but due to the tumor’s size the only option would be to remove a portion of it in an attempt to reduce pressure on the brain, minimize symptoms, and prolong life. We vowed to think this over during the long holiday weekend. Meanwhile, my husband’s mother seemed accepting of the fact that a large tumor was causing her inability to find the right words. She laughed when she tried to think of the word “laptop,” describing it as “that thing that is flat and opens and closes,” gesturing with her hands. We all laughed when my husband guessed “chicken sandwich!” We chuckled again when I brought her a chocolate frosty from Wendy’s and she called it a “Chinese slurpy,” which leads me to believe that the brain contains boxes of alphabetized index cards with words on them, and when it’s not working well, it chooses the wrong card.

Over dinner, we discussed the options presented to us by her doctors, realizing that every option involved invasion of the brain, which is not a good one even in a younger person. What if we found the tumor to be cancerous? What if it had spread to other areas of the body? Would she want surgery to remove a tumor in another organ? After sleeping on it, we concluded that we would suggest an option that the doctors didn’t present to us:  that she not do anything; we would take her home and deal with the ramifications of the illness as they presented themselves. The next day, before we said anything, my mother-in-law clearly indicated that she wanted to go home asap, and would hear nothing of biopsies, scans, or surgeries. Then the doctors came to the bedside wanting to know if we understood the seriousness of the situation. They strongly encouraged us to at least biopsy the tumor. Why, we asked. She doesn’t want anything done. They gave us a life expectancy of 3-6 months, and we took her back to her home. We got hospice care involved and arranged for around the clock care. She never entered a hospital or doctor’s office again, and died peacefully at home six weeks later.

Back home, when we told friends and family of her diagnosis, everyone, to a person, asked, “Is there no treatment?” We replied, “None that can offer hope of a cure and is without significant risk.” During her remaining six weeks of life, she remained pain free, enjoyed visits from nearly all of her close relatives, ate 3 meals a day (with a bottle of Coke!) up until just a day or two before her death, and was seen by hospice nurses who tended to her changing needs. In the end, they kept her comfortable.  Our family was with her two days before her death and she knew we were there. My daughters took turns holding her hand and reading letters and cards from friends aloud. Would she have lived longer had she opted for scans, biopsies, surgeries? Maybe. Would her quality of life had been better? Probably not. Would she have died of a brain tumor? Most certainly.

It is our human nature to want to fix every problem, to aggressively treat every injury or illness, particularly when our loved ones are suffering. We certainly cannot presume to offer advice about such a personal and emotional decision as when to decline invasive treatment of a terminal illness. But, based upon our experience, it’s important to consider how that may affect the quality of life for the time we have remaining in the game. We do recommend that you consider an advance medical directive, or at least ensure that your loved ones know your wishes. Sign a DNR when and if the time comes that you really don’t want to be resuscitated. We were lucky; my husband’s mother had done all of these things, and was coherent and able to make her own decisions when the doctors explained her options.

This is a morbid topic, literally, but one I think should be given some consideration by all of us mid-middle aged. For a more thorough and interesting examination of this topic, I highly recommend reading surgeon Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End,” or watching the Frontline documentary of the same name. And, best of luck with that aging thing.