The Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, once ran an edition devoted to pain and the practice of meditation. One article stated that nothing focuses the mind like pain.
I know that's true.
I’ve recently experienced quite a bit of pain due to some dental problems. None of this was life threatening. I mean, we’re talking about a couple of toothaches not lung cancer.
But pain is pain. And severe pain is hard to push out of consciousness. My pain varied. At times it was sharp, like small needles cutting my mouth. At other times it was a dull, excruciating throb. The pain also traveled. First in one tooth, then another. It drove me crazy because I didn’t even know where to tell my dentist it was located. What if I picked the wrong tooth? What if he missed where it really was and worked on the wrong tooth? The pain was so maddeningly elusive that I knew my descriptions were not going to be very helpful.
Of course, it turned out that he got it. With X-rays and careful examination he knew where to work. I ended up losing two teeth and needing a crown.
I was afraid it would be far worse. I really fear losing my teeth and needing complete dentures. When I was growing up, I saw the adults in my family including my father, my grandmother, and several aunts and uncles, all lose their teeth. When they had their dentures in they looked fine. But I hated the look they had when they took them out, as they all did from time to time. I gather that dentures are not always comfortable and people sometimes need a break from wearing them. And without them, their mouths looked caved in. My relatives would suddenly look old and defeated.
I have always associated loss of teeth with aging and loss of vigor. And I live in dread of that.
This has been a year of loss for me anyway, which has thrown those fears into sharp relief.
Beginning the end of last year, actually, I watched my mother’s slow decline come to an end. She had had a stroke in May of 2005. At first she rallied and came back from a couple of months in a rehabilitation facility to her home in Fort Lauderdale. With my father’s care, a part-time home health care aid, and various physical therapists visiting her, she was able to recover to the point where she walked with a walker and could get around. She had never lost her ability to speak, but she still received speech therapy. At 90 years old, she made a good recovery.
Or so we were told.
While she was able to be cared for at home, she never really regained her independence. She needed help with such basics as dressing and personal hygiene. Neither she nor my father could keep their home clean without assistance. The housecleaning was the easiest for them to accept. The personal needs for which she also needed assistance were harder for her to cope with.
She also had macular degeneration, which left her unable to see well. She could make out broad outlines, recognize people, and avoid bumping into obstructions. But she couldn’t read or even see a television screen. This intelligent woman who loved to read and watch CNN News was reduced to listening to a radio, staring out a window, and eventually losing interest in most of her surroundings.
When I visited her over Thanksgiving, I took her for a walk. She had to walk around her condo complex’s catwalk a couple of times a day as part of her physical therapy. This woman, who I always remember enthusiastically participating in any therapy that would aid her recovery, complained and balked at doing it. “I’m so tired,” she protested.
The catwalk is only a three-minute walk for an average person. For us it took 15 minutes of painfully slow shuffling. And by the end of the first lap she was breathless. “Ok, mom, you did good. You did great,” I encouraged her.
But the truth was that she was in the worst shape I’d ever seen her in and rapidly deteriorating.
About a week after that, I called on a Sunday to see how she and my dad were doing and he told me “Your mother’s acting up.”
I was puzzled and asked to speak to her. As soon as he put her on, I could tell what he meant. She was delusional, talking about things that had happened when I was a teenager, some 40 years ago, as if they were current.
Both my father and I feared that she was showing signs of dementia. But I also remembered a friend’s mother who had died of complications of emphysema. She too had begun experiencing mental confusion, hallucinations, and other symptoms similar to dementia. I told my father he had to take my mother to the doctor the next day. I realized that the problem could be pneumonia and that she might not be getting enough oxygen to the brain. I insisted he call the doctor first thing in the morning and prayed he would listen.
As it turned out, she deteriorated through the night and my father called 9-11 and had her rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. She was experiencing congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
By the end of the week I told him I was coming down. I had been in constant touch with her doctors and the hospital. He told me not to come. In fact, he said bluntly, “There’s no need to come here. We’ll all meet in New York for the funeral. Why do you have to run around coming here then going back up there? You’ll get sick too. Or caught flying in a snow storm” My poor over protective dad.
I said nothing. The silence grew. Then he said, “But you want to see your mother while she's still alive.”
I said in a small voice, “It would be nice, dad.”
My husband, Dan, booked me on a plane. The day it was scheduled to leave, the National Weather Service was predicting an ice storm. Washington, DC does not usually get ice storms that early in December. But then the weather has been freaky for a while all over the country. Dan and I drove to the airport and checked into an airport hotel to make sure that I’d be able to make the plane that morning. The ice storm hit that night and into the early hours of morning. By 8 o’clock it was over, just in time for a messy rush hour. But I had arranged for a hotel shuttle to the airport and made it in time to wait for the inevitable delays because the storm had moved up the coast and was affecting air traffic as far as Rhode Island.
After a two-hour delay, I was on my way. But I never dreamed the mess I was walking into.
My mom was stable in the hospital. But it was my dad’s condition that shocked me. He had gotten a bad flu that was rapidly turning into pneumonia too. He could barely breathe, looked pale and couldn’t eat a thing. My mom, when I got to the hospital, was barely conscious, slipping in and out of sleep and unable to talk. When I spoke to Dan I whispered into the phone, “I knew my mother was dying but I think I’m going to lose my father too.” I started to cry.
The next day, at the hospital, I signed forms not to put her on a respirator. I spoke to a doctor who told me, “Nature is trying to take its course but we keep interfering.”
He explained her prognosis. They could stabilize her enough to send her to a rehab facility again. And then she would deteriorate again and they would send her back to the hospital again. And then … but you get it. “She won’t be going home,” the doctor told me. “Your father can’t take care of her anymore. She needs more care than even you could give her at home.”
“So, how do we stop interfering?” I asked.
That’s when he told me about hospice. My father and I went to look at the hospital’s on-site hospice facility, which was beautiful. It was spotless without being sterile. The furnishings were soft, homey, and serene. The staff was loving. The doctor set up a meeting between my father and me and the hospice nurse, who evaluated my mother. The meeting was at 9 o'clock on a Sunday night and as soon as we were done, they were already moving my mom up to the hospice.
She was there for a week.
With her being cared for, my father too was finally able to get the medical attention that he so desperately needed. Once he was on antibiotics and getting a good night’s sleep he began to recover.
After my mom’s funeral in New York, my father and I flew back down to Florida and I stayed with him for a week. Dan drove back to Virginia for a couple of days then drove down to Florida to be with us. It was a sad time and a healing time. We took my father to sit at the beach where the sun and sea air worked their magic on his lungs, his body and his spirit. We let relatives and friends provide comfort.
My father is still doing well, but when I speak to him on the phone I detect that his breathing is growing more labored. He has greater difficulty walking. And he talks about missing my mom. I don’t want to get over dramatic, but I know that it’s only a matter of time until they are reunited. Until then, I am determined to enjoy every minute of my time with him, whether on the phone or my frequent visits to Fort Lauderdale.
But this has been a year of loss. Serious loss, like my mom, and minor loss.
A toothache in the scheme of things is not so serious. But when the loss of a tooth is a pointer to the loss of youth it takes on new poignancy.
For all of us, being a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a grandparent and watching children play reminds us of our own childhood and points us back to happy times. But being an adult and taking care of an aging parent also points us to the future and to our own aging. And every sign and symbol of that future takes on new meaning. It’s a reminder to not squander the time we have. It’s been said before, far more eloquently, but every moment of our lives is a precious opportunity to tell those we care about how much we love them.
Don’t ever pass up the opportunity.