Saturday, February 24, 2024

Poem: At the gravesite

My mom passed away one year ago, on Friday, February 24, 2023 at 8:44 PM. Several months ago I scheduled Friday, February 23 of this year off from work. By coincidence, this turned out to be the date of the Winter edition of the Word to Word poetry reading. When I realized that, I decided I wanted to write a poem about my mom for the event. That turned out to be extremely difficult. This is what I wrote instead.

This poem was written February 3, 2024 and first read at the open mic portion of the Word to Word poetry reading at the Gather community center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on Friday, February 23, 2024.

This is a work of poetry. Specific details may or may not be true, and will be vehemently denied at any church inquest.

At the gravesite

There is a peace

knowing where you are

not far from the entrance, under the tree

in the place where the crocuses bloom

and a few grape hyacinths

We buried you with your car keys in your hand

like you always said you wanted

and the ashes of a dozen cats and two dogs at your side

as you asked

more cats mixed into the soil like fertilizer

waiting to bring forth

the crocuses that bloom in Spring

Crocuses, March 20, 2023

Friday, February 23, 2024

Another dream: Mad Max in the forest

So strange that I have had two detailed dreams just two nights apart, each using someone else's intellectual property, characters with whom I am familiar but not especially fanatical about. This one was from Thursday morning. 

I was in what I guess was a Mad Max movie, with Mel Gibson as Max. He was wearing a fur-trimmed jacket instead of leather. I was his co-pilot on a mission. The dream opened with a 3/4 overhead shot of a beaten-up RV, a camper of sorts, covered with welded-on armor plates. It was towing a gold hatchback sedan. Both vehicles were making their way along a path through a forest. A woman was speaking, and I knew our mission involved smuggling some women to safety. We were almost at our destination. The women were hidden away, and the woman I heard - I actually think she was providing narrative exposition - remained unseen.

Suddenly, a complication: our maps told us we should have a clear path through the forest to where we were going, but the maps were apparently wrong. Through a peephole in the armor-covered windshield we could see that the forest path was taking us through an old habitation, literally through buildings from before the war or great disaster or whatever. It looked like we were actually smashing our way through walls, but apparently that was how the path was laid out. The buildings weren't abandoned - there were people here, some civilians, some soldiers. We eventually came to a halt so we could parley with the resident warlord of this place - a tall, gaunt, weatherbeaten man who looked something like Jan-Michael Vincent wearing a button-down shirt and jeans.

The warlord was congenial and offered us hospitality but wanted to know everything about what we were doing. Max told him some convincing lies but totally failed to mention the women hidden away in our vehicle. I realized the warlord suspected that we were not being truthful, and wanted our vehicle and whatever we were transporting. The two of us were going to have to fight our way out of this if we wanted to complete our mission.

And that's when I woke up.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Interlude: A dream of Superman

As the one year anniversary of my mother's death draws near, my mind has been replaying all the events leading up to it. Strangely, I have had almost no dreams about her in the past year, despite my best efforts, and those that I have had have been very unsettling. 

Tuesday morning I had a dream that had nothing to do with her. But it has persisted in my memory, and I want to write it out.

Let's preface this by saying I've never been a big reader of D.C. comics. I know a bit about the main characters in their roster, and - thanks to some oversized reprints sold at Kmart in the 1970s - something about the characters and teams from the 1930s and 1940s. So it's strange how much detail this dream had.

I was on the street of what I assume was Metropolis (Superman's base of operations, though it looked like Scranton) when several members of the Justice Society of America came walking by: Hawkman, Black Canary, Batman (I think), and a few others. We all caught sight of something flying high in the sky and had a literal "It's a bird! It's a plane!" moment. We soon realized it was Superman. Hawkman mused briefly about how he wished he could fly like Superman. (I have no idea how Hawkman's wings of the Nth Metal compare to Superman's solar-powered flying abilities, but I assume they are vastly inferior.) We then noticed Superman appeared to be on an intercept course with a passenger jet - and within moments he intercepted it, causing it to break up in mid air. We were confused, but assumed he had his reasons.

Superman then began flying at a lower altitude, somewhere on the outskirts of the city, and began raining down some vicious emerald-colored energy that crackled and flamed. We didn't know what he was doing, but he was clearly destroying something. That evening, after nightfall, he did it again, causing an eerie green glow on the horizon.

The next morning the news came out: Superman had destroyed two Lexcorp warehouse and distribution centers for pharmaceuticals. There had been no loss of life, but distribution of the pharmaceuticals had been disrupted, and all stock destroyed. (There was no mention of the plane.)

Turned out I worked for Lexcorp on a pharmaceutical manufacturing line. All employees were called in to work to start ramped-up production to replace the stock destroyed by Superman. No one knew why he had done what he did or what he would do next, but we were all working with a sense of dread, a sense that we might be his next target. I woke up as I was clocking in on my production line.

It's been a long time since I've had a dream this detailed and specific. I have no idea what brought it on. I wanted to record it before it slips away, even though it's been well over fourteen hours and I remember it with great clarity.

Monday, February 19, 2024

In hospice: One year later

My mom had her stroke the morning of February 14, 2023. By February 15, it was clear that she would not be recovering, and that hospice would be the best option for her to spend her remaining days. But there was a complication: she had contracted COVID-19, which directly led to her stroke. Only one hospice locally was willing to accept individuals who were COVID-positive. That was the Hospice of the Sacred Heart in Dunmore, PA.

I would have preferred her to spend her final days at home, and I know she would have, too. But her condition, even as she was dying, required care that I wouldn't be able to provide. The Hospice of the Sacred Heart came highly recommended. My brother, sister, and I all agreed it would be the best place for her. Now it was a question of getting her there.

The logistics were...complicated. Even once we secured a COVID-approved room at the hospice, we still had to arrange for transportation. The final decisions were being made late on the afternoon of the 15th. She was being moved from her room in the CCU (or ICU, I forget which) to a sort of holding room in another part of the hospital. We didn't want her to be moved a second time that same day after she was just settling into the new room, but somehow that got misconstrued as not wanting her to be transported at all. She wound up spending the night of the 15th at the hospital. Much of the 16th was spent disentangling the confusion from the day before and waiting for transportation. I stayed in her room late into evening, well after the hospital had closed to visitors, and finally had to go home. Transport showed up an hour or two later. My brother was alerted, and he traveled to the hospice to supervise her check-in.

If you have a choice as to where you can spend your final days, the Hospice of the Sacred Heart is highly recommended. It is a calm, gentle place. It is very generous and welcoming to family members. In the week-plus that my mom was there, I frequently spent more than eighteen hours there in a given day. Food was far from my mind those days, but the hospice provided coffee and snacks and made-to-order meals. My mom's room was spacious and accommodating, where two of us could be there with her at the same time without tripping over each other. I often napped in a chair next to her, much like a cat in a short story I had written a decade before.

My first time at the hospice was on Friday the 17th. I decorated the room with artificial flower arrangements that she would never see, arrangements that I had meant to use to welcome her home. I brought up the Valentine's Day arrangement I had placed in her rehab room two days before her stroke. I brought up her favorite blanket and covered her with it. All these things were meant to send a message: This person is loved. Treat her well.

The hospice would become my second home until my mom's death on the 24th.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

One year since the stroke

My mom was transferred from the hospital back to the physical rehab center on Sunday, February 12, 2023. I had picked up some dollar store roses the night before, along with a pretty vase and a Happy Valentine's Day balloon on a stick. I made a little arrangement out of them, and took them to my mother's room, along with a Valentine's Day card my sister had sent. I spent the afternoon with her, and turned on the Super Bowl for her. We watched part of the first quarter before I kissed her goodnight and left for the evening.

I watched the rest of the game at home, eating a terrible supermarket pizza. The Eagles and the Chiefs traded the lead constantly. It was anyone's game until the last moment. It was such a tight game, I worried that my mom might have a stroke watching it. (It turned out she had fallen asleep after Rihanna's halftime show.)

The next day she tested positive for COVID-19. She was furious. For three years I had kept her safe, kept her a virtual prisoner at home, tightly restricted her outside exposure, tightly restricted my own outside exposure. For five weeks at the hospital and the rehab center we had carefully threaded the needle of COVID exposure. And now, on what might have been an unnecessary return trip to the hospital, it had finally gotten her.

We had no illusions over what it could mean at her age, in her condition, with her specific issues. This might be it.

I visited her that day, now restricted by full COVID protocols: a gown, mask, face shield, and gloves. She was similarly garbed. We were both angry and frustrated at the situation. I only visited for an hour or so. I had taken the day off from work, so I called her later that afternoon, after she had had dinner and had gone to bed. We talked about Rihanna's performance. and she vented more about bastard COVID. I told her I loved her, and would see her the next day. It would be Valentine's Day, after all.

The next morning, Valentine's Day, my brother called and told me that our mother had had a massive stroke sometime that morning. They had rushed her to the hospital, and he was on his way to see her.

It was obvious from the start that this was a devastating stroke. My brother saw her shortly after they had applied clotbuster, had gotten the last coherent words out of her. My sister had raced up from her home two hundred miles away after my brother called her that morning. By the time I got to see our mother she had already slipped back into the depths of the stroke. Brain scans showed a huge blockage at the base of her brain and essentially no blood flow throughout. 

We spent the day trying to sort out what the next few days might look like. We all knew her specific instructions: if she were ever in such a state with no hope of recovery, she did not want to be hooked up to machines that would prolong her death. So now the task was to determine if there was any hope of recovery.

It sure as hell looked like the answer was no. We put out the word of what had happened, made arrangements for people to say their goodbyes. We took turns at her bedside in the Critical Care Unit. I was there when our old parish priest stopped by. Her eyes opened wide with recognition as he said hello to her - the most dramatic reaction she had had since the stroke. I left him so he could speak to her in private.

That afternoon a surgeon approached us. He was young and enthusiastic. He had studied her brain scans and thought it might be possible to clear the blockage and restore function. My brother, sister, and I looked at each other: she had specified no heroic actions to keep her alive, but a simple surgery that could reverse the stroke - that was something else entirely. Not that we believed that would be the outcome for a moment. But, what the hell, it was worth a shot. We agreed to let him try.

We waited in the same waiting room where we had waited for her leg surgery to be completed six weeks earlier. After several hours, the surgeon came out and told us he had tried his damnedest, but the blockage just couldn't be budged. We thanked him for trying.

She was returned to the CCU. Now it was time to arrange for hospice care, and the final chapter of her life.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

One year since the fall

One year ago today, my mom left her house for the last time.

She had come home just a few days earlier. She had been discharged from the rehab center, deemed capable of continuing her recovery at home with assistance. But from the start something seemed wrong. While she had been able to walk with her walker during her therapy sessions, she seemed to lose this ability after she came home, except first thing in the morning. 

It was a Wednesday. I had taken the first two days of the week off, as well as the previous Friday when she came home. We had been struggling to get her to walk up to that point, and while she had shown improvement, we agreed she would need me to assist her whenever she walked. Wednesday was my first day back to work. Fortunately I was scheduled to work from home four days a week, and planned to take the fifth day off as often as necessary. Our house is small, so I would never be far from her. She had gotten up that morning, walked herself to the bathroom, walked back out, had breakfast and her morning pills, and went back to bed for a bit. A few hours later I was getting ready to start my work day at 4:00 PM. She got up again, walked to the bathroom with my assistance, and got herself dressed. She watched TV for a while, then settled in for a late lunch. We got her seated at the kitchen table. I served her lunch and turned the TV to her favorite channel. We decided she would stay there until it was time for my first break at 6:00, at which point I would serve her dinner. I started my work day.

As the calls ground on I realized I hadn't turned on the Christmas lights for her since she had come home. I wanted to take them down that weekend, so I decided to flip them on during my first break.

A few minutes before my break, she got up from the kitchen table. She began walking across the kitchen with her walker. I'm not sure what she was planning to do.

The phone rang.

My mom has always had an intense relationship with the phone. Telephones are one of the oldest pieces of modern technology. It's always struck me in my re-readings of The Great Gatsby, set in 1925, that telephones are fairly ubiquitous, but radio broadcasts were wholly absent. I don't know if her family had a telephone when she was a little girl. But as an adult she loved talking on the phone. If you were having a conversation with her and the phone rang, the phone took priority. The phone always took priority.

Mu mom stopped her forward motion. She turned towards the phone, which she had left on the table. She lost her balance. She fell in slow motion as I watched, in the middle of a call.

I watched her hit her head on the seat of her wooden chair.

I aborted the call. I had never done that before, and I have never done it since. I apologized to the caller - who had been on hold for over two hours to speak to me - and told him he would have to call back.

I yanked off my headset, pushed away my computer, got out of my chair. I rushed to my mom.

She seemed OK. She was not at all addled by hitting her head. My first instinct was to help her up. But I knew that among her medicines was a blood thinner that could make a brain bleed more likely. I decided to call my brother, a nurse, to let him know what had happened, to ask if I should call an ambulance. He said to not stand her up, to call an ambulance. I hung up and dialed 911.

I got an ice pack for her head. I opened the front door for when the ambulance showed up.

I didn't strap an N95 respirator on her. I should have.

The ambulance showed up in a few minutes. The crew entered the house, none of them wearing a mask. One immediately had my mom stand up and sit in her chair. Then they put her on a gurney and took her out of the house for the very last time ever.

There was no injury to her head, it turned out. But her ability to walk was assessed to be so poor she would have to go back for remedial therapy. In a few days she was discharged from the hospital back to the rehab center, to the same room she had vacated little more than a week earlier.

She tested positive for COVID-19 on February 13, five days after her trip with an unmasked ambulance crew. She had a stroke the next morning, Valentine's Day. She would die the evening of February 24.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

A sort of homecoming

One year ago today, my mom came home for the last time.

It seemed like she had been away forever. Her leg broke on December 27. Her artificial knee joint was replaced and her leg was repaired within a week, and then she began the long and difficult process of learning to walk again. She was 89. Ten years earlier, even five years earlier, it would have been a different story. But at her age it took much longer to get her to a point where she was judged to be ready to return home.

She was not ready.

We took her out of the rehab center that day. My brother brought her home in his car, while I stopped at the drugstore to have her prescriptions filled. We trundled her into the house, along with all of her luggage and supplies. She was happy to be home, in familiar surroundings. To recline on her own couch, watch her own TV, use her own bathroom. Use her own phone to call her friends whenever she liked. Be with her beloved cats again.

I presented her with a Welcome Home cake. It was a replacement of sorts for the birthday cake we had never had for me.

Home health care wanted to come the very next day, but we felt it was too soon. We hadn't even had a chance to unpack. But their schedules were packed. If they couldn't come that day, it would be several more days before they could fit her in. Close to a week. We rescheduled for them to come back then.

We tried to settle into a routine. Meals, medicine, exercise. The cats were uncertain of her presence at first, but eventually welcomed her back.

There were problems from the start. Each morning she woke up, got herself out of bed, used her walker to walk down the hall to the bathroom. Used the bathroom, used the walker to head back to the kitchen for breakfast. Took a nap. Woke up a few hours later and was unable to walk.

We tried. God, how we tried. It was a struggle. Had she come home too soon? Why could she walk fine in the morning, but found it nearly impossible as the day wore on?

We worked on it, harder and harder. Each day she seemed to get stronger. Each day she could walk a little better.

Until February 8th, the day she fell.