pure unadulterated joy: alcohol

(the third in a series about my mother)

The honest depiction of your past may be the courage for another’s future.  Danny Gokey

Mom….would you like to go see the new, beautiful nursing home I’ve been telling you about? The Texan’s mother is out there and she ADORES it!

Joy about age 14

Nice try. No old, dying person really wants to see the inside of a nursing home no matter how avant garde you promise it to be. Joy was a practical realist, so we scheduled an appointment. Wouldn’t you know I had some very important business out-of-town with the Sprout on the day of the nursing home visit.  Who do you guess wheeled Mom around on her fun nursing home tour? That’s right…the steadfast, rock-love of my life….the Texan! Mom loved the Texan and she trusted him completely. The Texan reported Joy took copious notes and inquired as to the cost of everything. How much were meals? Did they charge extra for the oxygen? Did they charge to give her a bath? Could she bring her computer without an extra charge? Was toilet paper in the bathroom included in the price? Could she get her diabetic meals and what would they cost? The Texan finally got through to her that everything was included and she didn’t need to worry about anything….she could be right next door to his mom. We placed a deposit and scheduled a move-in day.

Joy had always been smart. She had a good head for figures and business, too. But during my growing-up years, Joy didn’t always make good decisions. You see, for my formative years….as far back as I can remember, Mom was an alcoholic. Of course, when I was little I didn’t know what ‘alcoholism’ was. I had no name or way of communicating what was wrong with my mother. Call it a progressive revelation.

Me with broken arm as a baby. Something about a run-in with my 2 older brothers.

circa 1962

I knew she was able to work her job OK, but when she came home in the evenings, she passed out on the couch. On weekends, she might pass out earlier. I knew she and my dad argued about what was wrong with her. (My dad was an alcoholic as well, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1978. That’s another tale and beyond the scope of this story).

Dad and Mom early 1950’s

One of the earliest recollections of realizing my mother was sick was when she checked into the Oklahoma State Mental Hospital. It was the early 1960’s and I’m not talking the Betty Ford clinic, I’m talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She was gone for weeks and I remember going to the foreboding place for a visit. Never went back. Guess the adults in my life figured it was too much for a youngster. They were right. The clenching fingers of fear gripped my young psyche and held tight for decades.

When Joy found sobriety with the help of A.A. in 1980, she began the task of turning her life around, making amends and building a new, productive life for herself. I was a young mom with small children as Joy embarked on her journey and I was hedging my bets. I’d witnessed many ‘recoveries’ and she’d have to prove she could be trusted. Her attempt at transformation felt like turning back a freight train speeding towards a cliff. I’d never known a sober mother and I would reserve judgement, thank you very much. Jump forward to her funeral in 2011….she celebrated almost thirty-one years of sobriety.

We enjoyed our sober Joy so much, we moved her from Oklahoma to Texas 1985. We loved her and yes….we needed an extra baby sitter for our three rug-rats. The raging freight train had turned.

Now….back to her smoking addiction I told you about. She knew I detested her smoking. I’d grown up with it. Gone on endless road trips in an old station wagon with the windows rolled up…both parents smoking. I have allergies and asthma and become ill when exposed to cigarette smoke. Wanted to become a sleazy lounge singer, but I couldn’t handle the smoke. My lungs have spoken…..ENOUGH!

In our conversations over the ensuing years, Mom told me giving up drinking was the hardest thing she EVER did. Alcoholics always crave a drink and that’s just the way it is. She honestly and boldly told me after giving up alcohol, there was no way in hell she was ever gonna give up cigarettes. She simply could not do it, no matter my pleading. No matter the lung cancer. No matter living in a smoke-free retirement home. No matter needing oxygen 24/7. Mom had spoken.

She almost made good on her promise. She was about to move to the nursing home. I would gladly have handed her a smoldering cig if it would relieve her pain…even for a moment.

pure unadulterated joy: 2

(The second in a series about my mother)

The emergency room doctors and nurses were kind and concerned in dealing with Joy’s eight day-no poop issue. Some scans were conducted looking for intestinal blockages. When those came back negative, we were sent home but Mom continued to complain of intense back pain. She was having great difficulty walking around her small apartment.

It’s the tumor! Where is the freakin’ hiding tumor?

I was the Nancy Drew of tumors after Mom’s last lung cancer surgery. Isn’t lung cancer one of the most metastasizing cancers? Doesn’t it show up in your brain or your bones…or somewhere? Her beloved brother had died of cancer some years earlier.

The cause of her reoccurring bladder infections? A tumor. Frequent lung and breathing difficulties? More tumors. The cause of her recent back pain? A giant tumor in her spine. How many people do you know who’ve survived lung cancer surgery and who have NOT had a recurrence somewhere else? That’s a highly exclusive club, for sure.

Mainly I was convinced I would again come face to face with another cancerous tumor, because….you see (cringe)…..Joy still smoked. Yes, I know it shattered every retirement home rule. She was gonna light the place up like the 4th of July, smoking while she was on oxygen 24/7! Her smoking felt like death by a thousand cuts to me.

Mom, is grandma smoking? Her apartment smells like cigarettes!

On our weekly Walmart forays, she bought air freshener by the case. I upchuck at the cloying fragrance of lavender clinging over menthol Kool smoke. When did she smoke? How was she not discovered by the retirement home police? Did she think I was an idiot? (you don’t have to answer that one!)

One day the Sprout visited her grandma with me, and she remarked the bathroom smelled smoky. I donned my sleuth hat and entered the bathroom. I opened her shower and the intense odor assaulted me like a smoky bandit. Dammit! She’s smoking in the shower with the shower vent on! I was too upset to do any yelling or pleading that day. I returned the next day and talked with her…too loudly, like always.

Mom…they’re gonna throw you out of the home! Then, where will you go? You can’t live with me….you’ll be a homeless, old deaf woman on oxygen meandering the streets looking for a handout! Please don’t do this…I’ll get you chewing tobacco, more nicorette….anything.

Never knew for sure how she obtained the cigs. She couldn’t drive, so I suspect she bribed a more able-bodied oldster to secure them for her. Maybe some sinister resident who took the bus to the supermarket every Wednesday? Perhaps she bartered with Dulcolax or Poligrip…who the hell knew?

Don’t remember having another conversation on this topic, however I do recall searching her apartment while she was at bridge group. (Sick, I realize. Don’t judge.) Found the pack of cancer sticks concealed in a box stashed in the way back of her desk drawer. I took them out. Don’t know if she smoked ever again, but her large purchases of Glade morphed into grand purchases of Nicorette gum.

For now, Joy was in pain and couldn’t care for herself. Me? Nancy Drew was preparing for battle with the phantom tumor.

pure unadulterated joy

(The first in a series about the days and events leading to my mother’s death in February 2011.)

‘Kath….I haven’t pooped in eight days’,
Joy confided to me in an embarrassingly loud whisper inside the retirement home restaurant. She’d worn bulky hearing aids for fifty-plus years and the woman lost her inside voice eons ago.

Meeting for lunch after the bustle of the 2010 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I was ready to re-assume the mantle of more dutiful daughter. Other commitments of family and visitors relegated Mom to the back burner for the week between the big holidays.

Joy at the 2010 retirement home Christmas party watching her elf lead the singing. She’s ready to ring her jingle bells on cue.

Most of December found us visiting her myriad doctors to maintain our balance on
her health tightrope. Our three-ring circus included regular visits to a pulmonary physician for management of COPD (emphysema) and congestive heart failure, the nephrologist to keep tabs on failing kidney function and the weeping edema in her lower legs, and visits to the endocrinologist to keep her late onset diabetes under control. The required medications overflowed from several desk drawers.

Christmas 2010 at our house. One of the Sprouts thought she needed her IQ challenged.

Most days were salt water taffy moments for me-lots of pulling and stretching on my time and energy, but the combination failed to produce a sweet, tasty morsel.

Joy living in the retirement home was a godsend. A lifelong smoker, she had surgery for lung cancer some years previously. Until that time, she lived alone in a precious cottage the Texan provided for her. After the removal of a portion of the upper lobe of her lung and the follow-up radiation, we both knew her days of living alone were numbered. She stayed with us as she recuperated from her lung surgery. That mostly went well, except for the times I came home and found her smoking with her oxygen on. What makes a soul stubbornly continue to smoke when his life has been heroically spared by a highly skilled surgeon? Stupid addictions….I had the second fiddle music memorized.

‘This is totally unacceptable. I can’t work to save you while you simultaneously try to kill yourself!’

She proudly but weakly gathered her things.

‘Take me home, then.’

This arrangement did not last long. Mom was unable to care for herself. The retirement home was our answer.

Joy’s years at the retirement home were filled with friends, shared dinners, and bridge groups. Since she couldn’t hear, she studied the resident roster daily and worked diligently on learning names. She kept meticulous notes on people she met during lunch and dinner. She observed whose wheelchair was outside whose apartment and she reveled in stories of ‘rest home trysts’.

‘Why don’t you get in on the action?’ I asked.

‘Who says I haven’t?’

Before long, Joy was known as a happy resident who played a wickedly competitive game of bridge. She raced around the halls of the home like she was driving the Indy 500 fueled by her special oxygen pack. The home subsequently implemented a mandatory safe-driving education program for those residents using scooters. There had been a number of incidents. Although she denied it, I’m certain Joy was the cause of a mandatory safe-driving program. I had the tire tracks up my ankles to prove it. Sometimes Joy bristled when I christened the retirement home ‘God’s waiting room’, but mostly she chuckled.

In a week’s time, we would give anything for the happy laps and the friends of the retirement home. Today, we were off to the hospital.