I telephone my mother. Between sobs and screams, she gasps for air and says, “Come! Now! I need you.”
I ask, “Are you dying?” This may seem callous, or even funny, but it is actually a good question, a fair question that cuts to the chase, and there is a back-story.
Some five years ago, my mother-in-law kindly called me at 6 a.m. and said, “I am dying.” It was not the usual thing you hear from mothers. She did not say, “I am going to die soon,” or “I feel like I am dying,” or “You better come soon, or I will die.” My mother-in-law said, “I am dying.” And seven minutes into the phone call, she suffered a massive heart attack and she did die, then and there.
I repeat, “Are you dying?”
“No. But — you — have — to,” each word was more frantic and louder than the next, “come — now.”
“Are you in pain?”
“No. But — you have to — drop everything — and come now.”
Doing my best to ascertain whether or not this is a “real” emergency I ask, “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“Absolutely not,” she continues. “I had an awful night. I was up all night. I was vomiting all night. You can’t go. I will not allow it.”
There it is. Peter and I, in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary, are scheduled to leave town the very next day, and mom is plain n’ simple freaked out. She is having a panic attack that rivals the taxi ride to the ophthalmologist by a long shot.
“If you were dying, I would drop everything and come.”
My words are strong, steady and even, but my body is vibrating — not in the cosmic, Beach Boys, good vibrations kind of way. I am overwhelmed by a myriad of emotions; my esophagus is beginning to tighten, my head is pounding, swiftly moving toward migraine.
My mirror neurons are ablaze.
In November of 2007, scientists discovered that the neurons in the frontal cortex both fire when you do something and when you see someone else doing something, thus mirroring the neurological activity in the others’ brain. We experience the actions of “the other,” their thoughts and feelings as if they are our own.
Mirror neurons explain the development of empathy and altruism. At the Fourth National Conference on Buddhist Studies, neuroscientist Dr. S.V. Prabhu used mirror neurons, sometimes referred to as “Gandi’s neurons,” to emphasize the spiritual inter-connectedness of all people.
I am awash in my own pain, as well as Harriet’s pain, and I am not able to detect where the lines of suffering intersect, meet or otherwise mirror each other.
At the same time — thankfully, praise be and amen — my higher self, the wise woman who resides within is categorically directing me, and rather loudly I might add, to “hang up!”
“I will call you back… soon.”
Unnerved, shaken and near tears, I telephone in fast succession three of my friends who have lived through or are presently navigating the world of elder care, asking for their input.
To cancel the trip or not to cancel the trip? That is the question.
All three of these amazing women, all of whom are extraordinary caregivers with strong moral compasses — not a whiner amongst them — recount similar stories of panicked cries. It is, apparently, par for the course, and it is understandable.
As “we” are the caregivers, we are our respective parents’ lifelines. It is understandable that in their vulnerable state they might act out in this manner. They individually and collectively offer their opinions and remind me, “You are not abandoning your mother. She is not in (physical) pain. She is not near death. Other family members have stepped up to the plate and are visiting her in your absence. The aides are in place. You need a break. Go.”
The three wise women have given their blessings. I am, in theory, free to go and even enjoy myself. Yet, questions remain and hang heavy in the air.
What if the upset kills her? Yet another setback in a series of setbacks, this one put into motion by me. Will she de-compensate from the stress of my “abandoning” her, never to recover?
But I do know in my heart of hearts that if we do not go now, we will never go. I shelve my concerns, my fears, my quiet hysteria, and we go.
I telephone in frequently. Each and every time we speak, no matter the mood, which ranges from unhappy to pleasant to almost happy, I acknowledge mom’s situation and feelings, “Yes, this is difficult for you.”
I remind her, “There will be times when Peter and I take a vacation, when I am away on business, but we will always come back, and we will always call in. I will not abandon you.”
Most importantly, with love and gratitude, I thank her. I am not just saying these words. I mean them. “I can’t tell you how much I truly appreciate your trying so hard to adjust to your new living situation. Your efforts are heroic. Thank you.”
On the fourth morning, mom is eager (not anxious) and proud to report that she ventured out of her room. “I went downstairs yesterday a few hours before lunch. I sat with the ladies who gather around the squawking birds, in those cages… ” She can’t find the word; I offer it — aviary.
“Afterwards, we went to lunch and then to a Russian folk song concert. I loved it! A fat, teenaged boy was singing, and I was rocking back n’ forth the entire time.”
Her voice softens, almost to a whisper, “Each time you go away… it will get easier.”
Fat comment aside, before I can get a grateful word in edgewise, before I can express what a super-nonagenarian she surely is, she ramps up and is running, “Well, I’ve got to go now. Heading out…”
“… going to where the birds scream.”
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