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No One Told Me

Three January’s ago I got a call from my sister in LA to tell me that our Mom had a heart attack. Mom was 85 at the time and has always been healthy, active and mentally acute. She has lived on her own since 1976 when my father passed away at the age of 51. She loved golfing, dancing every Friday night, watched her diet and exercised daily. She loved showing me her weights by the fireplace and would brag about how many lifts she would do each day.

I flew down the next day and went to the hospital. Sis told me that Mom was in the kitchen and had just finished eating her Big Mac dinner (one of her few guilty pleasures) and had the heart attack, fell down hitting her head on the handle of the oven and went unconscious, for how long we don’t know. She awoke and saw that there was blood on the kitchen floor and her favorite sweater was covered in blood. So what did she do? Instead of pressing the Life Alert device we got for her four years earlier, she got a bucket, filled it with cold water, put her sweater into it (so it wouldn’t stain) and cleaned the floor. After that she changed into her PJs and went to bed. Keep in mind that my mother is such a neat freak that when I would get up in the night to pee I’d come back to a made bed. (Just kidding, but you get the idea!

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The next morning she awoke and panicked because her pillow was covered in blood. So she called my sister and that’s when she went to the hospital. Of course Mom was upset with my sister for calling me because “It’s not serious, he doesn’t need to come all the way down here…

After seeing Mom all she kept saying is “I hate it here, please take me home!” “Sure mom but I need to speak to your doctors first.” After talking to one of her three physicians I discovered that they felt the concussion Mom suffered due to her fall actually restarted her heart. So the bump on her head saved her life! They reassured me that she would recover, but needed to remain in ICU for two to three nights. So when I went back into her room to appease her I simply said “I’m going to Baskin Robbins to get us both hot fudge sundaes. I’ll be right back.” When I returned with two double hot fudge delights the nurse looked at me askance. I simply said “Mom is 86, we’re both hungry and the food here is shit.” She smiled and simply said “I wish I had known you were going, I would have put in my order.

After four days we took Mom home. I made my sister, niece, Mom and myself some sandwiches to eat out on her patio. All was going well until Mom started choking. Choking to the point where her airway was obviously completely blocked. I performed the Heimlich on her to dislodge the blockage and some of the sandwich ejected, but she was still in breathing distress and passed out completely. I carried her into the house and placed her on the floor. Her pupils had completely dilated, her mouth agape and I felt she was going to die. I began to perform CPR on her (Sis called 911 and waited outside for the fire department) and eventually life returned to her face and she began to breathe.

The paramedics arrived and examined her. During the entire time they were there Mom BEGGED me to not return her to the hospital. So I asked the primary paramedic the following questions:

  1. Does her airway sound clear?
  2. Are her heart rhythms normal?

He answered yes to both questions. So I made the call to leave her with me at home. Both my sister and niece went home and I stayed at Mom’s sleeping on the floor next to her bed. (she always said I was a dog, so maybe she was right!) That night there was a complete power failure at her house and in that complete darkness the stress of the day overcame me and I began to cry. But thankfully Mom was peacefully asleep. I didn’t sleep that night because I was worried she may stop breathing in the middle of the night. I would shine my flashlight on her face every now and again to check.

Then during my Uncle Jack’s funeral it happened again. Mom started choking on a piece of fish. So I performed the same routine, but this time it took much longer to revive her. Paramedics came, and much to the shock of everyone I allowed mom to stay at the ceremony. During this time we had moved mom to an assisted living facility because she could no longer live alone. My sister was angry and felt mom should live with her, but I knew the reality. She could not care for mom in the way she had hoped or wanted to believe she could. And after two weeks realized we had made the right choice.

Then during dinner at the assisted living center when my girlfriend, sister, niece, son and daughter were at the table it happened again, not as serious as the other two times, but again. The result was the assisted living home told us that Mom could no longer live there because they were not equipped to handle those situations and it had happened three times. Kind of like the three strikes rule I guess.

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We moved her from the assisted living facility into a care facility. It was then I discovered that a DNR (do not resuscitate) was NOT what I thought. Mom always made it clear that if she was only living due to life support like a resuscitator or heart machine, to let her go. I understand, because I’d want the same for myself. But when I reviewed the document it stated, “Choking, DNR, Heart attack, DNR” So I asked the administrator what that meant. He told me that if Mom is choking, do nothing. If she has a heart attack, do nothing. What the fuck?! So I specifically hand wrote to administer first aid in those situations.

Later Mom told me that a family came to visit one of the residents and the four adult children and the resident were out on the patio. The woman started to choke and all of the kids just sat there and did nothing. The woman recovered from her choking incident but it was the example of DNR.

I made a promise to Mom that I would ensure two things; 1. That she is safe. 2. That she is happy. It’s the very same two things I would want for my own life.

So we made the very tough decision to have a G tube (feeding tube) inserted into Mom’s stomach. She had gotten down to 78 pounds because she was afraid to eat, fearing she would choke and I would not be there to revive her. Mom’s never been heavy, at 5-0 she normally weighed 102 pounds soaking wet, so 78 lbs. was just not healthy. So the feeding tube was inserted and she began to gain weight once again, back up to a consistent 92 pounds. But when you consider how many social things happen around food, having dinner or drinks with family or friends, the pleasure of flavors, it was a very difficult adjustment, not only for Mom but for us as well.

So whenever I visited Mom I thought “Fuck it, if it were me I’d eat anyway and if I choke to death so be it.” So I would give her those wonderful frozen sherbet pushups whenever we were together. Her eyes would roll back and she would simply utter “Yummy!” as we both enjoyed them together. And the other thing? Pepsi! Yup like me she loved the taste and feel of cola, so we had that as well. And yes donuts! Mom has always loved donuts, was afraid to eat them, but I convinced her it would be an honorable way to die if she choked. Besides I was there any way we cold both die together.

Then one day my sister called to tell me that Mom’s feeding tube showed black liquid coming up. She took her to the hospital and the doctor informed us that mom had an ulcer which was the result of hot liquid being poured into her G tube. After speaking to mom we discovered that her caretaker had poured hot water instead of room temperature water into her tube! When confronted the caretaker said “I don’t remember doing that!” even though mom had said “Ouch” when she did it.

Now anyone can make a mistake, but the part that infuriated me was the fact the home tried to cover it up. I won’t speak more about this due to impending litigation…. We moved mom from that home to another not in the same owner/system and I later found out mom was afraid of the careless caretaker who was mean to her. But of course Mom never wanted to say anything which is typical of her generation.

Life is much like a Bell Curve. We are born and are completely dependent on our caretakers. Our parents adore us and dream of all of the things we will become. Babies keep them up at night, cry, have our diapers changed and eventually grow to the next stage. We can feed ourselves, marvel at discovering our hands, feet, fingers, mouths and yes our genitals. We go to school, come home to report new things and do activities. And the big bump in that Bell Curve is as adults. We live our lives independently, achieve life events and enjoy our lives. (hopefully!) Then the ‘other side’ the down side of the Bell Curve is when we start to decline, or in essence we again revert to adolescents, then toddlers and eventually infants. What is so different is a lifetime of former independence becomes one of dependence. And instead of looking forward, we face the end. Adolescence as a former independent adult is not pretty. And as we move to the toddler stage it becomes even less so.

As adults who were the children of the new toddlers and infants our patience is not as keen as when the roles were reversed. History of fights, long seated resentments are now part of our emotional and mental equation in caring for those who were once our caretakers. It is not something that necessarily needs to be an overarching factor in the care for a parent, but it is certainly an aspect that plays into one’s emotional factor. What was cute as an infant is not cute as an aging adult. It’s sad and tragic, but is part of life.

For no matter how much Yoga, Kale, Quinoa, plastic surgery, nice clothing, cars and exercise we pursue as adults in the end what we face is inevitable. We never want to think about it for ourselves, let alone acknowledge our final years. If you have any doubt of which I speak just watch TV, listen to yourselves and your friends. Do they ever discuss an aging parent in depth? About their feelings toward that inevitable time? Probably not because the simple fact is no one prepares us for that time, we don’t want to face those horrible facts. Let alone ANY guilt we may feel by having feelings of any resentment. People don’t share their cute little pictures of an aging adult like they do with true infants. It’s too hard to face – the truth, the inevitable.

And consider that the senior care industry are like funeral homes. They will never go out of business and worse, they are very loosely regulated. Highly profitable and those who own/work in those facilities are not kept to the same standards as those in the medical profession. Don’t believe me? Check for yourselves.

Is it better to get hit by a bus? That’s a personal question. I do know that the vast majority of those who live in board and care or assisted living homes are primarily women. Would I want to live in one of those places no matter how ‘nice’ it is? Oh hell no. Although I did find that women seem to completely lose their sexual inhibitions as seniors. When I was propositioned at a Bingo night and during a Mother’s Day portrait session I donated while I was visiting my mom I was shocked. “What are you doing after Bingo/taking photos? My room number is xxx!” But when I caught two women figuring out how to proposition my 22 year old son when he was visiting ‘grandma’ I about shit my pants! I guess if I want nonstop action, I will live in one of those places!

And you must become your parent’s advocate in every aspect of their lives. Care homes are for profit. Doctors are for profit. I’m not suggesting that every care facility or physician’s primary motivation is out of greed, but just like an infant or toddler, you need to be vigilant where once they could be vigilant for themselves.

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Mom is much happier now. One of the residents at her new home is a knitter and is showing mom how to knit. I’ve requested a knit cap for my shaved head. I had to have her doctor write a prescription so she could again drink coffee. So now she enjoys a ‘half cup’ of coffee each morning when she reads her paper. And the Kindle I bought her so she can do crossword puzzles and word searches is coming out of the cardboard box again. In the middle of this month we are having her feeding tube removed. Yes due to her speech therapy to strengthen her throat muscles she has not been fed through her tube for seven weeks and has maintained her weight through normal eating. Her doctor agrees with the removal. So mom has gone from infant back to toddler again and for that I am very happy. I dread the possibility of her moving back into adolescence because I do NOT want to revisit the ‘no more driving’ issue again!

I’m certain mom will outlive me. She’s the cat with 67 lives. And when that day happens, she too will say “No One Told Me.”

3 thoughts on “No One Told Me”

  1. Thank you for writing your story which is so relevant and sadly, becoming universal. I love the photographs – so much depth and life. I love your humor too and the vulnerability and truth in which you share. Thank you so much.

  2. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your life. Love your work and all the technical view on photography, but your story is truly touching. We all try to be good sons. Thanks again

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