I’m as selfish as the next person. I want my time to be my own. I want to dictate how it’s spent. I want to do what I want, when I want. I don’t want to be inconvenienced. This attitude puts me into an interesting position at present because I am dealing with not one, not two, but three elderly individuals. All have reached their decline at the same time which, let me assure you, makes for more fun than should be allowed.
First up (if I have to put them into any sort of order) is my dog Tucker. I’ve blogged about him before. Tuck has been with me since he was 10 weeks old. He’s just turned 12. He maintained good health for most of those years (his little sister Bella — who also lived with us — was the bug-a-boo when it came to illness and injury). As can be expected, I’ve witnessed a general slowing down on Tucker’s part over the past few years, a hesitance when moving, a tendency to not find the water or food bowl, an occasional totter into the wall. Arthritis has set in, as have spinal stenosis and bone spurs in his shoulders. His genial, gentle, good-boy personality suffered at the outset and he began to attack Bella (although, to his credit, never the cats and never a human). Off to the vet we went and he’s been on pain meds ever since which have made a profound and positive difference. Just before last Thanksgiving, Bella died and Tuck went into mourning. He developed colitis, which could only be controlled by more meds and changing his diet to boiled rice and chicken. (Before any of you gets on your soap box about responsible pet ownership and whether or not this dog should be euthanized, let me assure you that despite his medical issues Tucker retains quality of life. He’s happy. He’s enthusiastic about his daily walk (one-quarter mile), mealtime, and meeting people. His discomfort is well-managed, thanks to the efforts of the illustrious Dr. Gamble. I’m not the sort to keep an animal alive for my sake alone. Rest assured that when Tucker’s time comes, we’ll know it and respond appropriately.)
Second on my hit parade is my mother. If you’ve read any of these blogs, you may be aware that Mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This has presented challenges not only to her, but to the entire family, and it has affected each of us in our own particular way. Mom and I were close when I was a child, not so close as I got into my teenaged years, farther apart still as I grew older, and all but estranged over the past several years. Some time ago (before her illness became obvious, before it became clear that her occasional lapses were more than what might normally be expected from a woman in her late 70’s/early 80’s), I decided to attempt to recreate and redefine my relationship with her. I admit I was scared. I didn’t want to get too close. I didn’t want to be hurt again. To some degree, I succeeded. Then Alzheimer’s came along and wiped the playing field clean with a single stroke. In a matter of months most of the woman, the personality, that I thought of as my mother, has disappeared. Now there’s a lovely little 86-year-old stranger living in her body. I think I know her (though she proves me wrong more often than not) and I’m learning to love her as she is, but it’s been one hell of a transition, never mind learning how to bathe her, dress her, help her on with her Depends, and watch her like a border collie with a lone, erratic sheep. She eats/she doesn’t eat. She’s here at one moment, seemingly lucid, and at the next we’re off God knows where. Most of the time, she’s doesn’t know me. She knows she should and she’s adept at covering her confusion, but it’s clear on her face. Who is this woman? “Do you have many patients here at the hospital?” she asks as I help her put on her shoes in her own bedroom in her own house. “No,” I say. “Only you.” “Oh, my; isn’t that nice?” she replies.
Last up is my dad. He’s 92. Diabetic. Has congestive heart failure (his ankles swollen until they’re larger around than a DVD). High blood pressure. Three knee replacement surgeries have taken their toll. He used a cane for a long time, but now gets around with a walker. Until recently, despite his health issues, he was pretty hale and hearty for (as he puts it) a “grumpy old Dutchman,” but my mother’s illness has aged him like years alone never could. His wife is vanishing before his eyes. She’s still there in body (though there isn’t much of that left — 93 pounds, when she was 135 at her fighting weight), but the woman he’s spent 60 years with is all but gone. She knows him — sometimes — but often she looks at him with confusion. Each time, it’s a knife to his heart. He threw himself into being her caretaker as much as he could — cooking meals, being solicitous in a way he never was before, doing laundry — but he can’t do it any longer and we’ve taken over (willingly, by the way). He’s exhausted in body and spirit, burdened by a grief that rises over him like a slow-moving tsunami, balanced to crash down at any moment. And now his memory has begun to fail as well. He covers it up…or tries to…but we’ve caught too many instances. I see the confusion on his face, and the fear. Will he end up like her? Can he hold out — force his body to keep on — until she’s gone, however long that takes?
I’m not looking for sympathy. No one has to feel bad for me. I’ve learned to glean the pearls I can from the murky waters we’re swimming through. But the thing that gets to me — the thing that all my Hospice families confided to me with shame, the dark thought that insinuates itself into my brain all too frequently and fills me with guilt and self-loathing — is that I want it over. I want it finished. All of it.
Understand: I absolutely, positively do NOT want my dog, my mother, my father to die. Of course I don’t. If there were a way to keep them alive and well and happy, healthy and vibrant, I would do it. But that’s not the way of the world. We all flourish, we all decline, we all die. And those left behind deal with it. But how do we balanced the love we feel with the desire for death? It’s not even that. It’s not the desire for their release (although there’s some of that, of course there is; no one wants to see someone they care about be consumed by the inexorable progression of a disease), it’s a wish for our own. It’s — God help me — the craving to be FREE of all this, to not be tied down by the thousands of little events that constitute a day in caring for someone who is ill. To feel normal again. To feel you have time to breathe again, time that is your own to spend as you will.
It’s selfish, yes. But it’s also normal. All of the conflicting emotions that surround the death of a loved one are — damn it all! — normal. That doesn’t mean they’re easy or pleasant or admirable. But they’re justified. No one is proud when those thoughts and feelings surface. We’re aghast. We’re disgusted and embarrassed and ashamed of ourselves. But in the darkness of our hearts, our minds, our days and nights, we must admit to the HONESTY of those emotions. To deny that is to deny one more little part of ourselves when so much is already being denied, when so much is being taken from us that we can scarcely breathe for fear of toppling that house of cards.