Thursday, March 26, 2015

Exit, Stage Left

I am praying as I follow the ambulance down I-95 to Crozer Chester Medical Center. It is a trip I have made before and while my heart no longer threatens to thump out of my chest as I drive, I am not looking forward to the wait time as Ron is admitted to the Emergency Room. I have already called Bonnie, faithful daughter, and she will meet me there as soon as she can. But I will sit alone with my thoughts and “What if’s” for a while before she arrives. I have thrown my go-bag together with a book, my journal, and a knitting project. I will try to keep obsessive thoughts about what and how and why at bay.

It is not difficult to find a spot in the parking lot and I calmly walk down one flight to the corridor that leads to the Emergency Room. I give my name at the desk, even though I know it will be a while before I can see Ron, and I take my seat and pull out my journal. My journal has seen me through fifteen years of hospital runs and I know it will not fail me now. In fact, it is my journals that offered seed for my soon-to-be-published book, Crazy: Diary of the Well Spouse. But I long for some human companionship and a chance to piece together my thoughts.

I am not really eavesdropping, but in the seating section next to me I can hear three women talking. They appear to be mother, daughter, and granddaughter and I gather that they are here because the father has fallen. The older woman seems calm enough, but I recognize the clenched fists of the carefully controlled anguish. I am thinking of approaching the group when the two younger women hug the older one and depart on errands. The one left sits and looks dejectedly around the room. I make eye contact with her. I smile.

Up until fifteen years ago, I thought of myself as a shy person. But hospital waiting rooms can change one’s character and today I think nothing of rising from my seat and introducing myself to this fellow waiter.
“You can tell me to go away if you want, “ I say, “and I will go back to my seat”—I gesture at the chair where my go-bag sits—“but I overheard a little of your conversation and it seems that you and are on similar journeys tonight. Perhaps we could sit together and talk while we wait.” The woman smiles and says, “Of course.”

So I sit, and we talk. My new companion, Phyllis, has been taking care of her husband for 27 years now. I gasp when she says it. “I hoped it would end sometime,” I say. “It’s been fifteen years for us.” She gives me a sad smile and pats my hand. “It never ends, dear.”
Frank, her husband, has had several heart attacks and is in the early stages of dementia. He fell today and since he has multiple problems, she called 911 and had him brought in. I tell her about Ron’s ages ago car accident and the events with heart and medications and depression that brought us to the ER this evening. She is sympathetic and empathizes; we well spouses understand each other.

“If this is all so difficult,” I venture, “and there is no end in sight, why do we stay?”

She looks down for a moment and twists her wedding ring. “We stay,” she says, “because the vows meant something to us. We stay because we remember what they were and what we hope they will be again.”

There it is once more, that word “hope”, the tenacious word that often keeps me hanging onto the branch of the wind-torn tree.  My companion and I speak of our faith in God, of the support of our respective churches, of the energy required—and supplied by our maker—to continue to be care-givers to our husbands.

My daughter and hers enter the room almost simultaneously and Phyllis and I move to our respective family groups. Now and then, we look up and catch each other’s eye. Phyllis’ family is called to go back first and before she moves through the metal detector, I give her an impulsive hug. “Good luck,” I say. “I will pray for you.”
She squeezes me back. “And I you,” she says.
It will be another hour before our family name is called, and even more time will elapse before we find that Ron has overdosed on his heart medications, that his urinary tract infection has altered his sense of right, that his pacemaker has kept him alive. Bonnie and I talk and make phone calls and send texts and pray.

 I pray for Phyllis, fellow care-giver and well-spouse.
And I twist my own wedding ring on my hand, a ring that has seen more worse than better, more downs than ups, more poorer than richer. But the vows, as Phyllis has so astutely pointed out, mean something. For now, I stay.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a control freak. And while I do not particularly LIKE to drive, I prefer to drive myself rather than put myself at the mercy of someone else’s driving skills.  The truth is that I know I don’t see as well as I should, so I drive with extra care to make up for it. I can’t say that about everyone.
It was only sheer necessity, then, that forced me—and I do not use the word lightly—to ask Allen to drive me to school on Saturday. My car was, alas, in the shop for a new starter after a very near mishap in the ice and snow on Friday. All’s well that ends well and no one was hurt, but the very prospect of riding with Allen filled me with something akin to terror. I was not to be disappointed.

I’d like to make it clear here that my youngest son is, in all ways, a great person. A bit quirky sometimes—all my kids are—but essentially great. He was willing to drive me in return for some gas money. So, what else was new? He covered over the gashes in his passenger seat with a blanket, very thoughtful, and climbed over the steering column to open the door for me. Yes, the right door to Allen’s van does not open from the outside.

Allen’s van is, well, let’s use the word functional. He has alternately in the last two years played video games in it, carted computers around in it, collected scrap metal in it, and for a brief period of time known in our family lore as “moving out” slept in it for two weeks last summer, joined by his cat Sugar under extreme protest. Needless to say, it does not win the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But it runs, which is its saving grace.

Allen has driven me to Springfield before, but he is good at forgetting directions, so after I make sure we are on I-95 South—not North—the real fun begins. We are passing Chichester Avenue when he suddenly veers to the left. I grab for the door handle. There is no door handle.

“What’s up?” I ask with as much calmness as I can muster. Which is not, I will admit, much.

“Darn van doesn’t do well on the highway,” he says. “It’s the wind.”

I had not noticed discernable wind today, but Allen gets the car back in the right lane and I try to get my heart to return to normal sinus rhythm. All is well for a few more brief moments, until the van veers to the right, narrowly missing the barrier. “Allen!” I shout. Yes, I shout.

“What?” he asks nonchalantly.

“What’s up with your car?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says. “I've got it.” I beg to differ as he is traveling dangerously close to the highway divide, but I need all of my breath to breathe.

Our journey continues in the same manner; Allen veers, I gasp. At one point in time when a truck bears down upon us and blares the horn, I actually see my life flash before my eyes and grab onto Allen’s arm. He pretends he does not notice. “Am I getting off at 202?” he asks and I am tempted to say yes, even though it is two exits before where I need to be. Perhaps I can call a taxi?

I think I have at least one mini-stroke as my son almost misses the second exit to Delaware Avenue, then careens over a pile of snow and avoids parked cars by inches. I motion him to pull over at the Nemours Building and I climb over a pile of slush as I get out of the car.

“Do you know your way back?” I ask. “Sure,” he says. I pray that it is so.

“When,” he asks me, “do you need to be picked up?”

I am still trying to breathe and I cannot under any circumstances imagine repeating this ride. People at Disneyworld would pay big money for the terror, but I value my life too much.
“I’ll get a ride home,” I say. He shrugs and pulls out. Later on, I cajole a student in my class to drive me home. Professors have a little power. That evening, I mention to Allen that he might need to have a front end alignment on his van.

“Maybe,” he says. “But it could just be you.”

Could be.