When the child becomes the care-giver to an aging and ill parent -
|Mother is getting her lungs x-rayed and praying the hacking cough isn't coming from damage done to the tiny alveoli in her chest - shredded by the side-effects of meds taken last summer to treat her withering heart.
"I think the fluid is from my heart," she confidently remarks when the doctor steps out. He has confirmed there is fluid in the lungs and admits he doesn't know why just yet. "A blood draw and some diuretics should sort it all out. By the way you'll want to take... " - 'Potassium..' I mentally drone-in thinking 'here we go again.' And I wonder if she remembers this is exactly what they said to Daddy?
But would she? I was the one who took him in for appointments. She had been busy balancing my father's demise with caring for her own dying mother. All the while smoking-out and scotch-and-water-ing down the pain of dealing with both whenever possible.
I had called the doctor as Daddy sat on the bed, gulping air blown at him from a fan set on ten. That time the doctor told me I had saved his life. But the day he died, I wasn't there to make him go in; so the lesson had been learned, I guess. This day eight long years later, I sit with my mom for another round of dejavu.
In the vacuum of this office, I recall a tiny summer stroke served like an olive over the side of her afternoon Martini. I hear the winter call informing me of the heart attack that fell upon her like the cherry of a bedtime cigarette.
How many times I plead, can I leave the hospital to return home to ripped plastic packages, fluidy-cotton balls and syringe tops strewn across blood-splattered floors and bedding. I can't bear to see the strips of plastic and gummed-up chest patches laying as small white memorials to the never-ending battle fought in her sacred bed for her senseless cause.
Dizzy spells, chest aches, lost breath, and under-tongue pills; the mandatory six-pack of beer, a monthly carton of cigarettes, recuperative vitamins, a garbage bag of prescriptions and a punch-out card of anti-depressants - the symptoms and the prescriptions of her illness.
I pull at my shirt a bit - the nice family doctor has taken a moment to cauterize sun spots off my 33-year-old back, and I feel old in the shoe-box office too. The burning cancer craters seem to lend me more compassion than usual. Had we only known what waited us in later years - maybe I would have used more sunscreen and taken more midnight strolls; maybe she would have come along and drank fewer Tequila Sunrises.
But she would say it was pure genetics at play, an inevitable illness lying in the dark recesses of her aorta - inherited from her mother's DNA long before she ever picked up a pack of B&H cigarettes. Not unlike my cancerous sun spots,- 'you were born with fair skin darling.'
Yes, my grandmother had also had heart disease and was a smoker. And although she quit at 30, she still suffered three attacks due to enlarged heart muscle and eventually suffocated to death with emphysema. My mother remembers those three years by that familiar death-bed monitoring oxygen tanks; and this, I know, is why she is hoping the doctor comes back to say "not the lungs, but the heart thing."
I'm adopted, so I worry a bit less that it crawls in my veins; but I still stopped smoking and made plans to not 'be that way' and, as my tiny freckles blister up, I vow to take more vitamins and go on more midnight strolls.
"My daughter won't know this role," I shout against the inside of my brain, drowning out the careful words doctors always speak. And I hate how alone I feel in this, and I know my mother feels the same.
I'm not sure if I should explain it to her, that her heart will only get worse with time, that prescribed diuretics mean there is too much fluid for the heart to pump, that drowning on blood is only another form of suffocation. So I don't, and I try to comfort her and congratulate her on quitting smoking for the last three weeks, although it's really too late.
I know she's stopped because she is feeling the sharper edge of her illness and her mortality, and that tells me its closer. I want to tell her how scared I am for her, but I think she needs my strength and fears the implications of my sympathy.
We go home and I picture her being gone. II think of the world as my family - as an only adopted daughter with two dead parents - and it feels suddenly a truly lonely planet.
We are waiting for the phone to ring, and no one wants to answer it.