Like many of you, I’m sure, I sometimes think of the New Year as opening a door and walking from one room (last year) into another room (this year). We never know what is on the other side of that door until we open it and walk all the way into that new room.
Sometimes, though, we know enough to have some idea of what we’ll be facing—and that’s where the analogy breaks down, because with a real door and real rooms, you can choose whether or not to step through the doorway. With time, you don’t have that option. I already know enough about this new year to know that it holds a great deal of pain and probably grief and loss. Yet, willing or not, I have already stepped through that door along with the rest of you.
One ongoing challenge will be our parents’ situations. My parents and Walter’s mother are all facing health difficulties. I drove to Tennessee on Friday knowing that this visit might be the last time I saw my mother—or my dad, for that matter. I stopped briefly on the way to drop some things off for Mary and Jordan and to visit with them and our mutual friend Rebekah, who had come to visit them.
It was long after my aunt’s bedtime when I arrived in Crossville but I got a key from my dad and let myself in. I think I’m the only one who ever stays in her guest room and I am so grateful for it.
Saturday morning I headed to the nursing home. It was hard to see Mom in a nursing home and watch how helpless she is. She needed help to get from her bed to the wheelchair. Help to use the restroom. Help to get dressed. Eating and taking medication were very difficult for her and she seemed to struggle with manipulating her utensils.
She was so happy to see me and my brother Jon (who arrived the day before me). Jon and I spent all day Saturday with Mom, telling stories and helping her in any way we could. She opened the photo book I’d made and really loved it. “This book has everything I could ever want in a photo book,” she said.
I was the only one with her at lunchtime, and despite using all the wiles at my disposal, I couldn’t get her to eat anything but her dessert. Dad is much more effective at getting her to eat.
By the time I left the nursing home on Saturday, I was feeling pretty wrung out. My original plan to get my computer and go somewhere with internet went out the window. Instead, I picked up a $5 movie at Dollar General and holed up in my room at my aunt’s house and drank tea while watching the movie on my computer. (My aunt goes to bed very early so is not around in the evenings.)
Sunday morning I got up to drink tea and visit with my aunt before taking her next door to the church to meet up with my dad and Jon. It’s been many a year since I sat next to my brother in church! And I love that little church and the chance to sing real hymns and Christmas carols.
After church the others went out for lunch while I went back to my aunt’s place and made myself a big thermos of tea to take to the nursing home. The previous day I hadn’t so fortified myself, mistakenly believing they’d have hot water and teabags there. They did not. They only had hot coffee and iced tea (bleh). I was so desperate I actually drank a cup of black coffee. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I made sure I had plenty of tea to make it through the rest of the day before driving over to the nursing home.
When I arrived, my youngest brother Greg was there, having driven in from Ohio. By that time we already had a routine established: when Mom was awake, we focused on spending time with her. When she was ready to nap, we congregated in the lobby and spent time visiting with each other. This is the most time I’ve spent with my brothers in decades!
By a little after 5:00 p.m. my brother Matt had arrived from Indiana and our family was complete. Mom was so happy to have us all in one room.
When she was ready to go to sleep for the night, the rest of us reconvened at a Mexican restaurant for supper and fellowship. I can’t overstate enough how much I enjoyed hanging out with my brothers.
Monday was my last day there. Once again I visited with my aunt in the morning before leaving. I changed my schedule a little and decided to leave that evening rather than driving the whole way home to Texas on Tuesday. So I did pack up a lot of my stuff before heading to the nursing home. I stopped to fill my gas tank on the way so I wouldn’t have to do it at night.
My brother Matt spent the morning helping my dad at the house while the rest of us went to be with Mom. She was able to sit up in her wheelchair for longer than we’d ever seen and was eagerly awaiting her physical therapy, which she really looks forward to every weekday. They are working with her on regaining her strength and mobility.
While I stayed with Mom during her lunch and therapy, the others went to the boys’ hotel to eat lunch. When Mom finally finished her therapy, I thought she be ready to nap, but she asked to be put back in her wheelchair because she didn’t want to miss anything! I finally convinced her to get some rest because I knew she needed it.
Meanwhile, at about the same time, I received a text which changed my life and my outlook for the coming year. My husband texted me that test results had come back on the mole he had removed on December 18: malignant melanoma. They told him it was “stage 4” but I have since realized they have no way of knowing this yet. Stage 4 would mean the cancer has spread to other parts of his body and that has not yet been investigated. But still, it was devastating news and it came at a time when I was already emotionally compromised.
I met up with my dad and brothers and told them the news. All of them except I think my youngest brother Greg have had skin cancer and have had it successfully removed. Not sure if any of those were melanoma though. At the time, I had to compartmentalize that information so I could continue to focus on my mom for a few more hours.
Back at the nursing home, my mom was thrilled to see us. We took her on a walk to the lobby in her wheelchair so she could see the birds they have there. We were quite a procession with wheelchair, oxygen tank, and four tall men! The photo I posted yesterday was from that excursion.
We arranged for mom to have her supper in the dining room so that we could sit at the table with her and visit while she ate her supper. I’m not impressed with the food at the nursing home, but I also realize how hard it must be to make meals to accommodate so many different dietary requirements. And everyone who cared for my mother was so kind and sweet and patient. I’m thankful for each one of them.
So anyway, that was a real treat having the six of us around the table telling stories and talking with Mom. Afterward, she was tired and Dad helped get her ready for bed. Then it was time to say goodbye. It is so hard to say goodbye when every goodbye could be the last one. The four of us stood at the foot of her bed to say goodbye. My three brothers would be there another day, but I would not.
Mom was already in her nightgown and Dad was getting ready to put on her bi-pap machine that helps her breathe at night. She looked so tiny and frail lying there looking up at us—but she also had a huge smile on her face to see her four kids all there together at the end of her bed. I would go so far as to say her smile was radiant. We said our goodbyes and started to leave but I had to turn back for one last look at Mom. The smile was still there. I can’t even remember the last time I saw her look so happy—which made it even harder to walk away.
My brothers and I met up at a restaurant for supper—just the four of us. I really enjoyed that time together as siblings, something we have so rarely had as adults, living as we do in four different states.
Eventually, of course, we had to say our goodbyes so that I could get on the road. I went back to my aunt’s house, collected my stuff, loaded my car, then drove to my parents’ house to give my key back to my dad and say goodbye to him as well. I finally hit the road at about 9:30.
As I drove that night to the far side of Nashville, and the next day also, I had a strong feeling that I was driving away from one heartache and toward another. Tuesday morning I stopped for over an hour in Memphis to visit with Mary and Jordan and Rebekah again. It was a nice break from all the driving.
Later yesterday, as I neared our hometown, I saw many fireworks going off. On an impulse, I stopped at a fireworks stand and waited in a long line to buy a few sparklers to bring home, and then stopped again to get the supplies for our traditional New Year’s Eve chocolate fondue.
By the time I reached our neighborhood at 8:00, the air was already full of smoke and gunshots and fireworks were going off almost constantly.
And now—I’m here. Walter has a daunting series of tasks ahead of him. As of today, he no longer has health insurance (the university has stopped providing it). Tomorrow he will call a surgeon to set up a consultation. For sure he will lose another big chunk out of his arm where the mole was.
We are looking at at least one more surgery, biopsies of lymph nodes, and a more thorough examination to look for other cancerous moles. Depending on what they find, other treatments like chemotherapy and radiation may also be in my husband’s future.
It is hard to start a new year knowing that this road lies ahead of us. At least we know that one very happy event is coming up this year—the birth of our first grandchild. For the rest of it, we’d appreciate your prayers.