Whenever One Door Closes

The first photo of me with my mother, ca. March 1964.

Which drew my attention first: Glen Campbell or Anne Murray? “Country Boy” or “Shadows in the Moonlight?”

I’m standing in the hallway around the corner, twenty feet from her room, taking a short break—maybe I’m on the phone with my wife or my sister. There’s another doorway right in front of me. On the other side of the threshold, a radio belonging to a wheelchair-bound woman with dementia is playing country songs that were popular back when she could hold on to her memories. She must be quite hard of hearing as well, since the aides are keeping the music turned up LOUD for her about ten hours every day.

Mom’s been at Dover Manor for a few days, and she’s still thoroughly angry with me. Before long, she’ll move three doors down the hall, on the other side of the blaring radio, to a corner room in the front of the building, one of the only singles in the whole place. Its previous resident has just passed on.

I head back to her current room. Her roommate’s TV is tuned into the Hallmark Channel—it’s the second week of December, time for one feel-good Christmas movie after another—but Mom isn’t the slightest bit interested. 

Thanksgiving, 2014. Mom had entered Hospice home care back in August, and held pretty steady for several weeks after. We’ve been working with a companion care service for nine months, ever since she fell one night. Someone stays overnight while others come over a couple of afternoons each week. (I generally spend Friday evenings and most of Saturday with her.) In recent weeks, though, as she’s gotten a little weaker and less steady, the number of hours Mom spends alone each day has essentially shrunk to zero.

That evening, I come to understand that she’s quickly reaching a point where it will be dangerous for her to stay at home at all. Fortunately, we’ve brought two cars up with us from Georgetown, so I can stay while the rest of my family goes back home. I spend the holiday weekend arranging respite care for her at a Hospice facility associated with a nearby hospital and thinking about what comes next.

I wish that things had come to a head just two weeks later, when I’d be close to done with final exams. It all might have turned out very differently, with less hurt and less guilt. But I must play the hand I’m dealt, and I’ve decided that involves looking for a nursing home close to me. I like one in Lexington pretty well—seems very clean, not that old—but it’d take close to thirty minutes each way to see her, potentially worse during rush hours. Of the two in Georgetown, only Dover Manor will have an opening at the end of the week. Even though it’s showing its age and is ten minutes away instead of two, it is definitely nicer than the other facility in town.

Mom doesn’t want this. I don’t want it, either, but in the moment I’m not seeing a better option.  

The day we drive down to Dover Manor is cold, miserable, rainy. It’s also just one day shy of the first anniversary of Dad’s death, and Mom makes sure I know she knows that. The first Friday of December is cursed right now.

It doesn’t take long to figure out Mom’s neighbor is tuned into WLXO, Hank 96.1, which plays “classic country.” Turns out their tower is in Stamping Ground, a small town less than ten miles north and west of Georgetown.

As the days go by, I get a good dose of Hank walking down to the nurses’ station to ask a question, getting Mom some ice, or, like at the first, stepping out to make a call. A decent percentage of their playlist includes crossover hits from the 70s and early 80s and stuff I learned through osmosis during grad school. Some ghosts are sure getting stirred up for me.

I’ve known for some time that something’s wrong with the radio in our minivan, but it’s a dozen years old, and I figure it’s not worth the effort to fix. Especially since the CD and cassette players work just fine. Nonetheless, one day on my way home, I switch it on and run through the dial. The only FM station it can find is Hank; whatever is the problem, it must be something that limits reception to just a few miles. I keep the radio on, and begin an education of sorts.

The end of the semester gives me the freedom to spend several hours each day with Mom. After she gets moved to the single room, I’m briefly hopeful that she’ll be able to settle in a bit. She remembers that she hasn’t bought a Christmas gift for her “secret pal” from the women’s circle at church, so I run back up north one morning to buy a University of Kentucky sweatshirt, wrap it, and deliver it to the church secretary. My hopes aren’t all that long-lived, though; the drugs continue to bring on periods of confusion and paranoia. Her most frequent hallucination is about sensing disorder everywhere—piles of junk under her bed, imagining things strewn about the room that need to be put away. I come to realize it’s not a bad metaphor for the state of her life.

Eight days before Christmas, I’m on my way to church from the nursing home for a potluck dinner when I get rear-ended. It’s the second time in three months, both by young drivers who were probably watching their phones instead of the traffic. Back in September, our 2005 Prius had been totaled; the van will turn out only to need a bumper and a couple of back panels replaced. It’s good that we have Mom’s car on hand (I’d brought her to Georgetown in it, assuming my sister might want to use it when she was in town). I tune its radio to Hank, too.

Hank’s Lesson #1: The playlist stretches across more than forty years, going back as far as “I Walk the Line” and “White Lightning,” and continuing on just past the turn of the century.

Christmas is, as you’d expect, a dreary affair. I’d held vague hopes that Mom would feel like coming over to our house for a little while, but no dice. On New Year’s Day, Mom’s cousin from Massachusetts flies down with her husband to visit for a few days. Mom has other company, as well. My sister comes in from Florida a couple of times. Her nieces drop by regularly. Some folks from my church stop in to say hello. But she sleeps a lot, and always takes her meals in her room, refusing to be wheeled down the hall to the dining area. 

As the spring semester’s start nears, I realize the routine I’ve been following can’t continue. Martha will be there more.  Additionally, we’re fortunate that Mom has the financial wherewithal for me to hire women from the local branch of the companion care service she’d used at home. They sit with her a few hours most weekdays, while I’m in class. I don’t know quite why, but Mom is really unhappy with the first sitter matched to her; two others that are subsequently assigned to share the task work out much better. 

Hank’s Lesson #2: Songs like “Daydreams About Night Things” help me understand why Ronnie Milsap didn’t cross over any sooner than he did.

My father’s final days were relatively peaceful, spent in a Hospice facility for dying patients. It was a generally positive experience for those of us left behind. Mom has expressed her desire to pass in such a setting, and I talk about this with her Hospice nurse every so often. There is a similar facility in Lexington; the nurse says that she’ll do what she can when the time comes.

Hank’s Lesson #3: I should have sussed long ago it was Merle Haggard crooning “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room,” a song I associate with the summer of 1985, when I worked at IBM.

For the second year in a row, I watch the Super Bowl in my mother’s company—last year, she’d been in the hospital, getting a catheter implanted so that the fluid gathering around her lung could be drained easily. Seattle goes from almost certain victory to assured loss in the final seconds.

It’s early February, and I must be on the way home for the evening from Dover Manor via my office, since otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting where I am, at the stop light on Clayton Street, waiting to turn south onto Broadway. As usual, the radio is tuned to Hank. I don’t recognize “I Hope You Dance,” the Grammy-winning song from Lee Ann Womack, at all—where was I back in 2001?—but tonight the lyrics penetrate and resonate deeply, easily interpreted as advice from a mother to a child. I don’t remotely believe it’s a message from Mom—when given the choice, she would rather have sat it all out, I think—yet in that moment, maybe it’s something I need to hear. I blink away tears the rest of the way home. A door will soon close; I hope another one opens, too.

Hank’s Lesson #4:  Just like with pop/rock music a quarter-century earlier, I’m more interested in the female voices. I’d picked up on Carlene Carter and Mary-Chapin Carpenter in the early 90s, but now I discover others. Primary among them is Jo Dee Messina, whose “Bye Bye” would have been a favorite had I heard it in the late 90s. I’d probably like it if a higher percentage of what’s played were sung by women.

It’s a mild, snowless winter until President’s Day weekend, when we get several inches. Fortunately, the roads aren’t all that bad. Mom is now bedridden, but just as restless and anxious as when she first arrived, unable to find any peace.

Hank’s Lesson #5: Dwight still absolutely rules over Randy, Garth just doesn’t make much of an impression, and they need to play more Waylon.

The day my mother dies is the one on which I see her the least since moving her to Georgetown. Just like today, it’s Tuesday, March 3. I have only one class on Tuesdays, in the morning, but I have a doctor’s appointment in Lexington in the afternoon. I do swing by after class; Martha’s still there, and before long the sitter will arrive. Mom’s not really capable of carrying on a conversation now, with all the pain medication and her weakness, but I do talk to her a little.

I’m already on my way back after dinner when I get the call to come IMMEDIATELY. I drive faster than I should, but I’m still too late. The sitter, a young woman who was super nice throughout her few weeks with Mom, is out in the hallway while the nurses and aides do their checking. Once it’s clear what’s happened, she quietly, surreptitiously takes her leave. Unfortunately, I’ll never see her again to thank her for her kindness.

This is all wrong. Mom didn’t want to die without me there. She didn’t want to die in the nursing home. The nurses try to help by saying that the way things happened must have been what she really wanted, but I know better. 

I begin making calls, first to Martha and my sister (whom I had dissuaded from being here this week—we thought Mom had a couple more weeks left), then to my cousins. Other than her brother-in-law, my Uncle George, Mom had been the last of her immediate family.

I cancel my Wednesday classes; Martha and Ben drive up with me to Erlanger to pick out a casket and make funeral arrangements. We’re playing beat the clock, as a major snow event is scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon. We scurry back to the nursing home in time to retrieve Mom’s clothes and furniture and get them to our house just as the flakes start flying. Fifteen inches of snow fall over the following 24 hours, the most we’ve had at a single time in years.

Hank’s Lesson #6: John Anderson’s voice will never grow on me.

School is called off for the rest of the week; I’ll miss class again on Monday for the funeral (oddly for Kentucky, both of my parents are buried with snow on the ground). While we’re snowbound, I write a tribute to my mother and post in on Facebook, part of which goes:

I spent quite a bit of time with Mom this past year—through her hospital stay in early February 2014, an overnight trip most weekends, visiting her daily here after she was in Georgetown. It was not how I wanted our time together after Dad’s death to go, but I was grateful for the opportunity just to be there, to do her grocery shopping, to take her to the oncologist, to go with her to Frisch’s for a Big Boy, to hold her hand and help her take a drink. We talked about her impending end some but in many ways not enough; her anxiety increased as the months went by.

…What keeps coming to me is how many of (the people who tended to her over the past year) became attached to Mom, even if they knew her for only a short time. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised at this; Mom was a kind and thoughtful person herself. But seeing it happen as Mom’s world grew smaller and she became more ill and less happy is a revelation of sorts. I don’t know that I can express it completely yet, but seeing this kindness gives me hope that I can be a kinder, more thoughtful person.

WRH, Facebook, March 5, 2015

Over the last months I have struggled with Mom’s clear unhappiness over where she was and how anxiety gripped her throughout, over the feeling that I let her down terribly. Whenever I try to express this to someone, the person, who I know is well-meaning and only trying to help, responds with some version of “don’t be so hard on yourself—you’re doing the right thing.” A visit from a grief counselor provided by Hospice after Mom’s death goes much the same way. I am unable to find any comfort in this; it’s almost as if I’m hoping to hear, “Well, I can understand why you would/should feel some guilt.” (A couple of months later, my college friend Judy will offer up over lunch some words that eventually provide a bit of balm: “You know, Will, between the illness and the drugs, that wasn’t really the same person in there who’d known and loved you all your life.”)

It’s now two or three weeks after the funeral, and I’m still listening to Hank. Why? I suppose in part I’m simply clinging to the recent past, but it also feels like I’m waiting for something. It turns out I am: on the way to work one morning, I finally hear the perfect county-and-western song; I figured it had to be on their playlist. Sitting in the parking lot after it ends, I recognize the time has come to move on. I pop in a CD on the ride home.

3 thoughts on “Whenever One Door Closes”

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