So it goes

The visit back to Chicagoland was as disturbing as I’d feared. Although I landed on a Wednesday afternoon, I didn’t go to see my mother until Saturday. In between, I worked a couple days in our Chicago office and tried to set up meals and coffee breaks with friends. Sadly, only one one of those rendezvous actually worked out, but I had to try.

That Saturday morning I picked up a rental car and started the drive down to the rural area where Mom lives. I dawdled a bit along the way, stopping at a tollway oasis for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. When I arrived at her house, she met me near the door and seemed eager to see me. I had called her that morning and alerted her I was on my way and would be taking her out to lunch so she would be dressed and ready to go. We didn’t have to rush off after I arrived, though, so we visited for about an hour before leaving. This consisted of me showing Mom photos on my phone and me talking a lot. Mom — formerly an extremely talkative person — had hardly anything to say, even when I directly questioned her about things from the past and present.

The drive to the restaurant took about 40 minutes. In that time, I think Mom talked for about five. At lunch, I commented on the changes in the area. Again, Mom had little to say.

All through my childhood, teen, and early adult years my Mom would talk your ear off if given the chance. She would talk to telemarketers who called the house until THEY hung up. She had a limited filter and would often make borderline bawdy comments for laughs. But that person is gone. In it’s place is someone who often says “I can’t remember. My memory is no good anymore.”

Physically she is in terrible shape. She is obese and has asthma, diabetes, and hypertension, all of which are only marginally under control because she just doesn’t care to do so. Poorly managed diabetes is the mostly likely cause of her dementia, in fact. On this visit, her legs were swollen, and her breathing was labored after just the short walk from the house to the car.

I returned the following Monday to take her to the dentist. Since I didn’t need to do that until the afternoon and I had a few phone meetings, I brought my laptop and did some work. Mom has no Internet connection, but my employer pays for use of the hotspot when necessary, and my phone had a solid connection. It was still challenging to work at her house because I could only find one place to connect my laptop to power: the same power strip where her microwave is connected.

The truly appalling condition of the house struck me that day. Mom remarried after she and Dad divorced. Her current husband is a hard-working guy, but while he runs his own business as a “horse trader” (someone who trades in heavy equipment like backhoes and trucks), he’s not an educated man. He grew up in a poor household, never even finished grade school, and is functionally illiterate. He used to have Mom do his basic book-keeping and attend to anything that required reading and writing skills; now he has his son do that. Back when Mom would talk a lot and share all the nitty-gritty details of her life, we learned that stepfather’s main source of business capital was mortgaging the house and credit card cash advances. I’m sure he’s still doing that now.

Maybe lack of capital is why the house is in such bad shape. Or maybe stepfather’s standards are just really low. The door handle on the bathroom was completely missing. The door itself was mangled a bit, probably because the new puppy stepfather bought six months ago did it. (What was he thinking?! Why did he think it was a good idea to bring a puppy to a woman who can’t remember to take her meds or eat regular meals?!) The outlet in the bedroom in which I first tried to work wasn’t accepting my grounded power plug. I managed to find an adapter, but the laptop still wouldn’t charge, so the outlet must not have worked at all. In the kitchen, several of the cabinet handles were broken.  The linoleum is missing in some places and the plywood sub-floor is visible. Every piece of furniture in the house was suffering from heavy wear or in some state of disrepair.

The older dog would start barking like crazy whenever I made a movement, and Mom would then scream at it to stop. The now six-month old puppy wasn’t house trained and kept peeing around the house. Not finding any paper towels in the kitchen, I asked Mom where I could find something to clean up after the puppy, and she directed me to get a rag from the bathroom cabinet. I couldn’t tell the difference between the rags and the “good” towels.

That was my breaking point. That was when I started to cry, as I walked along the hallway, with a wet cloth in my hand to wipe up dog urine from the sides of the couch and easy chair, and from the stained wood floor. I don’t think Mom saw me cry.

After spending a bit of time talking with stepfather when he returned to the house, I started the drive back to my friend A’s house where I was staying for those few days. Along the way I stopped at a Walgreens and picked up beer and a giant bag of kettle corn so I could comfort myself that night.

I had to return to Mom’s house the next day to take her to another doctor’s appointment. It hadn’t been part of my plan for the day, but stepfather had asked me to call the doctor the day before and ask for advice on her swelling and difficulty breathing at night. In just the three days that had passed since I had seen her, Mom’s legs continued to swell. The pulmonologist looked her over and then said her problem was not her lungs. This wasn’t an asthma complication, and she needed to see a cardiologist. He said she had a problem with her heart. That’s all he would say, but he did get her an appointment with the cardiology nurse practitioner for the following week.

What he wouldn’t say was that she has congestive heart failure.

I drove straight from Mom’s house to the airport. I turned in the rental car and went through the motions of getting through security. I had some extra time, so I bought a large beer and sat at a table and tried hard not to cry. I’m still trying.


12 thoughts on “So it goes

  1. Oh you poor thing — I am so very sorry to hear about the terrible shape your mom is in. It has to be incredibly difficult. It sounds like an almost impossible situation. I will keep you in my thoughts and hope that things somehow straighten out. It is unathomable to me that someone could go on living with all those health problems. to you.


    • Thank you. At this point I’m hoping she’ll be hospitalized for a bit to stabilize her and get rid of some of the water she’s retaining. She’s probably not drinking enough water to flush her system. I think her best hope of getting through to the end of the year is some time in hospital, then being released to a skilled nursing facility for a short stay. Otherwise…well…I don’t know how much more she can last like this.


  2. *huge hugs* I am so sorry. I was afraid it was something like this… Mom had diabetes and her decline into dementia was similar. Even now when I go home, I have the same sinking feeling in my gut when I see how Dad hasn’t been able to keep the place up on his own.

    I don’t understand why on earth your stepfather brought home that puppy, as if he didn’t have enough serious business on his hands to manage? Sigh. The decisions people make under duress aren’t good, I know. I hope she can get into good competent hands, soon.


    • Oh, that puppy! Yes, stepfather acknowledged that was a bad idea. They already have a seven year old Yorkie who is incredibly neurotic. (That’s the barker I referred to above.) They had another small dog that was about two or three years old that had been given to them by a relative. That dog ran into the road a few months ago and was killed. (These are rural roads, so people tend to drive very fast down them.) Stepfather was trying to help Mom deal with the grief by substituting with another dog. A puppy who needs house training was really the wrong choice. Now the little beast needs to be neutered, too, and that will be an extra expense for them since they missed the window for free/reduced cost neutering in their county. If stepfather wants to drive at least 30 miles away very early some morning he can get the dog neutered the next county over at a 50% price reduction, but he didn’t seem happy about that idea. (That was one of the things I researched for them while I was there. Having the puppy grab onto my leg and hump it joyously was another count against the little bugger.)


  3. My standards of house maintenance/repairs have rose with my income. I think about my current falling apart house and that every room is a gut job, but you know, growing up, so was where I lived and somehow we managed to get by without spending the money and I am no worse for wear. I have to keep reminding myself of that as its a long term Reno project.

    My mom still uses her crappy old towels and she won’t throw them out even though we have big stacks of fluffy ones she can have and use. She is just used to the old ones.

    At the end of the day, the crappy linoleum floor does not matter. The worn out furniture doesn’t either. It’s the people around her that matter. Even the dog which sounds like a dumb idea, may also provide some much needed unconditional love at some point that will make up for the accidents. There are elder services you may be able to use to do a wellness check at home. See what her town may have.

    Don’t worry about the money, people live in those conditions all the time. But, if it is eating at you, carve out some time to see what free services she may qualify for. It’s sounds like step dad doesn’t have the aptitude for those kinds of tasks anyway and it may be a welcome help.

    So I let my mom keep her raggedy towels and raggedy clothes and her old mattress I’ve been trying to replace but I do make sure she is getting good health care. You have to pick your battles. I know it’s much harder for you than me because of the distance and your complicated relationship, but you can’t do everything.

    I remember the materialistic things my cousins did for their parents as they were nearing the end and observing how none of it really mattered to them but it did make the kids feel good about themselves. My aunt couldn’t care less about her new wallpapered kitchen. My uncle resented the money spend on a new couch and he still used his 50 year old rocker and refused to give it up. What would have made him really happy is to see his two kids get along and be responsible adults. Instead, he died with a broken heart and a new couch.


    • Thanks for the reminder that it’s people not things that bring happiness. She doesn’t seem to mind or care about the state of her surroundings. Mom has been so super frugal all her life that she’s used to doing without stuff or making do with less than ideal goods. During this visit I had a dinner with sister where we ended up sharing stories and reminding ourselves about some of the incredibly frugal things Mom has done over the years. In a macabre humor twist, I commented how we’ll probably have to put a certain raggedy broom and cracked wastepaper basket in her casket since she’s insisted on keeping them for over 30 years and they are obviously her most cherished possessions.

      The State of Illinois is beyond broke right now and there is no approved budget, so social services are shutting down left and right. We’ve been paying for Mom to get out of the house to attend a senior day program that is not too far from her rural house. Sadly, that program is closing at the end of the month. The others we’ve tracked down are so many miles from the house we’re stumped on how to get her there. Especially since the senior reduced-fare transportation service has shut down, too. To qualify for home health care through Social Security or Medicare, there is a requirement to provide information about bank account balances, income, and other financial details that stepfather does not want to do at this point. We can’t force her husband to do this if he refuses. Stepfather has brought in his DIL with CNA credentials to come to the house a couple days a week to help out. I’m not sure how well that’s going or if it will continue since the DIL is also interviewing for other jobs closer to her home.

      I’m feeling this is hopeless, which doesn’t help. Mom has said more than once that we should just let her die. I think she really means it, which is why she doesn’t practice self care.


  4. Oh, dear. This is terrible. I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this!

    It sounds like neither one of them is able to take care of her- or himself. He wouldn’t be living that way unless he were mentally or physically unable to cope.

    BTW, about the puppy: chances are he heard on some radio show or saw on some website or was told by some half-wit friend that pets supposedly help people with Alzheimer’s. And she must have been upset about the demise of the young dog. Whether it’s true that pets are good for people suffering dementia or not, he was probably trying to help. Lemme suggest something (as a veteran of three parental deceasings): hold the anger until all is done and the dust has settled. It doesn’t help now, but it may help later. Just deal with what you have to deal with and put the rest on the back burner…getting mad about things right now adds even more for you to have to deal with emotionally — and you have quite enough.


    • Oh, I’m not mad at stepfather. He realizes it was a stupid thing to do now. I just can’t believe he *ever* thought it was good to add to the household burdens. They already have a cat and another small dog, so adding a second dog (and a puppy at that!) was really impulsive.


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  6. That sounds very, very difficult. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

    You probably already know that you can’t make a whole lot of changes for her and your stepfather — they have to want to do the work and might actually resent someone coming in from outside (whether that’s you or social services) and telling them what to do. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, though.


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