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.