Last weekend, I flew down to San Antonio to help my mom handle some necessary in-person business that had to be conducted surrounding the care and condition of my great aunt. She’s had some recent health issues that necessitated moving her (temporarily, we hope) into the nursing care facility associated with her assisted living place, and nobody in the family had been able to get the answers we wanted from the care givers (the rest of the close family being in China and Canada), so my mom flew from California and I flew from here and we spent four days visiting my aunt and speaking to her caregivers.
The visit wasn’t easy. It was difficult for a number of reasons, both logistical and emotional. I did all of the driving between San Antonio and New Braunfels, where we stayed in my aunt’s empty house, and navigating strange freeways while dealing with crazy drivers wasn’t exactly relaxing (especially when we got lost or when I almost hit a dog that ran across the road). But really, it was the difficulty of seeing my aunt, always so active and healthy, depressed and so unhappy she only wanted to lay in a bed all day.
Over the course of the four days we were there, we brought her to her apartment a couple of times and even got her to take a shower, which perked her up quite a bit. The last day we were there, we sat with her while she ate her lunch in the dining area rather than her bed, and she went to physical therapy, someplace she’d insisted she’d “only been once” (in reality, 5 days a week for a couple of hours a day). (I think she prefers to remember things she enjoys; clearly she remembered we were coming to visit from one day to the next, but in discussing topics she didn’t like, she’d forget in just a few minutes.) She gets into mental loops even worse than she did last fall, and it takes a lot more effort than it used to to get her to talk about something other than how she’s had a great life, a great childhood, a great adulthood, and now she’s ready for the next thing. I think that her caregivers have equated this “I am ready to die” talk she does with “I’m going to intentionally self-harm,” which is not the case at all. While she’s currently weak because of her recent health issues, I don’t think she’d ever do anything to actually try to kill herself.
And that, right there, was the hardest part of the trip. To hear my joyful, full-of-life aunt talk about how she’s ready to go anytime was, quite frankly, depressing as hell. But there are so many things she can’t do that she always enjoyed (socializing, dancing, swimming, etc.) because she can’t see very well. And a recent ear infection has left her completely deaf in one ear. Even reading and writing are difficult for her because of her vision. So I don’t blame her for being depressed and miserable. And her short-term memory is completely shot, and I think she knows it, and we’re wondering whether there’s some dementia going on as well.
While we were at Edy’s house, I got stung by a paper wasp on my left arm. I took this photo in the bathroom, and now, over a week later, I’ve still got the pink circle (though the actual bite site is less itchy). I got about 20 mosquito bites as well, trying to steal wireless from a neighbor in the backyard. It was surreal, staying in Edy’s house with my mom, which is still full of her things and her dolls, both of our minds elsewhere, and a wasp bite to add insult to injury.
I woke up each morning to a herd of male deer in the backyard. (The first morning, one of them was uabashedly peeing right by the window). I thought about the years she spent in the house with her husband, and the years she spent in the house alone. I thought about the end of life, whether it happens due to an accident or due to an illness or due to just plain wearing out. Knowing that when people get to a certain point, generally either the mind goes before the body or the body goes before the mind isn’t at all comforting, and I found myself wishing, like Edy did aloud, that there was just a button one could push when one was ready to go.
It’s hard to know what the right thing is, for someone who is maybe no longer capable of making their own decisions or caring for themselves. My aunt may live a few more months, or a few more years, or a decade. My mom, who lost all of her parents before she was in her mid-20s, has to go through end-of-life care with a person who is, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate mother to her. It’s hard to know how to put into words everything I feel about death and dying, about the end of a long and well-lived life, about how I want to live my life and how I’d like the end of it to go. I spent nearly a week working on this post, and it still doesn’t say the right things. This sort of thing isn’t easy for anyone.