26 December 2009, 3:24 a.m.
Just a few days to go before the end of what became a difficult year. The only computers within reach contain no trace of the voluminous freelance book job I took on a bunch of weeks ago, which means I can secrete a few paragraphs about a few thoughts about a few events with a relatively clear conscience.
January of 2009 saw the completion of my sixth year of employment as Graphic Designer at an educational services company whose institutionalized regard for information design has waxed and waned with staff churn.
Eleven months later, having seen the reduction and demise of newspapers and magazines from all over the country, I have to wonder how much longer this particular stint can last. Given certain lingering health issues in our house, I am nervous about the prospect of being without insurance coverage again, and without the long-hoped-for legislative safety net these past few months have raised hopes for. It would be nice for both of us to be able to buy into something like Medicare right now. Our friends in Britain are quietly horrified at the mendacity attending American public debate on this topic.
I am less terrified by the prospect of becoming another Bush Depression statistic than I’d expected to be though, which suggests I’m either becoming less anxiety-driven, more functionally professional or merely emotionally fatigued. I’ve been fortunate to find recourse that helps fill the gap created by this insanely unregulated economic environment. Funny how trivial things like, say, food cost so much more than they did three or four years ago.
August of this year brought my mother’s final round of congestive heart failure, the last in a decade-long succession. Each myocardial infarction over that time, accompanied by a short stay in a hospital, returned her to the nursing home (and her apartment before that) with significantly decreased heart and lung function. Each return marked a new, lower level of physical capacity that could last for months until the next time. By the time I grew accustomed to the late-night calls from the nursing home informing us which hospital to phone, there weren’t many more to anticipate.
The last hospitalization laid her low enough to require days of sedated intubation until she could recover from pneumonia sufficiently to return to her residence. All the previous times I’d avoided visiting the hospital (after the first time, I resolved to avoid attending each turn of this merry-go-round, which my mother understood) seemed now to be combined into one weeks-long ordeal of intensive-care observation and chilling acquaintance with Do Not Resuscitate instructions.
It’s astonishing that she endured as long as she did. Having survived a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, her heart had been permanently damaged long before I was born. It wasn’t until a decade ago that this caught up with her as the first of several heart attacks occurred. She retained enough lucidity through a haze of mild dementia for me to enjoy something like a third relationship with her these past four years.
Somewhere within this most recent period, it became apparent that I had spent the first twenty years of my life fearing my mother’s arrogant, narcissistic, and mercurial personality disorder. Picture a Polish-Israeli Livia Soprano but with fewer death threats. The impact upon my early development, self-esteem, emotional health, and understanding of social norms took some of high school and much of college to begin repairing.
The next twenty years allowed me to seek some self-respect and distance from this abuse, to learn to hate what I had lived in constant, stomach-churning apprehension of. Most of us can point to years of young adulthood spent in pointed defiance and lingering resentment towards an absent authority. I was no different. Only recently have the useless, futile, imaginary arguments with her faded away.
But the past three years have provided something else, a chance to form a relationship with someone who had been removed from the concerns and anxieties of everyday independent living, someone who had reached the part of an elderly retirement where she could be engaged in relaxed conversation, mostly free of unpleasant imperatives. I could finally sit with this person and talk with her about our shared history without recrimination or accusation. It didn’t hurt that this mostly occurred at the end of my tiring work day; I had neither the motive nor the stamina for irrationality under these conditions.
I’d never visited the woman as often as some might think proper for an only child of a single parent. I’d grown accustomed to our increasing distance over the years, and complaints about this from my mother decreased inversely to her understanding of our changing roles in each other’s lives.
After years of attempting to surmount the annual torrents of paperwork that were required to maintain her status as a government-insured patient of a certain age, I’d actually grown a bit less annoyed by the inconvenience of traveling to Queens from Manhattan at the end of the work day, and the even longer trip home.
My new role in her life soon became apparent. I would visit my mother once every month or two and, having delivered what good or bad personal news could be summarized, I would defy our family’s strong tendency towards morbid pessimism and give her something she could actually use: I would try to make her laugh. What was the point of having survived eight decades if, after all my mother had been subjected to, she couldn’t spend a few moments of her final years in open amusement, laughing at me, herself, or anyone else we both knew?
It was easy enough. It seemed like the right thing to do. And it helped me feel better about a lot of things, even if little could be resolved by the effort. We had a good three years of this before summer kicked her down to a lower plateau.
She returned from her final hospitalization much weaker than before, more dazed by decreased blood flow to her brain. Her memory was even more subject to short-term lapses. I had to repeat more answers to familiar questions.
That last time in her darkened room, I told her to try to keep eating as regularly as she could, but it seemed all remaining strength had finally been knocked out of her. Barely able to hold onto a small cup of juice, she was just about done fighting gravity and inertia. She died in her sleep about a week later, just over one month short of her 83rd birthday.
I wish I’d gotten in one more visit.