Thursday, October 30, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
It was winter. Julia was six. She'd been climbing on snow mountains, flying down from the top with glee. Snow mountains, in case you're not from an urban area, are built by trucks sent out by the city at the hint of snow. Since it's Virginia and there's no threat of malingering snowbanks all winter long, the drivers scoop all the snow they can find into a huge pile at the end of the block. It will melt away soon enough but in the meantime, kids can climb and fly.
The next day Juia's leg began to hurt. I thought little of it at first but after nagging discomfort over the course of a week, long about the time when the snow mountain was a mere snow hill covered in black soot, I took her to see my orthopaedist, young Dr. Mishra. He and Julia took an immediate liking for one another. He took an x-ray and saw in it something ominous and terrifying - what he thought was a cancerous growth.
He ordered tests the next day. It was Friday and it was snowing again. The hospital was short staffed but also short of patients due to the weather. I sat with Julia for most of the day as she got a series of dyes injected, scans and x-rays. Since it was Friday, there'd be not results until Monday. We had the weekend to wait. A long weekend.
I think I spent every minute by Julia's side for those three days. I read to her. We watched favorite movies - White Christmas, A Chorus Line, Singin' in the Rain. I introduced her to some of my favorite foreign films, reading every word of the subtitles to her. She loved Babbette's Feast. I recommend it.
On Monday we returned to Dr. Mishra's office to the news that he'd been wrong, erring on the side of safety. What had looked like a lesion was probably the healing of a past injury.
A couple of weeks later the kitten we had chosen was finally ready to come home. In the interim between choosing him and getting him he got his name. Mishra. Julia proudly took Dr. Mishra a photograph of him.
Back to my visitor at the door, the one who demands that Mishra be kept inside. She said he comes when she calls. She didn't know his name before. I wonder how she's been calling him.
I'm reminded again of elders in nursing homes. Does anyone care about how they got their names - named for a great aunt; after a writer or movie star that their mother thought was special, in hope for enduring greatness for their child; for mother or father or long lost relative, generations removed?
What happens to a person's name when they enter a nursing home? Caretakers often take charge of it. They may address residents as "hon" or "sweetie". They may call them Mr. or Mrs. so and so. Will they call them by their first name? Unlikely. How often is the name of the person lying in bed in a hospital or nursing home accounced, not simply spoken? How can we know that elders, frail and unable to care for themselves, are comfortable, comforted by how they are addressed?
Dr. Mishra returned to Stanford before the year was up. I wonder if when he packed up his desk he put the picture of his namesake in the box with him. I sure hope so.
I stopped blogging a while back. I had to. Not enough time. Although it was fun and a lovely way to keep in touch with friends and family, it began to feel self-indulgent. I had to get back to the work of work and job of life, etc. Until today.
Late afternoon. A knock at the door. Not a pushy knock, just a knock. I figured it must an Obama supporter with a clipboard to talk about the campaign. They've already come to the house twice - once for Julia and a second time for Kristara - the youth vote. Good.
It was a woman without a clipboard. She wanted to know if I was the owner of a long-haired calico cat. I thought for a moment. Mishra is long haired but he's no calico. He's a brown tabby Maine Coon cat. Calico? I asked. Yes, calico. I do have a brown tabby Maine Coon cat, I said. Oh no, she said, shaking her head. They're very large. She went on to describe my skinny, sometimes glassy-eyed, 14-year-old baby boy. He's gotten wobbly in his old age; skinny for sure, although he's always been thin. His fur is a bit matted in spots since he's not so much into grooming anymore and he is a bit demented, I'll admit. Yep, he's mine. She then proceeded to tell me that she proposed he be kept inside and/or be taken to the pound where he could be adopted by a family that would love him and provide for him appropriately. She indicated she'd be the one taking him if I didn't keep him inside.
Taken aback, I started out slowly. He is skinny, I said, because he has liver disease. He almost died a year ago. At the time the vet said he'd need a feeding tube for at least three months in order to save him, although there was little guarantee that it would work. Rather than leaving him at the animal hospital for several days to surgically implant the tube and begin his treatment I took him home. After much thought and family discussion we decided to love him and feed him. I talked him into a couple of bites, then a few more bites and soon enough the entire household was on 24/7 feed Mishra detail.
A year later he's out and about, visiting his friends in the neighborhood. Beth gives him treats daily. He scratches on Con and Ann's back door to ask for snacks. Teresa, when she lived next door, believed cats were some sort of reincarnation vehicle for dead loved ones. She sensed her mother in Mishra. I'm just saying. I figure Fran takes him inside to feed him. He sometimes comes home smelling like perfume. I know because every night at around midnight I call him. He usually comes home and I pick him up and bury my head in his fur while he purrs. I ask him about his day. He purrs some more.
I tried to share some of this with the cat lady. I told her I was glad that she cared but that clearly we had differing philosophies of care. Mishra has been going outside for at least a dozen years, I said. He hates to stay in. And yes he's thin, but who isn't when they are old and a little sickly. The more I spoke the more upset I became and much to my surprise I started to cry. Let me just say - I am not a crier. It's not something I'm proud of. It's just a fact. I do not cry easily. But there I was, standing on my front porch, wailing at this stranger who was threatening to take my old cat away because she disapproved of his care. I left her standing there and retreated into the privacy of my home. Door closed. Click of the deadbolt for effect.
I sat and I cried and I thought. I thought about Mishra. I thought about my mother who weighed all of 88 pounds when she died. Then I began to think about countless elders, caught in webs of both good and bad intentions. For their own good. Sitting in nursing homes in chairs equipped with alarms set to go off if they dare to try to stand up. Parents and grandparents removed from their own homes, sent to live in institutions far away from their beloved Mishras and all else that they hold familiar and dear. For their own good. I thought of countless adult children of elders who make decisions about their parents care based on what? Fear; judgement; love; greed; appearances; advice/coercion of "professionals"? How conflicted we can become when faced with drugs, equipment and procedures that are available. What child would feel right turning down a drug that might, and a stress might, slow down the course of dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. How well does the drug work? What are the potential side effects? If it doesn't work how will we know and what will we do? In all likelihood, we will add more drugs on top of it if it doesn't work.
I cried about Mrs. Rehberg who spent her final days unable to talk, sustained by a ventilator, legs bound in intermittently squeezing "socks" to prevent clotting. She hated those socks and wanted them off. But they kept on squeezing as staff awaited the go ahead from her children to unplug the vent.
I cried about strangers I'll never meet.
I cried about Mishra.