April 2, 2020
On the bike ride, approaching Colorado and enduring Kansas (least-liked of the ten states we traversed), Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized. Her right side was paralyzed, and I began considering how I might leave the ride and fly home. At ninety-five years old, I figured this would be the start of a quick decline and probable death. She had been living at home with a daytime caregiver; now everything was up in the air.
Mom had been receiving postcards from the road on a quasi-daily basis, and we talked by phone several times a week. I could create a postcard on my smartphone with a photo and short message and it would be printed and sent by Postagram. On a phone call before the stroke I shared my anticipation to reach the great Rocky Mountains very soon after more than forty days on the road. She suddenly sounded wistful and said, “Do you remember that song, ‘When It’s Springtime in the Rockies’ ?” She had a little singsong in her voice like maybe she fell in love listening to this song once upon a time.
Later I googled the song and learned it had been popularized by Gene Autry, the “singing cowboy”. Really hokey listening. The version that I came to love, the version that I put on my phone and played for days on end, the version played directly to my hearing aids as I pedaled away the hours, was one in the Smithsonian archives. It was an interview with “Leadbelly”. He told about how he learned of the song and then broke into his rendition. Something about the raw naked simplicity of his plunky guitar springing to life under his hand, something about his transition from speaking to singing, something about the soulful voice seasoned by a lifetime, and the lyrical image of coming home just shot like an arrow right to my heart. Tears flowed easily while drinking in the awesome beauty of “Springtime in the Rockies” playing out before my eyes…and ears!
I thought about Mom and started composing her eulogy. Mom stabilized and came home; I abandoned the eulogy and continued on to Wyoming, the most beautiful state of the trip. Mom turned 97 in November.
The whole mishpucha celebrated Clarie’s 97th birthday. Mariachi’s sang Happy Birthday and Mom is shown talking to her niece, Susan.
I just got off the phone with Mom. She’s at a new level of weakness today, not able to walk but can shuffle around with the aid of a caregiver on each side. The three days spent at the hospital last week with aspiration pneumonia and sepsis took its toll. Hoag Hospital did not allow any visitation while she was there and now back at home, doctor’s orders say no visitation whatsoever! Yette, her devoted primary caregiver, told me in so many words that the isolation is an emotional drag on Mom. She’s losing her will to persevere as she has done for the last 22 months since the stroke. She gamely did her PT, she gamely did her OT, she gamely started using her left hand! And she would still get nicely dressed with hair/makeup/earrings for the rotating visits from her three sons and occasional others. Now she might be right at the stage of becoming bedridden. And no visitation.
The immediate family shared a Zoom call with Mom yesterday afternoon, not her peak time but it was what we could all manage. To my hospice-eye, Mom seemed to be in early transition to “active dying”. The unspoken understanding on the session was that this could be a final conversation. This is certainly not the way I ever imagined it would be after more than a decade of hospice volunteering and after hosting a dozen “Death Cafes”. The pandemic has meant people dying alone, no final goodbyes and no chance for family and friends to grieve together. Our practices surrounding death and dying have been shredded. Stricken without warning. Surely one of the learnings from CovidWorld will be a re-examination of our relationship to death and dying. It’s painful and it’s long overdue but our humanity will be greatly enhanced by the process. Love will grow.