It is not a trivial exercise to get into the Intensive Care Unit at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. To begin with visiting hours are very restricted. Evening hours opened at 8 p.m. and ended at 10 p.m. I decided to leave at 7:15 p.m. and hoped for fair traffic. The traffic gods were kind to me. I had only brief delays trying to get on the beltway and navigating around paving crews.
The ICU is on the sixth floor. It is quite a walk from the parking garage to the ICU. Once on the sixth floor there was more stumbling around trying to actually locate the ward. The unit is isolated behind locked doors. To get in the ICU you have to use a telephone in the lobby and hope they will open the door for you. After a couple minutes of dickering on the phone they let me in. I found my 84-year-old mother in Bed #10 and arguing with a male nurse.
My heart skipped a beat. I hate hospitals. I have too many bad memories of visiting people I love in hospitals. The last time I visited my mother in the hospital (when she still lived in Michigan) had been rough. But I had thus far escaped an ICU visit. I expected multiple tubes running in and out of her, lots of machines that went “bing” and my mother in a fog or passed out. Instead it looked pretty much like any other hospital room except there was no phone. I could see her blood pressure and heart rate on the monitor. Her stats looked good.
“Everyone thinks I am crazy!” my mother began and told me over and over again, as if expecting me to validate the hypothesis. “I must have pressed this buzzer a hundred times and no one answered. They are ignoring me! I know I am not myself. But I am not crazy! Do you think I am crazy?”
“No Mom, you are not crazy,” I said. “But I think you may be confused sometimes.” I tell her about her low sodium levels and how that caused mental confusion. I think she heard me but I got the sense it didn’t penetrate. “I am not crazy,” she keeps repeating. But she seems to keep confusing names and times and places. My sister Mary and my sister Teri visited her today she says. But actually it was my father and her granddaughter Cheryl. Teri lives in Florida.
We talk but mostly she complains. She has every reason to complain. She looks lost because she is lost. She is very confused. She can’t read. She can’t focus. She is not interested in TV. There are lights on that she doesn’t want on. The hospital is full of noises that she doesn’t want to hear. She lives in the moment. Despite the tender care given to her by the nurses she is controlled and she does not want to be controlled. She wants to be free and moving around but she can’t; she can’t really walk at the moment.
Since there is no phone in the room and she wants to talk to my Dad I put him on the cell phone. I don’t know how my Dad stays so philosophical. Maybe it’s from spending way more time in hospitals with her than I have. Despite all her anguish he has managed to enjoy his day. He went into DC to see the grave of his grandparents. He enjoyed a spaghetti dinner at one of Riderwood’s fine dining facilities. In many ways having his wife in the hospital is a benefit: he is relieved for a while of his orderly duties. I know he loves her and cares deeply for her but he accepts this is something out of his hands. He says he will visit Mom around noon tomorrow but don’t tell her because knowing his timing will make her anxious.
Ministers talk about the importance of presence at times of great turmoil. I know my being there for my Mom meant a lot to her. I held her hand. I listened to her. I kissed her on the forehead. I fed her the occasional ice chip. And yet I mourn. It tears me up to see her in a hospital bed with tubes coming in and out of her. I want to see her as she was, happy and cooking a meal in her kitchen. I doubt she will be able to lift a pot again. I’m not sure she will even be able to use her walker again. I’m thinking there will be a whole lot more of this is in what remains of her future. She needs a nursing home. Yet what she needs is also the same thing that will kill her spiritually. Her spirit is flagging and that is not a good sign.
I play the good son. I smile. I talk nicely. I stroke her forehead. I hold her hand. I tell her I love her. And eventually I say goodbye. In my car driving back to Northern Virginia I am a mix of emotions. But I cannot express them now. There is too much going on in my life. I feel like I want to cry but life has other plans for me at the moment. So I put my feelings in a tight little box knowing that they will pop out unexpectedly some day like a Jack in the Box. But right now I am tired. At home I have a wife who has lost her job and needs support. I have a daughter beginning her sophomore year in High School and who has a birthday party that needs planning. I have a class to teach Saturday morning and I must be prepared.
The handle to our screen door comes off when I enter the house a bit after 10 p.m. I will deal with it … later.