Friday, December 11, 2009

"I will do my part" -- giving the Christmas gift of a good death

This Christmas, my sisters and I are giving my mother a good death. Preparing for a present like this has taken us many years. Once we knew Mom had Alzheimers, we also knew we wanted her to stay at home for as long as imaginable to be supported by and supportive of my father. They live in a Victorian house and sometimes my older sister Nancy said it was like balancing everything on a toothpick. When my mother had a stroke six months ago, we moved to twenty-four hour care instead of the daytime care we then had in place. And now the work of caregiver interviews, the work of responding to emerging needs over the years, the work of being committed to them living an old age of dignity and as much independence as possible, is coming to fruition. I don’t know if we ever thought of it as having a point of fruition, but now in this bleak midwinter, in these days of windstorms that snatch our electricity away and snowstorms that challenge anyone on the road (except our intrepid caregivers), as our village is blanketed by beautiful white flakes and the ground is buried by the snow, now my mother, when she needs it, can have it – a good death.

She’s in a bed, not her own, a hospital bed, but it’s her own bed right now. And she has her family around her. My father sings songs to her, when able. We hold her hand and we talk to her, and we are reading from Mama’s Bank Account, about a Norwegian-American mother at the turn of the twentieth century. And we know this is our Mama, the archetypal Norwegian-American Mama, resourceful, funny, determined Mama, whose recipes have names like lutefisk, yulekage, leftsa, rumegrat. I know a Mama who prepared hot chocolate and spritz cookies; a Mama with a daughter with a desire to be a writer.

So we read these stories, we take turns, each sister, one holding her hands, and one reading, and one sitting in a rocking chair as the snow falls outside, snow on snow. We know that out mother is comfortable, and we know that our mother is loved and experiencing our love, and we take our tears to another room, where we decorate the Christmas tree, and we clothe this old Victorian house in more Christmas lights than its ever known. And we think of how some of the Christmas carols that talk about welcoming birth could just as easily be talking about giving a good death.


I wake up early in the morning and look out my window at a winter wonderland, and I know that because I’ve slept through the night, all is calm downstairs. And I feel the intersection of mythic stories and the Christmas story. The tender loving care that a babe in a manger needs, a dying person needs. Like birthing, dying is a holy time. We struggle to accept the mystery of it. Our primary caregiver, Freddie, is now a midwife of the soul. She is teaching us all. Each night here, is a holy night. And as this silent night passes into a snowy morning, I know I can go downstairs and do again the things we did yesterday and the day before. The things that all together are giving my mother, I pray, a good death.

In the bleak midwinter, what can I give? I will do my part. I give my heart to this, to this gift that my mother most needs: a good death.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Life She Has Led

Her life, now, is constrained by dementia, age, and a recent stroke. But my mother’s fascinating and full life stretches from the beginnings of the Great War to the mess of Afghanistan, 2009. The daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, one of her jobs at General Mills in the early 1940s was answering letters as Betty Crocker. She knew the whirlwind nature of a World War II romance. In 1957, as the United States was fretting about the implications of the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, she designed a Sputnik Halloween costume for her first grader. In the 1960s, she helped women get abortions and advocated for migrant workers. By 1970, she participated in the Women’s Strike for Equality (and wondered if my father noticed she hadn’t cooked dinner that night). Without the resources of Facebook to keep her family connected, she wrote wonderful letters (in triplicate – one for each daughter). Now, she is in a fragile state of health. But this simply means it is not too late to celebrate this American woman – who never accepted “No” as a final answer. I say “Yes!,” a resounding yes to the life she has led.

Let me plunk her down in the middle of the 1960s in a chicken coop. She’s gone there with Willard, a physics professor and a Quaker, his wife Laura, and Tom, a Methodist minister. They are there to clean it. Dried, flaking chicken shit is flying everywhere. All of them have been very involved in improving the living conditions of the migrant workers who arrived in Western New York every summer to pick crops. Each year in January, farmers would fly to Puerto Rico to hire laborers. Then, when they were needed, the men would be flown to Buffalo and from there be taken to lodgings the farmers provided. Mom and her friends had learned that a local farmer planned on keeping his migrant workers in an old chicken coop. They went to inspect it and were shocked by its condition.

That day they returned with buckets, soap, rags, and determination. With my mother (and the others as well) determination always prevailed. After hours of cleaning, they felt the place was habitable. And for many, many years, they laughed about the day that they returned home covered in white.

My father was a local attorney, and represented many of the farmers whom Mom was encountering in her work to improve migrant camp conditions. On another occasion, Willard and Mom went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in Chautauqua County. Each spring, he brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant the tomatoes and vegetables. In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking. By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks. The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner. The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended perilously close to the open flame. Willard and Mom saw this fire trap and Mom reported it to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.

The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw Willard he referred to my father, who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained, “he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”

I love these two stories! Before anyone claimed that shit happens (and caregivers know that fact for a truth better than anyone!), we kids knew that chickenshit happens, hazardous conditions exist, and as a result advocacy and good buckets are always needed. Yes, Mom showed us how chickenshit happens. It’s what you do about it that matters.