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How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"I'm not dead yet"

That famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been running through my mind for the past week…”I’m not dead yet.”

About three weeks ago, Mark and I went down to visit my mother for her birthday. She had a clearly stated agenda—she wanted to play Rummy with Mark and then eat at Anatolia’s. We were agreeable. When we arrived at her apartment, she was looking serious. “We need to get this over with,” she said, clutching her deck of cards. “Then we can play. Doctor Jill told me that I have three months left to live. To get my affairs in order.” I looked at her. “No way,” I thought. “She’s looking good. “If she had said this back in late July, when her hearing was blocked and she was constantly fussing about her oxygen, I would have agreed, but right now? She was looking stronger and more cheerful than she had in months. It didn’t make sense. I decided not to worry about being on the earth with no one would remembered me as a small child—an unsettling thought—until after I had met with her doctor. She had, after all, been muttering about some young upstart in the doctor’s office wearing a short skirt and high heels (I think she’s jealous—my mother was never opposed to such wardrobes when she was wearing them…) wanting her to sign papers about hospice care.

A week later, I took the day off and drove to Eugene. My mother swung into the van with her usual vigor; after spending twenty years, in high heels, swinging into a pickup truck, she still has the moves. We drove through the pouring rain to the doctor’s office, where I dropped her off and parked the Ark. Inside, I pulled out the sweater I am working on and settled in for a long wait, but they were prompt. A young woman took my mother’s blood pressure (just fine), weighed her (she’d gained a pound), and made some changes to her list of medications. I noticed that she was not good at looking at my mother while she talked and so my mother was often confused. “She deaf in one ear,” I told her. “Speak up.” It didn’t help.

After the young woman left, the actual doctor came in. She was good. She sat down right next to my mother and leaned in. “How are you doing?” she asked clearly, head nearly touching my mother’s. Good move, I thought. “Not so good, “my mother sighed. The doctor nodded. “You’re here to have your medications checked,” she stated. I was puzzled—I thought this was going to be an end of life discussion, not a meds check, but they went through the list, clearing it all up.
“There,” Dr Jill said cheerfully. “What’s left is what you need to take to live for years.”
“Years?” I thought. “I thought it was three months.”
My mother also looked puzzled. “What about hospice?” she asked.
“Hospice? That’s what we recommend when you have less than six months to live. I don’t think you are there yet.” The doctor was cheerful and brisk. My mother sat up straighter. They spent a few more moments talking about the results from an oxygen test and we left. As usual, my mother climbed right into the Ark.

On the way home, we stopped at Fred Meyer’s for a cooked chicken and some soda water. Before I ran in, my mother looked down at her old red blouse.
“I guess I’ll have to buy a few more warm tops,” she said. “As I’m going to be around a little longer.”


As I drove home, I figured out what had happened. The young woman in the short skirt had tried to talk with my mother about end of life care—that discussion the Crazed Right has been calling the “Death Panel” where you talk about final wishes while the person is still of sound mind, usually long before it becomes essential. She also talked about the results of the test, which indicated that my mother was having trouble clearing out her lungs of carbon dioxide. My mother put the two together and shut down. When she talked with her doctor on the phone, she was even more confused, because she did not ask about what was really on her mind—am I going to die soon and is that why we’re talking hospice? Neither doctor had any idea of the chaos they were creating; they were both doing their jobs. But one was in a hurry and the other was on the phone. They still don’t know. I debated telling them, but I haven’t …yet. What would they do differently?

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