Carpe Diem

This is the final post in a series dedicated to my Mom, who passed away a year ago on October 2nd  2010.

My Mother loved her husband.  She loved her children, her grandchildren, her home, and her garden.  She loved her life.

Unfortunately, genetics were not her friend and hardening of the arteries came to haunt her early.  At age 52 she underwent a heart bypass operation.  Given the state of her arteries, the surgeon marvelled at the fact that she hadn’t already suffered a heart attack and during the surgery he changed the planned triple bypass to a quadruple.  The operation was difficult and fraught with complications, including a suspected stroke that stole much of her short term memory, but it very likely saved her life.

At first, the loss of memory was a grave concern.  Speaking to me on the telephone she sounded fine and I could almost forget that anything had changed, but when she hung up and my Dad asked her how I was, she would say: “I have no idea.”

In time she found ways to adapt.  On the phone I could hear her furiously scribbling
notes to capture what I said.  Nearby she had her calendar full of plans past and present, with the days neatly crossed off to help her keep track of the passage of time.  For Christmas dinner she laid out the serving dishes well in advance and labelled them with Post It notes to remind herself what went where.  As her kitchen helper, I didn’t have to ask questions, I just dumped the mashed potatoes into the glass bowl labelled ‘potatoes.’

Other things didn’t change at all.   She continued to call out the answers to Wheel of Fortune puzzles, beat my Dad in games of golf and manage her garden to spectacular results.  And she continued to refuse to exercise.  In her mind, the only reason she wasn’t already dead from a heart attack was because she had avoided strenuous exercise in the years before her bypass operation.  NOT exercising had saved her
life and she wasn’t about to start taking chances now.

Fast forward almost twenty years and, like the aerodynamically challenged bumblebee that somehow continues to fly, my Mother was soldiering on in spite of mounting evidence that something was seriously amiss.  By the time doctors finally convinced her to undergo tests to assess the extent of blockage in the carotid arteries that supplied blood to her brain, they couldn’t believe what they found.

“Who cooks for you?”

“I do the cooking,” she said.

“Aren’t you dizzy?”

The doctor let slip an audible gasp when my Mom told him she drove the car around town nearly every day.

The operation to clear one of her carotid arteries was successful, but brutally difficult.  The surgeon described my Mother as a ‘house of cards’ and said that he would not be doing any more surgery on her.  I recall exactly what he said as: “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole.”   While in hospital, she suffered a number of mild heart attacks but each time, she bounced back.

Then came the stroke.

‘Paralysis on the left side’ was the phrase that stuck with me when I picked up the voicemail message at work, and I drove to Hamilton General hospital in a haze, intermittently sobbing and gasping for breath.  When I finally reached the cardiac unit, I prepared myself to face a scenario that I had dreaded for as long as I could remember.  But rounding the corner to her bedside, I was dumbstruck.  There she was sitting upright, talking to the nurses and moving quite normally.   Yes, the staff had injected a clot busting drug into her IV as soon as they realized she was having a stroke, but even the doctors agreed that the extent and speed of her recovery was astonishing.

A craggy old nurse, who had surely seen it all, pulled me aside in the hall and said: “I’ve never seen that happen.”

Over the next several weeks, doctors-in-training regularly dropped by her room for a glimpse of the amazing woman who continued to breathe, in spite of the sorry state of her cardiovascular system.  One by one, they shook their heads as they examined her chart.

It was clear that my Mom was a cat with more than nine lives.

Over the next year, her world became steadily smaller.  The basement steps got to be too much and so my Dad brought her computer upstairs.  Her beloved garden still called to her, but she sat on an overturned ten gallon pail as she huffed and puffed through short bursts of weeding.  That April I quit my job, and in May I brought the Mother’s Day brunch I had prepared to her house; she had found herself too tired to travel with my Dad in the car that day.  She pretended that it was just a difficult day and said she was sure that she would feel better soon… and she did.  But the trend line of good versus bad days was heading downhill.  No one said it out loud but we all knew it was true.

Throughout her life, my Mother had fiercely resisted anyone’s attempt to push her from her chosen path, including the doctors who told her she needed to start exercising and change her diet.  My Mom loved rye and coke, full fat foods and sitting down, and no one was going to take away the things she loved.   She lived her life exactly how she wanted to and had a hell of a good time doing it.

Until, of course, that very last day one year ago.  Lying in her hospital bed she struggled for each breath; but even in this dire state, she wished for one more day.  She told us she wanted to see her beloved garden again.  She said she worried what would become of my Dad, my brothers and I without her watchful eye and loving arms.  She clung to the edge of life as she always had, even as she felt it giving way beneath her fingertips.

Having had a year now to reflect on my Mom’s life, and to grow used to the gaping hole left behind when she died, I know one thing for sure.  While she may not have regretted
the choices she made for herself, she would want me to live my life so that I have that ‘one more day.’

The first time I went to the gym after she died, I cried my eyes out.  But it’s getting better.  I went today and I won’t ever stop going.  That’s a promise.

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2 thoughts on “Carpe Diem

  1. such a touching story Diane. very timely for me today as my dad sits in BGH, after yet another heart attack this Thursday. doctors have advised that this will likely be a regular occurence and I feel a grey cloud looming overhead. I find many similarities between my dad and your mom’s lifestyle, and I too am using his health mistakes as a learning for myself moving forward. “if you pay the tuition you might as well take the lesson” – not sure who said that but I remind myself every day that all things, good and bad, are opportunities for us to learn and improve our lives moving forward.
    Your story as well as the quote below both found me today…
    “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” – Steve Jobs
    I’m looking forward to spending the day with the kids and nich at the Burford fair and Thanksgiving with good friends tomorrow. I wish you, Will, Taylor and Jack, and of course your dad, a very happy Thanksgiving. Your family is so lucky to have such a wonderful mom/wife/daughter like you!
    while there are lots of tough times in life, there are lots of good things to enjoy and celebrate as well.
    thanks for sharing today 🙂
    Jenn

  2. Well said, Jenn. Sorry to hear about your Dad; my thoughts are with you all.
    In my mind there is no right and wrong; only choices. Who’s to say that my Mom didn’t have more net happiness in her 72 years of eating chicken wings and playing dominoes than I will in my longer life spent choking down All Bran and cursing the Stairmaster!
    Hug him while you have him and leave the rest to the All Mighty.
    But I’m glad to hear you’re taking care of yourself and I’m sure your Dad is too.
    D.

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