Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mom, a Tough Old Bird, Turns 80

I stopped by the nursing home early last week to tell my mom I would pick her up the next day, to take her to lunch to celebrate her 80th birthday. She looked startled at the news.

“Jeez, I’m old,” she said.

Three years ago, my mom spent her birthday in Good Shepherd Medical Center, bouncing back from once again having received the Last Rites. At the time, I wouldn’t have taken 10-to-1 odds that we would be heading to Cotton Patch CafĂ© on a sunny winter morning to mark her birthday with a plate of fried catfish.

She is a tough old bird. That will be her epitaph, in my mind if not on the actual marker.

My middle brother Scott’s birthday falls three days before our mom’s. A group of friends celebrated that event down in Austin last week. At the party, Scott and I recounted to some friends the list of surgeries and maladies our mother has endured since our childhood, with an equanimity that has always amazed us.
I will neither bore nor embarrass you with the medical details. Suffice it to say that my mother is no stranger to a scalpel or anesthesia, is missing a number of internal organs, and owns enough artificial body parts to set off the security scanner at the airport.

But our mom keeps rocking along. For that we three brothers and the grandchildren are all, of course, grateful.

My mom lives her days in a gentle veil of fog that necessitated us taking charge three years ago and moving both her and our dad, now-dead nearly a year, into assisted living. He had been disabled since 1990. Caring for him flat wore her out, along with those various maladies. At least that is my theory.

Some days my mom isn’t sure if I still work in Lufkin and just came back to visit. Or where her grandkids now live. Or what happened to the PT Cruiser that she loved so much. It was totaled in early 2006, replaced by a Nissan Altima that I had to sell, along with the house and most of their possessions three years ago.

Other days the fog lifts, and we carry on rational conversations. Ask her about events that occurred decades ago, and her memory is as sharp as ever. Nearly all days she is cheerful and accommodating. The health-care workers at the nursing home, a couple of whom were her neighbors on South Twelfth Street, take great care of her and clearly enjoy her company. She is proud of the stack of quarters she has won at bingo. That Catholic upbringing has come in handy for a number of reasons, including those bingo skills.

After spending the first couple years essentially holed up in her small suite, Mom now gets out regularly — for bingo, to listen to volunteers sing gospel music or country tunes in the dining room, and for other events. Friends come to visit. She answers the phone now. The first two years, she rarely answered the phone, claiming she never heard it ring.

I moved back to Longview a little over two years ago and brought the parents back here from Lufkin not long after. That first year was pretty rocky for both of my parents health-wise, and, of course, my dad’s long struggle ended last February.

Mom, meanwhile, went to the hospital at least 10 times in 2008 for heart problems, never staying long. She was frail, and her long-term prospects didn’t seem great. As it turns out, she just passed a one-year anniversary without a single trip to the hospital. Maybe monthly fried catfish and hushpuppies will turn out to be the latest heart cure. One can only hope.

These days, Mom watches every court TV show that is broadcast, catches the Red Sox when they’re on the tube, reads this newspaper daily, still harbors an irrational dislike for the Dallas Cowboys and can’t wait until spring, so we can drive down Fourth Street and admire the azaleas blooming in backyards.
We will go eat catfish again soon, or maybe branch out for a hamburger at the Butcher Shop. She’s a diabetic usually connected to oxygen, but we both like to live a bit dangerously.

Why not? You have to have some fun in life. Both my parents taught me that.
Originally published January 31, 2010

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