And the road goes on forever...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Old: "I just want to see the sun."

There are no pretty pictures in today's story.

They are courageous. They are stoic. They are proud. They seem accepting. What has life taught them that I still seem to be learning? As I work with them I feel the need for a new paradigm.

It didn’t happen when my mom was here with us—for she is too close to me. As I pick them up in my car, usually to give them medical transport, these others are strangers, but only for a moment as their sad stories unfold like a blanket around me, suffocating at times. But I force myself to listen, to acknowledge, to learn, to question; and to take away a far more valuable lesson than they ever realize they are teaching me.

In a few short weeks my world has shifted a little. Marc and I are down, we are nearly beat, somewhat broken; but how far worse off are these proud seniors who still face the end of their days with some manner of resilience. Where does it come from? Can I get some of it too? Is it because they are members of the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw put it? Did life lessons learned from living though the Great Depression give them this ability to remain calm in the face of such personal devastation? Why can’t I be more like them?

Will it make me a better person to try? I think so. I am already humbled beyond belief at the trust they throw at my feet. Their stories, their ailments, their day to day living is excruciating yet they remain so vitally attached to living, that it can’t help but touch my heart.

My whining becomes trivial by comparison. There is tiny, stooped Louise, whose former breast cancer has metastasized to her liver. She is dying and knows it. Doctors aren’t sure if the latest chemotherapy protocol is doing any good, so after one trip to the clinic to see the doctor, we go on another day for a dye scan. She will get the results late this month. She stays in winter in a small, older single wide on a Foothills lot with her equally old husband, who has both cardiac and Alzheimer problems. She told me they take care of each other, but it is mostly she who does the care for him as he is incontinent. She also has bad macular degeneration so she can’t drive very far or on busy roadways, nor see to read so I end up reading her the personal health information form she is to fill out for the dye scan. It almost seems intrusive that I now know her health history.

I am in amazement that these two old people in such poor health flew down from their home in a small town in eastern Washington. “It’s the last year” she tells me quietly. “Dean just gets so depressed in all those long, gray cold winter days, he begged me to come down this year so he could see the sun, but we really shouldn’t have. My chemo schedule has been all fouled up.” “We need to put the place up for sale”, she adds sadly, “but we sure don’t want to do it. We just hate to leave; we’ve been coming here for so long…since 1985.” The end of an era and soon, the end of their lives I’m sure. I wonder how it will be any different when they return home. She tells me her kids lead busy lives and can’t be depended upon to always be around to help out; their small town is a 90 minute drive to the cancer center so when she gets a treatment it’s an all day ordeal. I ask her gently about the possibility of selling their home and moving into an assisted living facility but she says “No, Dean made me promise that he could die at home.” Knowing how Alzheimer’s can advance and cripple every bodily function I wonder how she can deny what is to come. Maybe for now its best not thought of; she probably has no choice but to live in the moment.

Another day, another life lesson. I transport Chris to the Yuma hospital for some outpatient treatment, whose wife also elects to ride along. We chitchat and I get some background on them. They too, are from Washington and have been coming to Yuma for a long time in winters. This too will be their last year; their tidy and immaculate park model in a gated RV park is already up for sale. They live in an assisted living facility in their home town. Coincidentally, they tell me the building is so historic, that the wife went there to high school and graduated in the very building they now live in! I laugh and say “So, you’ve come full circle in your life, huh?” They get a kick out of that.

Chris has some mobility issues, so we secure a wheelchair and I wheel him through the hospital corridors as if I am wearing nurses white, to his treatment room. “I’ll be back to pick you up in 45 minutes” I tell them. On our drive home we talk about medical issues and how they become the main focus of our lives once we become the elderly. Everyone knows it of course; everyone dreads it, so I am curious when I talk with people like this, essentially, how is it you cope on a daily basis? Patty tells me it’s just what you learn to do. She says no one wants to hear you complain and complaining doesn’t do any good anyway so you might as well just take what that one day will offer you and make the best of it. The hardest part for them was giving up the independence of having their own vehicle.

We become old, we become sick—most often with deadly diseases—we lose our ability to care for ourselves—we lose our vaunted independence as we see it just disappear in bits and pieces like the desert dust. I stop and think: am I appreciating the days I have right now enough? I am astute enough to know that since we are all aging; my day today is really the best I am ever going to be physically. It’s all downhill from here at my age—I need to make sure I make the most of what I have right now, even if it’s not the life I wish I was able to live. Wow, light bulb moment for me!

These oldsters…there’s a lot to learn from them if we just listen.