Tuesday, April 17, 2012
NOT THE SAME By Nancy Pogue LaTurner
She craved attention. People noticed her when she ran. Corkscrew curls bounced and spilled over the white visor she wore to shield her face from the brilliant New Mexico sun. The other runners wore baseball caps, but she preferred the visor because it didn’t crush her curls. She almost pranced, especially if there were spectators along the course. There were always spectators at the finish. Every 5K race ended the same way for her. About 50 yards from the finish line, she pitched her visor to one side and her sunglasses to the other, took a deep, chest-expanding breath, and sprinted to the finish line. She kept up the pace all the way down the finishers’ chute and collapsed into the grass beyond, throwing up, causing concern among bystanders, and getting more attention.
Running wasn’t her only route into the limelight, just one she had taken up recently at age 75. As far back as anyone could remember she had always dressed to attract attention. Her fashion ideas often came from the Nieman Marcus catalog, but she had her own unique flair for color. Pumpkin orange with grape purple. Sun yellow with turquoise blue. For years her born-brown hair was movie-star blonde, her lipstick and nails flame red. At 5’2” inches, 98 lbs., she personified petite, perky, cute, sexy. Her sons’ friends ogled her. Her husband’s friends made passes.
No one expected her to be serious or sensible. Everyone expected her to be lively and fun. She fulfilled every expectation and continued to do so until round about age 82. She could still run, but arthritic pain in her shoulders started to limit her other activities. The orthopedist recommended shoulder replacement, one shoulder at a time with a period of healing and rehab between.
“Will surgery take away my pain?” she said.
“Most definitely. You can also regain most of your range of motion, if you do all of the physical therapy exercises after surgery.” The doctor repeated his emphasis on the importance of post-op therapy.
Her cardiologist gave his approval for the surgery. He had been monitoring a leak in her mitral valve, but the heart abnormality had not affected her running and he said he considered it no serious impediment to surgery.
The operation went well. The orthopedist raved about the perfect fit of the new ball joint. Her wound healed rapidly. There was one problem: she couldn’t manage the physical therapy routine. She did as much as she could while still in the hospital, but once discharged, she let it slide. Her son started coming daily to help her. She complained it hurt too much. Each of her five children coaxed, wheedled, encouraged, begged, or nagged. Nothing worked. Whether at the outpatient clinic or at home, she did the minimum exercise and no more. She lived with pain and tightness.
A few weeks later, she felt a new kind of tightness, this time in her chest. It was a heart attack. Her cardiologist arranged emergency transport to the regional heart hospital for an urgent valve replacement. Her children rallied around her. She basked in their loving concern.
After the open-heart surgery she went to her oldest son’s home to recuperate. She didn’t seem to be herself. She acted confused, disoriented. She had no short-term memory at all. Her son hired a woman to stay with her while he and his wife went to work.
Over the next several weeks, she improved enough to want to return to her own home. She gave up physical therapy for her shoulder because the incision from the heart surgery bothered her too much. The replaced shoulder tightened. The other shoulder grew more painful. She couldn’t raise her arms above shoulder-height. She stopped going to her exercise class because she couldn’t get up from the floor without assistance. She asked one daughter for a Life-Alert system, but she couldn't remember to wear it. Another daughter gave her a cell-phone, but she couldn’t learn to use it. She complained of gaining weight. Her diet went from pre-surgery organic vegetarian to post-surgery bacon and chocolate cake. Running, walking, and exercising disappeared from her vocabulary. She stopped seeing her friends. She didn’t return their calls.
Over the next several months, she had to give up driving, move to a retirement home, move again to assisted living, and finally ended up in a nursing facility. She couldn't remember how to dress herself. She couldn't remember the way to the bathroom or the reasons for going there. She lost the concept of time.
The vibrant, bouncy, colorful personality had faded to a shuffling, fearful, vague shadow. Was this the penultimate metamorphosis, the essence of the creature gone, yet still alive, leaving only a fragile, brittle shell? Mother was not the same person anymore; her children struggled to accept the fact that she would never be the same again. Each one had to blink, swallow, and try not to look twenty years forward into his own future. ***