The Gift that is this Virus

Yesterday was a beautiful Saturday in Los Angeles, but it could have been a Thursday or a Monday in these strange times.  We sat out on the patio, my sister, my mom and myself.  Our mom sat on her chair, eating bites of fresh fruit, while my sister did her nails and I practiced my guitar.

Then we noticed that she was struggling to grip the fork in her hand, her fingers would not close around the handle.  My sister reached over to steady the plate and we watched as she switched hands to harpoon the fruit.  A few minutes later, whatever caused that weakness had passed and she finished her meal. This was the second time in two days this had happened.

I don’t know if we are circling the well.  Over the past few weeks we’ve had to take our 90-year old mother to the emergency room for problems with her gallbladder, found out she has anemia and now this weakness. Plus, she has advanced dementia. 

On top of all of that, there is now the coronavirus to be navigated. Dealing with the virus during all of this has taken what is already a painful and challenging experience and made it even more difficult. We can’t just take her to the doctor or run out to the pharmacy.  I can only imagine how strange it must be for her to see all these people wearing masks, including her own family.  Then there was surreal experience of going to the ER, as we argued with the hospital over and over again that one of us needed to be there with her, she was not capable of advocating for herself.  Once inside, the fear of what ailed her was compounded by the additional threat of what she might catch while she was there.  Every surface, every person, was now a potential death sentence.

But even with all of that, in an odd way, this virus has been a blessing. 

Though it is hard to admit, I have often resented the ever-growing hours of care my mom has required.  I love working and collaborating, finding fulfillment and joy in a job well done, a creative expression completed.  More than once I’ve thought, as I drove over for my shift with her, “I just want to be left alone to do my thing.”

Then on March 16, California was ordered to shelter in place and everything changed.  Given her vulnerability, we had to limit who had access to her, and put her regular caregiver on hold. Over time, and with her condition, we’ve had to stay for longer and longer periods of time.  More than once we’ve slept over, wanting to make sure she’d be ok through the night, the sounds of her snoring telling us she was fine.  Waking up to daylight and the relief that we’d made it through the night.

As days became weeks, we found comfort in being together, circling the wagons, pooling resources.  We cooked together, tried and failed to bake bread, laughed like crazy people, and started packing bag lunches for folks in need of food.  

Work slowed down considerably, and what work there was I did at the dining room table while Mom colored or read Peter Rabbit.  My sister and I took turns going home early to be with our cats, catch up on laundry, or just have some time to numb out in front of the television.

Up to this point, talking about her dying has been the elephant in the room.  We knew it was coming, but somehow were afraid that by discussing it, we would make it so. In the past she has come back, strong as ever.  We were hoping that maybe this time, too, we’d be given a reprieve.

But things are continuing to slow down, break down.  At some point she will pass away, there is no hiding from it anymore. So last night, after the incident with her hand, my sister and I crawled into bed together, the way we used to as kids, and talked into the wee hours.  It was a strange spiral of conversation we followed, exploring one path and then another to its natural conclusion. When we were finished, we reached a consensus that, though difficult, was one we thought our mother would want, and we could accept.

It has been a strange time, filled with a rollercoaster of emotions, from fear, panic and sorrow, to an overwhelming sense of generosity, abundance and hope.  And with it all, there has been an odd crazy gratitude for this virus that forced us together and focused our priorities.  

I have rarely felt closer to my sister, or more patient and loving with my mother.  I feel the strength of our family together, gratitude for all that we have, all that we have been given.

 Whether she passes this month or five years from now, I will remember these times.  Playing Bingo or Sorry, sharing meals together, the difficult but honest conversations we’ve had, and our mom’s smile of delight that both her girls were with her.

When the moment comes and she takes her last breath, may it be in the comfort of her own home, surrounded by those she loves.  May it be with grace and dignity and peace.  May we be holding each other’s hand, grateful that it could be this way, us together.

And thanks to the virus, there will be no regrets as to how we spent this time together.

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