- Ada, Oklahoma

October 7, 2013

Reporter experiences tough transitions

Art Lawler Staff Writer

Ada —

Rolling her little red walker with wheels on each side, a 95-pound, 95-year-old woman opens the door to her daughter’s bedroom in Kingsland, Texas.

“Time to get up, Leta,” she said.

Time to fix Mom’s Boost shake with the scoop of ice cream blended in for taste. 

The elderly woman felt her daughter’s heel when she didn’t respond. It was cold. It was “strange,” she said. 

Instinctively, she knew more than her heart was willing to admit.

Leta, the one person who was always there for her Mom, my mom, was dead.  

Mom had seen it all, endured it all, and somehow survived it all for most of a century. She was tough. Very tough. Maybe not this tough.

In this moment, standing alone in a 2,000-square foot home with her daughter, my sister, lying cold and motionless on her bed, mom was as frightened as a small child waking from a nightmare.

When I arrived hours later and looked into my mother’s eyes, I saw terror coming back at me for the first time in my life. It was my time to hold this small, fragile woman, and to reassure her. 

“What am I going to do,” she asked as the tears flowed. 

“Everything will be OK, Mom,” I said with more conviction than I possessed.

She had managed to push her walker to the front door that morning, to open it and to flag down some driving by help. 

She hadn’t even noticed the Meals on Wheels people walking up with her lunch tray at the same time.

They saw what Mom saw and dialed 911. Within minutes, EMS arrived, as did the county sheriff’s department in this small scenic retirement/resort near Lake LBJ in the Texas Hill Country.

For the next seven hours, she waited for the only other surviving member of our nuclear family to arrive. 

I couldn’t get there fast enough

My mom is my rock. Always has been. She was born brittle and not expected to survive long.

That’s what they said 95 years ago. For 95 years, she’s been proving them wrong.

Despite her delicate features, she’s always been as strong as a Marine drill sergeant. She just doesn’t sound like one or look like one.

She has been the quiet one, the strong one, the one everybody respected. 

Now, she’s frightened. She’s angry and more than just a little temperamental. Worse, much of her anger is projected in my direction.

God gets blame for much of the rest of it, for taking her daughter instead of her. “Why wasn’t I taken instead of Leta,” she keeps saying. “I just don’t understand it.”

I’m the villain now, the one who placed her into a nursing home when no other options were open. 

She’s less than 10 minutes from my home here in Ada; not even that far from my work. She has 24/7 care, the dubious award for longevity. I do the best I can, but it’s minute compared to all that my sister did for the last decade.

The dementia keeps setting mom back. She grieves when she can remember to grieve. Starts over again, every time she re-remembers.

I introduce myself to her almost every time I walk through the door. I listen patiently as she repeats her complaints, hug her and make funny faces at her when she scorns me. 

The best thing I can do is make her laugh, which isn’t as easy these days, though maybe it’s starting to get better with time.

 When I leave, I sometimes can’t help but shed a tear or two. She’s given me so much, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m making her life miserable right now. 

I try to get her to mix with the others. Sometimes she does, then a blank look appears on her face.

Who are all the lovely people sitting at her table? Why is that one woman telling us we got her table? Does she know them? 

Then, once again, it’s off to a world most of us cannot comprehend

Just as quickly, sometimes in the evening, clarity and maturity return in a sentence. 

My mom’s not really controversial. She’s not high maintenance, nor difficult for nurses. She’s always been the giver, the one who sacrifices for others; a bright woman, a sociable woman, one who loves to throw parties with punch and cookies in her home.

She’s a durable, gentle, woman. Probably a lot like yours.

She’s different now, too.

My sister, mom’s almost exclusive caretaker, died out of turn. It’s the second time that’s happened to our family. My own daughter died at age 31 in 1996 of a brain aneurysm.

Nothing gets people more upset at God than having a loved one die out of turn. In time, if she doesn’t wear herself out, Mom will, I hope, realize — as I did — that God doesn’t kill people. 

He didn’t kill her daughter any more than he killed my daughter back in ’96.

People kill people, mostly through fear and ignorance, prejudice and demagoguery, man’s unwillingness to push the boundaries of science for the cures that are presently ripping loved ones from our grasp.

Before Leta made the decision to leave her job with an Austin insurance company and become the caretaker of not only my mom, but mom’s second husband, she seemed content to enjoy the city life and visit her mom on weekends.

Just before the painful years, Mom was driving to The Community Church, exercising with other women her age at 6 a.m., the only light in the room being the exit sign.

That’s the same church my dad pastored before lymphoma took him away from us in 1976. Mom has outlived two husbands, spent 30 plush years with each man, making both of them happy to the very end.

 Death is the most certain part of life, but does it half to keep happing out of turn? With all due respect, doesn’t death know its place? 

Leta was tough, too. Strong-willed and determined. You learned not to even try when it came to changing her mind. She could talk-slap you into surrender.

In the end, I think she may have died in the line of duty, trying to do too much on her own for too long. It was easy to let her do it.

Leta’s son, David, a police officer in Georgetown and former Marine, took charge and had his own mother’s funeral planned and set by the time I got to town.

My youngest daughter lives in Boise, Idaho; my son in San Antonio, and my mom’s daughter-in-law, who treats my mom like her real mother, lives in Manhattan, Kan. We’re all too far apart but we’ve all followed our passions and dreams. 

My sister sacrificed everything for her mother. She washed the clothes, administered the lotions on mom’s arms and legs, helped her to the bathroom, washed, combed and rolled her hair; cut her toenails and fingernails, handled the paperwork to keep the government happy and the debt collectors at bay.

Prior to that, when Mom fell and broke her hips twice (once on each side), Leta was on the job, driving the nurses crazy with questions and advice.

We almost lost her once on the operating table but Leta wouldn’t let her go.

My sister did have her eccentricities. That was Leta, and no one was about to change her. She mysteriously dyed her brunette hair black while in college and kept it that same way in a short style, for the rest of her life. That’s a lot of dye, but you never saw a strand of gray in Leta’s hair.

One day a little over two weeks ago, Susan Pinley, our head bookeeper at this newspaper, stopped me at the door to tell me there had been a death in my family.

I knew it had to be my mother or sister. My instincts told me it was my mother. She was, after all, in the on-deck circle.

I nervously called the number. It belonged to my ex-wife, who also has remained very close to my mother. She told me what she had learned. 

Then she drove 200 miles to help us work through all the papers that had to be found and deciphered. My ex is the best. Twenty years we were together and to this day we still love each other. Somehow we metamorphosed from spouses to siblings.

The death certificate said it was an aortic aneurysm that killed Leta. There’s that word again. Aneurysm. It continues to haunt our family.

The neurosurgeon who examined my oldest daughter said he could do nothing because one of the largest arteries in her head exploded, drowning her brain with blood. He thought there was a chance she’d rally but she was dead by morning. Thirty one years old and “almost” in perfect health. 

I asked God that night why he hadn’t taken me. Like any parent, I’d have gladly taken her place.

She was the mother of two pre-schooler daughters, one of them four months old; born in the same hospital where her mother died.

Back in Texas, this wasn’t the first time Leta had sacrificed for others. When her son, David, was growing up, she bought him a toy drum set. 

She was a single-parent mother most of that time and living in a small apartment in Austin. She raised a great kid. He’s 46 years old, married to a great woman and is a go-getter at everything he tries.

I’m so glad he’s my nephew. 

For reasons of grace, I suppose, I have always been surrounded by women who were better than me. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without them.

You’ve got a brand new resident at a local nursing home about 10 minutes from my home and from my work. She’s a good woman but a hurting woman.

 I just hope she can rally. 

 I’m a very poor substitute for my sister but with the help of a lot of loving people we’re slowly getting this all worked out.

 She was excited the other day. “I had a really nice dream,” she told me.

 It was about a time more than 70 years ago. She was on her horse, Paint, riding him in the crisp morning air. She was enjoying the freedom of life.

 “I pet his nose and he felt so good,” she told me. “I could even smell him. It was a really nice dream.”