Lyons: In the Land of the Falling Moms

Stephen J. Lyons
Special to The Washington Post

In the Land of the Falling Moms, every obstacle beckons with a kind of gravity. The curled corner of a rug. The slightly raised entryway. The uneven sidewalk. The slick tile.

In the Land of the Falling Moms, the difference between upright and upended is measured in inches, but the consequences are calculated in months.

One morning, my mother awakes more or less fully intact, or at least unbroken. She gets out of bed, loses her balance and falls into a wall. She rights herself, somehow dresses and shuffles with her walker to the assisted-living dining room for breakfast. Because she has fractured her collarbone, pubis and sacrum, the pain must be excruciating. Yet she tells no one.

She finally calls me that night. “I fell,” she tells me. The ambulance is on its way. She cannot say where it will take her. She doesn’t know what time it is. Or what day. Or what year.

At the emergency room, she complains that the surfaces are all too cold and hard. That the attending staff is too rough as they twist and turn her damaged body for X-rays. Don’t they know she hurts? The doctor discovers that she also has a urinary tract infection. She gets morphine.

So long ago that it does not seem real, when my mother was a single working mom, and healthy and whole, she took me to a makeshift outdoor skating rink. We wore corduroy coats, mittens and knit caps. The cold wind off Lake Michigan took our breath away. I tired and wanted to return to our apartment and wrap my arms around the radiator. She wanted to skate just one more time. I whined and begged, but she won out, promising hot cocoa. On her last time around the rink, she fell and broke her arm. We did not own a car. We walked back to the apartment, her arm hanging unnaturally. Once home, she called a taxi, a luxury for us, and we rode to the hospital. I read comic books while they set her arm in a wet, bulky cast. Then we took the bus home. She made me my cocoa, and the next morning she went to work. She never mentioned the pain. To me, she was invincible.

Now, after four days at the hospital, my mother is transferred to a nursing home in the same building as her assisted-living apartment. Here she will receive physical and occupational therapy. Her senior complex provides the entire “continuum of care,” as though the last years of life are “not perceptibly different from each other,” as the community’s definition states, instead of a series of anguishing setbacks, each event stripping away another layer of confidence from the ones we love.

When Mom arrived at her apartment five years ago, she was in independent living. A year later, as her dementia worsened and she was too confused to take her pills or operate a coffee maker, she was moved to assisted living. Now, nearer the end of the continuum, she sits in a wheelchair, her arm in a loose sling, her hair in a long braid, wearing nubby, no-slip hospital socks. She is confused but not withdrawn.

I remind her of the last time she was here, following a fall in the bathroom, when she cut her head on the shower door and ended up in an intensive care unit with bleeding in her brain. “I did? I don’t remember that,” she says, looking past me out the window. “How are things in Iowa?” she asks. I live in Illinois.

I go upstairs to my mother’s one-room apartment. Since her fall nothing has been touched. Her purse is half hidden under a pillow. Her bed is unmade. A cup of cold coffee and various papers are scattered on a table. I select an armful of blouses, pants, underwear and a couple of family pictures. Before I close the door I take one last look. I doubt whether she will return to this room.

Stephen J. Lyons’s most recent book is ‘Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times.’ © 2016, Washington Post