My parents are still alive.
This is quite miraculous.
Over one year ago, we got the news about my mother’s lung cancer. Visiting her in the hospital, during my Florida trip at that time, the doctors told my sister and me that she likely had 2 months to live. Apparently, the doctors were incorrect. She got through the radiation, she got through the temporary delirium, she got through the aspiration pneumonia, she has gotten through the medical neglect that comes with daily life in a painfully understaffed nursing home, and she is currently doing her best to get through yet another bout with pneumonia.
She is quite a fighter. And thankfully, her short-term memory is so deficient that she does not remember how much she has suffered prior to the current moment. Two days ago, when feeling extremely ill and unable to breathe, she told my sister that she was not going to make it. The following day, she had no recollection of having spent 12 hours in the emergency room, and reported that she was “tired for some reason, but doing well”. Short-term memory loss clearly has its perks.
Memory is not my mother’s only area of cognitive confusion. Sometimes she is crystal clear and at other times not so much. Today when we spoke on the phone, she sounded weak and reported that she was “too winded” to talk. When I asked if her oxygen was on, she said she didn’t know. (She is supposed to be on oxygen at all times.) When I clarified, and asked her whether there was a tube on her face that was inserted into her nose, she said “No”. I told her to ring the call button and ask for staff’s help putting it back on. She said “That’s a very good idea” and ended the conversation, with no evidence of translating the very good idea into action.
Thankfully, my Dad was there with her. Although he – of course – hadn’t noticed the issue, when I gave him instructions he did ask a staff person to hook her up. This is noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that he not only heard what I said, with only 3 repetitions of screaming the words, but he actually listened and followed through. Had he not gotten on the phone with me, my Mom would have simply gone without oxygen for God knows how long, until eventually some aide or nurse would presumably have noticed. (During a return trip to Florida several months ago, I met with the nursing home administrative staff – on an almost daily basis – to report various grievances, such as the frequency with which the oxygen tank that sits by my mother’s side is not in any actual connection to my mother. They validated my concern and distress, and guaranteed me it would not happen again. That’s kind of like being told “I guarantee you’re gonna love this” when you’re served a garlic avocado peanut butter pineapple smoothie.)
My father is also a bit of a medical miracle. He has gotten through 88 years of life with minimal intervention from the medical world, and a general practice of ignoring any physical or mental signs of trouble. This has served him well. More or less.
Some months ago, he suddenly developed bowel incontinence and severe relentless diarrhea. There was no clear explanation for its cause, and once again the shit was hitting the floor – This time it was his own, with nobody to help him clean it up. In typical Arnold Freed fashion, holding onto the humor that has been his lifelong sustaining survival strategy, he told us: “I’m shitting my brains out. Maybe that’s why I’m not so smart lately”.
After some time had passed and things were not improving, he became dehydrated and weak. One night when things looked particularly concerning, my sister brought him to the Emergency Room. When they kept him overnight, we were relieved, thinking he would get an accurate diagnosis and treatment for whatever was causing the gastrointestinal symptoms.
As things turned out, we did not get that diagnosis. What we did get was the report that he had experienced a “cardiac event” during that first night in the hospital, and that they found severe blockages in both right and left coronary arteries. He had to be transferred to another hospital, where they would do a cardiac catheterization and either place a stent or do surgery to open the blockages.
Once again – seemingly guided by Divine intervention, a relatively routine ER trip led to the discovery of a hidden, potentially fatal condition – this time for my Dad. Severely shaken by the news, and grateful to have discovered the problem in time to intervene, I was greatly relieved to know that the necessary steps were being taken. My sister, who lives in Florida for the sole purpose of being close to my parents, was nothing less than an Angel. If not for her, I don’t know if my Dad would have survived.
Shari is her name. I would like to nominate her for sainthood, but Jews don’t have saints. (Also, she apparently would not qualify, given that saint status requires a person to have demonstrated two posthumous miracles. I wonder if she could get some kind of advanced standing credit for all the family miracles she performs daily, prehumous though they may be.) She is severely ill herself, with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (having already overcome colon cancer at age 31) and a variety of other disorders that greatly interfere with her ability to function. Most days she has great difficulty just getting through the basic activities of daily living. (These are known as ADL’s in the healthcare world, generally referring to things like showering, dressing, doing laundry, preparing and eating food, and cleaning. If it were up to me, the approved ADL list would include: engaging in conversation with someone other than yourself, reading and appropriately responding to your mail within one month of receiving it, and keeping the piles of paper in your apartment shuffled in such a way as to appear organized to the outside observer.)
Shari heroically rose above her own illness, and was there for my Dad every step of the way – when they told us they couldn’t place the stent because the blockages were too severe; when they told us they couldn’t do surgery because the risk was too great; when they told us they couldn’t address the cardiac issues until his GI issues had been resolved; when they told us they had no idea how to resolve the GI issues;when they finally got the GI issues stabilized (turned out to be colitis, which eventually responded to medication); and when they ultimately did successfully place a stent in one of the blocked arteries.
My father, like my Mom, is a lover of life. He refuses to be knocked down by circumstance. (His daily mantra is: “I’ve got no problems. Only solutions.”) As difficult as this whole thing was, with all the pain and suffering he experienced while it was happening, he fought his way through it. When he was discharged, we were delightedly able to have him temporarily transferred to my Mom’s facility for his own rehab. His room was down the hall from hers. He was able to sit with her once again for breakfast every morning. And I was able to arrange my Florida trip to be during this time, so we could all visit together in the same place. The trip also serendipitously coincided with Rosh Hashanah, and we celebrated the New Year with a day-long visit, all four of us together. As evening approached and we lit the candles and sang the blessing, my Dad said,with uncharacteristic tears filling his eyes, “This was one of the best days of my entire life”.
Sometimes, in a fleeting magical moment, the pieces land perfectly in place.
These are the moments that inspire my parents to keep holding on for another day.
These are the moments that inspire my sister and me to keep showing up in the midst of our own challenges and illnesses.
These are the moments that make the other moments bearable.
The Freed family has made it this far, beating the odds again and again.
This is, indeed, quite miraculous.