By Louise Ure
I woke this morning with cramps up the length of my left leg, culminating in a white hot vortex of pain at the hip, just where my mother broke her leg a couple of weeks ago. And there was a scaly patch of skin about the size of a cigarette pack on my spine, just above where the bra line would have been if a 93-year old woman wore a bra in a hospital bed and asked to have her back scratched.
"Sympathy pains," I said to Deeply Supportive Spouse.
I've just returned from two and a half weeks at my mother's bedside, trying to remind a woman with dementia about why her hip hurt and calm her when she woke confused and frightened in a strange room.
"Tribute pains," Strong Silent Spouse replied.
I like that better. Tribute Pains, like Tribute Bands playing covers of their idols' hit singles.
So here are some of the hit singles from my Tucson sojourn. Not all are songs that you can sing without crying.
* A sure sign of changing times, it snowed in Tucson. White stuff covered the Catalina Mountains and the saguaros were frost-rimed in the morning air.
* The woman in the next bed had a more aggressive Tourette's-like version of dementia than my mother's. She started with a single sound … sh … sh … then worked it into shirt … skirt … short … shit … ending with the shouted refrain of "My shit. Eat Shit. Shit me!" I learned to duck when the repetition of "eff" worked its way into "fish." "Here's one fish," she'd call as she threw her top denture at me. "Here's a second fish!" was the lower denture. She had a good arm.
* William in Physical Therapy had been an army sergeant in Desert Storm. When asked to re-up, he declined. "They wanted me to treat my troops as numbers – as tasks – not as men. I couldn't do it. I'm doing what I want now." He promised to wear his Stetson, tight jeans and cowboy boots the next day if my mother would try to stand. I'd seen him in those jeans. I encouraged her to make the effort.
* Dementia is a selective thing. Why does her mind refuse to recognize her daughter-in-law but also carve a deeply etched memory of the pain of breaking her leg? She wakes from restive sleep crying, "Don't hurt me!"
* Having a Strong Silent Deeply Supportive Spouse who takes his mother-in-law's soiled bedclothes back to the hotel each night and washes them is a pearl beyond price.
* She clings to her faith in her pain, but at the end, she's a realist. The muttered prayer I overheard as she drifted off to sleep was, "Dear Heavenly Father, if this is my time, take me now." A pause. "But if it's not, then cut this shit out."
* They've rigged up a hookah-like pipe for Rose, a young Asian woman with cerebral palsy, so she can have a puff of cigarette out on the patio without flinging embers all over herself. We high five when we see each other in the hall, but that may be just her regular flailing. I'm not sure that she means to connect with my flat palm at all.
* CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) should be paid more. They changed diapers, spoon-fed and put lotion on my mother, all the time crooning "mamacita" or "mi hijita" to calm a frazzled mind. Steff, a raging gay Mexican man in hot pink scrubs, strewed rose petals over a patient's bed when he heard that she was returning from a doctor's visit with bad news.
* A moment in the winter sun on the patio can make it seem as if the world hasn't shifted on its axis and everything might be right once again.
* My brothers deal with the crisis of her injury the same way they face every other obstacle in their lives. Jim adds it to the already formidable list of things to be done. Robert, unable to watch the pain, runs from it, sure that somehow it is a failing on his part not to have made things right.
* My mother will return home today. Not because she's improved to that point, but because the insurance money will run out. A sweet Mexican woman named Socorro will be there to help clean her and feed her and my sister is flying in. We found thirteen gold coins in mom's safety deposit box to pay for the help for a few months.
* There were moments of semi-lucidity that I will treasure forever. As I left her that final night I leaned down to kiss my mother and tell her I loved her.
"I know it's been a tough few weeks for you but I loved our time together."
"Take it with you," she replied. "You can keep it."
I take it with me. It is my Tribute Pain.