When the call came, I was at work at in midtown Manhattan. It was my sister on the line, and she was upset, her words coming out in gasps. "Mom's in the hospital."
And just like that, my sister, brother and I went from having an older parent who was entirely self-reliant to having one with a giant question mark in her future.
My mother, Jean, had fallen down. She'd been staying at her country place in upstate New York alone. The house is rustic, in a way that you want a country house to be, with hand-hewn, exposed beams. The staircase is made of rough steps carved from chestnut.
Those steps! My brother, sister and I had all taken our fair share of spills down them growing up. Somehow, after 40 years of negotiating the knots, chisel marks, and natural splits, Jean had missed her footing. She'd fallen, banged her head on the stone floor, then crawled back up the stairs and climbed into bed where she'd lain unconscious for 18 hours. A concerned neighbor had found her and called the ambulance.
We three children, then in our 40's, reached the hospital within a few hours where we soon found ourselves in an audience with a brain surgeon who was not optimistic about her prospects. He gave a cold, clinical description of her condition, as though he were talking about a lab experiment gone wrong rather than a living, breathing human.
Jean had a subdural hematoma — a swelling inside her brain. The surgeon bluntly explained that the swelling would rupture the barrier in the center of the brain within days or even hours. She was very near death. We had the choice to operate, he told us. But doing so was tricky, since he'd have to remove some of her brain to relieve the pressure. He said there was a good chance she wouldn't recover, and if she did, she might need round-the clock care for the rest of her life. She could very well be unable to feed herself, to speak, to remember.
He got to the point: We should consider "letting nature take its course."
I was sinking. It was as if the very ground below me was about to open up and swallow me whole. The sinking feeling turned to rage. I wanted to punch this guy but ultimately held my temper in check. The three of us left the surgeon's office and stood by Jean's side where she now lay mute, helpless, looking suddenly ancient. We spoke to her, to her unconscious body, telling her it was going to be all right. But in our hearts, we had very little hope.
What was impossible to bear was the suddenness of this event, the unfairness of it. Jean, then in her late 70's was fit, active, self-reliant.
She was a voracious reader and crossword puzzle-solver. Her days always started with the New York Times and were filled with visits to museums, and get-togethers with old friends. In good weather she'd drive herself up to her beloved country house where she'd "putter in the garden," take long walks, and, in the fall, busy herself making wild-grape jam, peach preserves, and apple sauce, much of it from the trees and vines around the house.
She was the one who had been the caregiver of everyone in the family, always, but particularly of our father. He'd died three years before, and Jean had spent the previous 10 years caring for him patiently and without complaint as he slowly was lost to the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease.
So how would we care for Jean now that she was the one who needed help? We had to make a decision, and it seemed we had no good options.
Fortunately we had an ally who knew just what to say and how to say it. It was Jean's doctor, Cathy Carron, who was also a family friend. I still remember her outraged voice on the speaker phone as she lambasted the surgeon: "Of course you're going to operate! This is a healthy, active woman with a lot to live for!"
I can't properly describe the effect of that phone call, partly because I can't repeat the colorful expletives she hurled at the surgeon. She gave us all a sense of hope.
The surgeon did what he was told. He operated. Jean recovered slowly. My brother and his wife nursed her back to health over a six-month period. Then, when she was feeling well enough, Jean moved back into her apartment, where she picked up her life exactly as it had been before. She lived on her own for another six years, then went to live with my brother and his wife and children. She died in 2008 after a brief illness.
Every family's experience with caregiving is unique, but, as I learned during my years as editor of AARP The Magazine, there are some common lessons and recurring themes. Aging, as they say, is not for sissies. Nor is caregiving.