I didn’t meet my mother until I was 45 years old. She gave me up for adoption the day I was born. She and I have been in reunion for more than 15 years. We’ve become the best of friends. Now she is dying. And I can’t visit her – not until the quarantine is lifted. Part of me feels like she abandoned me at birth and now I am abandoning her in death. There’s a certain symmetry to these core feelings. I know this abandonment feeling does not make it a fact. I’m just telling you how it feels.
Abandonment runs in the family. My father abandoned my mother the moment she told him she was pregnant. The brave Marine wounded in action in WWII ran away from a pregnant woman. The problem wasn’t so much that he ran away. The bigger problem was that he kept coming back. And she kept taking him back. They got back together. They got married. They had two more kids together. These they kept. Then he ran off again. She divorced him. He came back. She RE-married him. Then he drank himself to death alone in a Holiday Inn.
My mother was always the family caregiver. She took care of five kid brothers and sisters. She took care of a drunk husband. She was widowed young and raised two kids all by herself. Then she moved home and took care of her father until he died. She took care of generations worth of patients as a registered nurse at the Emanuel County Hospital in Swainsboro, Georgia, half way between Macon and Savannah. Then she took care of her mother until she died. Then she began asking herself, “Who will take care of me?”
My sister moved home and took up the job. She was also a registered nurse, even though our mother strongly suggested she find another line of work. Then a couple of years ago, my sister suddenly died. It was a shock to everyone. It left our mother adrift. Months later she went to the same hospital where she spent much of her nursing career and then to the nursing home to be cared for by some of the very health care workers she once worked alongside.
She got COVID. She was isolated and all alone. She went to the hospital. Just as she was getting better, her blood oxygen levels increasing, she got out of the hospital bed, fell, and broke her hip. She was rushed to Savannah for emergency surgery. She was admitted to the same hospital where her brother had died of COVID just months earlier. She survived.
She was sent back to the nursing home without her eyeglasses, flip phone or her teeth. Rounds of phone calls produced nothing but frustration. My mother could not see, hear (she kept pulling out her hearing aids), chew, or speak with anyone she loved.
Alone in isolation in the nursing home, hopelessly confused, she screamed at my aunt through the window: “CALL THE POLICE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!” It broke our hearts. There was nothing we could do. She didn’t understand. I can’t explain it. She said simply, “You have left me here alone to die.” It’s hard to argue with that.
We would go to the window. We would call on the phone. We would have the staff carry a tablet to talk to her on the webcam. Now we can’t even do that. She won’t speak a syllable. Some days she doesn’t seem to know her own name. She sleeps round the clock. She has little interest in food. Her days are numbered.
Hospice may be the best thing to happen to her in a long time. Her nurse – who checks on her once a week – is a former colleague. She reports dutifully to my aunt and me. My mother is eating about half of her meals. She is difficult to wake up. Some days she seems more alert and manages a smile.
My head knows this is not my doing. I can’t change the protocols. I’m not complaining. My head knows this is just the way it is. My head knows that we have done all we can. My head knows I am powerless over the situation. Just tell it to my heart.
STUART’S BIRTH MOTHER, HELEN BRETT SCHMID, COULD USE YOUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS. HIS SISTER ESTHER SCHMID BRISTOW TELLS HER STORY ON AN EARLIER EPISODE OF THE @MANLISTENING PODCAST.