Taking Care II
Regarding Flatulence in Gnats
When I arrived from my cross-country drive, my mother — always proud of her hearing — was nearly deaf. But I read the symptoms not as progressive deafness but as wax buildup in the ears. Her hearing had been fine until a month or so before. If she slept on an ear she couldn’t hear in it for the first few hours of the morning. The hearing had a tendency to come and go — all signs pointing to wax buildup.
“You’re not going deaf!” I shouted to her. “You just need your ears cleaned!” She sniffed. “An old lady sometimes doesn’t want to hear things,” she muttered. After a week or two I was almost buffaloed by this resistance — why not leave an old lady alone to die in peace? But in the end I forced myself to a difficult conversation — difficult, because true. “If you lose your hearing,” I said, calmly and looking her in the eye, “you’ll be a lot harder for us to care for.” To this she had no response, so I located an otolaryngologist who visits the county seat once weekly and made an appointment.
The day arrived and I announced that we were leaving for the doctor’s office. Mother elevated the footrest on her mechanical chair and declared, “I am NOT going to any ear doctor. I can hear just fine.” “No, you can’t!” I shouted. She tilted her head. “What?” So I pulled out the big gun. “Your oldest daughter is already waiting at the doctor’s office,” I shouted, and she sighed and said, “Well, I guess I can’t fight the management.”
We waited a half-hour and more – very tension inducing, as Mother started complaining, even though some part of that time was consumed while my sister spoke privately to the doctor to prepare him for the encounter. Finally we got Mother into his office, protesting all the way, but once seated she respected his thirty-something doctor’s authority, and though the atmosphere in the room was tense she let him pluck two wads of wax from each ear, each big enough, as my sister later said, to have for dinner. He was about to toss them in the garbage when my sister wisely made him show them to her.
A few more minutes and we were out of the office and in the waiting room, where we sat while my sister finished the paperwork. I made some idle comment. My mother’s face lit up with pleasure. “I can hear!” she cried. That made this particular agony worth the price of the ticket. Who knows how long the change will last, but she’s brighter and more engaged than any time since my arrival and — a warning to myself and all within hearing range — she can once again hear a gnat fart, a line she delivered to the nice, young doctor and that I heard him repeat to his assistant as she left the room. (“Did you hear what she said? She can hear a gnat fart!”) She gave him his money’s worth.
The most practical lesson to be gained may be that some of the difficulties of old age may arise from caregivers overlooking or misreading symptoms because we aren’t seeing the world through their eyes, or trying to navigate it with their knees, or hearing it through their ears. A limp, for example, may be the result of toenails that haven’t been cut in months, because the elderly cannot reach their feet or manipulate a clipper. Fogged thinking, as we discovered, could be a sign not of Alzheimer’s but of congestive heart failure, since the weakened heart can’t move the blood fast enough to keep it oxygenated.
Which in turn points to a much larger lesson indeed. Why not, as the new atheists advocate, run our society on purely rational terms? Let us allow or even encourage early deaths among the congenitally malformed. As for the elderly, those who can afford to pay for their own care are welcome on board; let the rest fend for themselves. There is no reason, after all, to support any body who’s not contributing to the consumer economy.
That argument has many responses but I grudgingly acknowledge the hardest, which is the argument of pure selfishness: In caring for them the caregiver may become a bigger person. May, I write, because caregiving for two months is one thing while caregiving for two or ten years is another matter entirely. No one need explain for me why the Southern writer Eudora Welty more or less stopped writing during her 40s, when she was caregiving for both an elderly mother and her chronically ill brother. Caregiving, even when undertaken for a few hours each day, saps the artist or the writer of the same energy required to do the work. As Blanche points out to Stella in Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, “Funerals are pretty compared to dying.”
And yet, and yet. No greater lesson prevails — the future of our species, maybe the future of the planet depends on it: Being brought to see the world through the eyes of others and taking on their burdens as ours; because they are ours, or will be soon enough.
Last night we watched a video of a family reunion, held ten years ago, in which a distant cousin told how, after many centuries, with each of us having several children, we would each have a million relatives, a figure he reported as if it were incredible. I thought: No. We each have, here and now, six point five billion relatives, with the number growing every day. This is what Jesus means, in his much-misunderstood command to abandon our families: We are to abandon the old concepts of blood family, us against them, with “them” defined as all outside a certain degree of genetic connection (third cousin? fourth cousin?). Instead we are to see ourselves as members of the family of humankind. All men and women are my brothers and sisters.
My mother has stopped going to church and doesn’t seem to be interested in having communion delivered. But she still sleeps every night with her rosary and, so far as I can tell, prays it – probably in the middle of the night, when sleeplessness prevails and the prospect of death must seem very near indeed.
That rosary represents something outside words, outside reason, something to do with God. That’s about all I can say about it — that, and this fact, almost certainly measurable if one insists on the primacy of what can be measured, through electrodes and blood pressure cuffs: Each morning I enter her bedroom to make up the bed and find her rosary lying on her pillow, and each time I feel the stab to the heart, the chill at the bone, which is less about her mortality than mine.