mom-112-small.jpgI’m enjoying having Nephew Hugh with me in this fifth or sixth vigil. Who can keep count. I don’t know when it started. I don’t know when it will end but it won’t be long.

His employer said he could take time off if he needed to but he has a work ethic most employers dream of finding in their staff. He says he will work during the day and do night shift when the time gets close. I said to him today that this is the day, if ever, if he wants. I’m doing all the night shifts. I like being up in the quiet of the night. He likes night quiet, too.

All through his University years he studied late into the night – no interruptions. Sometimes he would come home at six in the afternoon and sleep like a log then get up at eleven and do his research and writing. He is quite competitive in his field and he was seeking to get the best marks. Poor fellow (and I didn’t realize how crazy it was for him at home until he cracked under the strain), he agreed to study at home as much as possible to stay with his Gran so that we didn’t have to get in someone she didn’t know and would feel awkward about.
Hugh, I’ve said before, is six foot something – one or two inches above. Ron, his brother is the tall one at six foot four. So Hugh is tall and sturdy. If something happened to his Gran, he could pick her up from the floor, if she fell for example. He could help her in and out of her walker or wheelchair; he could transfer her from her bed or from a stationary chair – routine maintenance stuff.

One day, over a year ago, after a grueling day at home with his Gran freaking out at him because he was using a kitchen knife to prepare lunch and then didn’t hide it afterwards, he cracked. When I came home, he was in a state of high anxiety and aggressive need for me to understand what it was like for him, studying at home.

“She gets mad at me, glares, doesn’t say anything. apparently because I walk back and forth in the house. Pacing, she calls it. She can’t expect me to stay cooped up in my room all day. I have to move around.”

“She doesn’t understand that I have to lay my papers out on the dining room table to be able to see the whole of what I’ve written. I’m writing on my laptop there. Then I have to go back into my bedroom to research things on the other computer. I lose my place if I’m flipping back and forth on just one computer.”

“And she doesn’t understand that I’m not going to knife her with my kitchen knife.”

“Where does she get these ideas? I’ve done every kind of kitchen preparation in my job at the restaurant. I need proper tools to cut things in preparation for dinner. All the other knives in this house are no good. They’re not sharp enough. I keep a knife guard on it, for Pete’s sake. I can’t stand being under suspicion with her all the time. ”

“And she calls me to make lunch, and to make tea, and to take her to the toilet, and to her bed. Every time, she says she doesn’t want to disturb me, but she does. And she gets mad if I fix her tea and then don’t stay to talk to her. Says I’m treating her badly after all she’s done for me. What has she done for me!? I know she’s allowing me to live here. Well, she can take it and shove it. I can’t stand it any more. I’ve had it! I can’t live with it! I won’t do it! You can just get someone else! I can’t study! I can’t breathe. Everything is going wrong! I’m going to fail my exams! I have to see Doctor Wong! My anxiety pills aren’t working any more! I can’t sleep! I have a paper to hand in tomorrow and it’s not ready and my brain won’t work. It just stops and goes blank. ”
Hugh was red in the face, looking apoplectic. His complaint had turned into a diatribe. His agitation was distressing. He wouldn’t listen. I said that I knew, and he yelled at me that I couldn’t know. But I’d been through it and knew exactly. I’d failed my Ethics Counselor competition exam because my brain had done the same shut down with the simplest of questions. I had cared for her for years and I had known she was becoming paranoid and unreasonable, curmudgeonly. It came in fits and starts. It was crazy making.

Now, things were out of hand. Really out of hand. If Hugh left all of a sudden, I was really up the creek. Between a rock and a hard place. What would I do about looking after Mother if Hugh was not home the greater part of a day. I’d have to get help in. I’d been avoiding that because she didn’t want a stranger in the house. She’d even accused the housekeeper we’d had for four years of stealing her keys, wanting to break in at night, steal all her valuables. To bring a care aide into the home would be impossible. Like Cousin Mary and my Aunt, Mother would fire every helper that came because they weren’t this or they weren’t that. What was I going to do?

I can’t remember how the spat with Hugh ended. I think I said.

“Fine!” My teeth bit into my lower lip and I hissed it out, daring him to continue on with the fierceness of my expression.

“Fine!” He spat back, face getting level with mine (I’m only five foot six), hissing it with just as much fervour. “Don’t count on me tomorrow. I’m outta here.”

There was no purpose in continuing the conversation, if you could call it that. I turned my back and went back to the kitchen where my innocent but worried mother was sitting, anxiously looking at me, questions in her eyes but no words.

“It’s all right,” I said to her calmly, evenly, rationally. It wasn’t all right, but I couldn’t tell her that. I finished making the dinner that Hugh had started and we sat and ate it, although it tasted like wood and chewed up just as easily. I got her to bed in the usual two hour session of helping her undress and getting her pyjamas on, fix her hearing aids, comb her hair, set curlers, cut her finger nails, examine her imagined sores, tend to the real ones, feel the bone spurs on her shoulder and on her ankle and remind her that we could do nothing about them, crush and feed her her pills with apple sauce, tuck her in and close the door.

Hugh had lain down on his mattress. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did – he wasn’t asleep. I knew he had a paper to hand in. I knew he should be studying, had school work to do.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I opened up the subject. He glared at me and turned his head back into his pillow. I wandered back to the kitchen, my head working overtime. What was I going to do? He was truly distressed. He was under doctor’s care for anxiety. He’d just generated a whole ton of anxiety and he had no out. I had to keep Hugh on my side. I had a duty to ensure his health as well as my mother’s . And what about mine. Where was I, trapped in all this?
Fifteen minutes later, I heard him playing a computer game, shooting every ‘what’s-it’ figure. Rat-ta-tat. Rat-ta-tat! Pow! Pow! Pow! He was getting his aggression out on computer enemies, reducing his adrenaline to a tolerable level. After an hour or so, he came to me, said, “Sorry Auntie. I didn’t mean to yell at you. You know that. But I mean it. I can’t do it anymore.”
There’s one marvelous thing about Hugh. He’s even tempered and logical. He seldom goes off the handle except when he has forgotten his medicine. When he does, he’s so damned smart, you can’t argue with him. He competitively has to win the argument. Even if you counter his arguments with what you believe is right and bring tempering conditions or circumstances to the situation, he can refute it with the best logic of a courtroom lawyer. He should be one!

But when he has had time to think about what you have said and lets it sink in a little, sometimes he comes around. Then he is more than willing to admit his changing opinion and come half way – or all the way- to your point of view if you were, by some chance, a little bit right after all.

When Otto came home, I told him to arrange something to cover looking after Mother for the next day. I told him how Hugh had lost it. I wasn’t blaming Hugh. I just hadn’t realized that the situation had become untenable for him. For everyone. Hugh needed to be let off duty. We needed a back up and I couldn’t be it. No, not a back up. We needed a whole new scenario and I didn’t know what it looked like.

To Otto’s credit, he picked up the ball and ran with it. I can’t remember now whether it was him or his girlfriend Caroline who stayed with mom the next day.. I asked Hugh to meet me downtown for lunch.
“What are we meeting for?” he said defiantly, aggressively. “I’m not going to keep on doing this. That’s final. Don’t even think it!”

“I know. I know, ” I said. ” We just have to talk some more. I need you Hugh. I need to have you well and functioning. We can’t talk about anything here. We need to get out of context.” He was my sounding board. He kept me even.

I had to straighten things out with Hugh. I had to keep him happy, healthy and on my side. He had to complete his University.It was unthinkable that he lose a year of University at this stage because of what was going on at home. I had to get him back and operating, fully functional.
“Please“, I pleaded, “Please meet me for lunch. We can meet at Earl’s at the Paramount. It’s really close to my work.” He liked Earl’s. Wasn’t my favourite, but it was him I was trying to get back to even. My needs could wait.

In the morning, I met with the Employee Assistance Counselor. She’s a treat. She let me tell the whole, rambling story and then advised me. My mind has blanked out a lot of what came next, only, when I talked to Hugh at lunch time, he reluctantly agreed to give me three more days to find someone or something. I agreed to go with him to Doctor Wong to see about his medication and his anxiety. We ended up getting the housekeeper to come in daily for a while, over Mother’s protestations that it cost too much. And why did we need it if Hugh was at home?

I think that was when Doctor Wong looked at me in the eye and said that I needed a referral to the Coastal Health Unit. The Public Health Nurse came to the house and assessed Mother’s condition and mine. We talked about other possibilities of care. Mother had to go into a home.

I took a week off of work, exhausted, and cared for Mother while Hugh went his way – to the University, just to get away; to Victoria for a few days, to see his girlfriend; to a friend’s house. Thank the Lord that I had a decent employer who was coddling me to keep me at work, so short handed they were, and yet help me cope with my family situation.

In the weeks that followed, I got Mom into the Victoria Order of Nurses respite centre, but it was only temporary. She could only stay thirty days in a year. The days were ticking off one by one, getting gobbled up quickly. Then her cancer that we were just finding out about, that we weren’t telling her about, manifested and she went into the hospital. That was about the time I went on a three week holiday that I had planned six months in advance, so hard it was to get a seat at Christmas time to New Zealand. I couldn’t cancel it. Besides, I needed to get away.

From the hospital, she came home for Christmas for a few days – a year ago, mind you, not this very last Christmas visit. After Christmas, my siblings managed to get her back into the Victoria Order of Nursing respite centre. It being the New Year, the clock started ticking on her thirty days for 2007. She never came back to live in the house. We arranged to get her into a private residential care home and she went straight from the VON to the new place without even driving past her own dear home.

Once she was in residential care, Hugh did not visit. Maybe once or twice in the year, but he didn’t want to go. His anger at his Gran for what had happened sat deeply within him, stewing, ready to ignite with a chance comment, anytime.

One night in November when there was a storm and the electricity failed in our sector of town, I suggested to Hugh that we have dinner in a sector that did have electricity. We drove across town and found a restaurant filled to the gills with other power-outage refugees with the same idea. When we finished dinner about nine, I persuaded him to come with me to see his Gran. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her before she dies,” I cautioned.

“We just came to make sure you had electricity, Mom,” I said. It was windy out but she hadn’t heard a thing, being deaf. Everything in the residence was business as usual and she was surprised to see us so late in the evening.

“I wouldn’t want you to feel alone and worried about a storm. We would stay with you so you wouldn’t be frightened.”

“Oh, Hugh! ” she cried. “I’ve missed you. It’s so nice to see you. I love you.” She wreathed in a warm and happy smile.

“I love you too, Gran, ” he responded in kind, and came down close to her as she lay in her hospital bed, hugged her then stroked her face so gently. They looked so tender together and happy.

Now his Gran was really dying. There were few chances left to see his Gran. When he agreed to do a night shift with me, he envisaged that she would be asleep most of the night and she would be too frail to be the person he had mentally “walked out on” a year or so previous.

Hugh stayed with me for three nights running and on the fourth, I was exhausted and had to sleep. He stayed the fourth night with his cousin who, like him, had a passionate interest in politics and international affairs.

Our three nights of vigil, he brought his pillow covered with a tartan flannel pillow slip, and tucked it beside his head in the wing back chair parked right beside Gran’s head. Our shifts were irregular, given that we were trying to stay slightly awake, sitting up, and trying to snooze at the same time. When we were both awake, we talked, did a crossword puzzle, read news items to each other. I crocheted away at blanket I was making. All the while, he had his hand in hers, gently.

I can see him in my mind’s eye now, his black fleece hoodie flowing behind him, the hood pulled down over his eyes to keep the light out so that he could snooze, holding his Gran’s hand. Later, he knelt on the wingback chair, leaning over one arm of the chair, his tartan covered pillow somehow compensating for the difference in level, putting his head almost touching his Gran’s head, whispering comforting things to her. He loved his Gran with a deep and full love, the kind of love every Grandmother would love to receive from their grandsons.

This is what I wrote, one of those nights:
The night was almost uneventful. Mother had tremors for about ten minutes before her morphine was renewed. Some tremors were strong, some weak. Hugh and I talked her out of her agitation with gently crooned words of “sleep in peace” “go to sleep’ “rest quietly”. It was like a mantra.

Hugh had recently shaved his head because he’s going bald anyway. He came up to her and hugged her, leaning over the bed, whispering, “Shh, Shh, Shh” in her better ear of the two. Then I would spoon the Gatorade into her, mouthful by mouthful and she would calm somewhat. When she had successfully swallowed enough to keep her mouth moist, she would snore ever so sweetly and we knew she had found a moment of peace.

The fountain outside at the front circular drive of the residence rushes like the first spring run off, a trickle building into a young rivulet racing towards the sea. Sometimes it sounds like a heavy rainfall. It doesn’t so much soothe as flattens the edges on thinking, dulls the brain. Acts like white noise.

“Where are they” she mumbles indistinctly.
The water is incessant. I wish they would turn it off so we could be in peace.

Hugh, full of his youthful, resilient and intelligent love, had made peace with his Grandmother.


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