So it might surprise you that every year about 13% of people in hospice recover enough to go off of it. Recently, my 92-year-old mother joined the ranks of that resilient group.
This past summer me and my family were about as certain as one can be that our mother’s death was imminent. Shortly before her birthday in mid-June, she fell into a near comatose state of listlessness and confusion that convinced us and her doctor that the end was near.
I call it her “ragdoll” phase, when she was barely responsive, had no energy and no strength. She was dead weight to her caregivers who had a hard time getting her in and out of bed on their own. She could barely stand with the aid of her walker let alone take any steps. She slept about 20 hours a day.
We didn’t know what was wrong. The only way to find out would’ve meant putting her in the hospital for testing and her doctor didn’t want to do that. We agreed.
Instead the doctor suggested home hospice care, and we agreed again. Soon the hospice nurse visited and removed some of Mom’s medications except those that kept her comfortable; Mom was put on oxygen to help her with breathing.
Me and my siblings started preparing for her demise and gave ourselves various assignments. One sister focused on our mom’s medical needs, another sister on managing the team of caregivers who were stressed like we were.
My oldest brother would handle the will and estate preparation, another brother called the funeral home to make arrangements.
My job was to draft my mom’s obituary and circulate it to my seven siblings, which I did. She doesn’t know it – she doesn’t know any of this! – but our mother’s obit is ready for publication save for a few details like dates and times.
It was sad. We mourned and we wept. I remember kissing my mother goodbye at the end of a weekend visit with her in which she had hardly spoken. She was tilted back in her chair in the family room, looking shrunken and swallowed by the floral upholstery as she regarded me vaguely. I made it out of the room before tears sprang from my eyes.
But a month later, something mysterious happened. Mom started to rebound. She slept less and was more alert. She could put weight on her legs again and better help the caregivers get her in and out of bed. She started dressing nicely again as she always had, and sat upright in her chair for longer periods. Her spunk came back.
When I’d visited before it was so boring and quiet that I invited my local friends over to hang with me on the patio while my mom slept inside. First I would ask Mom if I could have friends over. “Sure,” she would mumble as she lay in a fog.
Then one weekend, when Mom was better, I asked her if friends could come over again. “Of course your friends can visit,” she said. But this time she wanted them to come in and say hello. Then she fired questions at me: What’s in the kitchen? What are you serving? How about cheese and crackers? Don’t you think you should pick up some things at the grocery store?
She’s baaack! I said to myself.
In subsequent visits, she got better, more talkative, more animated. She started enjoying TV again and calling out Jeopardy! questions, often correctly (history is her strength).
Her wise-cracking returned. In the Fall we added long-overdue baseboard heating to her downstairs bedroom. Several rooms of her house have always been drafty.
“Sell this house in summer,” she dead-panned one day.
Last month marked six months of hospice for my mother, which was also when her doctor had to either re-certify her for six more months of hospice care or take her off. He decided that she no longer needed it and we agreed. Again.
Not that my mom is in great shape. In fact, she’s on an unmistakable path of decline. Her world is shrinking rapidly. She can’t walk at all anymore, although me and the caregiver managed to take her to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, portable oxygen in tow.
But Mom struggled to keep up with the crowd and all the conversation. Hearing and eating are harder now, so is talking because when she’s talking she isn’t breathing enough.
We took her home early. When she settled into bed, she declared that she can’t go out anymore.
“That’s fine, Mom,” I said to her. “You never have to leave the house again.”
I’m pretty certain she won’t. So our family will gather at her house on Christmas Day like we always have, and she can retreat to her bedroom whenever she wants.
The fact that she’s still with us is all that matters now.