I Don’t Know Why She Swallowed a Fly

It’s been a challenging week.

I took Saturday off from going to visit Mama, having worked all day for my sister, who was out of town for the weekend. I call to check on her in the evening as I was fixing my dinner. An aide answered the phone and said she wasn’t feeling well and knowing her history of bowel obstructions had called for a hospice nurse to come. (Apparently they were not planning to call me.) I’m so tired, but I asked if Mama wanted me to come. “If it’s not too inconvenient,” I heard her plaintively say. “I’ll be right there,” I sighed. Right after I eat my dinner.

“What’s going on?” I ask when I arrive, one of the med techs attentively hovering, defying Mama’s frequent complaint that they never have time to take care of her. She had a small bowel movement before I arrived, but isn’t about to concede that she feels better.

“I don’t know if it was the prune juice I drank, or maybe the apricots I ate, or maybe I drank too much water, or…”

“Don’t try to guess why,” I sigh, this old pattern long since worn tissue thin; “tell me what.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she says.

“Your stomach hurts?”

“Yes. Maybe the dinner was spoiled, it didn’t taste right.” Or maybe your digestive system is worn out, I think, but there is no use saying it.

The nurse arrives. “What’s going on?” she asks.

“I think I swallowed a fly,” Mama says.

Mama reports the med tech took her temperature and it was 99º. “That’s high for me!” another predictable line she pulls out anytime it’s over 96.7, which she claims is her normal. “And then someone else took it again and it was 100º.” The hospice nurse checks with the staff. They took her temperature only once and it was 96.7º.

Everything checks out. There doesn’t seem to be a blockage, at least not any more. The nurse stays 90 minutes, after which I go home and fall into bed, though I’m sure Mama wanted me to stay.

Sunday I arrive after breakfast. She feels better. But, “I asked for plain scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and they brought me eggs with cheese and a sticky cinnamon roll.” When I accompany her to the dining room for lunch, I ask the aide what she had for breakfast. Plain scrambled eggs and raisin toast.

Monday I escape to Mt. Rainier and have a beautiful renewing day at Paradise. I’m breathing again and looking forward to a productive Tuesday when our private aide calls to tell me Mama doesn’t feel well and won’t get out of bed. I mentally wad up my lengthy to-do list and throw it in the trash, then drive across town.

I leave a message for the regular hospice nurse to inquire if she can come today rather than Wednesday. She can. Thank God for hospice, and for the aide who helps her in the bathroom while I’m just there for support.

When Laurel arrives in the afternoon she asks Mama what’s going on.

“There have been several meals lately that have tasted spoiled,” Mama says.

“Does your belly hurt?” Laurel asks.

“I think I swallowed a gnat,” Mama says. “Or maybe one of those things that fly that come in the house.”

“A bat?” Laurel inquires. “An owl?”

“A horse?” I say.

“You know, Gretchen,” she says, ignoring Laurel’s teasing and not hearing mine, “those things in the window you catch in a jar.”

“Ladybugs,” I say.

“I haven’t seen any ladybugs around here,” Laurel says, getting out her stethoscope. “Let’s have a listen.”

Again, everything checks out and Mama says she feels better. I leave mid-afternoon and return at dinner time. I reheat the rest of the vegetable bouillon the aide made for her at lunch that “tasted so good” then.

Early Wednesday morning, Rebecca goes by and Mama says there were undissolved granules in the vegetable bouillon she ate the day before, and it gave her a stomach ache. Also one of the staff aides told her flu was going around. Mama told Rebecca the aide said she would make her some Malt-o-Meal for breakfast, so Rebecca left for her meeting.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to wash off fatigue in the shower—after a night of not sleeping because my demented cat meowed ALL NIGHT for me to turn on a drip in the bathtub because that is the only way she will drink water all of a sudden, and I stubbornly refuse. Smudge is alternately sitting on the bathmat and the edge of the tub meowing. I can’t take it. I bang my hands on the tile wall over and over crying and screaming at her to go away and stop (whap). fucking (whap). whining! (whap, whap, whap). “Meroow, meroow, meroow,” she says from the mat. Pretty much the same result I get with Mama

When I arrive in Mama’s room late morning she’s in bed in deep sleep. When she wakes up, she tells me she had been waiting for the aide who said she was going to make her some cereal. I ask the aide later, who says they had not had that conversation, and that she didn’t tell her there’s a bug going around.

Mama has become a master of fake facts.

I make her Malt-o-Meal after she tells me she’s never made it in the microwave and then proceeds to tell me how to make it in the microwave. Classic. I tell her I will just follow the instructions, but for a little extra water, as I have done before.

She wants to sit on the edge of her bed to eat it. “You’re going to hold the bowl with one hand and eat with the other?” I ask, knowing she means for me to spoon feed her, as I had the Jell-o the night before, and that is not going to happen.

“I need something over my legs,” she says, ignoring my comment.

“I’m not going to feed you,” I say; “you can sit at the table.”

“Okaaaaay,” she snarls. What a player.

The cereal is “perfect,” she eats a little toast, we walk three rounds of the hall. Nearly a dozen residents and staff stop us to ask Mama how she is feeling and tell her they miss her in the dining room. These people bond around their complaints about the food, justifiable or not; but they are a family looking out for their own. “I’m much better,” she tells them all.

She rejects my suggestion that she sit in her recliner for a while. Once in bed, with the bedding finally close to right and her rice bags heated, she asks if I have any AirBnB guests (no, it’s dried up), and thanks me for reading her my post about my hike at Mt. Rainier, reminding me she wants to hear the rest of the chapters about my camping trip to Mt. Hood. She asks if the writing group I’m going to facilitate has begun yet (no), and if I made scones or muffins that morning at my newest little job at the local deli (no, I’m here with her), and what I’m going to do when I get home (probably sleep).

Maybe she had a partial blockage—or not—but it cleared itself. These things are going to keep happening. They are going to happen more often. We need to make sure she’s on waiting lists for nursing care facilities, and probably take an opening when the rare one comes up, because I am not going to live in her room with her.

“Thank you, dear Gretchen,” she says as I say goodbye. “I’m proud of you. You are so…interesting.” That is possibly the best compliment she could have paid me. And the most stunning; it’s not a word I ever thought of to describe myself. My heart feels like I swallowed whale.

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