Sunday, October 24, 2010

Because I Can

I've gotten used to seeing my mom not be able to do things.

I don't mean things like mountain climbing or marathon running; I'm talking about the kind of tasks that most of us don't even think about - putting your shoes on, getting dishes out of the cabinet, brushing the back of your hair, opening jars, getting up from a chair.

The list goes on and on.

Despite her obvious physical challenges forced upon her by a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, my mom fights fiercely to remain as independent as possible.

She drives, she works, she folds laundry. She's come up with her way of completing simple tasks, like the way she precariously balances her coffee mug at counter-level while she ever-so-carefully tips the coffee pot to slowly pour her morning cup.

Believe it or not, she's become almost an expert on carrying and opening things with her mouth. We joke about how her jaws are definitely healthy and strong.

As a family, we've been accustomed to helping her. With the kids grown, most of care-taking has naturally fallen to my dad. He cooks dinners, does the grocery shopping, cleans the house. He's taken on more than most dads I know.

I think that's why I think it was particularly startling when my dad fell into a different role this week.

My dad had a hip replacement on Thursday. Even saying those words seems strange. My dad is the strong one, the healthy one. He's the one that's belonged to a gym - and gone religiously - since I can remember. He's the one who woke up in the early morning hours to fit a workout in or took the family dog on four-mile walks.

He's certainly not the one who needs surgery and doctor visits and medication.

Apparently, the doctors didn't agree. What started as a mention of a bit of hip pain a few months ago and the slightest of limps quickly progressed to a scheduled surgery date.

On Thursday, we added another artificial joint to our family. It makes five - my mom's two knees and two hips and, now, my dad's left hip. We're on our way to becoming a bionic family or breaking some sort of record, I'm sure.

I waited for my mom and brother in the lobby of the hospital, knowing they were only a few minutes away. We loaded my mom into a wheelchair borrowed from the hospital, met up with my sister and made our way to my dad's room on the fourth floor.

It was a scene that's become pretty familiar to us. My family members - all of us - huddled at the foot of a hospital bed, usually needing to pull in some extra chairs into the tiny visiting space. We crack jokes and laugh. We don't talk much about the surgery, pain or anything like might set off the easy fainting triggers of both my sister and brother.

But this time it was notably different.

It wasn't my mom in the bed. It was my dad.

We're not used to helping my dad. And he's not used to getting help.

When he ordered soup for dinner after surgery, there was some hesitation when it came time to actually get the soup into his mouth. With tubes coming out of his hands and his movement impeded by the post-surgery pain, he couldn't easily lift the spoon from the bowl to his mouth.

I held up the spoon and asked him if he wanted me to feed him. Actually, I purposefully didn't use those words. I asked him he wanted help. Asking to feed him made him seem too helpless.

I think we did three awkward spoonfuls before he asked me - perhaps told me? - to hand him the bowl. With a few laughable comments, he grabbed on with both hands and drank from it.

Although he was in relatively good spirits, seeing my dad in a somewhat pained and helpless state was just plain weird. He was pale, he was overwhelmingly tired. It wasn't him. I left the hospital that night with a strangely heavy heart.

It wasn't the kind of feeling that meant impending doom or something particularly sad. It was more like the feeling that I'd just realized something life-changing: My parents weren't young anymore.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, given the aforementioned five artificial joints and routine hospital family gatherings. But before now, those had always been attributable to arthritis - and the fact that, only 30 years old when she had her first attack, my mom had been stricken much, much too young.

I was completely relieved when, bright and early the next day, my text message alert rang out with a message from my dad from his hospital bed. I'm feeling much better today. Love Oxycontin!

He was cracking jokes and obviously feeling much better than that weak man I'd seen the day before. That stranger I'd seen the day before.

My dad's recovery, only 24 hours in by the next time I saw him, was amazing. He showed off his walking skills with a loop around the nurses' station. Together we walked - my dad with his walker, me pushing my mom in her wheelchair.

I joked that I hoped that this scenario - with wheelchairs and walkers - was not a glimpse into the future for me. I was only half joking.

The next day, with my dad's continued improvement, the docs gave him the okay to go home. So without even a minute in a rehab facility, he happily packed up.

We'd discussed logistics for getting him home the night before. Mindful that my mom wanted to help, I gingerly suggested that she stay at home and get things ready there while I picked him up. After all, it wasn't really practical for someone who needed help to pick up someone who needed help. Simple things - like carrying his bag - would be impossible. Luckily, she agreed.

The nurse wheeled my dad down to my car and stood by (so she could "see if he remembered what I taught him") while he slowly eased himself into my passenger seat. I've watched my mom struggle into a car countless times and, again, it was odd to see my dad suddenly having the same difficulties.

Once in, we headed home - with a brief stop to drop off some prescriptions at the pharmacy. He was obviously not feeling well. He often closed his eyes, conversed with one-word answers and, generally, was not himself.

Eventually, we pulled up to their building. We unloaded the walker and reversed the process he used to get into the car. He walked - impressively for someone less than 48 hours out of hip replacement surgery, I might add - to their new apartment. And went directly to bed.

He asked for extra blankets and something to drink. He napped on and off, occasionally joining the conversation with me and my mom from the other room.

I spent the next 24 hours in a new role - my parents' caretaker. I made dinner. I picked up prescriptions. I did laundry and dishes. I served them drinks and snacks. I helped them out in and out of chairs. I washed their hair. I fetched countless items for them.

I placed my mom's wheelchair next to her electric lift chair - which my dad is using temporarily - so they could share the sliding tray table for their dinner.

It may not sound like an ideal weekend - and I wouldn't exactly say that it was - but it gave me a real sense of appreciation.

I appreciate the closeness of our family and our willingness to come together and help out when needed. I appreciate what caregivers go through every day - my dad, in his care for my mom, included. I have a greater appreciation how difficult things can be for my mom.

And somewhat selfishly, I appreciate all of those little things I can do.

I don't take for granted that I can hop out of bed without pain, that I have the ability to decide between the elevator and the stairs, that I can quickly run into the grocery store for a few items or that I don't have to worry about whether a place is fully handicapped-accessible.

If I'm thirsty, I simply go to the fridge and get a drink. It doesn't matter if my shoes don't have velcro straps. I don't need any specially created aides - giant shoe horns, leg straps, grippers - to help with simple tasks.

This weekend has shown me that my active lifestyle, even with all the craziness that goes with it, is that more important to me.

After both of my "shifts" on parent duty this weekend, I went out for a run. Admittedly, running wasn't near the top of my to-do list. I was exhausted after making sure all of the details were taken care of for my parents.

But lacing up my shoes and hitting the pavement was one of the best things I could have done for myself this weekend.

I used the time to think about how lucky I am to have my health and fitness. I took in all of the sights and sounds of a near-perfect fall day. At times, I wondered what it would like if I couldn't run. I hope that day never comes.

I've often said I run simply because I can. This weekend certainly reminded me to take advantage of every moment that I can. After all, you never know when it won't be there anymore.


  1. Here's wishing your dad a very speedy recovery in his recent hip replacement surgery.

    I learned that the patients are not allowed to cross their legs within one and half month of hip replacement surgery as this can lead to hip dislocation. Whether you are sitting on a chair or standing or reclining on a bed, never cross your legs at least during the vital six weeks after total hip replacement.

  2. I'm sure your father's clinical team will tell him all about hip precautions but there's a link to a page about them attached to my name.

    My hip replacement is going to have its first birthday in 2 days time :) What a great decision it was for me to go ahead. I hope it works out well for you father.

    My mother had RA so I totally understand how hard it is for your mother to do such everyday tasks. Hopefully it will burn out soon. My mother's did eventually.

    Good luck


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