Caring for her dying mother with advanced Alzheimer's disease, Sandra closes the circle on her own past.
When the doctor said, "two days to two weeks," Sandra stepped forward to bring her mother home to die. For more than a week Mother lay in the hospital in a sleep state neither eating, drinking, nor speaking. Alzheimer's had brought her from independence to assisted living, to personal care home, and finally to the hospital. Sandra remembered her father dying amid tubes and machines and resolved her mom would have a natural, gentle passage.
Her boss readily granted three weeks leave. Her husband Charlie cleared fishing gear and surfboards. His relinquished room, in their Houston Heights bungalow, was soon set with speakers, family photos, draped Guatemalan fabric, and a hospital bed placed so that Mother could look out at the family of cardinals in the oak tree.
The first inkling that all might not go according to plan came en route from the hospital when Mother took a sip of water. A few days later she asked for a hamburger. "Mom started to live, instead of dying." Three months later, Sandra returned to work.
No one could answer, "How long will it be?"
Sandra surrendered to the long haul. Without exception, Sandra turned her mother every two hours. It would take twenty to thirty minutes to move and reposition her, change the diaper, apply cream, massage, and change bedding. Then there were soiled sheets and clothes to wash, food to cook and puree. Sandra thought she would collapse the few times the nighttime attendant missed and she continued round the clock.
"Everything else fell away." Before Sandra had painted on days off from her half time job. She now dedicated that time to her mom. She also gave up yoga, reading, social life, weekend trips. She only kept Tuesday night women's drum corps, to see friends and to "just beat the heck out of the drum."
"Two days to two weeks," became two years. Sandra took out a loan. She worried about ever again producing art. Wonderful family, friends and caregivers helped, but Texas Medical Center Hospice was her "backbone," providing physical support with nurses, medicines, aides, and steadfast emotional and spiritual support through the social worker and chaplain.
The sharp tongued Greek turns sweet
Sandra's mother was a sharp tongued, "rebellious Greek." She married an American and the pair were "wilder than March hares." Tacia York was heartbroken but did not allow herself to break when her husband abandoned her for another woman and plunged the family into poverty. From her, Sandra learned to respect and cherish women.
Tacia was an encouraging and non-blaming mother. She sewed costumes for her young girl's dance recitals. She supported Sandra when at 19 she had a child and gave him up for adoption, when she divorced, and when in her thirties she returned to college. As adult friends they debated, traveled, shared and laughed a lot. Tacia was sweet and loving as she lay dying. But Sandra ached at the loss of mind and passion.
Sandra believes her mother "was visited" by her dead brother, mother, and husband and that she used the long process of dying to work out her life. "She couldn't tell me. I knew it intuitively."
Beyond and beneath words
During that long period, Sandra could only focus on getting through it. Afterwards she reflects that she too was resolving issues. "I was given a gift in caring for my mother. I didn't want or intend it, any more than I had wanted cancer. But it elevated my spirit. I tapped into a place beyond and beneath words, the same well that is the source of my art."
Returning to the studio after Tacia's death, Sandra made a set of 38 commemorative retablos, small paintings on tin, in Mexican folk tradition, that include journal entries and photos from the time of her mother's care. She more recently completed a compelling depiction, an oblong figure rising in a swirl of water, Surfacing. As Sandra has resurfaced, a wonderful thing has happened. She has found her 34-year-old son. "The circle is closed."
It is the fourth anniversary of Tacia's death. Sandra reflects on the power and complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. Children can experience mothers' strength as "oppressive." At age 55, Sandra is her own woman and "liberated" in a way that a 75 year old whose mother is still alive cannot be. Charlie startled her the other day when he remarked at a family reunion, "Look, you are the oldest living York. You are the matriarch."
Hospice at the Texas Medical Center
Serving the Greater Houston area
- Provides medical management of pain and symptoms, and emotional and spiritual support for terminally ill patients and their families.
- Most patients receive all their care at home. A 25-bed facility serves patients when an acute need arises.
- Twenty-year-old agency serves 1800 patients per year.
- Over 10% of budget is for "charity" or uncompensated care for patients without insurance or the ability to pay.