My elderly mother-in-law is doing chair yoga while simultaneously slurping a giant milkshake. She moves her upper body, holding senior-citizen-friendly poses, pausing between positions to take noisy slurps from a five-gallon cup.
If I’m being honest, this is highly entertaining. Because every time the TV instructor says, “Now point your jaw to the sky, stretch your neck, release all toxic energy, visualize stress leaving your body, your body is a temple that…” he is interrupted.
SLUUUUURRRRRP! goes Mother Mary with her vanilla milkshake.
Then she resumes her yogic sun salutation.
Milkshakes are a vital piece of Mary’s diet right now because she’s been losing a lot of weight lately. Nobody really knows why she’s been dropping pounds. All anyone knows is that one day her weight was normal; and the next day she was slight.
So Mary’s nurses and caregivers devised a way to get extra calories into her body. They started spiking her milkshakes with Ensure packets, vitamins, and other essential nutrients which have transformed each shake into a glorified bucket of Quikrete.
Mother Mary’s arms look much smaller than I’ve ever seen them. So do her legs. Her body is leaner than it was a few months ago. And she’s in pain. Sometimes Mary’s caregivers roll her wheelchair around in the house and I can hear Mary moan because her knees are killing her. It’s even worse when they bathe her.
But otherwise, she is the same Mary. Her dry, almost imperceptible sense of humor is still intact. She can still remain quiet for long periods before unleashing a subtle zinger that will fly over the heads of her unsuspecting victims. Such as:
“This bourbon and Coke tastes all wrong. I don’t want to taste the Coke.”
And: “Oh, doesn’t your new haircut make you look so much better than your last one.”
This kind of humor grows on you. Because you’re never really sure if it is humor.
Lately we could all use some humor. Especially since Mary’s family called hospice to begin caring for her this week.
Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not because she’s ill, and she’s certainly not bad off. It’s nothing like that. But right now Mother Mary needs more day-to-day care than she’s been getting, and hospice is the best way for that to happen.
The hospice people are cheerful and helpful. They have the happy, easygoing dispositions you’d expect from people of their caliber. Some of them would make excellent chair yoga instructors.
The funny thing is, in the past I’ve written dozens of columns about hospice nurses. But this is the first time they’ve ever been involved in our personal lives. I now realize that everything I’ve ever heard about them is true. They really are heaven sent.
Still, everyone is a little nervous about what this means, having hospice in the house. Yesterday, for example, everyone sat in the living room while a hospice person explained the situation to Mary.
The nurse explained that hospice was here to keep her comfortable, and for us not to misinterpret her circumstances as “terminal.” This helped put everyone at ease. But I noticed that my wife never stopped wringing her hands.
Next the hospice chaplain visited. And even though he was a great guy, the undeniable fact was, a hospice chaplain was visiting the house. Which makes you stop and think.
Then a hospice social worker visited.
Afterward, my wife interviewed a few more caregivers.
Then a guy delivered a Hoyer hydraulic lift.
Then came a new oxygen system.
Growing elderly is very busy work.
When the hospice people finally left, a cloud of sadness lingered over the house. And even though everyone knows nothing is wrong, there are changes on a distant horizon.
That night before bed, my wife rolled into my arms and cried. She tucked her head into my shoulder and her tears wet my shirt. She didn’t have the stamina to weep for very long, for she was too exhausted. All I could do was hug her. I had no words.
Amazingly, over supper the next night, Mother Mary was upbeat. This magnificent woman showed not even a trace of self-pity or worry for herself. She sat across the table from me, smiling. Slurping her milkshake.
“Are you comfortable, Mother?” said my wife, adjusting her mother’s wheelchair.
“Do your knees hurt, Mother?”
“Ha. Do they?”
I watched my wife try so hard to be a good daughter. I watched her attempt to maintain a cheery face, even though I know she is breaking inside. Because none of us knows where life is taking us. And to make matters worse, there is a pandemic going on.
But if you could only see what I see this morning, a cheerful Mother Mary, with her cotton-white hair, and her slender arms, doing chair yoga. It is a blessing to behold.
I watch her move her head slowly in circles. Next she rotates her shoulders gently. She stretches her arms toward the ceiling. Eyes closed. Smile tacked to her face. Breathing in. Exhaling.
This woman is not afraid of anything. She imbues her strength to us all somehow. I don’t know how such a thing is possible, but she shares her bravery with us. She does this without fanfare or speeches or overbaked religious clichés.
This woman simply remains the silent pillar of her household, the same way she has been doing since she began this family. The same way she will continue doing long after the sun burns out and the stars cease to shine. Because this is what mothers do. And that’s what she will always be. Our lovely Mother Mary.
Just keep those milkshakes coming.