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Jim Duke | Author

Mom Comes Back Home

The last time I was in D.C. was shortly after mom had broken her hip and had moved into assisted living while recovering and rehabilitating. My sister, Sally, had long since moved to D.C. with her new job as Deputy Director of the US Forest Service. She had a huge, fancy office overlooking the National Mall and it was fun looking down out her window at all the people looking up and walking backwards.

Sally was going to be out of town for a week or so and wanted someone to be around to help with mom's rehab. That and the fact that assisted living and senior care facilities are always much more reliable when there is a strong family presence. I'm proud to say that in the following several years of that sort of arrangement, my mother never went a single day without one of us being there. I was staying in her condo and coming over to help her through physical therapy every day. It was very hard for both of us. She was tired and required much encouragement to perform her exercises. It was difficult to watch the most enthusiastic and persevering person I've ever known having to be encouraged, when it seemed she had spent her entire life trying to encourage others – especially me, the black sheep of the family.

Regardless her fatigue, she continued making progress until about the third day of my visit. Upon my arrival that morning she was visibly struggling for air. When asked if she was alright, she responded that she was fine, (gasp) just having a little trouble breathing (gasp). She had apparently made a pact with herself long ago to never complain, criticize, or in any way be a burden. I called in an aid to have her monitored and discovered her oxygen levels to be dangerously low. Before I knew it, I was in the front of an ambulance screaming through D.C. to George Washington Hospital. It turned out that a blood clot had traveled from her hip to her lungs and we were soon in intensive care.

I stayed at the hospital while she was stabilized and checked into a room. I stayed all day and watched while nursing shifts changed. At this point mom was suffering short term memory loss. She was, in general, sharp as a tack and could beat anyone in trivial pursuit, but couldn't remember what had happened the day before. I watched as two new shifts came in over the course of the day and, after chatting with my mom and finding her quite coherent, nurses asked her if she was able to get to the bathroom alright, to which she responded yes, forgetting that she could not. I don't know if the charts failed to mention or didn't know about, or if the incoming shifts failed to read the details, but they consistently believed that she could walk to the bathroom.

As it got dark that evening, a nurse told me that it was way past visiting hours and that I needed to leave. I told her that I was not leaving until my mother was ready to leave. She told me that was not possible and that I really needed to leave. I refused. She left and returned with a large male 'orderly' who demanded that I leave. I explained the situation of her short-term memory and my experiences with shift changes and reiterated that I would not leave until my mother did. He assured me that my concerns had been addressed and that future shifts would be better informed of her situation, but that I had to leave. I refused. He said that, if necessary, I would be removed by force. I made a pillow of my coat, turned my back to them and laid down by my mom's bed. I could feel and hear their presence for a minute or so before they left, shutting the door quietly behind them.

Nobody bothered me for the next few shift changes. Just before dark the next day, the same orderly and another man brought in a reclining easy chair that leaned back into a comfortable bed. I didn't leave for a couple of days for fear that they might not let me back in, but I eventually walked the many blocks back to mom's condo for a shower, a change of clothes and my toothbrush before spending the rest of the week with her. In the meantime, one of the nurses had begun to bring me meals and by the time I returned, I was treated as a respected guest.

The room across the hall was used for prison inmates needing medical care and, during breaks into the hallway to stretch my legs, I had come to meet some of the guards stationed at their door. One of the guards apparently had that duty on a regular basis and seemed to know all the hospital staff. Having learned about our situation and knowing that I had come from Colorado and had refused to leave my mother's side, a large black guard who I'd become familiar with during that time said "I'd like to shake your hand. You are an outstanding individual" To which I replied "She is an outstanding mother and right now I'm just out standing in the hallway wishing I could do more." He smiled and said "I've never seen the likes of you. Are all cowboys the same?" I replied "When it comes to moms, yessir, pretty much so."

By the end of the week my mom was released and my sister had returned from her business trip. I got home just in time for a huge ice-skating party we had planned weeks before I had gone to D.C.. I had returned on a late flight, couldn't remember where I'd parked in long term parking and was up most of the night getting home. I was passed out in bed long before the party was over. Mom never got back to total self-sufficiency and had to move back to Colorado into more assisted living, but closer to more of her children. She never spent a day alone and enjoyed most of her last days at our family cabin in Allenspark watching hummingbirds and laughing for joy.

During her later years, mom had developed a practice of arranging family reunions or big family trips with basically mandatory attendance for all six kids. She would then inevitably come up with some excuse at the last minute to opt out and leave us to ourselves. We finally figured out that, while she loved socializing with us one or two at a time, she had long since grown weary of the chaos of all of us together. She'd had her fill of that during family vacations cooped up in a '56 ford wagon with six kids before they had even built the interstate system. But she still seemed to get some sort of vicarious satisfaction from planning and organizing these trips and from knowing that all her children were together somewhere as a family.

When mom died, my sisters planned a big family vacation along the same route through the Dakotas to the Rockies that we had traveled many times as a family, and finally ending at the family cabin in Allenspark, Colorado. Starting in Ames, Iowa, where most of us were born, the plan was to spread some of her ashes at each stop along the way until we reached the cabin where we had left most of her ashes. At our first planned spreading of ashes at Lake Laverne on the campus of Iowa State, sister Cathy discovered that she had lost the ashes. Terribly distraught and tormenting herself, she couldn't give up on her search and self-reprisal. When I suddenly began laughing at the situation, she became angry with me for taking it so lightly. But then I explained the humor of the situation. She had done it again! Mom had gotten us all together for one more big family adventure and then ditched us at the last minute! Even in death she still didn't want to travel with us all together.

Back at the cabin, we spread the rest of her ashes on a favorite viewpoint on Olive Ridge above the Fox Creek pools where my dad's ashes also reside. It was snowing as we hiked her ashes up to their favorite spot where she joined our father in silence. Little was said and even our footsteps were muffled by the fresh snow.

man and woman smiling at each other
people gathered on overlook in mountains
This overlook was my parents favorite spot and is where both their ashes are spread.
cowboy in snow
The memorial