Here is Chapter 12 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Finally, the big day arrives.
On Friday, March 19, 2004, I answer a telephone call from a discharge nurse at the Parkwood Nursing Home & Rehabilitation Center. Based on recommendations from mom’s speech, occupational, and physical therapists, she is ready to return home. She is scheduled to be discharged on Monday, March 22.
I experience this revelation with mixed emotions. On one hand, we have been working toward this day ever since it was clear that mom would survive the stroke. It will make her happy, and I am always pleased when we can make her happy. A stroke patient generally faces such bleak prospects that any good news is welcome news. I have little doubt that her chances for a complete recovery will be improved markedly if she is allowed to return to her apartment surrounded by her family, pets, and friends.
On the other hand, it seems so sudden. Are we ready for mom’s return? I walk down to her apartment and wander through the rooms. Fortunately, the fellow who built our house, Mark McKrow, made the doorways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, so she can navigate through the apartment with little difficulty. The entire basement is flat, so stairs will not impede her movements. I find a screwdriver and remove the door leading into her bedroom from its hinges so she can enter and exit with minimal problems.
I sit on her bed, lost in thought. Mom still experiences difficulty getting to the bathroom. Because she can only use her left arm, she needs help dressing herself, feeding herself, and getting through her daily routine. I wonder whether we are up to the task.
I dial Polly’s telephone number. She picks up on the second ring.
“Well, she’s coming home on Monday.”
“Wonderful! That is wonderful news!”
I admit that it is wonderful news, but I also share my misgivings with her. “Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that I want mom to rot in the nursing home, but I wonder how we will manage.”
“That’s what sisters are for. I have an engagement this weekend, but I can ask Billy to fly down on Sunday. I’ll be there on Monday. We can spend 10 days or so helping to ease the transition.”
I feel relief wash over me. “Thank you. Thank you.”
I meet mom’s brother Billy at the Atlanta airport on Sunday. His 11:58 a.m. Delta flight is early, so we arrive home in record time. He helps us straighten up the apartment — vacuum, make up the bed, clean the bathroom fixtures, and other rewarding household work — before we set out for the nursing home.
Mom already has heard the news, and she is all smiles.
Paula smiles, too. “So, Laura. Tomorrow’s the big day.”
Billy plays the part of the dutiful big brother. “We have everything ready for you.”
Leaving her that night, I feel good for the first time in a long while. Mom is coming back to her home after a three-month absence, and her high spirits are contagious. Despite my worries, it seems that everything will work out for the best.
My state of near-euphoria evaporates with the waning daylight. As I lie down to sleep, I cannot turn off my mind. Tossing and turning under the covers, I race through dozens of possible scenarios. What if she falls and breaks a hip? What will we do when Polly and Billy leave? What if she suffers another stroke? In every version of her future, I can imagine only terrible things.
Paula stirs beside me on the bed. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry I woke you.” I whisper in the darkness for some strange reason. The guest room is far away. Uncle Billy should not be able to hear my soft voice.
I can barely make out the outline of Paula's face, but I hear the squeaking bed frame when she turns toward me. “You didn’t wake me. I’ve been thinking about Laura ever since we went to bed.”
We talk for an hour, and I find we share many of the same fears. Polly and Billy no doubt will ease mom’s transition back into a routine at home, but what will happen when they leave? We agree to see if we can find a nurse or nurse’s aide that will come to the house and prepare mom for her day.
The next morning, Paula leaves for work while Billy and I ride over to the Parkwood Nursing Home & Rehabilitation Center. Mom is dressed, packed, and ready to go. The check-out paperwork is short and relatively easy to complete. With her account paid in full and her ride on hand, mom is eager to depart for home.
We face one final obstacle, and it becomes a daunting one. Parkwood administrators have put us in touch with a company called Healthfield that specializes in helping stroke patients and others who need long-term, home-based rehabilitation services and equipment. I spoke with several Healthfield representatives over the weekend after we learned that mom would be discharged on Monday. They repeatedly assured me that her new wheelchair, toilet seat, and walker would be delivered to my house on Saturday. When it failed to show that day, they guaranteed it would be delivered to the nursing home well before we were scheduled to depart on Monday. Unfortunately, their actions failed to match their promises.
We are set to leave Parkwood but we do not have the necessary equipment. I call Healthfield and they assure me that the equipment will arrive soon, but they cannot specify the time. It might be minutes or hours — who can say? The chances are pretty good — at least 50 percent — that the promised items will arrive sometime before the close of business today.
Mom is almost hysterical when she learns of the delay. She has been so anxious to get home and has looked forward to this day for so long that she finds the prospect of waiting for some indeterminate length of time to be more than she can bear. She bursts into tears.
Many stroke patients and the elderly are emotionally fragile after they suffer through trauma. It is not uncommon for someone who did not normally cry in earlier, happier times to break down from the stress of frustrated expectations. Mom has always been stoic around me. The sight of her reduced to tears on what should be a triumphant day is more than I can stand.
I march to the front desk and announce to the Parkwood administrators that we are departing forthwith.
The discharge nurse subscribes to the theory that coddling patients and their families or displaying even a semblance of empathy is bad form. She speaks to me in a condescending voice that suggests I am a dim-witted child. “But you don’t have the wheelchair, the walker, or the commode. Be patient, dear. You have no choice but to wait for Healthfield.”
Throughout most of my life, I have been shy and retiring. I shrink from confrontation whenever possible. I prefer to reach decisions through consensus and, failing that, persuasion. I am milquetoast. Yet when I am angry, as I am on this occasion, all bets are off. My normally passive demeanor gives way to a sarcastic, bitter persona that is ugly to see but generally effective in producing results.
“I said we are going. That’s it — we’re going. We’ll find a medical supply house on the way home, stop, and pick up what we need.”
The discharge nurse realizes I am serious — seriously pissed, and perhaps terminally daft. “What about the Healthfield order?”
“What about it?”
“What do you want me to tell them, dear?”
I start to say, tell them to shove it up your ass. Catching myself, I gulp a mouthful of air and silently count to three. “I don't care. They can return the stuff. I’ll get my own. Dear.”
The nurse thinks she had an ace up her sleeve. “Healthfield bills Medicare.” She speaks in that annoying tone of voice reserved for someone who believes she has the truth and I am desperately in need of it. “If you send the equipment back and buy it yourself, you may end up paying for it out of pocket.”
“Fine. I’ll pay for it myself. But we are leaving now.” I turn on my heels and head back toward mom’s room.
“Now, see here — ”
“I’m going to get the car and pull it around to the front door. I want you to wheel my mother out to curb so we can get her and her things into the car. I also want the name and address of a medical supply house.” I do not ask questions. I issue orders.
“But Mr. Martinez….” Her voice trails off as I march away.
Her smug tone is gone, and I feel instantly better. It is as though a shot of adrenaline has been injected into my heart. I admire the new, assertive, bad-ass Mike — so unlike the Mike of yesteryear.
Trailing behind, the nurse tries to reason with me, but I have fled the jurisdiction. I now reside in the land of anger and self-righteousness, an alien nation that does not border on reason and deliberation.
“Mr. Martinez, please wait," she mutters, "I don’t know if I have the number for a medical supply house.”
I hold up my cellphone as I step into mom's room. “Fine. I’ll call the operator for information. Now, let’s get going.”
Mom hears my last comment. “Yes, get going.”
Feeling especially manly, I swagger out to the car and swing it around in front of the nursing home. Unlike my frantic dash to the Emory Eastside Emergency Room in December, I do not strike the curb.
The discharge nurse finally realizes she is dealing with a madman. She meets me at the front door with a cordless phone.
“What now?” I feign innocence.
“I have Marilyn Holmes from Healthfield here. I have explained the situation. She wants to speak to you.”
“Fine.” Taking the phone, I motion for the nurse and my Uncle Billy to continue loading mom and luggage into the car. I will not be dissuaded by anything Marilyn Holmes can say.
“Mr. Martinez, I understand that you intend to leave the nursing home without the Healthfield equipment you ordered.”
“That is correct.”
“I have spoken to our driver and he is en route with your mother’s equipment.”
“No, thank you. We won’t need it now.”
“Mr. Martinez, you asked us to place this order for your mother.”
“That is correct.”
“And now you are canceling your order.”
“That is correct.”
“Mr. Martinez, we bill Medicare directly. Your mother is entitled to one wheelchair that Medicare will pay for. If you depart without it, you may have to pay for it out of your pocket.”
“If that’s the case, well, okay.”
She sounds exasperated, the way any sane person sounds when he or she deals with a crazy person. “I don’t understand why you want to cancel your order when our delivery man is on his way and you may have to pay for the equipment yourself.”
I scream at the beleaguered woman. Although I hear my voice rising to a crescendo of hysteria, I feel unable or unwilling to prevent it from cracking as it soars into the stratosphere. “I want to cancel my order because you people have made all kinds of promises that you failed to keep. You said the stuff would be delivered to my house over the weekend. It wasn’t. You said it would be here by the time we were ready to go. It isn’t. Now, my mother is crying and desperate to leave this nursing home. I do not intend to allow a few broken promises, a few dollars, and a stupid bureaucracy to stop me now.”
“Sir, I promise you — ”
"YOUR PROMISES DON'T MEAN SHIT! YOU AND YOUR COMPANY ARE LYING SACKS OF SHIT!"
I am not usually a fellow who traffics in epithets, but I feel the profanity slip from my mouth before I can stop it. The effect reminds me of vomiting: When it spews from my lips, it is terrible to behold, but afterward I feel immeasurably better.
"Sir, there is no need to be — ”
With that, I depress the “off” button and end the call. It isn’t as satisfying as slamming the phone down, but it is close enough. I toss the cordless device to the discharge nurse. She initially fumbles but somehow manages to avoid dropping the phone onto the pavement.
“Let’s go. Are you ready to rock and roll?”
“I am ready.” Mom nods vigorously. “To rock and roll.”
With mom, Uncle Billy, and mom’s things stuffed into my Ford Taurus, I gun the engine and throw the car into reverse. The squealing tires are a satisfying sound, another sign that the crazy man will not be stopped.
The discharge nurse tries one last desperate gambit as I turn the steering wheel and prepare to step on the gas and wipe that tear away. “I wish you would reconsider. The Healthfield equipment should arrive at any minute. Why pay for equipment when you don’t have to?”
“No, thank you. It’s been fun.”
“No, thank you.” Mom grins from the front passenger's seat. “It’s been fun.” She pauses, frowns, turns to look at me. “It’s been fun?” She cannot believe the words coming from her mouth.
I grip the wheel and sweep past a line of cars, forever leaving the Parkwood Nursing Home & Rehabilitation Center behind us. The automobile bounces wildly over a speed bump as we accelerate onto Lenora Church Road.
“It’s been fun?” Mom is still puzzled by this statement.
“At least it was better than Joan Glancy.”
Dubious, she shrugs.
While I drive, my Uncle Billy uses my cellphone to call for information. We locate a medical supply house not far away, in Lawrenceville. It costs $418.00 out of my pocket — Medicare never reimburses me despite numerous attempts on my part to recoup expenses — but Optima Health Care supplies a wheelchair, a special handicapped toilet seat, and other necessary equipment. In fewer than 90 minutes after we leave the nursing home, we arrive at my house.
Mom has not set foot inside her apartment since December 29, the day she suffered the stroke. As Billy wheels her down the walkway and I trundle behind with her suitcase, walker, and commode, I wonder how she will react. Will she succumb to emotion and burst into tears? Will she be upset by something she sees — or something she doesn’t see? We have cleaned the apartment thoroughly, but she might be upset by some little thing we have overlooked.
Mom’s cat, Lucky, languidly saunters up the sidewalk. She looks up at mom as though they have seen each every day. Cats are like that — they don’t get overly emotional for any reason. They don’t come to the world; they make the world come to them.
As for mom, she brightens up immediately when she sees the cat. “Hello, Miss Laura! How you doin’?”
Billy and I laugh.
“What?” Mom seems perplexed.
Billy points. “Is that cat named ‘Laura’?”
I shake my head. “Lucky.”
“Oh, that right. Lucky.” Mom tries the greeting again. “Hello, Miss Lucky. How you doin’?” She looks at me for confirmation.
“Good. You’re sounding a lot more Southern since your stroke. Now the cat is ‘Miss Lucky’ instead of just plain ‘Lucky.’”
We all laugh as Lucky moseys past us and Billy pushes mom’s wheelchair inside the apartment.
“This is good.” Mom surveys the place. It is shining. We have steam-cleaned the carpets, dry-cleaned the curtains, scrubbed the fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, and placed new sheets on her bed. We have even washed her Beagle, Hortense, no easy feat. The apartment has not looked so spotless since we moved into the house.
Billy parks her wheelchair in front of the television set. After surfing through the channels, he finds an episode of “Law & Order.” As expected, her eyes light up.
“Scootch can watch, too?”
“No, I have to get back to work.” I point upstairs. “But I will be back to check on you several times.”
Billy nods. “And I have to pick up Polly at the airport.”
“Yes, Polly. You can do for Polly, too?”
I step over and pat mom on the back. “Yes, Polly is coming today — your sister, Polly.”
Mom looks at me as though I am incredibly stupid. “You can do for Polly, too?”
Billy and I exchange glances.
“You can do for Polly, too?”
Billy nods, apparently understanding the comment. “Are you asking if you can come pick up Polly, too?”
“Yes, yes. You can do for Polly, too!”
Billy looks at me. “I guess I speak stroke.”
“I think you should stay here and relax. Maybe take a nap, mom. Then I’ll pick up some Chinese food from Lee’s Golden Buddha for dinner and we’ll all eat, including Polly.”
She whips her head around and looks at me. I can tell she is excited. “Golden Buddha?” It is her favorite faux Chinese restaurant.
“Yes, we will eat take-out from the Golden Buddha. But you have to take a nap now. Let Billy go by himself to get Polly.”
She wants to greet her sister at the airport, but the promise of Chinese food from Lee’s Golden Buddha lessens the sting of disappointment. With a shrug, she bids her brother adieu. He drives off to the Atlanta airport as I help mom climb out of her wheelchair and into her bed.
"Clean sheets feel scootch," she mutters as she drifts into sleep. It has been a busy day and the grand dame is exhausted. She snores as I tiptoe from the room. “Law & Order" blares from the television set next to her bed.
I do not recall many details about the rest of our day. What I do remember is the sound of the car pulling into our driveway, Billy’s labored breathing as he struggles to lift his sister’s overstuffed suitcases from the trunk, and Polly’s exclamations of delight at arriving more or less unscathed.
I meet them at the door, hugging my aunt and welcoming her into the house. I suggest she take a few minutes to get cleaned up and catch her breath before we walk downstairs to mom’s place, but she will have none of it. She needs to see her “baby sister” as soon as possible, and one does not deny Polly something when she wants it badly enough.
As we enter the downstairs bedroom, Polly rushes toward mom's bedside while I turn off the obnoxiously loud television set. The sisters awkwardly embrace.
Still groggy and fumbling with her eyeglasses, mom exudes enthusiasm. “Miss Lucky! I mean... Scrootchball! I mean....”
Ignoring the greeting, Polly admires her sibling. “You look wonderful, all things considered.”
Mom shrugs as she blinks through her glasses. “All things considered you do, too.”
I help mom slip out of bed and into her wheelchair. Afterward, I roll her into the living room.
While the sisters reminisce, I call an order into Lee’s Golden Buddha and depart to pick up our food. Paula and Shelby arrive as I return with the cartons.
Mom’s first night home is filled with good food, much laughter, and the joys of family. Our conviviality is boundless. The first part of our crisis has passed, but we still have promises to keep — and miles to go before we sleep.