The last time I saw my family was on Thursday. I spent the whole day there with Theo. For several hours in the morning, I was responsible for looking after my dad by myself. Around lunch time my sister and her kids came over, then in the evening the house really came to life as my mom and grandma arrived (mom had spent 10 hours, round trip, driving to pick her up; it was the first time my grandma had travelled further than the grocery store or Wal-Mart in 7 years), and then my brother and his wife joined the crowd.
The morning was hard, really hard for me, the worst day yet since the stroke. Seeing my dad at home made me realize how much has changed. In the hospital, a hospital bed is inconspicuous. In my parent's basement, a rented hospital bed screamed terrible things to me... sickness, convalescence, immobility. In the hospital, my dad's sleepiness somehow seemed natural. I guess I thought, what else would he do? He's stuck in a bed all day, he may as well rest. I'd probably do the same. Now that he's home, his exhaustion continues and is even growing. Now I can't chalk it up to boredom or the nature of hospital stays. Instead, I have to remember that he's sleepy all the time because he had a stroke. Seeing my dad back in his house, in the basement where he spent so many, many hours of his pre-stroke life, draws such a stark contrast between the new and the old. I see him silent, heavy-eyed on the couch and I remember the dad who used to sit on the couch. Alert, sharp, loquacious.
As that morning wore on, the knot in my stomach grew. I started to learn about myself as a caregiver. There are things I can handle and things I cannot. Preparing food, washing hair, cleaning nails, taking phone calls: these things I can do. I am glad to do them, in fact, especially since the stroke my dad has become very sweet and affectionate. "Thank you, sweetheart." [reaches for my hand and pats it gently] "Thanks, baby." When I can do these little things for my dad, I am helpful, I am useful, I am a good daughter.
In other areas as a caretaker I felt like a monumental failure. When it came time to make my dad do his exercises (things that for most of us seem easy: bending knees, flexing/straightening ankles), I wanted to crawl under a rock and make protest signs that said, "Daughters shouldn't have to do this." Also there are only certain times, small windows, when my dad is allowed to watch television. Most of the time, we are supposed to talk to him, engage him, in order to aid his mind's recovery. Still, when my dad flipped on some soap operas, I couldn't tell him no. I sat there and watched with him, feeling sick. I knew I should be enforcing a better choice, but I was too timid to exert my new authority over him. I think I was a little scared, too, of finding something to talk about if the TV was off.
When my sister showed up around noon, I was so happy to see her. The knot in my stomach slowly released and, fighting back tears, I asked if she could be in charge of the next round of exercises.
The last two weeks have ushered in a new types and levels of stress for our family. I have been gone a lot, and emotional when I am at home. Nate has been amazing, sensitive, not complaining about extra chores or dinner times without me. If he's picked up any vices to deal with the strain, I haven't noticed. Simon has been mostly sheltered from the bad news, but inevitably he has taken note of my absence. There have been a few puking incidents recently, and, while there's no way to know, I suspect stress is the culprit, stirring up his little tummy. Theo is gloriously oblivious, of course.
I have been dealing with the stress in various ways. In the first week of the ordeal, driving to and from the hospital, I found great release in blasting music and alternating between singing loudly and shouting obscenities at other drivers. After a long day at the hospital, I could yell, "YOU'RE TOO SLOW FOR THE LEFT LANE, MOTHERFUCKER!" and feel the tension in my shoulders start to subside.
After the boys are in bed and Nate has gone to work, I watch Sex and the City reruns, as I have been doing for months. Now I laugh more heartily than I used to, and I also cry, cry, cry. Yeah, I'm sad about Charlotte's miscarriage, but it also just feels great to let the tears stream down my face and neck. I dab my nose on my shirt sleeve, not bothering to fetch a tissue until I'm sure I'm finished, certain the moment has passed.
Unfortunately, my greatest source of comfort throughout this time has been food. At the hospital, I made a daily trip to the ice cream shop downstairs, and I munched on the candy bouquets dropped off by visitors. At my parent's house, I had to really hunt for some comfort calories. My mom doesn't keep much junk around. Finally I found half a bag of chocolate chips. I lined them up like marching ants along counter tops and grabbed a few every time my heart buckled under the weight of my dad's condition. At home there are myriad things to choose from, things I normally would eat slowing, sparingly, I now grab 5 of at once (Ghirardelli squares, for instance). Some people drink alcohol. I prefer ice cream.
I know it will sound vain to bring this up as my father recovers from a brain attack, but turning to food for comfort is certainly not helping my weight loss efforts. I'm starting to lose hope that I'll ever unpack those boxes in the attic labeled "skinny clothes," or that I'll ever look in the mirror and see beautiful instead of bloated. That is vanity, yes, but also I fret about the future. I'm afraid that if I don't lose the rest of this baby weight now, and if I continue down this food-feels-like-a-big-hug path, it will have negative impacts on my health. And I don't want that. I want to be around, you know, just like everybody does.
What I need is a new stress release, a new habit deeply ingrained, that doesn't negatively affect my weight, health, or self-image. There are a lot to choose from, and some with which I already have experience. Yoga, for instance, would be a good alternative. The downside of yoga, though, is that it's hard to fit into my schedule. And it takes up too much space that would first need to be cleared of toys and stray Cheerios. What I need is something quick, something I can do any time, something the boys won't notice. Here is my idea: obsessive housecleaning. Like Monica on Friends. When I'm feeling blue, instead of reaching into the cupboard, I can scour the sink. My house would certainly benefit from this type of self-soothing. And possibly my waistline too. Now, how to override my urge to eat and replace it with an urge to clean? Is electroshock therapy the answer here? Acupuncture? Hypnosis? All too expensive. For costs that prohibitive, I could probably just have liposuction and be done with it. Or hire a personal trainer. I guess that's a little more reasonable.
Since I started writing this post, I've had some bad news. First of all, my mom is sick. Quite sick. This morning she couldn't stop vomiting and complained of the room spinning. How miserable. One of her neighbors, a nurse, was able to order a prescription to help her, which caused her to sleep all day. My poor mom. No doubt her new role as primary caregiver for her husband has taken a toll on her body. My sister was able to fill in for my mom today, and I'll be there all day tomorrow.
The other bad news is that my dad is not doing well, not improving. He is not responsive to my mom's or my grandma's efforts to help him. He has been refusing to do his exercises or take his pills. We are concerned that he could be depressed, or his personality could be changing, as stroke victim's personalities are apt to do. Either way, it doesn't seem good. After a stroke, the window for recovery is rather small. Whatever improvements are made in a three month period are likely to be the only improvements. That is to say, after three months are up, recovery will probably come to a standstill or a slow crawl. Because of this, stroke victims and their families are in a race against time, working to regain as much ground as possible before the clock strikes three months (that's why I felt so sick when I let him watch TV instead of engaging him in conversation like I was supposed to). So, in a race against time, it's imperative to move forward. Any backward motion is likely to send the participants into panic mode. That's where we are now, except that we try to keep up strong facades for each other. We are thinking of hiring in 24 hour care for him. Maybe a professional can motivate him in ways we cannot and help him get some forward momentum again.
After learning all of this, I felt ill all day. My stomach was like a rock polisher, heavy with worry and churning with fear. Maybe in addition to obesity, I should be worried about developing ulcers.
We didn't have any ice cream, and I knew I would get heartburn if I even looked at another square of dark chocolate. Can you guess what I did to get my mind off my troubles? I cleaned! I did a couple loads of laundry and I scrubbed the kitchen sink. And it kind of worked. I felt a little better. Maybe there's hope for my fat ass yet.
That's good, but I'd rather have more hope for my father.