Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The year that was: getting ready for my parents' surgeries

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

(I'm on a roll.)

It's so strange.  I'm still struggling with writing all of this.  Not because it is so long and complicated and it's hard to find time (although those things are true, too....) but because I have this severe fear of looking like a whiner.  I have waited to allow time to pass, to sort through it all, and while I have learned many things and gained much perspective, I still don't know how to write about this time without sounding like I'm complaining.

So for the record, I'm not complaining.  I'm recounting.  :)  The Lord brought so much growth and good from this time - but you've got to go through this to get to that.  We are who we are because of all of our days, the good and the bad.  If we don't talk about the tough things, we can't see or show how God has redeemed us.


Jeff returned to work.  He wasn't riding bikes or playing football, but he was recovering.

My parents had both been suffering from lots of joint pain.  They had both taken several hard falls over the past year.  My dad, at 86, had slowed his gait to tiny mincing steps.  He was vitally afraid of falling and breaking a bone.  My mother, at 74, had suffered chronic knee pain for four years.  She, too, was falling a lot.

My parents live about 45 minutes away from me.  We moved to this area four years ago, in order to be able to help them out.  They had no other children living nearby, and we worried about them.  They still lived in the same home in which my father had been born.  His grandfather had built the house, they would never willingly relocate.  Their small town is in the middle of nowhere, really.  There is no pharmacy, no bank, very few services for the elderly in their town.

My parents were still vital people.  They were capable of taking care of their physical selves prior to the surgeries, but that capability was diminishing.  If, perchance, they fell hard and broke a bone, they might be unable to care for themselves at all.  We visited a surgeon, talked over the possibilities of a knee replacement for mom and a hip replacement for dad.  Without surgeries their worlds would gradually grow more painful, more debilitating, more isolated.  Their situations were impossible.  Their house is filled with stairs.  The bedrooms are upstairs, the laundry is in the basement.  Their home is on a hill, with quite a few stairs to enter the home.

With surgeries, we were giving them the opportunity of extending their years of independence.  There was no guarantee, of course, but we were hopeful.

We all decided to go ahead with the surgeries, no matter how hard it might be.  (But I must say in retrospect, that we had NO idea how difficult the healing would be, and I do feel that the material presented to the potential surgery patient paints a little bit "too-rosy" of a healing scenario.)

We considered waiting until after my baby was born, but I was not sure how I would help them get to all of their appointments and therapies with a newborn in tow.  Also, to delay the surgeries would send us into winter.  Winter where we live may be fine, but it may also bring lots of ice and snow.  At the very least, winter would mean bundling a newborn up and making sure my parents had coats on and buttoned.  I couldn't imagine trying to get them transferred from hospital to house with icy stairs.

We began the pre-joint replacement process.

And what a process it is.  Prior to last summer, I would never have dreamed how many doctors/specialists visits there would be in preparation for a joint replacement.  We met with the surgeon three times, attended an educational clinic, had an EKG, then further stress testing was done.  Blood labs were drawn.  From April thru September, there were seventy doctor's/clinic visits.  Those were not just for my parents, of course - that included Jeff and myself as well. 

I began collecting hospital equipment from estate sales and garage sales and thrift shops:  shower chairs, walkers, a cane, a three-footed cane, a bedside toilet, a toilet that fit over the regular commode.  I felt way too young at 41 to have a shed full of hospital equipment.

I worked with my parents to get their home as ready as we could for them to heal from surgery.  They saw no real need to adjust their home; they believed they would be up and walking around within a few days.  By a few weeks, for sure, they would be back to normal.

I urged them to pull up and turn over most of their garden.  I felt their gardening work was done for the year.  We picked all of the apples from their fruit trees early.  I had bushels and bushels of apples to can.  Normally, that is a wonderful thing.  As it was, at the end of pregnancy, in 90+ heat and no central air conditioning, with added responsibilities, it felt suffocating.  Some days I suffered panic attacks.  At the time I wondered why.  Silly me.  There was no need to suggest not canning the apples.  For my parents, if they grew it, it must not go to waste.

I baked ahead and stocked up their freezer with ready-made meals in small portions.  Muffins, instant meals, chicken nuggets. I cleaned and vacuumed their house, got the beds ready for any family members that might come following surgery, bought new items my parents might need for a hospital stay.  I worked hard to memorize their complex medication schedules.

My father has trouble speaking clearly due to a serious adrenal "accident" (which left him in a coma) almost two decades ago.  He doesn't make phone calls or talk on the phone.  While they were very positive-minded and eager to get the surgeries underway, they began to turn more and more responsibilities over to me.  I made all of the phone calls, picked up the prescriptions, scheduled the procedures, looked over the forms, made adjustments. 

By the time my mother had her surgery, I was seven months along and exhausted from the events of Jeff's illness, the care of our eight children, the care of my parents, and the intensive medical schedule we had been on.

I felt so overwhelmed.  I was torn between "good-daughter/good-mommy guilt."  There were many times I had to choose between my parents and my children.  Often, my parents won that battle because their needs were the most pressing.  I know that many women of the "sandwich generation" suffer from the same struggle.  I often found myself crying because I knew I was missing so much with my children.  They were growing up and changing - and I was in and out of their lives while the biggest kids took care of the little ones.  The big ones were growing up and transitioning as well, and they needed their parents available to help out.  Jeff was working long hours to make up for being out of work, and I was spending enormous amounts of time on my parent's care.  Fortunately, it was summer, and their schooling did not suffer.

Several caring friends suggested that I "not be afraid" to let my older children help.  They did not realize how very, very much our older kids were handling.  They shared the care of my parents and our younger children.  They shared the lawn work and the fruit preservation.  Yes, they learned many wonderful lessons.  Yes, we worked through a very hard time as a family and saw God's hand of provision.  But it was still very difficult, and I wish that it had not been so tough.  I wish that things had been different, somehow.

I had always known that I needed to take care of my parents, to be "there" to help out as they needed - I just never envisioned that everyone around me would fall apart physically at once.  Given more time, I would have worked out better long-term solutions.  As it stood, we were just taking a few days at a time and hoping for good enough improvements that would make life so much better for my parents.  Things did not get better for a long time, though, they simply got worse as my pregnancy progressed.  It was such a difficult situation that I simply did not know how to balance.  Jeff and I and our children want to be faithful to all of the tasks that God has given us to do.  What do you do when all of the tasks seem to collide and be incompatible?  I don't think my parents felt the struggle, I don't think they knew how difficult things were for us.  Perhaps they were simply relieved to have someone to help them?  They would have been devastated to think they were causing such struggles.  Aging and all if its ailments - mental and physical - can be such a hard and humbling thing.

My mother had her knee surgery and it did not go well.  She experienced severe pain and several resultant infections.  She stayed at our home for a week, where we cared for her day and night.  We cared for Dad during that time, too, all the while continuing to get him ready for his surgery three weeks later.  Mom did not do well on any pain medication - it made her so sick she couldn't even sit up.  The medications also stole her short-term memory.  Therapy was useless, as she couldn't remember from day to day what she was supposed to do.  The medications made her jumpy, unable to handle things emotionally.  She snapped at the children who were trying to help care for her.

After a week we moved her home, and my eldest daughter and then son stayed with her.  We had set up a temporary recovery bedroom in their living room, and the young person who was watching over her slept on the floor beside her bed.  They helped her get to the bathroom in the night.  They helped her sort out her pills.  They made meals.  They took care of the cats.  :)

We visited the surgeon several times and tried many different medications.  When it was time for my father's surgery, my mother was still in intensive pain and still needed someone to stay with her.

Fortunately, my oldest brother and sister were coming up the evening of my father's surgery.  I was so relieved, so thankful that they were on their way.  They are wonderful, hard-working, loyal and faithful people.  They just live so far away and they both have intensively full lives with work and commitments.  When they show up, they "really" show up.  I couldn't wait to see them!


  1. "but you've got to go through this to get to that. We are who we are because of all of our days, the good and the bad. If we don't talk about the tough things, we can't see or show how God has redeemed us."

    Amen! ...and Amen and Amen and Amen!

    And more! More!

    I remember reading so much of those many months as they were happening, Holly. It's helpful for me, especially now, staring down"circumstances" and changes myself, to take this look back at your lives and to see how God sustained all of you through both the good and bad days!

    I know you're writing it for you and yours, but thanks for doing so here so we can benefit, too!

  2. Kari - thank you, friend!

    God is going to take you through this. All of it, each day and every day. (())

  3. I want to let you know that reading your story is helping me keep some hard things in my life in perspective and be appreciative for the health that my family has. Thank you for having the courage and willingness to share it. We all need to see the hand of God work in our fellow travelers. Blessings, Amie :)