My mother, Barbara, died February 27, 2010, of COPD/emphysema just shy of her 78th birthday. She was diagnosed back in the mid-1990s after a bout of pneumonia, and was using supplemental oxygen part time by 2001. Her father had died of emphysema at age 59, and her older sister had died of it in 1993 at age 63. It runs in our family.

After a particularly bad bronchial infection and pneumonia in late 2006, we all (my sister and mother, and my step-dad) knew we had to become more aware, more vigilant. (My step-dad is a doctor, who also uses alternative medicine in his practice.) My sister and I both were living out of town at this time, so the folks were always on the front lines. After another year, my mother had another round of infections, and, as is the nature of COPD, found it harder to bounce back. By the end of February 2008 I had used up all my vacation time for the year just on my mother’s illnesses… I had to make a decision.

So, I quit a great job at Procter and Gamble, and in March ’08 moved back to Louisville, Ky (actually Clarksville, IN, just across the river) to my mom and stepdad’s home to become her primary caregiver. It was  the beginning of a challenging time, but I wouldn’t change my decision for anything. My mother and I were always close, and some years after my father had died and after we had sold our farm east of town, we even rented a place together for almost two years until we were both solvent enough to venture out on our own. That was in the mid-1980s. Now, however, it was different. I was signing on to care for her until the end…

In a shock to us all, I was taken seriously ill in May ’08 with what started out as flu-like symptoms, but was later found to be mild strokes. I was eventually diagnosed with endocarditis, and had open-heart surgery to remove the infected mass. Amazingly, through this time, my mother was able to visit me every day in the hospital, even driving herself most days. When I was discharged, I stayed on the upstairs bedroom floor just down the hall from the folks. My mom fixed me a light breakfast at 5 o’clock every morning for two or three weeks before I was picked up by a friend to go for my morning IV antibiotic. What a blessing for her to be able to care for me, her son, in my hour of need.

This proved to be her last good summer. As I improved, she continued to do extremely well, even being able to swim and drive. We took a special trip in October ’08 back to Syracuse, NY for a family reunion, and my mom and step-dad traveled to Wisconsin as well. By this time I was back to full time at my job, and we were all cautiously optimistic about the future. I came home from work one evening to find my mom standing in the kitchen at the stove cooking dinner for her and my step-dad – without supplemental oxygen! (She had been on O2 full time since maybe 2005 or 2006.) They had been going to a healing crusade in town (Benny Hinn), and my mother announced that she was healed. This was extremely difficult for me, as I (an Orthodox Christian) believe very deeply in facing death squarely, being honest about one’s condition, and preparing for it by seeking and offering forgiveness to family and friends, prayer, confession of sins, and all the inner work one can do to leave nothing unsaid or undone. Of course I supported her and neither did nor said anything to cause her sorrow. (My standard reply at that time was “Glory to God for all things!”) Her good health lasted a week; she was able to go for walks in the neighborhood without oxygen, but eventually started to develop a sinus infection, which led to another bronchial condition…

We muddled through the next few months, but in late January 2009 she had to go back to the hospital again, and this time it was a longer recovery and rehab. Less than two months after that bout, my mom became sick again, and this time it was my step-dad who alarmed me, insisting on a round-the-clock regimen of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) IV drips for my mom as a cure. This led to a sudden buildup of fluids and heart issues. In and out of the hospital in May 09, then the crash, with a horrendous scene: my step-dad barking out orders to my step-brother and even my aunt. It was so chaotic and over the top that I told my sister I felt like I was in a “badly written B-movie”! My mother finally insisted on being taken to the hospital again, for what was the most severe incident yet. She was on a respirator for a little over two days, but was able to come off it, and amazingly was moved to a private room where they continued to suction out her lungs and clear her up. My mother ws very strong through all this, and changed her medical directives, making me her representative and giving me her durable power of attorney. She was way too weak to qualify for the hospital-affiliated rehab center this time, so I selected the best nursing-rehab facility I could find, where she was for ten weeks. She weighed less than eighty pounds when admitted, and the head doctor began preparing his staff to lose her, but she fought back and did everything she could. I was there every day (by now I was down to 20 hrs/week at work), and we had a beautiful summer watching movies, Murder She Wrote, and working out in the physical rehab complex. Wonderful visits from my sister, aunt, my mom’s cousin, and others… It was all okay – we were together…

Mother came home in early September 09, and did all she could with her home rehab workers, but remained very weak. We soon had to return her to a pureed diet. I would get up each morning to fix her meal, and carry it in to her with a “Happy Breakfast!” greeting. She loved that. We had a great system set up, so I would prep her 4-cup Mr Coffee and other essentials the night before so if she got up before me, she could turn on her coffee and be in her chair taking her meds without waiting for my arrival. I loved the mornings I didn’t have to go to work, and could hang with Mother and share our coffee and breakfast together. We grew even closer, and with my laptop I could work on my personal projects and email, and share with her photos I had taken or my latest piece of writing. She felt terrible when she was moving slowly and would keep me up waiting to get her settled into bed with her bi-pap breathing machine, and she hated that I had to empty her bedside commode, but none of that bothered me. I wish I could still be helping her…

Our last great family feast with all of us together in the dining room was Thanksgiving last year. My brother-in-law’s dad, Jere (who was dying of cancer), came up with my sister and bro-in-law so we were all together. Us younger ones knew 2010 would see both of them leave us, and so it happened…

As my mom’s caregiver, I am thankful for every time I could lay aside my fatigue and self-interest, and smile, help, love, fetch, clean, carry, listen, share, laugh, cry… A friend of mine used to jokingly reply to his mom when she would call for him, “Yes, Miss Daisy” (from Morgan Freeman’s great movie role), and I used that many times to great humorous effect. I was especially blessed by my mother’s faith. She prayed for everyone she met wherever she went, and so always knew the name of every doctor, nurse, aide, therapist, custodian, nutritionist, technician, transporter, whether at the hospital, rehab center, home, or wherever. She didn’t have to read their name tags, and they didn’t always update the board in her room, she just knew their names. She never complained, but would only say that she didn’t understand why she was having trouble, or that she wasn’t as good as she wanted to be, but was better than she had been. Towards the end, she had to be intubated again to preserve her life, and she decided she didn’t want to live on a machine. I didn’t have to honor her request or make that decision; she was able to write on a clipboard, “Hard to breath… I don’t want to live like this… pull the plug, I’m ready to give my life over to Jesus.” She was profoundly brave in facing death.

When she was in the hospital that final week of her life, I was squeezed to the outer perimeter by all the stepfamily, family and friends who crowded in to see her… I was sick too, with a horrible head cold, so I couldn’t keep vigil at night, but left that to my sister and aunt. I had also bruised my foot and was on crutches. I felt like I was falling apart… My two years serving my mother were coming to their sad, devastating, inevitable end… I was able to be gracious to everyone around me, but what a challenge at times… But by the grace of God, I made it through.

It’s been a little over three months since Mother’s death, and I am just finding a bit of energy and purpose again. I’m celebrating my third week in my lovely new apartment, and doing healthy things, like walking, playing music, etc. In fact, the evening sky is inviting me… I think I’ll go for that walk now.



3 Responses to Barbara Sidway

  1. Susan says:

    Ralph, What a journey for all of you. No one told us the road of life would have so many hills and mountains, but you faced them head on. I applaud your courage and your devotion to your mother and your family. You give the ultimate gift, yourself. I know your mother is smiling down on you from above. Take time for you now, yes, go for that walk. It is very renewing. Thank you for sharing this beautiful journey. Blessings-Susan

  2. char says:

    Ralph, You sound like an absolute joy, your caring way of expressing your love for your mom moved me to lots of tears. I only pray that I can be half as strong as you were, as my mom is ill, and time is fleeting. You have inspired me to move forward, smile, laugh, cry when you have to, (that sounds familiar) and to be the best I can be, as you Ralph, were and still are.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us, your mom is smiling on you I am sure.

  3. Jean Fogelberg says:

    Dear Ralph, thank you so much for sharing your story with us – it so beautifully encapsulates all that being a caregiver is about. You were such a good son – your mother must have been so proud of you. I’m glad you’re heading into this new chapter with such good memories of your sweet mother; with no regrets; and knowing that you have to concentrate on caring for yourself now. Grow and flourish. ~ Jean

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