published Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Grand Thoughts: Dealing with a looming death in the family

The last two weeks have been the most exhausting — mentally and physically — days of my life. One day last week, I gave my Chihuahua my hormone pill, and I took her prednisone. I'm seriously exhausted.

Ten days ago, a brain biopsy revealed my 85-year-old mother has at least eight inoperable, malignant brain tumors. Just two weeks prior, she was babysitting my 7-year-old granddaughter, Tilleigh, and my 4-year-old granddaughter, Evie, by herself with no problems.

She did, though, have some tell-tale signs in earlier weeks that something was amiss. She had been falling, but had broken no bones and suffered no major injuries. Despite visits to various medical institutions, she was never admitted and we didn't know exactly what the cause was for her falls.

Things changed dramatically on June 8. Because of the multiple falls, my mother came to stay at my house during the last week of May. As the days passed, it was evident her health was declining. So when she fell on June 8, my husband and I called an ambulance and requested they take her to Erlanger hospital.

What happened at Erlanger for the next 11 days has blown me away. My mother was treated as though she was every staff member's mother. Within two hours of arriving at the emergency room, she had been examined by three physicians and about four medical students, as well as nurses, technicians and other staff members. Just a few hours later, an MRI revealed a "mass" in my mother's brain. They quickly learned that there was, indeed, a reason she had been falling.

Five days after being admitted to Erlanger, doctors learned via brain biopsy that the numerous tumors were cancerous and too deep to operate. Her choices are low-dose radiation, which offers a whisper of hope for shrinking the tumors, physical therapy at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation to hopefully strengthen her left side, which is basically nonfunctional because of the tumors, or let Mother Nature take its course. We've opted for radiation and physical therapy at Siskin.

The reality, though, is brutal. My mother's life is nearing an end.

In the last several weeks. I've given a lot of thought to life and death. I look at my mother, who seems to be slipping away with every breath, and I look at my three grandchildren (including William, 22 months), whose lives are just beginning, and I see the longevity of genetics. And it makes me very aware that a part of my mother will be around forever. These three little people, one of whom has my mother's name, will carry my mother's genes, and her legacy, to another generation.

I know death is part of life, but it's very hard to accept. It's difficult to look at someone you've been loving for decades and know that one day very soon you'll never see her again. And it doesn't matter that my mom is 85 or that I'm 61, I feel like a young child losing her parent.

But during this time of sorrow and hope, there's also laughter -- thanks to Tilleigh, Evie and William. They can turn a drab hospital room into one of light and joy. And though the children didn't get to visit Mother every day she was at Erlanger, at least one was there on any given day.

Tilleigh's visits brought peacefulness to my mother as she made sure the blankets were keeping my mother warm, or that she always had something to drink. Tilleigh pulled a chair next to the bed so her grandmother could watch her color, a "normal" activity that made Mother feel comfortable.

Evie, mother's namesake, wasn't so accommodating, though. Her illness scared our little girl. Evie is not used to seeing her typically active great-grandmother confined to a chair or wheelchair or in bed during daylight. Mother and I noticed Evie keeping her distance from mother, which was very unusual because Evie has always been affectionate. So I took Evie aside and asked her to tell me what she was feeling about Mother.

Never in a million years could I have guessed what this little kid was thinking.

"It's her hair," Evie said. "It's messy, and she doesn't like it messy. I don't like it messy, either. She doesn't look like Nannie."

To be honest, Mother's hair was a little messy. Typically, she styles her hair every morning, but since her last fall and her declining health, looking pretty -- especially styling her hair -- was not a priority. I brushed her hair every morning but didn't style it.

When I told Mother what Evie said, she laughed. She was also relieved that the problem was an easy fix. So that night, after I washed Mother's hair, we rolled it and the next morning we styled it in her typical 'do.' We ditched her new wardrobe of wearing a gown and robe for Mother's typical attire of pants and a blouse.

It worked.

The next day, Evie interacted with Mother just like she had for the last four years.

William, on the other hand, acts the same around mother.

As my mom's disease progresses, we will be aware of the children's reaction to her declining health and deal with it accordingly. To date, we haven't talked to them about death, but that particular conversation will have to be addressed soon. It won't be easy.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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