December 27th, 2012

2012 - A Cautionary Tale (with a happy ending)

Lots of my writer friends are doing year-end wrap-ups of their 2012 accomplishments. I enjoy reading them. I'm happy to see sales made and books published. We have a good community.

I'm going to ask for a different indulgence, however. I want to write about the most amazing person in my life and how we almost lost her this year; unlike my fiction style, though, I'm not out to provoke dread throughout this piece, so let me assure you now that this has a happy ending.

Some of you know my mother, Sheila. You may know she's essentially my role model, my best friend, my biggest fan. If you've seen my Facebook posts, you have some idea of what I've been through with her this year, and why it's been the hardest year of my life.

The back story goes like this: Although I've come to appreciate my dad more as I've aged, and to recognize how much like him I am (fortunately he gave me more than this damnable Morton jawline - I also got his engineering genes), there's no question that my mom was the primary parent in our household. She was the one who taught me to read at the age of three, who stayed up late watching horror movies with me, and who instilled in me the values of compassion and hard work. My parents quietly and amicably divorced when I was a teenager and there was no question which one of them I would live with. She refused to take alimony and instead went back to work (managing a bookstore - surprise!). This was at a time when women were just starting to enter the work force and it was still difficult for a single woman to get things we take for granted now, like credit cards. Although we were never truly poor, I remember a few times when Mom worried about the next meal.

Things got rougher when my invalid great-grandmother moved in with us. Mom's parents died (from pneumonia) when she was three, and her grandmother had taken her in (during the Depression, which tells you something grand about grandmother). Although my Nana was a kind and generous person when I was a child, a series of strokes had left her confused, bitter, temperamental and hard to deal with. She sent seasoned caregivers fleeing in tears. My Mom and I took care of her, and unfortunately it meant I was unable to have friends, at least the kind who came to my house. I once made the colossal error of bringing home a new best friend who happened to be African American, and paid for that mistake for months. It often felt like it was me and Mom against the world.

I won't lie and say it was tragic when we lost Nana; it was, in fact, a tremendous relief. I was 19, and Mom took us out to the best restaurant in town, then ordered champagne for both of us and all but dared the waiter not to serve underaged me.

Not long after, Mom met the love of her life, Hjalmer (another bookstore manager - this is looking strangely familiar, eh?). I adored him as well. They retired early and moved to Portland, Oregon, to be near Hjalmer's wonderful family. I visited whenever I could.

Unfortunately Hjalmer died unexpectedly after they'd been together only five years. He was 66, in perfect shape, had recently had a physical, and it should have been impossible...but one night he went to bed and didn't wake up. No autopsy was performed; Mom was understandably so shaken that she didn't ask for one. We have no idea what killed him. He died three days before the start of principal photography on my first movie, Meet the Hollowheads. This was, of course, my life's work and my dream realized, but it didn't matter. I flew to Portland to be with Mom.

She was soon enough back to work (do I have to mention managing a bookstore?), but retired a few years later and moved to the Los Angeles area to be near me. I was thrilled to have her back. By the time she hit 70, she was still in amazing shape and looked 50. She met a new man, Ed, and they moved in together.

But then things started to go wrong. She fell and broke a hip. She recovered with her usual grace and cheerfulness, but it was the beginning of a long, black time. She broke a wrist not long after (she and I share a mutual klutziness), and the medications began to pile on. Soon she was taking so many I couldn't remember them all.

And...she changed. My eternally optimistic, upbeat, sociable Mom who loved life and was surrounded by friends became agoraphobic and perpetually anxious. More medications were prescribed. I began to put in phone calls to her various doctors. Most were never returned. At one point she had a heart surgery that I'm still not convinced she actually needed. More medications.

In April of this year she had a hip replacement surgery. It was supposed to be routine, with a short recovery.

Yeah, right.

She spent a month after the surgery in a nursing home suffering from severe delirium. Sometimes she thought they were trying to kill her. On good days, she thought Ed was buying the nursing home and that I would be running it. She wouldn't eat, and trying to talk to anyone about her condition was nearly impossible. My strategy consisted of visiting her as often as possible; I was convinced that maybe my presence would help center her somehow.

One morning she was spectacularly delirious, talking about people who had been dead for years wandering the hallways outside her room; she had a hyperactive form of delirium, and never stopped jittering. An hour later, she was lucid and calm. The delirium had passed that quickly. Apparently it does that, without warning and virtually instantaneously.

It was June when she came home, weak and still slightly confused, but determined to recover. She responded well to physical therapy. I began to focus on my own work again - I'd taken on too many assignments, frankly, and was working late into most nights to meet all my deadlines.

But then in October - my busiest month - something happened. None of us are quite sure what, but I'm 99% convinced it was a medication issue. On October 1st, she passed out twice. On the 5th, she was admitted to the hospital; they found a slight heart flutter, which they used medication to control. During visits, she seemed slightly unfocused but basically okay. By the 8th she was completely unresponsive. No one knew why. An MRI, a lumbar tap, and blood work all came up negative. She shouldn't have been like this.

She spent the rest of October in a convalescent facility almost completely unresponsive. Her eyes were often open, but there was no recognition when she looked at anyone. When they fed her, she opened her mouth, chewed and swallowed...but otherwise nobody was home.

On October 28th, she was rushed from the convalescent facility to the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia. By the 29th, we were told she'd likely pass soon. This was the same day I was supposed to attend an awards ceremony in Hollywood to accept a prize that my book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, had just received. My publisher was excited about me attending; I warned them that I might not be able to. When the phone hadn't rung by the time I was to leave, I took a chance and went to accept the award.

On the 31st, she was moved to a small board-and-care facility and assigned hospice care. Ed and I began to go through her papers, in preparation for settling her estate.

The next day I walked in to see her at the board-and-care, and she looked at me and said, "There's my baby!" I just froze in shock. I was literally completely stunned. She'd been unresponsive for weeks. She was supposed to be dying from pneumonia. Instead, she was sitting up in bed, breathing freely, and happy to see me. She'd obviously once again snapped out of delirium.

It wasn't an instantaneous recovery this time - for several weeks she wavered in and out of awareness. But by the end of the month she was completely lucid and clearly no longer in need of hospice care.

I began the process of wading through the morass of health care, trying to get her switched from hospice to home health; she was lucid again, but had been bed-ridden for so long that she'd lost the use of her legs. She would need physical therapy to regain her ability to walk.

It's taken us a month to work through the maze, but today she started physical therapy. Not only do I expect her to make a full recovery, but she will return home more lucid and clearer than she's been in years.

I blame the American medical industry for what she's been through. She's been on a merry-go-round of doctors who are only too happy to prescribe yet more medications, and who don't ever seem to bother to check either medication conflicts or long-term side effects. I've researched some of the drugs she was on, and learned things about them that have made me want to seek out a few doctors for good thrashings. There is no question that she was over-medicated and badly treated by doctors. I think at least one hospital literally lied about her care and another misdiagnosed her. I think hospitals and facilities have made a fortune off billing her insurance company for treatments she didn't need or just plain didn't even receive.

The good news is that she is now almost free of medications, has a new doctor who is leery of pills, and is in better mental shape than she's been in years. She's reading again, talking to friends, and we had a splendid Christmas lunch at a great restaurant. She's looking forward to the future, and so am I.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who offered me legal and medical advice when I most needed it, and to offer up my own words of wisdom: Don't place your trust in doctors, don't believe anyone who tells you America has a great health care system, and be very wary of any medications.

Here's to a happier, healthier, calmer 2013 for everyone.