The cell phone sits on an edge of my office desk, taking up little space but dominating my mind. I wait, trying to ignore it and focus on a report I’m writing for my “day job.” The report is not creative but requires my full attention. Yet I can’t seem to concentrate on the words, and can’t retain their meaning as they skitter around my computer screen like marbles. I am fragmented—my body in an office building in Porter Square, Cambridge—my mind back in suburban Cleveland.
My mother is 83, twice widowed, and wound tight like the springs of an old clock. In the past five years, Mom has been buffeted by the waves of old age and the challenges that come along with it—the loss of many friends and her second husband, a fall and broken bones, and now—another loss, of her appetite
My mother’s weight loss has gone hand in hand with her misfortunes; the stress of dealing with her late husband’s decline and mood swings, interspersed with her fall and a fractured femur, caused Mom to shed about 20 pounds over the course of a year. As her husband, Paul, deteriorated, my mother continued to get leaner, anxiety whittling her down into a tiny angular woman, all planes and sharp edges.
A week before her husband died, I was back in Cleveland, trying to provide moral support. By then, Mom was living on bottles of Ensure, too heartsick and nervous to eat. But after Paul’s death, my mother rallied, relieved, on some level, that both his suffering and her caretaking were over.
Still, I watched Mom’s social circle—formerly wide and deep, now thinned down like her eighty-year-old body—shrink as her old friends passed away or struggled with illness. Then, in the fall of 2010, my mother was rushed to the hospital with abdominal pain; her appendix had ruptured. Her recovery was long and tenuous, but she did recover, determined to regain her independence.
Another bullet dodged by this frail woman who stands about five-feet tall and weighs 90 pounds. My two brothers and I (one lives in South Florida, the other on Boston’s North Shore) tracked her progress, and two of us made trips to Cleveland to urge her on. But my brothers rarely go back to our hometown to visit, and so my mother relies on her dwindling number of fiends and, to some extent, on me.
After my last visit in December, I noticed that my mother’s appetite had gone from birdlike to almost non-existent. Suddenly it was all about role-reversal. There I was, her fifty-something son, pleading, cajoling her to have dessert or between meal snacks. (“Hey Ma, I got this just for you, c’mon, just one bite.”)
A few weeks after my visit, I learned that Mom weighed 88.5 pounds at her last doctor’s visit. She had lost five pounds in the past four months. That figure propelled me into action; I called her doctor, and set up a plan with my mother’s social worker, arranging for weekly weigh-ins at home. We also set up a system to increase Mom’s use of her nutritional supplements, Boost or Ensure, from one to two per day.
The system, such as it was, depended on my mother’s cooperation and motivation. I had been trying to increase her caloric intake by long distance, and during my visits to Cleveland, with limited effect. I was hoping that Rita, the social worker, would have better luck.
The phone sat on my desk, while I waited for a text, a message that would give me a number, and a sense of whether my mother was going in the right or the continued wrong direction. Finally, my phone vibrated, shuddered, jumped, as did I when I heard the sound. I grabbed the phone and read quickly, looking for a number. Last week she had been down to 88 pounds, now back to 88.5. Half a pound—it was something, nothing, not what I wanted.
Soon after I placed another call to my mother’s doctor, searching for the answers he may not have. Then I slipped the phone in my pocket, silenced for now.
My body remained in a small, glassed-in office in Cambridge, my mind 700 miles west on the shores of Lake Erie where my mother lies adrift, like a rowboat in a lake effect storm.