It's Not About the Chicken
A simple enough question, with an ever changing answer - how important is it? Often, the most pressing concern I have for Mom is the cleanliness of her refrigerator (or lack thereof). Others – it’s the PC IV in her arm and the 103 degree fever she’s running. An obvious difference of import.
Yesterday, I opened Mom’s refrigerator and came face to face with the whole cooked chicken I delivered two weeks ago. No doubt uncovered the entire time, the pathetic poultry was clearly ready for the refuse. Not long ago, I would have: 1) removed the offender from the fridge, 2) presented it to Mom as evidence of its disgustingness, 3) reprimanded her for providing sanctuary for deadly E.coli, and 4) tossed it in the trash with demonstrable purpose.
But that’s not what I did this time.
Over the last 8 months, Mom has: 1) had three kidney stone “procedures” (code for “we’re gonna try to pull that sucker out, but there’s no guarantee”, 2) had two vertebrae cemented together (while apparently, just short of full sedation), 3) narrowly sidestepped death by sepsis, 4) spent 2 weeks tethered to an IV rehabbing at The Home and, 5) peed in a cup more than 50 times (not an easy task for an old woman with a nagging UTI). All of this makes the rotten chicken seem like small potatoes.
Employing a kind of mental triage, I did not bring the offending fowl to Mom’s attention, but rather, quietly tossed it in the trash (and immediately took the trash out so as not to provide an opportunity for Mom to put said bird back into the fridge). In that chicken moment, I consciously chose not to invite Mom to our age old spoiled-food argument. I understood that she’d been through a lot recently, and I should just jump over the gaping rabbit hole. Eight months ago, I would have catastrophized that bird all the way out to a town wide epidemic of E.Coli. It was Mom’s near-death experience that put the putrid poultry into perspective.
Mom’s external demeanor is often the best barometer of a thing’s importance. Last week I found her at the table in tears, an empty pill box and seven identical med bottles (with teeny print and child-proof caps) in front of her, and loose little white pills on the floor. Unbeknownst to me, her weekly aide had been apportioning these pills for months. Had I not walked in on her during the pill predicament, my independent mother would have proceeded to fill the compartments with her best guestimate of what goes where. A 92 year old woman with congenital heart failure does not have a lot of room for error when it comes to med mix-ups, so being a watchdog over this weekly ritual has moved to the pinnacle of importance.
These are obvious examples of caregiving triage at work… times when it’s relatively simple to discern what the priority should be (staying alive vs. a clean fridge), but, it’s not always so clear cut. Sometimes, the priority is barely discernible to me, but hugely important to Mom… like when she has an important nugget of info she’d like to share, but doesn’t want to bother me… or when she needs another doctor appointment, but doesn’t want to bother me… or when she can’t locate the overdue bill, but doesn’t want to bother me… or when her fire alarm beeps, but she doesn’t want to bother me, or when… or when… or when… Invisible inconveniences for me, but matters of such concern for Mom, that they mean the difference between a good and bad day.
These days, we rarely have the spoiled-food argument - partly, because she’s moved way beyond such frivolous folly, and partly because she can’t actually see me foraging in her fridge. On any given day - and void of kidney pain, UTIs and sepsis – Mom’s priorities are mostly things that matter to others, like having enough stamps to send notes to her grandkids, tipping her newspaper carrier, and, ensuring the Home For Little Wanderers received her most recent donation.
Of the many lessons I’ve learned in the last eight years with Mom, one of the most important is understanding the importance of how important is it? The truth is, at the end of the day, the chicken is just not that important.