Tales of My Mother #10
During the last decade of my mother's life, her eyes and legs increasingly failed her. In-between those parts of her anatomy, there were occasional problems like Congestive Heart Failure but the eyes and the legs were the ongoing problems. There were long stretches when her heart was fine but her eyes and legs were awry every waking minute.
Her doctors told her that if she would just stop smoking, both would get better…or at least, wouldn't continue to worsen at the pace by which they were worsening. She cut back on the Marlboros but didn't stop until a few months before her passing, by which point it almost didn't matter. One wrenching day about a year before she passed, I took her to an ophthalmologist appointment where she was asked, rather matter-of-factly, if she had or needed a document certifying that she was legally blind.
I can still hear her soft, stunned voice as she repeated, as if the term had never occurred to her, "legally blind." She could see but not much more than about two feet in front of her…and not well enough to read a book or make out my face unless our noses were practically touching.
Her eyes had been deteriorating for some time. Macular degeneration, they told her. And then one day while out with our mutual cleaning lady, my mother fell and sustained a big scratch on the retina of what had up until that moment been her "good eye." From that point on, she had to rely on her "bad eye" and worry that it would fail and leave her totally without sight.
Still, hearing those words — "legally blind" — came as a shock. Well, why wouldn't they?
She had what seemed like a most competent ophthalmologist at Kaiser Hospital — not the person who asked the above question — and he struck me as properly balancing compassion with honest assessment of her situation. Some of the other eye doctors she saw there were a bit clumsy with their wordage but they told her the same thing; that her vision would continue to deteriorate. Certain treatments (like shots in the eye, which she hated) might slow things down but if she lived long enough, she would one day be totally, not just legally, blind. One of the things that tempered my sorrow at her death was the knowledge that she was approaching that day and she dearly wanted to go before it arrived.
The only thing I didn't like about her main ophthalmologist wasn't his fault. It was how little attention he could spare us as he handled some ridiculous number of patients per hour. We always had to spend long stretches in the waiting room, well past her appointment time. Then we'd finally be shown into Examining Room A while he was examining a patient in Examining Room B. Then he'd come into our room and attend to my mother while nurses loaded his next patient into B. Back and forth he'd go between the rooms, unable to spend enough quality time with anyone. At the end of each examination, he'd ask my mother, "Any questions?" And if she didn't come up with one in two seconds, he'd be out the door and on his way to the next patient.
How I dealt with this: By blocking the exit.
I'm 6'3" and something of a wide load. When the doctor came into the room, I'd subtly move to a spot between him and the exit, the better to prevent his escape before my mother had a chance to ask all her questions. The doctor knew exactly what I was doing and didn't really mind it. Once when I finally let him go, I heard him tell the patient in the adjoining room, "Sorry to keep you waiting but the patient I was just with…her son was blocking the door and wouldn't let me out."
But once he got past me. I wasn't in position and he gave my mother a half-second to ask him anything before he said, "Exit, stage left!" and headed for the room next door.
"Oh, a Snagglepuss fan," I remarked.
He stopped and said, "You know Snagglepuss?"
My mother said — in a dry delivery that Walter Matthau would have envied — "My son knows every cartoon ever made."
The doctor eyed me with skepticism. "Oh, yeah? What was the name of Jonny Quest's dog?"
I said, "Bandit. Hey, do you think my mother should be taking Lutein?"
He said, "Can't hurt to try" and he recommended a dosage. Then he asked me, "What was the name of the Jetsons' dog?"
I said, "Astro and his real name was Tralfaz. Hey, how about Vitamin D? You think that would do anything for her?"
That was how it went, not only on that visit but every one after that. Instead of giving us the minimum time, he'd keep others waiting and we'd talk about two topics: Cartoons and my mother's eyes. I'd trade him info for info. Sometimes, he had actual questions about the industry. Other times, he just wanted to see if he could stump me. Once, he tried the latter by asking, "On the Dungeons 'n' Dragons cartoon show, what was the name of the blonde kid who was their leader?"
I told him it was Hank. He told me I was wrong and that it was Frank. I told him it was Hank and added, "By the way, I wrote the pilot for that show." Whack!
But that wasn't my favorite exchange. My favorite was when he asked me where Bullwinkle Moose went to college. I told him it was "Wottsamotta U." He told me I was wrong. "Aha! I finally got you! It was Moosylvania University!"
I told him he was wrong. He told me he was right. I told him he was wrong. He told me he was right. I told him he was wrong. He told me he was right.
I offered to bet him.
The offer was this: If he was right, I'd give him a DVD of any cartoon show he named. Any one. If I was right, he'd give my mother a half-hour of his time. We'd come back at the end of the day after all his other appointments and he'd spend thirty solid minutes discussing things we might try to help her vision. He said, "It's a deal…but how are you going to prove it?"
Easy. I whipped out my cell phone and dialed a number. A woman answered and I asked her, "May I speak to Rocky the Flying Squirrel, please?" The ophthalmologist stared at me like I was about two Jews short of a minyan. When another voice came on the line, I said, "Hi, Rocky. It's Mark Evanier. How's the weather in Frostbite Falls, today? Great. Hey, listen. I have a friend here. Would you please tell him where your friend Bullwinkle went to college? Here he is –!"
And I handed the phone to the eye doctor. You should have seen his face when Rocky said, "Hokey Smokes! Everyone knows Bullwinkle was a proud alumnus of Wottsamotta U!" There are many advantages to knowing June Foray and that was one of them.
My mother, who understood exactly what was going on, got hysterical. I used to make her laugh a lot but I think that was the all-time best. And the doctor was not displeased about losing our little wager. He stumbled around his office for some time after in a happy daze, telling everyone, "You won't believe who I just talked to!"
He made good on the half-hour but unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done…by him. I took her to an outside specialist — a man my own ophthalmologist said was the best retina man in the field. The best retina man in the field said there wasn't anything that could be done. After that, my mother asked me to stop. All she was going to hear from additional doctors was that there was nothing that could be done and she didn't need to hear that over and over. So I stopped.
She became increasingly reliant on paid caregivers. She could, of course, no longer drive and her walking capabilities were such that she couldn't even leave her home without considerable aid. The house had a large, beautiful back yard and she loved to stare out at the birds splashing about in the two birdbaths or feasting at a feeder I'd installed. She couldn't see them very well but she could hear them and her imagination could fill out whatever imagery she could see.
Still, even with help, she could not physically get down the back steps and so couldn't actually venture out into her own back yard. There were fewer steps in the front and I had a bannister installed to help her there. In the house, she got around with a walker. When out, she was pushed around in a wheelchair. I had a good, heavy-duty one in the trunk of my car and I also bought a lightweight one that was employed when caregivers took her to the market or the beauty salon…or to the kind of doctor appointments that didn't require my presence.
The caregivers came from an agency that had been highly-recommended. It was licensed and bonded and the people there were awful nice. So were the caregivers…until one day, I went online to check my mother's bank accounts and I found some mysterious charges. The next time I write one of these, I'll tell you what happened but the audio clip below should give you some idea of the kind of story it'll be…