Backroads: Moving Martha to Placerville

By From page A5 | January 25, 2012

In part two of Backroads, columnist Mike Roberts’ three-part reflection on gratitude, his 87-year old mother, suffering with COPD in Illinois, agrees to give up her independence. Getting Martha to Placerville requires a team effort.

Late in November, with Mom just three days out of rehab (pulmonary rehab, not Charlie Sheen rehab), and me back in Illinois with her, praying her health would stabilize and trying desperately to convince her she could no longer live alone, I encountered a neighbor and friend of hers in the hallway.

I poured out my frustration over Mom’s intransigence, despite her recent hospitalizations and clearly declining condition. I knew this woman, Diane Kent, was strong-willed and also that my mother respected her but I can’t take any credit for what happened the next day.

While I was off at the local coffee shop, probably writing about the El Dorado Hills CSD or the Grace Foundation’s heroic efforts to save abused horses from Susanville, Diane visited my mother. That evening Mom announced she was willing to move to Placerville.

In 30 minutes on my mom’s couch Diane accomplished what days of my conniving and convincing could not. I was elated.

But before I could act she weakened and three days later made her third trip to the emergency room in three months, eventually spending another week in the hospital and another couple in rehab, after which I made sure things happened quickly. If she faltered again I wanted it to be in California, not Illinois.

My wife Michele and I flew in to spring Mom from rehab and spent the next couple of days sorting through her possessions with her and planning the logistics of the move, with frequent interruptions by family and friends who came to say good-bye. Many, especially those up in years, acknowledged tearfully that they would never see Martha again.

Mom’s niece-in-law and dear friend Nancy volunteered to be our airport shuttle, rising in the wee hours to ferry Mom and her oxygen, Michele and I, and a truckload of luggage to Midway airport.

Mom requires oxygen 24 hours a day, but tanks aren’t allowed on commercial aircraft. She required a portable oxygen concentrator, which is essentially a battery-powered compressor that takes room air and “concentrates” it into the stuff that gets pumped into noses through clear plastic tubes. The portable model sets up like a medium-sized carry-on roller bag, festooned with spare batteries and hoses.

Two pulmonary supply companies, a large one in Illinois and one with a large heart in Diamond Springs, had to work cooperatively to ensure a successful handoff of Mom and her O2. The Medicare coverage rules are such that neither party had any financial incentive to work with the other and for the first couple weeks they didn’t.

But a project manager named Pat in Illinois pushed through the initial impasse and worked out a tentative, woefully unprofitable for all parties arrangement with Don at Sierra Pulmonary.

I was driving down Canal Street in Placerville when Pat called to tell me that David and Goliath had reached an agreement. She’d loan us a portable oxygen concentrator. Beyond her basic needs Don had also agreed to provide Mom liquid oxygen, six hours of which fit into a canteen-sized dispenser that greatly increases her mobility and her quality of life.

I pulled over in front of Markham school and wept tears of gratitude.

Since neither Mom nor I are small, I bought the concentrator its own seat on the plane, which caused substantial confusion at the airport as it lacked proper identification.

Our carryon luggage that day also included an electric wheelchair, which arrived at the gate in Sacramento with batteries completely spent.

I piled our carry-on luggage onto the seat and leaned into it, while Michele pushed my travel-weary but upbeat mother, oxygen concentrator on her lap, toward security.

By the time we got there I was in full lather. Family friends Greg and Blair Gollihur met us at the airport for what was far from a simple curbside pickup.

Advanced COPD patients like Mom are, by definition, extremely weak. She gains strength in the afternoon and peaks in the evening. But her mornings are brutal. Doctors have a term for it: “activity intolerant.”

Southwest Airlines’ one nonstop from Chicago to Sacramento departed at 8:35 a.m. that day. None of us got much sleep that night. I got Mom up at 5 a.m.

None of us, doctors included, had any idea how Mom would react to the trip. I warned Greg and Blair that we might be going directly to the closest hospital. They elected to bring two vehicles.

Martha demonstrated her mettle that day, calling upon some untapped adrenalin reserve to power through.

We loaded the Gollihur fleet with our collection of orthopedics and the half-ton of luggage, and headed for Placerville, where Mom would stay at our home for a week before moving into Gold Country Retirement Community.

With Mom out of her condo, the next hurtle was getting the balance of her stuff out. Despite having little equity, my father restructured his reverse mortgage at the peak of the housing bubble, somehow extracting enough to fund my parents’ modest lifestyle from then until now.

The ensuing devaluation left the condo upside down. We needed to vacate quickly and give it to HUD to avoid further costs.

With Mom safely installed at Gold Country, Michele and I decided to fly back to Chicago to vacate the condo in a four-day whirlwind.

Together we’d donate or sell the big pieces, renting a truck if we had to, then paw through the dresser drawers and closet shelves side by side, sorting the wheat from the chaff, packing and shipping the keepsakes and donating the balance to charity. We figured that with two of us working full-bore, four days might even allow time to say some final farewells to my old friends in the evenings.

My friend Steve, the best firewood cutting buddy a 57-year-old Placerville guy could ever want, agreed to hover around Mom, who’d only been at Gold Country two weeks.

Steve clearly relished the “mom-sitting” role, and spent the prior two weeks befriending her in preparation for his service.

This busy family man made a conscious effort to establish an independent relationship with my mother. He called her regularly — still does — and visits her often.

Our plans fell apart when Steve coughed up blood and was hospitalized just days before our departure. Michele ended up staying home to mom-sit and Steve-sit, although Steve’s dog Socks required more attention than his owner, who was confined to a hospital room.

I flew back to Chicago solo and worked four marathon days and nights in the condo. Neighbors chipped in, conducting an informal estate sale the week before my arrival, and arranging for the removal of everything — big or small — that didn’t sell to a local charity. Thanks to neighbors Beth, Clarissa, Marilyn and John.

Once I arrived in Chicago another old friend, Liz, showed up with her minivan on short notice, helped me load up the family heirloom hall tree — the source of much Roberts family consternation — and hauled it to the consignment shop.

Just as importantly, Liz patiently sorted through the extensive Roberts family Christmas decoration collection. Oh yes, I carried not only the sentimental family ornaments but also an entire artificial Christmas tree back with me on the plane, while Walgreens advertised the same size tree for $14.95.

Why? Because Mom asked for it. She actually insisted. And how could I refuse? She asked for so little, and gave so much. She wanted her Christmas tree. Dammit, she got it.

Cousin Jim worked side by side with me for two of the four days, slinging bubble wrap and packing tape. Together we Frankensteined together custom-sized boxes for the end tables I’d made for mom years ago and some original art pieces she wanted to keep.

Other well-intentioned relatives called periodically throughout those four intense days, and I confess that I treated them poorly. I cut them off and refused their offers of help. Neighbors wandered in for an update. I asked them to leave.

But not cousin Jim. We’re three years apart, the only children of identical twins who raised us as brothers. Over the last five years he repeatedly drove across greater Chicago to man the front lines in my parents’ often dramatic health battles.

Jim drove them to the hospital and stayed by their side. He wiped away their tears and mopped up their blood. It was he, not I, that was there, holding mother’s hand in 2008 when my father left this earth. Thanks Jim. You are my brother.

In part three, local angels help Martha settle in at Gold Country.

Mike Roberts


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