On the night of February 25th — Oscar night — my active 86-year-old mother who has lived alone since my dad passed in 2009 took a bad fall in the upstairs bathroom of her longtime San Francisco home. From her injuries, it seems she hit her head twice; once on the toilet and once on the floor. I’m not completely sure how it all “went down,” so to speak, and, of course, neither is she.
What is clear is that the event physically resulted in a lot of blood that required immediate stapling of the back of her head, bruising of my mom’s entire right side of her face and neck, and a couple of large contusions on her right cheek.
Applying towels to the back of her head, she managed to get herself back to her bedroom and called 911.
Allow me to forego sharing much detail of the ensuing two weeks, save to say they involved three-day hospital stays each at San Francisco Zuckerberg/General Hospital and California Pacific Medical Center, the diagnosis of a moderate concussion/TBI (traumatic brain injury), and a 10-day stay at CPMC’s well-regarded Acute Rehab Center on its Davies campus.
What I wish to reflect on in this writing is how my mother’s fall was the catalyst for a new chapter of my life.
You can probably imagine that the days of my mother’s hospitalizations were filled with emotion, worry, uncertainty, stress, and lots of questions. It was also a time in which my brothers, sisters-in-law, a niece trained in physical therapy, and I sprang into action and support in a cohesive way as we sought answers to the questions that suddenly and emergently surfaced as a result of Mom’s fall.
Because we had to make some big decisions. Fast.
There are some events in life that can be characterized as “game-changers.” From my perspective, these include (yet are not limited to) having a child/children, major illness, marriage, divorce, and death.
Now that my mom has fallen, I would count this as one of those events.
Before the fall, my mom walked regularly, drove locally, went to lunch and other outings with friends, and managed the house she lived in for 60 years.
Fortunately — and somewhat remarkably — Mom sustained no orthopedic injuries from the fall, and she improved greatly with treatment in acute rehab. Yet her concussive injuries posed a more complicated situation whereby she could not live alone, nor would she be able to drive for the indefinite future, if at all.
And this is precisely the point where the game changed.
To the uninitiated, it might seem simple enough that either someone — a member of the family perhaps — simply live or stay with Mom, or Mom live or stay with someone until she “got better.”
But now that I have been “initiated,” I have learned that it is not nearly that simple.
I learned that my mother needed much more than simply someone living with her.
I learned that my mother’s former living environment — my childhood home — was no longer safe or appropriate for her.
I learned that my mother’s former lifestyle after the fall was not a healthy situation for her going forward.
So back to those big decisions.
As events unfolded that first week, what became clear to all of us (and when I say “us” from here on out, I am referring to my family members I spoke of earlier) is that we needed to find an environment we could provide for Mom upon her release from Davies Rehab that provided support, community, safety, security, loose structure, and social/mental stimulation.
A tall order in such a short period of time.
My sisters-in-law (one of whom flew out from Chicago) jumped right to the task during my mother’s second week of hospitalization. They toured and interviewed five communities in SF and Marin County, ultimately selecting one that seemed ideal: The Redwoods in Mill Valley. A beautiful area, lovely facilities, a caring and professional staff, many class offerings, activities, field trips, and assistance as needed.
And, remarkably enough, The Redwoods had several vacancies.
We secured with a deposit one of the nicer studios that had a lovely northeastern view.
And on the Friday morning my mother was released from acute rehab, I drove her across the Golden Gate Bridge to The Redwoods where we met my sister-in-law Susan and awaited my brothers who packed up a U-Haul van with some furniture and belongings from my mother’s home.
By that Friday evening, Mom was settled in her new studio.
That was quite a day.
Now that Mom has been living at The Redwoods for almost three weeks and I reflect on the events of the past six weeks, so many feelings, realizations, and teachings have risen to “my surface.” Some rise quietly and peacefully, others more painfully.
Allow me to candidly express what has arisen without explanation or qualification.
I feel strangely unmoored and vulnerable, even afraid.
I feel alone. And at the same time, supported. If that makes any sense.
I feel grief. About so many things.
I feel relief. Relief from the worry I was harboring (but didn’t realize it) for such a long time about Mom living alone. Relief that my mom is now in what I consider a better place.
I feel grateful.
I realize that my mother is incredibly fortunate to have the means and ability to transition into such a safe and caring environment. An environment that is inaccessible to the vast majority of aging Americans, including myself.
I realize that the “sunset chapter” of life in today’s America is filled with challenges and unprecedented opportunities for a growth that is essentially uncharted and a little scary.
I realize how strong I am.
I realize much more deeply and viscerally than before how interdependent and interconnected we all are and that the quality of all of our lives — from birth to death — depends largely on how deeply we understand this; as individuals and as a collective.
I’ve learned how blessed I am to have been born into my family of origin.
I’ve learned that humility is perhaps the most valuable — and yet most undervalued — of qualities in our society.
I’ve learned the vital importance of speaking truthfully. And listening respectfully.
I’ve learned that the choices we make in every moment matter.
And I’m learning to live more fully just one day at a time.