Check out Bruce Springsteen's Youngstown
Previous visits were narrowly focused on the medical needs of my 83 year old mother (whose poor health is a result of obesity, severe arthritis, chronic high blood and dementia). In June, I spent six agonizing days at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital navigating Mom through two heart surgeries. As the eldest of her five children, I have taken the lead in advocating for mom's health and wellness; twice a year taking her to one of the best health care institutions in the US for testing (Cleveland Clinic). Her physical and mental decline is well documented and it is clear mom requires 24/7 care. One of my siblings recently moved to live with and take care of mom, a blessing and Godsend. My mother has lived in two places during her lifetime, her parent’s house and the red brick sanctuary on Hazelwood Ave. To displace mom from her kingdom, into even the most exclusive form of nursing facility, would shatter her spirit.
When I see mom she greets me with a warm hug and sweet smile. She didn't remember the last time I was home, and thought it was a long time ago. Old age and vascular dementia have degenerated Mom's brain chemistry, evaporating her short term memory. She no longer is able to keep track of taking her medications or manage her checkbook (pills and bills). She remembers little of what happened in the recent past and forgets what day it is, although some early life events (like the first day of school and the name of her childhood dog) remain in tact. Everyday tasks of getting dressed and eating are not a problem; progressively I observe that mom is distant and disinterested in much of life. Her comfort zone is her home and shuffling between her rocking chairs and bed.
Mom’s daily life has become an exacting routine, get up and dressed, go for a short walk with the walker (see photo), eat breakfast, and take a cocktail of medications. The rest of her time is filled with naps, TV, going through mail, more naps and sitting on the front porch.
A few activities break this monotonous schedule: A home health aide comes on Tuesday, senior bingo on Wednesday, and a shopping trip to Wal-Mart (mom loves to drive the electric cart around the huge store). On Saturday, mom drives her 1996 Buick (which has logged less than 50,000 miles), a few blocks to her sister (Ann’s) house for her hair appointment. Getting her hair done on Saturday morning is a tradition that has spanned many decades. Amazingly, my aunt has been a hair stylist for the past 69 years (not a typo, Ann dropped out of high school and became a cosmetologist at age 16 and still works 3 days a week as she approaches her 86th birthday). On Sunday mornings, mom drives herself to church a mile up the road. Driving short distances is the last of mom’s independent adventures.
Time at home is precious and I savor every day of my six day visit as a gift. Mom lives in the here and now; she doesn’t remember the past and does not seem to have desires or goals for the future. Everything important is happening today (right NOW). Being with mom requires mindfulness and patience. The moments I will cherish from this visit: sitting with mom on her front porch, sharing a peach with her at the Canfield Fair, and seeing her face light up when I stroke her arm and tell her how wonderful it is to be with her.
One evening during my visit, I listen as my mom and aunt sit on the porch and chat. The conversation is mostly gossip about their relatives, who is sick, died or went into a nursing home (a fate worse than death). Out of the blue mom states, "I guess our time is coming, we’ll be next to go." My aunt agrees with her and nonchalantly comments that she wonders what will happen to all her stuff. They laugh and move on to another recycled topic. My mother has prepared for her passing, funeral clothes are labeled and clearly visible in her closet, a cemetery gravestone has been prepared and waits, and all funeral home arrangements are paid in full. Mom asked me to write her obituary a few months ago. It was a relief that she quickly forgot that request and hasn’t reminded me since.
Tomorrow I will get up at the crack of dawn and head out to the Pittsburgh Airport. If all my flights are on time, I will return to San Diego with time to race up the highway for my evening class. For six days my beach/teach life has been on pause; a timeout to reconnect with my hometown and my dear mother.
There is a great comfort in having my mother still in the world, having a generation between me and death. Selfishly, I want my mother to live for a long time and supply the unconditional love that I have always known. My mother helped me find my place in the world. She watched and waited as I left home (at 17), went to college and moved west, traveled the world. Over all the years, she wrote me hundreds of letters and later emails, never forgetting a birthday or anniversary. Mom has been the one stable force in my life that (I now realize) has allowed me to soar. No matter what I did (and my adolescence was marked by drama and rebellion) Mom always kept her heart and home open to me. What a blessing to go through my life with Mom’s persistent loving guidance. My retirement in 2013 is partly due to a desire to spend more time with Mom. I just hope she doesn’t (make her passing) and beat me to the finish line.
Growing Up in Youngstown
Youngstown, Ohio is a shabby steel city in Northeastern Ohio halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I grew up in a blue collar family during the tail end of Y-town's industrial boom. My father, like his father before him, worked at US Steel. As a Pipefitter, Dad earned a decent wage but he paid the ultimate price for his employment. The asbestos fibers he inhaled while replacing pipes, caused an inflammation of his lung tissue and led to a deadly form of cancer (mesothelioma); he died 12 years ago.
My hometown is a rough place with a bad reputation. I grew up on the better side of town (West Side) but that did not protect me from Youngstown’s evils: intense racial tension, high murder rate, easy to score drugs and rampant corruption (to date: the imprisonment of a congressman, sheriff, prosecutor, county commissioner and a couple judges). Mafia car bombings known as the Youngstown tune-up were featured on 60 Minutes.
Once an important manufacturer of steel, Youngstown has tried unsuccessfully to reinvent itself. I left Youngstown in the late 1970's, just before the steel industry collapsed and the smoke stacks (arms of God as they are referred to in Springteen's song) were demolished. Y-town wasn’t the right environment for me. After surviving some tough times in high school, I worked my way through Kent State, discovering options for my future. With degrees in hand, I packed my Chevy and headed west to pursue sunny skies, salt water and a white collar career in higher education. I was the first in my family to leave the rust belt; my younger brother joined me, later my sisters.
Youngstown is a city in decay; public schools are dangerous and many neighborhoods crime infested. Every 4th house on my mother’s street is abandoned and boarded up or For Sale. The house across the street is inhabited by a flock of birds and the one next to it, by drug dealers. In 2011, Youngstown had the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States, giving it the distinction of America's poorest city.