Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother

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9780385666848: Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother
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A fresh, funny new voice, Meg Federico showcases her keen eye for the absurd in this poignant, hilarious, and timely account of one daughter’s tumultuous journey caring for her aging parents.

When Meg Federico’s eighty-year-old mother and newly minted step-father were forced to accept full-time home care, she imagined them settling into a Norman-Rockwellian life of docile dependency. With a family of her own and a full time career in Nova Scotia – a thousand miles away from her parents – Federico hoped they would be able to take care of themselves for the most part, and call on their children when they really needed them – but of course that’s not quite what happens.

As she watches with horror from the sidelines, Federico’s parents turn into terrible teens. Fighting off onslaughts of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Addie and Walter, forbidden by doctors to drink, conspire to order cases of scotch by phone; Addie’s attendant accuses the evening staff of midnight voodoo; Walter’s inhibitions decline as dementia increases and mail-order sex aides arrive at the front door. The list of absurdities goes on and on as Federico tries to take some control over her parents’ lives – and her own.

This is a story for the huge generation – nearly 76 million people – now dealing with the care of their parents. You’ll laugh and cry as you read this powerful and important debut.

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About the Author:

Meg Federico regularly writes humour for the National Post. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Shambhala Sun, and Agni Journal (Boston University Press). She also writes commentary for CBC Radio and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her family.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I DEMAND AN AUTOPSY!

I was sitting at my desk plowing through bills when the phone rang. My stepsister, Cathy, never called unless we had “problems.” Her father, Walter Huber (age eighty-two), and my mother, Addie Henry (age eighty-one), after a dramatic and sometimes bruising courtship, married a few years ago. Not one of the eight offspring (me and my four siblings, Cathy and her two) in our newly blended family was pleased about this union, but there was nothing we could do about it. After all, our parents were grown-ups.

At present, Addie and Walter were escaping the New Jersey winter, vacationing in West Palm Beach, Florida, where, Cathy informed me, Mom stumbled and fell and hit her head on the curb. A stranger, seeing the two old people in a state of emergency (a fairly common sight in Florida), kindly called an ambulance for Mom and packed Walter into a taxi.

The ambulance paramedic, recoiling from Mother’s ninety-proof breath, scribbled etoh all over her medical forms. etoh is medical jargon for ethanol. In Mom’s case, it meant martinis.

While Mom was out cold, the ER staff tried to pry information out of Walter, who was upset and couldn’t remember anything. Suddenly, Mom sat bolt upright on the gurney and yelled, “I demand an autopsy!” before passing out again.

“I’m not getting an autopsy!” Walter roared. “You have to be dead to get an autopsy!” Apparently, after the nurses got him calmed down, they shipped him off to an emergency Alzheimer’s unit (which they also have in Florida), where he had been locked up for three days before he finally divulged Cathy’s number. She was now on her way to retrieve him.

I called St. Stephen’s Hospital and finally got Mom. “Oh, hello, dearie,” she said brightly, as though I just happened to call as she bounded off the tennis court. “Isn’t this a bore? I could leave right now, but to be safe I thought I’d get a few tests done.” She sounded peachy. “A lamp fell on my head at the hotel, but really it’s nothing. A big old Biedermeier lamp!” Like any good liar, she added the Biedermeier bit to make her story plausible. The facts were irrelevant; I wasn’t going to win any arguments against that lamp.

Watching my mother for the past few years had been a lot like watching a blindfolded lady ride a unicycle on a tightrope. You can’t take your eyes off her as she wobbles up there completely unaware that she’s fifty feet above the ground because she can’t see. And if you attempt to point out her peril, she thinks you’re trying to ruin her career. Just when you’re sure she’s going to plunge to her death, the blind lady yanks the bike upright. “See?” she says. “You worry too much.”

I did worry. I’d been worried for years, because one day Mom was going to fall. It would be a terrible accident I could not prevent, and she might just fall right on top of me.

Then later that same day, Cathy called again, from the Sunshine State. Our problems were getting worse. “You better get down here. This hospital is not exactly Columbia-Presbyterian, and frankly I have my hands full with Walter.” The emergency lockup ward for stray dementia folks was like a holding cell. Walter’s suitcase had been ransacked and his wallet emptied, and he was so distraught he’d forgotten how to use the toilet.

“The food here isn’t as good as the other places,” he confided to Cathy, presumably referring to the swanky four-star resorts he and Mom patronized. “And that fellow is not very interesting,” he said, indicating his roommate, who could only burble.

I lived in Nova Scotia, a thousand miles from Mom’s house in New Jersey and a lot farther than that from West Palm Beach. I had a job (fund-raising), three children (a son, fourteen; two daughters, twelve and eleven), a husband (Rob), and a dog. My mother was going blind, and as she gradually lost her eyesight she began to drink even more heavily than she had before. Sometimes Walter drove her to the ER, where she got stitched up and was kept overnight for observation. Sometimes an ambulance was required.

I rarely heard about these accidents from Mom because she didn’t want me to know. One of her remaining gossipy friends would report the gory details of each debacle with keen enthusiasm.

“I’m glad your father didn’t live long enough to see this!” declared my informant.

I didn’t bother to point out that if Daddy weren’t planted in the family plot, Mom would not be running around with Walter.

If the situation sounded bad enough, I jumped on a plane. But it had to be sufficiently dire to warrant the turmoil: getting time off work, lining up babysitters, convincing my skeptical spouse we had to spend the money. Of course, it’s very hard to tell, long-distance, how bad things really are. My half sister, Alice, lived in New Jersey not that far from Addie, but I hated to ask Alice to shoulder Addie’s predicaments. (Alice had recently dealt with her own mother’s illness and death—she’d fulfilled her filial duties.) My brothers and my sister all lived a plane ride away; we had to jump through hoops and pass through time zones to get back home. I was usually the first responder on the crisis management team because my flight was the shortest.

But back to West Palm Beach. First the good news: Walter was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That he had it wasn’t good, but finally a doctor had said so. Frankly, I’d always found Walter scary. One minute he was calling Mom his “beloved Bride,” the next he was shaking his fist at her, red-faced and swearing. If I was around, he’d yell at me, too. And he drove on the wrong side of the road. When I tried to talk to Cathy about him, I got nowhere. “He’s always been like that,” she’d say. I naïvely thought that an expert medical diagnosis would change things for the better. Now, instead of running around loose, Walter would be managed. By experts.

The bad news was that over the course of the next few days, my mother went from her bossy self to an “unresponsive state,” and the hospital offered no explanation. I hit the phone lines and frantically briefed my brothers and sisters, choreographed a quick departure (babysitter, dog walker, tuna noodle casserole), and got on a plane. As the jet thundered down the runway, I had no idea if, on the return trip, I’d be drinking martinis with Mom in executive class or accompanying her home in a box.

I had a five-hour layover in the Continental terminal at Newark Airport, which is not my favorite place because years ago, quite possibly in the exact spot where I sat waiting for my flight to West Palm Beach, my father dropped dead of a heart attack. I was getting married and on the day before my wedding, my oldest brother, William, was flying in for the big event. Dad invited me along for the ride out to the airport, but I didn’t want to get stuck in the backseat of the Buick while he drove Mom crazy by telling her how to drive. The whole reason she was driving in the first place was that Dad couldn’t see an elephant if it was seated on the dashboard. On the other hand, Mom was so accustomed to his insistent navigation, she couldn’t get anywhere without him: Dad hunching forward in his seat telling her to watch the road, Mother sighing dramatically to let him know she was just letting him think she was taking orders—I couldn’t stand it.

So I told Dad I had a few last-minute bride-type errands—and while Dad was dying, I was in a department store buying a beige slip.

When my stupid errand was finished, I sat drinking tea in the kitchen with Frances, the black lady who had pretty much raised me. She fiddled with cut flowers for the guest rooms, humming, “Loh de doh,” under her breath, as she had for as long as I could remember. I hummed that song myself sometimes: Loh de doh. “They must have hit traffic,” I said to Frances.

Then William called to say that Dad had had a heart attack. Airports have defibrillators stationed all over the place now, but twenty years ago they did not.

“It doesn’t look good, honey,” he said from a pay phone.

For years, Dad had never gone out of the house without a vial of nitro tablets in his pocket, but in the end they didn’t save him. Who knows if he even had time to get one into his mouth? I thought of him hurrying down the concourse with his crookedy old-man walk and then falling, collapsing, while people like me looked on.

Maybe those people still tell the story about the time they saw the old man drop dead in the airport.

My mother didn’t miss a beat. By the next morning she had a huge mess on her hands because cases of wedding champagne were being delivered at the back door, as the first of the funeral flowers were arriving at the front. Confronting the real disaster—namely, life without Dad—would have to wait. The rest of us could afford to go numb, but Mom had to move into action.

She stationed herself in the dining room with a yellow legal pad and a very sharp pencil, her blouse crisp, the stiff collar framing her face. The platinum wedding band on her finger looked obvious and sad. As I slid into a chair, Frances placed a hot cup of coffee in front of me. We didn’t say a word to each other, because those were the dining room rules.

Mom tapped her pencil and frowned at her long list. She must have figured that Dad would die first; he was so much older than she was. She had probably planned the funeral years ago or at least thought about it, because she was big on planning ahead. Looking up at me, she jumped right in.

“Darling, ...

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