Since hospice began caring for her in early March, Ruth Martin has gained 10 pounds. Though she used to mostly stay in her room at Heritage Greens Arboretum, a memory-care facility in Greensboro, nowadays she is often found in the main 'recreation' room, participating in a game of ball bouncing or checking out the other residents.
Later this week, the oxygen tanks that have cluttered Ruth's room are to be taken away, as her oxygen levels have returned to normal.
Ruth's unexpected revival has astonished and delighted us all—certainly my sisters and I, but also her caregivers. Rarely have they seen someone her age (93), and in her prior condition, bounce back so dramatically.
This turn of events seemed unimaginable. In early 2013, a bad stomach virus, which my mother caught, had circulated through the Arboretum. Management had strongly advised family and other outsiders not to visit, fearful of spreading the virus even further. And so, for several weeks, my sisters (three of whom live nearby) were not able to visit Ruth.
By late February, my mother had grown extremely weak. She began refusing to eat and take her medications. She slept most of the time and when awake, spoke mostly gibberish. The memory-care facility administrator suggested it was time to bring in hospice care, which to me meant that my mother's clock was now ticking—loudly. Her official diagnosis? "Failure to thrive."
And so, on a Monday morning in late February, I decided to make a hasty trip to Greensboro. With Nick's help, I booked a flight at 11 a.m., cancelled my business appointments for the week, showered, packed, and made it onto the plane for its 1:30 p.m departure.
While in Greensboro, I was determined to get my mother to eat. I bought her favorite junk food: McDonald's french fries, doughnuts, Baby Ruth candy bars. She treated them all as if they were something vile. I bought baby food--anything I could think of she might be able to swallow. During my nearly week-long stay, she ate almost nothing, limiting her intake to cranberry juice and some Ensure drinks.
|My mother, late February 2013|
"Thank you," I said, and kissed her on the forehead.
She woke up, looked me in the eye, smiled weakly. "Thank you," she replied.
With that, I walked out of my mother's room, convinced I'd just spent my last few minutes with her.
But in the weeks to come, an alternate scenario slowly unfolded. My sisters took turns visiting Ruth every day, reading to her, painting her fingernails, being by her side. The hospice staff visited several times a week. The Arboretum staff gave her extra care. Her doctor took her off several medications and gave her a drug whose side effect is known to increase appetite.
By mid May, the news was so encouraging, I returned to Greensboro. This time, my mother was alert, her blue eyes looking directly into mine in a way I hadn't seen in a while. She smiled and laughed. She let me feed her, but more importantly, she was now feeding herself.
She is still talking in gibberish, still confusing past with present. But she seems happy and content, and she has moments of clarity. The other day, when an unfamiliar Arboretum resident walked past, my mother said to my sister: "Who is that old lady?"
I attribute much of my mother's rebound to my sisters, and of course to Ruth herself—a tough country girl from North Carolina, through and through, whose mother lived to 100 and whose grandmother passed away peacefully at 95. One lesson to take away: Never, under any circumstances, underestimate a Southern woman.
On July 22, Ruth Martin will be 94 years old. I don't know how much time we have left with her. But since late February, every visit, every phone conversation with her has been what they call in New Orleans a lagniappe—a sweet, unexpected gift.
|My mother, early July 2013. (Note the Piggly Wiggly T-shirt under her sweatshirt.)|