“Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” –Henry David Thoreau
I was still young, maybe even still in high school, when I read the lines from Henry David Thoreau about living “lives of quiet desperation.” I had no idea what those words really meant, or maybe I just never gave it much thought until a week ago.
On Sunday, April 21, I went to visit my mother in the nursing home as usual when she suddenly began to have a seizure. I was alone in the room with her. I grabbed her with one hand and reached for the call bell with the other, also yelling out, “Help! Seizure!”
The nurses came running, the rapid response team was called, and I fled to the hallway. This was her third seizure with no known cause and so far no treatment. Since that moment, I have seen again and again in my head those terrifying moments when my mother began her seizure.
An hour later I sat at the foot of her bed watching her breathe. That was the moment I felt a sense of quiet desperation. The room was still, my mother not yet speaking or moving. Her roommate, who had not been in the room at the time, wheeled herself into the room not knowing what had happened. She had never seen my mother in bed during the day, never seen her with oxygen on her, and never seen such panic on my face. I explained to her what had happened. She sat quietly for a moment and asked what she should look for in case she had another seizure during the night. I told her not to worry, the nurses would take care of it, and she should just take care of herself and try to sleep. She replied, “But she’s my friend.” The two of them, both with dementia and health issues, had become close friends in the past few months. She was present in the room when my mother had her second seizure and had called for help then. She stayed in the room for the next few hours as we sat there and watched my mother slowly return to normal.
Fear has taken up permanent residence in my heart as my ninety-year-old mother deals with one health crisis after another. She has had several TIAs and one major stroke, a minor heart attack, the lost function of one of her kidneys, four fractures in her back that occurred after her first seizure, uterine cancer treated with radiation, constant urinary tract infections, and sudden asthma attacks, probably due to the radiation, all within a year and a half. Four hours after this seizure, she was back to normal, talking, moving, even laughing.
Her resolve amazes me. Last week a social worker intern came to her with a questionnaire about being in the nursing home. She was honest about not liking it, especially not liking the food, but liking the staff and activities. He asked her if she ever felt like she wanted to die. She said, “Yes, sometimes I do. But I try not to because I don’t want to leave my daughter. I love her so.”
Desperation isn’t always frantic action like we might suppose. Sometimes it is quiet, not really peaceful or calm, but that blend of quiet and desperate all in one moment that Thoreau wrote about. The path my mother is on is one I won’t be on with her at the end, but every day I get to spend with her may just be her final gift to me.