Squeaky Wheel

Tuesday morning, Mom was taken via ambulance to another hospital, where Dr. John Holmes would perform her angiogram. We waited with her in the small curtained area while she underwent pre-op tests. Mom was nervous, and her blood pressure was high, so I asked a nurse for an anti-anxiety medicine that would help our mother relax. While we waited, I asked Mom where she was, and she told me she was at Grant Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. I decided not to ask her what year it was; instead, I asked if she remembered me calling her the Sunday prior. Her lips moved, like a fish catching a breath of air, but her voice remained mute.

“I can’t hear you, Mom. What’d you say?”

She whispered in what was to be her new, post-stroke voice. “Am I talking loud?” she said. “It seems like I’m talking loud.”

“No, you’re not talking loud—I can barely hear you.”

I leaned over, my ear right next to her mouth as she spoke. “I heard the phone ring,” she said, “but I was just too tired to get up and answer it, and I must’ve fallen back asleep.”

I closed my eyes and envisioned my sixty-seven year-old mother passed out next to her dingy toilet on the cold, hard, unforgiving tile floor of her bathroom for God knows how long, and was grateful that she didn’t seem to remember any of that. “I was worried about you, Mom.”

During our mother’s surgical procedure that Tuesday, Kelley and I visited the chapel to pray, but my mind wandered to the day before.


Monday afternoon, Kelley and I had taken a quick coffee break, and when we returned, Mom was playing with the stuffed monkeys I had brought earlier. She had them positioned on her bedside table next to the Mary-and-Jesus picture. Pointing her finger at the inanimate objects, she said, words slurred, “He’s sleeping…and he’s sleeping…and the baby’s sleeping.” She looked at a slumped-over monkey and commanded, “Hey you, sit up, or I’ll smack the shit out of you.”

Even though we didn’t know whether or not Mom was joking around, it didn’t matter to me or  my sister as we giggled at the spunky, smart-ass woman whose swearing was very familiar to us. Then Mom confided that she thought her father, who died in 1962, was punishing her by making her stay in bed in the hospital room. “I told him I’d be a good girl,” she said, “but I don’t think he believes me.”

Grandpa Cusick

Grandpa Cusick

“You see,” one doctor later explained, “the bleeding in your mother’s brain has stopped. Think of it as a bruise. Wherever the blood dries, there will be long-term brain damage.”

“Oh,” I said. I had no idea what he was talking about but pretended I did as I scribbled in my notebook.

“We’ll know more in thirty days or so. That’s the usual window of time in which things could change, better or worse.”

I nodded and continued listening, writing. “Her short-term memory is compromised,” he said, “which we expect. However, she also has a substantial amount of long-term memory damage, which is not as common.”

Thirty days.

He also shared his observations, noting Mom never used the call light to ask a nurse for help, never changed the channel on the TV, never complained. He then looked at me with a gentle smile. “You know what they say about how the squeaky wheel gets the oil?”

I did.

“Well, I think you’re going to have to be your mother’s ‘squeaky wheel’.”

Having worked in a hospital in the 1990s, I completely understood what he meant. I knew that hospital patients who don’t speak up for themselves tend to go unnoticed by over-worked and short-staffed healthcare personnel. I wondered if Mom remained silent because she didn’t understand what was going on, or if she really was fine, or if she was politely pretending, playing the role of good girl in order to please her long-dead father who was now scolding her as if to remind her “children should be seen and not heard.”

That Monday, Mom’s hospital room evolved into a command center for various technicians, chaplains, physical therapists, and other hospital staff. Earlier, a cardiologist had ordered a barium swallowing evaluation be performed on my mother. I learned this was necessary because strokes tend to impact someone’s ability to swallow without choking (dysphagia), and a speech therapist would need to observe the evaluation in order to determine the safest liquid consistency my mom could handle.

Kelley and I were excited to see the dietician, who finally stopped by during the afternoon of Mom’s first full day in the hospital. We anticipated our mom would be wheeled down for the evaluation, and she would be able to eat before her pre-op fast. Instead, we were told, “We’ve had to schedule the procedure for Wednesday morning.”

Wednesday? The third day of her hospital admission? It was time to test-run my mom’s “squeaky wheel,” fully oiled and ready to roll. “What do you mean? She’s hungry! We’ve been telling her all day she could eat later today.”

The young woman apologized and explained the speech therapist had left for the day.

“But it’s only three o’clock! That’s bullshit.”

I’m sure I spewed other profanity for which I would later apologize but never regret. Three days until the possibility of eating seemed like further punishment to me. The dietician assured me that my mom was first on Wednesday’s schedule. After she left, I turned my attention to Mom, who looked shocked but proud, and my sister smiled broadly and patted me on the back. “Good job, Janie!”


12 thoughts on “Squeaky Wheel

  1. I have no idea how I would handle it if my mother went through such an ordeal, a transformation. I have the experience of losing a parent in the blink of an eye, in a completely tragic way…but to watch someone whither and disappear from their former selves slowly…I don’t know where my thought is going here, really, because I can’t imagine it. I was hospitalized for pneumonia a few years ago and they put me in a room with an elderly woman. She was constantly moaning, talking to herself, and though the nurses kept checking on her it never really felt like she was getting enough care. She had no one with her. All night this went on, and at one point she had soiled herself. While they cleaned up the mess she moaned more, sounding like she was in such pain. It wasn’t until the night doctor came on around 3:00 in the morning that he rushed her into ICU. I don’t know what happened to her, but I’ve always wondered.

    • At first, I was so grateful my mother was alive. Then I had to get busy getting her affairs (Medicare/Medicaid, social security, finding a suitable nursing home because she needed 24/7 acute nursing care and didn’t qualify financially for an assisted living arrangement, being her caregiver and protector in said nursing home). Tears and frustration came later. Actually, a lot of tears…and some depression. I missed my “old mom” so much and she seemed to not know what was going on, so I was grateful for that. By the time she died, I’d been grieving her for 19 months, so it made things easier for me. For most of my life, I never thought I could deal with her dying–and it would have been so much more difficult had I found her dead and can’t imagine the guilt I would have felt, which is why I sincerely believe her stroke, her curse, was my redemption and blessing. I wonder if your hospital roommate suffered because she didn’t have any one to watch over her. I’m also sorry about your father. Thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts and reading my story. Take care, and be well. Jane

      • I actually wrote a chapter in my book about “the old mom” that I had, as my mom and I often refer to the us “before” and the us “after” my father’s death. I wonder often what her death will be like (also a chapter) and honestly, I don’t know if I could handle seeing her not be the person she is now. I am sorry that you had to endure such a long road but am grateful that writers like us are strong enough to put our stories out there!

      • I know how difficult it must have been after your “old mom” was replaced. I think such changes must be so gradual to spare us from the shock of the heartbreak that follows the evolution of our relationship with our “new moms.” Take care! Jane

  2. Beautifully written. Although so much of this scene is heart-wrenching, I love the part about the stuffed monkey. Funny stuff. 🙂

    • Thanks, Gina! Yeah, that part was pretty funny. She had the most serious look on her face when she said it, too, pointing her finger at the slumped-over monkey as if she were giving him a good talking to 🙂 Jane

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