Weather Report

Texas summers exhaust me, with the seemingly endless days of triple-digit heat. As the temperature climbs, I swear that my body can tell the difference of just a single degree. Years ago I vowed that I would make a point to be out of Texas as much as possible in the months of July and August, and for a while I felt fairly successful in that endeavor (with some notable exceptions due to summer school).

Hot day

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…somewhere hot…

Then when Mom became ill, I found that I couldn’t really travel at all. I made a habit of driving roundtrip in a single day to the house where I grew up, four hours away from where I live now. That happened about once a week until I gave up on cleaning out the house in order to sell it. The buyer (someone I’d known for years…thank goodness for small towns!) graciously took care of all the excess stuff that I couldn’t get around to on those marathon days.

Less than a year after Mom got her trach, I made a whirlwind trip to New Orleans to visit friends. I flew there and back in under 24 hours. Fun…rainy…but stressful because I worried about what would happen if Mom had an emergency while I was gone.

Then a few months before she passed, a good friend convinced me to travel to Colorado for the book release party of a book that I had provided some feedback on. I was there for three nights, which was the longest I’d been away from home since everything had started with Mom. The weather was gorgeous that weekend. Unseasonably warm. And then it started snowing as I was headed back to the airport at the end of the weekend. The plane couldn’t take off until it had been de-iced.

I arrived back in Texas to warmish weather, but 24 hours later the cold front had arrived, complete with snow. That week represented the longest spell of inclement weather that I could recall since moving to Denton. The university was closed for almost an entire week due to dangerous road conditions.

When a close friend visited the following summer (shortly after Mom’s death) for a work assignment, the extended university closure became the source of many discussions. Apparently it had created all sorts of complications for her work project.

Now, my memory is fairly good–friends have said that it’s actually kind of scary–but in this particular instance I could remember way more than one might expect about the “Snowpocalypse.” The reason for my detailed recollections had to do with the stressful impact of snow on my daily routine. Long before Mom became ill, I had celebrated snow days because it gave me a chance to catch up on studying…perhaps with a little bonus time for snow angels or sledding downhill on cafeteria trays. [Disclaimer: that last bit is purely hypothetical. College students do not…I repeat, do not…sneak trays out of dining halls for recreational purposes.]

With Mom’s condition, however, snow was Enemy #1. Oh, and ice. That’s actually worse. Anything that resulted in hazardous roads could mean that I would have to stay up all night and take care of Mom. It wouldn’t have been that big a deal if I had been able to sleep during the day, but I never knew when a nurse would call in to say that she couldn’t come in to work.

Snow day

Sssssh! Don’t tell the kids, but Rudolph might not survive the snowstorm.

The first instance of such a situation was near the end of a semester when I was teaching at two different community college campuses, both about 45 minutes away. At that point, I was still getting used to taking care of Mom, and I was scared that I would mess up and inadvertently cause her death. We managed to make it through the night, and when a nurse arrived the following morning, I had to drive to class in order to teach. Yeah, the weather really wasn’t that bad, but the night nurse had refused to drive anyway.

By the time of Snowpocalypse (a.k.a. “Snowmageddon”), we’d been through the routine enough times to where I dreaded any mention that snow could possibly be in the forecast. My sister had started helping out a few months earlier, and she offered to stay there with Mom while I drove to pick up the nurse.

Instead, the nurse’s husband drove her in to work, and she brought a suitcase with her. She camped out in the guest room for several days before she could finally go home. We actually had a lot of fun during that storm, and I remember it fondly.

In general, though, inclement weather made me feel incredibly vulnerable throughout Mom’s illness. I remember once when I got caught out in a flash flood, and due to a cellular service outage, I couldn’t even call home to tell the nurse that I was running late to relieve her. We had to fire her soon after that because, among other things, when I got home she screamed at me for not speeding down a street that was so flooded that I thought my engine would get washed out (the sewer drainage has been improved on it since then).

Power outages (including the rolling blackouts that can happen when the electricity grids are overloaded) weren’t a concern, ironically, because I’d had a backup generator installed at the house. Several thousand dollars, a work team to pour cement and haul the thing into the backyard, plumbers, electricians, and city code inspectors allowed us to have a state-of-the-art Generac machine that kicks on automatically if the power goes out.

The whole thing seemed a little extravagant until the day that the electricity was out for several hours. Without the generator, we’d have had to call 911 and get Mom transported to a hospital simply for the sake of keeping her (very necessary) ventilator running. Given the high cost of medical care, that one instance more than paid for the cost of the generator, not to mention that Mom was far more comfortable at home. Oh, and then there were the occasions when we had to store medication in the fridge. Another necessity provided by electricity.

It’s funny how bad weather had often seemed like a minor inconvenience before the adventure with Mom began. Yeah, tornado warnings are stressful–and there have been way too many devastating catastrophes caused by nature–but all of that becomes exponentially more terrifying when a critical illness comes into play.

Because of the folks who tragically died waiting in nursing homes during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, home health agencies are required to work with families to develop emergency procedures. I was asked on occasion to outline our emergency plan, but I honestly didn’t know what we would do if we needed to evacuate.

Our tornado plan was “Pray for the best” (this coming from someone who instinctively assesses her environment to determine escape routes in advance). If we truly needed to evacuate, I had a stash of cash to (hopefully) bribe a private ambulance into driving us for hours if necessary. Uh-huh…that was it. At least with the generator, we’d be fine…well, as long as the city’s butane gas line (which powered the generator) didn’t get cut. Eventually I had a paved walkway built from the backyard all the way to the driveway out front. That provided us with two exits from the house instead of just the front door.

Backyard party

4th of July 2010. It took about half an hour to get Mom into her wheelchair and onto the back patio. Even in July, she needed to be covered with light blankets.

Now that I’ve become reacclimated to a “normal” life, I have to remind myself that I don’t have to stay put when I get irritated by the heat. Instead of summer hibernation, I am free like a bird to migrate. There are things that we take for granted when we’re healthy…like mobility…but those who are coping with a complicated illness (or serving as a family caregiver) have far more limited options.

Other life circumstances can restrict mobility, of course. Extreme poverty, for instance, limits options in that money is needed in order to pay for transportation and a place to sleep at night. Perhaps I understand poverty a bit better as a result of my experiences with Mom. I remember times as a child when we truly struggled to pay the bills, but deep down I knew there were “life-lines” (um, grandparents) to rescue us if necessary.

The reality of chronic, critical illnesses is that there aren’t always escape routes. It can be terrifying to realize that survival depends on things functioning even when the weather and other uncontrollable variables interfere. At the same time, that sort of vulnerability can help us to develop empathy for others, and for that I am thankful. I can enjoy playing in the snow and swimming in the sun, knowing that I can leave if I want to. For those who feel stuck, I’ve been there. I hope that I’ll be more compassionate as a result.