For two miserable nights after the old woman fell, her son, who lived in the same house, and her daughter, who came every weekend to visit, resisted calling a doctor. They knew the routine: the doctor would send an ambulance and the ambulance would take their mother to the emergency room, where they would not be allowed to accompany her. She’d be parked in a passageway, both alone and yet among too many others, to wait her turn to be seen. Eventually the family would get a call with the diagnosis, which in this case would be after an X-ray to determine if anything was broken. She would either be sent home again, making the hospital ordeal superfluous, or she’d be admitted. Either way, it was proximity to the coronavirus that was surging again in Asturias that made her children anxious. How much of the virus would she have been exposed to before she was sent home? And if she were kept there, what would be her chances of staying Covid-free and surviving?
Nevertheless, their mother was in pain, and they were ragged after those two days and nights. So they called the doctor, the ambulance came, and the mother was taken away. An elderly neighbor had gone to the hospital some months earlier for a routine intervention, gotten Covid while there, and died. In another part of Spain, a relative required to go to the hospital for periodic checkups after cancer had also gotten Covid at the hospital, and he too had quickly succumbed, dying alone among strangers. So the old woman’s children were full of misgivings. At the hospital doors, the orderly who wheeled their mother away told them there was no danger. “The Covid patients are on one side and the rest on the other. Don’t worry.”
“China’s a lot farther off than across the hall,” the son said when telling me the story. He was distraught. They must have wondered if this was the end.
It was not. It was the beginning. Within a few hours the brother and sister knew their mother had two fractures in her pelvis for which there was no help beyond bedrest. She was sent home at 2 a.m., doped up on sedatives and painkillers. When those wore off, the work began.
The son has a full-time job, so his sister stepped in while he was away. But her back was bad and she either couldn’t or wouldn’t manage her mother alone. The son’s wife, though on hand, already had her time taken up by the couple’s grandchild, left in their care while their daughter worked. So it fell to the son to tend to the old woman, day and night, except for the hours he was at work. The old woman was in her mid-80s and the memory loss that had plagued her before the accident was heightened, so that she couldn’t remember that she’d fallen and injured herself. She couldn’t even remember that trying to walk was extremely painful, or understand why no one would help her. Her daytime hours were spent asking for help getting to the bathroom, and during the night she buzzed repeatedly, complaining and wanting to get up or at least roll over. No matter how many times her son told her that she couldn’t get up, couldn’t even turn on her side, the information didn’t stick for more than a minute. The old woman was fretful. Why were they doing this to her, she asked. Why wouldn’t they help her? Over and over. The son was frazzled. Should he manage to sneak off during waking hours for 15 minutes of shuteye, his granddaughter quickly found him in this game of hide-and-seek. Meanwhile, neither his sister nor his wife could move the old woman alone and they couldn’t work together. Tempers were short.
Getting someone in to help was no solution because such a person would be going from house to house, exposing each new patient to what he or she had been exposed to. This at a time of rampant Covid spread, when social gatherings at homes were prohibited. After two weeks, a doctor made a house call to prescribe more pills and sleeping draughts, but they didn’t work. The old woman was uncomfortable and unhappy, just like everyone else in the household. “Dando guerra,” was the answer when I asked after the old woman, and I believe my incredulity and shocked laughter at the stories I heard of a family pulling together just to suffer together must have been the only levity to come from that long slog through mid-winter. You might think that the phrase dando guerra, with the word war in it, means doing battle, or putting up a fight. Instead, it’s closer to causing trouble, or making a fuss—not getting up in arms about one thing but being difficult in general, which of course a war is: not just the battles but the trenches, the hunger, the cold or the heat, the noise, the fear, and the long nights waiting for dawn. The boredom, as reported George Orwell about war in Spain.
All of that is what caring for someone can end up being: a war that drags on and on, the days and nights full of pointless skirmishes and dull waiting. During the day she fidgeted in her seat, and restless in bed at night, she tried to turn, but movement hurt. Yet she forgot, and being uncomfortable, she was constantly looking for an easier position. “There is none, you can’t lie on your side, you can’t roll over, you can’t get up, you can’t walk.”
“Why not?” she demanded. “Why won’t you let me?”
Exasperated, her son told her to go ahead and try if she wanted. At her first feeble attempt, she cried out, Aieeee! Aieeee!
“Just explain to her,” the doctor had said. “Explain that she can’t move.” But if a person can’t remember she’s hurt herself, it’s impossible to make her believe. It’s bad enough to see your mother suffer, but it’s worse when she thinks you are doing it to her. Heartbreaking at first, after weeks with no one getting proper rest, it was all exhausting and demoralizing.
The family even considered an assisted living facility—the same people who had resisted even a trip to the hospital at the beginning. More coronavirus cases occur in the retirement facilities than anywhere, and to deadly effect. That will be the end of her, I thought to myself.
But it won’t be the end of her, not until after it’s the end of a whole lot of other old people: the family discovered that there is a waiting list of months, which seems strange because wouldn’t you think families would be scrounging for alternatives and pulling their ancient parents out, not putting them there? Think about it. The less skilled and conscientious the facilities are, the sooner a spot opens up, and the better served the needs of the clamoring community. Good thing that in these times and these circumstances one hasn’t got the head to consider for long these ironies. Is that the point of suffering—so that when finally you are released from its stranglehold, you don’t even wonder what you’ve lost in the struggle?
The end—is it in sight? My friend’s mother slowly gets better. She’s still dando guerra. But what good will it do her—she can’t win this war. No one ever does.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.