Our Noisy Friend in The Living Room

20130812_142052_NE 19th Pl

This is an oxygen machine.

An amazing piece of medical technology, this apparatus collects, refills, and delivers oxygen through a tube 70 feet and longer. It can be adjusted to provide a mere trickle (the “1” setting) or a full-on stream (the “5” setting). The machine emanates a steady whir and hum 24/7, with an occasional hiss or pop as it adjusts between operations. The sound, while definitely adding to the “white noise” we hear in the household, is not unwelcome. I grew up using a humidifier in my room, and felt soothed by its constant undertone throughout the night. This is no different to me. It has a sound similar to an industrial refrigeration unit, only more comforting; maybe that’s because I know what it does. The machine sits in our living room near the front window.

And not far from where my mother-in-law used to spend much of her time.

Now she is connected to the other end of that 70-foot tube, up the stairs and down to the end of the hall. Weakened severely by a battle with lung cancer, for her the tube quite literally has become her lifeline. Treatment for the cancer was offered, but to her it seemed senseless to fight something that had already spread. With each week since coming home in late May she has declined at a rate that we can see from one day to the next. No longer does the energy exist to come into the living room. Or even down the stairs at all for that matter. Her time is spent mustering the energy upstairs to do the simple tasks we all take for granted. She sleeps much through the day, because her lungs no longer process the amount of oxygen necessary to stay awake at regular levels. Swallowing medicine and food has become a full-time job. Confusion over life’s details has set in. Her appetite is virtually non-existent. She can no longer be left in the house by herself due to obvious safety reasons. My mother-in-law is frightened and anxious about a future which only offers one path.

And through it all our noisy friend in the living room works without question or complaint, providing the oxygen she needs to live as much as possible.

Doctors discovered a brain tumor in April, after a couple years of decline in energy and thought clarity. The true danger of cancer was masked for so long by the fact she was already suffering from other serious health issues. When the tumor was removed in early May, the surgeon determined it was made from the same kind of cells as lung cancer. Biopsies confirmed what the x-rays showed. At that point she was given three to six months to live. Today was a turning point which clarified that her struggle is now down to being over in a matter of weeks. While all the details and final decisions have been made for “that time,” having all the ducks in a row doesn’t make it any easier to watch someone in physical decline. In fact it’s damned hard. She isn’t my Mother, but even so she is family – and someone I’ve shared home with since 1991. While talking with the hospice nurse today I broke down three times just thinking about what my mother-in-law might be going through. I wouldn’t will this kind of end on anyone. Ever.

Without our noisy friend in the living room it would feel – in her own terms – like she was breathing through syrup.

Today was especially hard because I saw first hand how helpless she has become. A bout of weakness washed over her as she was getting dressed, and I had to scramble to help her get from standing to seated before she fell. Just getting into bed takes everything she has. Mornings are weaker than the afternoons, but eventually exhaustion takes over and she simply has to sleep. We start interviewing home health providers tomorrow, because now she needs the constant assistance that we as family cannot provide. The oxygen tube is now her constant companion, nap or not. Over the last week the number setting has creeped up to 4 – after starting at 2 about a month ago.

And day in, day out, our noisy friend in the living room just works on and on.

The oxygen apparatus has become symbolic to me during these final days of my mother-in-law’s life:

  • Work without complaint.
  • Expect no compliments, and appreciate when they happen.
  • Make a minimum of noise in this life.
  • Be steady and consistent.
  • Help as needed and, when you do, help like a machine.

This one device has brought more comfort to my mother-in-law than any other equipment. Our noisy friend in the living room will be with her to the end and – I guarantee this – when that day comes I will be crying as I toggle the power switch off.

Doing so will be as symbolic of her passing as the machine’s selfless service is to her now.

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