I can’t even begin to describe the intense sadness of watching my favorite aunt and Godmother (“Nanny” to us Cajuns) dying of lung cancer. Seeing that vibrant, complex and strong woman reduced to a frail, physical being, sensing her spirit fading, I still marvel at how strong the will to live really is – and how much the body will endure before finally having to give up…
My aunt at her confirmation (13 years old?). Thank God she really wasn’t as angelic and innocent as she looked here, or I never could have related to her so well… 🙂
Since I could never properly convey how painful it is to watch not only her, but her 5 kids, grandkids, brothers and sisters (the oldest being my mom) going through this part of the life/death experience, I’m going to record the events that happened getting me and my 83 year old mom here to Baton Rouge from Austin. A mere 400 mile trip where we met with aggravating obstacles and delays, but also met many real live angels at the same time.
We left on Tuesday, Feb. 9, and the first aggravation was my own increasing fear about things I haven’t done before. Since I just recently got my new-to-me Ford Escape after my little Saturn bit the dust, its heavier weight required an auxiliary braking system for the car, a “Brake Buddy” (hopefully appropriately named, but the jury is still out on that one).
So, I’m towing a heavier car for the first time with new and different instructions I’m not used to, using a cumbersome and expensive device that seems unfairly complicated to me right now – and I’m peeved at myself for being such a fraidy-cat. I shouldn’t have such butterflies in my stomach, and I think if I had been this nervous about the much more daunting task of learning to drive a 36’ motorhome when I first took off in 2001, I never would have left.
I’m not at all amused at how much more fearful I get as I get older and how much louder are the voices of self doubt…
We broke the trip up into 2 days since it’s hard on both me and my mom to travel much more in a day. And I hate driving in the rain!
Since I hadn’t been able to get the tires checked right before we left, when I saw a truck service place (Bosselman) next to the Flying J in Brookshire, TX where we ate and filled up the ever-hungry motorhome with gas, I asked if they could check the tires for proper pressure and explained this was a last minute trip to see my aunt before she passed. The General Manager, Harm Asbury, was incredibly nice and stopped what he was doing, pulled out the truck that was in the bay, and had us drive in so he could have them aired up. They had a bit of trouble with one of the inside rear tires with the long valve stem, and it took a bit of time and doing.
When the office lady came out and started writing up the invoice, she at first said it would be $47.50 for checking all the tires (no charge for the air, thank God), but I still exclaimed, “Wow!” She said that was the usual charge for the big rigs they usually work on, but once she realized I had only 6 tires, the total would be $15.
I was satisfied with that, and by the time she got through writing up the ticket, Harm came back to the office and asked what she was doing. Then he said “No way – no charge for this.” I said it was perfectly fine given the time and trouble and immediate service, but he just looked at me and said “I’m not going to take your money!” I was so taken aback by his kindness, I started blubbering and thanking him profusely. This was the first “angel” we met on this unusual odyssey – and not the last time I cried – sometimes from grief and other times from relief at how kind strangers can be.
But now happy enough that my tires were happy, we later stopped for the night halfway to Baton Rouge at a rather sad RV park on I-10, but at least we stayed warm and dry.
The next morning, I performed all the requisite steps in getting the car ready to tow again and all seemed to be going well enough. But 80 miles after we left, I heard an unusual, but not terribly loud squeaking noise coming from the right side of the RV. Mom didn’t hear it and thought it was just usual wind noise, but I knew it just didn’t sound right and started looking for a place to pull over – not always the easiest thing to do in a 36’ motorhome towing a car that you can’t back up even an inch.
Just as we were approaching the tall bridge into Lake Charles, people in a car next to us on the passenger side were honking and waving and pointing to the right side of the motorhome. I couldn’t imagine if a tire had blown on the motorhome or car that I wouldn’t have felt that… and I could still see the car attached in the rear view camera… maybe a storage bin had come unlocked and my stuff was being thrown all over the highway… but, no, I could see that in my big mirrors if it were that… my mind was racing trying to figure it out.
That was the longest bridge ever, but right after it I found a place to pull over. As soon as I opened the motorhome door, I saw what the problem was. The two automatic steps were stuck in the extended out position. They stick out too far from the side of the motorhome to safely drive like that. I had never had this problem before and tried everything I knew to do to retract them with no luck. The stairs usually automatically go in when the door is shut unless you have the keep-open switch on, which it wasn’t. And they always go in whenever the engine is started, but nooo…not this time.
I called the Winnebago dealer and he confirmed I had already done everything possible on my end and it was either a blown fuse, loss of power to the steps, the motor had gone bad, or a sensor was broken. I have roadside assistance for the RV, so they had someone out there in about an hour. That’s when we met our second angel.
This truck repair tech (“Catfish”) from Martin Truck Center knew what he was doing and he tried everything, including talking to the Winnebago rep about schematics in what sounded like a foreign language. They finally concluded that the magnetic sensor on the door had gone bad and thought the door was always open. He didn’t have that part in stock and we couldn’t sit there and wait two days to get it, but he didn’t give up. He was able to wire it so the steps stayed in permanently. I could easily enough get in and out, but I knew my mom couldn’t manage that with her bad knee, arthritis, etc.
But as Scarlett said, tomorrow is another day and I just couldn’t think about that right now. So after a 2 hour delay, we kept on truckin’, thinking it most important to get to the campground and settled in before dark and get to see my nanny.
As perturbed as I was, I still couldn’t help but be thankful when thinking about how much worse it could have been. If I had hit the stairs on one of the concrete construction barriers that always feel too close in such a large RV, it could have not only torn the stairs off, but taken them down the side of the motorhome and maybe even into the tires – a much worse fate than what actually happened.
So when we were about 10 miles from Baton Rouge, I got a call from my other aunt, frustrated because they were held up by a wreck on I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, asking where we were because the doctor had advised calling all her 5 kids as it really looked like the end was imminently near.
She had refused pain meds for the last 13 hours because she knew they knocked her out and she kept asking for different loved ones. Her kids were all there, and she knew we were on the way, as well as her other sister and brothers, so she said she wanted to wait for us all.
I was cursing the fates for the two hour delay for the stairs which might mean we would miss our last chance to say our goodbyes and hold her hand again. That’s when we ran into heavy rush hour traffic – unbelievably dense for such a relatively small city like Baton Rouge.
I figured there was no place big enough at the small hospice location, so I knew I had to get to the campground first and leave the motorhome there. Still cursing, I finally arrived, unhooked the car and backed in the motorhome to a pretty tight spot in record time. I didn’t worry about extending slides or hooking anything up except the power so I could turn on the heater because my mom is constantly freezing. But this time it wasn’t just her thermostat – it really was freezing and miserably drizzling and the weather reports were predicting snow the next day, a real oddity for Baton Rouge!
We sped off to the hospice in the car, only 3 miles from the campground. By the time we got there, my cousin was outside to help mom out of the car. When she opened the door, we saw smoke pouring out from under the car with a stinky burning smell. Again, I pulled a Scarlett and couldn’t think about that then, as I rushed to park and get in to see my aunt.
Thankfully, we all got there and she recognized each one and spoke softly but lucidly a little to us.
I think I was most thrilled to hear that by now she seemed to understand at least somewhat that the Saints won the Super Bowl. One of my early childhood memories growing up in New Orleans was my mom and aunt coming back from the football games hoarse from screaming and cheering for them – sometimes in the ice and rain – since the team’s very beginning. Some years they would swear they would not buy any more season tickets to see such consistent losers, but when it came right down to it, the tickets were always bought and they might come home heartbroken, but they still went and came back hoarse. I swear they were some of the Saints earliest and most loyal fans – true “fanatics.”
Her two daughters had been at hospice watching the game “with” her on Sunday, but she had never really gained consciousness that day. When I spoke to them, the image they evoked of draping her chest with her Saints t-shirt and softly cheering the Saints on for her was just heartbreaking to me.
She had a different “Saints – Who Dat Super Bowl Champs!” t-shirt across her when we arrived and again that just choked me up.
But then she started getting more agitated than usual. The hospice attendant (another angel in human garb) said it’s typical and is appropriately called “terminal agitation” where the dying kind of talk out of their heads and nothing you can say will really calm them. It indicates the end is really near.
She was ready for her pain meds and “comfort cocktail” by that time. My mom was exhausted, so all my aunt’s 3 sons came out to look at my car. Once I explained what was involved in towing, this was my first time with this car and Brake Buddy, etc., they checked everything and said it looked like transmission fluid had bubbled up and hit the hot manifold, smoking and stinking. I think I should have idled the car for 5 minutes and ran it through the gears before taking off after unhooking (something the manual says to do every 500 miles), but since it had only been towed for 200 miles that last stretch, and I was in such a hurry, I hadn’t even thought of it. After watching me drive around the parking lot with no more smoke, we drove back to the campground with no problems.
I had put a step stool outside the motorhome, and even though it was a bit higher than usual, I was able to successfully get mom out of the motorhome when we left for hospice. But getting her back up and into the motorhome proved much more challenging. She just couldn’t lift her knee high enough to make the step up, so she had to sit on the edge of the motorhome and pull her legs around until she was sitting on the floor of the motorhome. Getting her actually up off the floor was another difficult challenge with us looking like the Keystone Cops, but we finally made it. And I just had to laugh at her remark, “The Golden Years, hell!”
That’s when I realized I had plugged in the motorhome electricity, but had forgotten to actually turn on the heater, so it was freezing in the motorhome. My poor kitty Gypsy made her displeasure known by seranading us with her most obnoxious whines.
It was dark by this time, but I still had to complete the setting up procedures on the motorhome. The first step is to lower the hydraulic jacks for stabilization and leveling, necessary before I can extend the living room and bedroom slides.
As I was lowering the jacks (just pushing buttons from the inside of the coach), I heard another unusual sound, this time a sickening crunch. I went outside and could see that the rear jacks had come down right at the tip of the concrete bumper at the back of the site. The jack bottoms were angled down and looked bent. I went back inside and couldn’t get them to come back up. So I inched up the motorhome until the jacks cleared the bumper and they came up. I then positioned the motorhome so the rear jacks were totally clear of the bumper but the front still not too far into the road, a feat in itself.
But now the jacks wouldn’t go down again.
It was about then that I started to feel panicky. If I can’t get the slides out, I can’t pull out the bed that my mom sleeps on, so she would have to sleep in my bed with me. With my insomnia and her snoring, I knew I’d never get any sleep.
As I ran through everything in my mind, I realized I just hadn’t put the parking brake on that time and the jacks won’t go down without them. Once everything was in place, they went down fine and don’t look bent anymore.
Yet another case of just having to be thankful for what could have been not happening. If I had screwed up the hydraulic jacks, not only would I lose sleep over mom’s snoring, but also over what an expensive repair that would be.
At that point, it was 8:30 pm and I still had a couple of hours of work to do, but again, as tired as I was, I was also thankful to have the income.
In Baton Rouge, we’re staying at the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, which has 10 full hookup RV spots on their grounds. I was told about this from the nearest regular RV park I could find when I called to stay near the hospice. Instead of just taking my business, that nice woman told me about this deal – much cheaper and closer.
The next day, Thursday, I saw a maintenance man drive by and I stopped to explain my situation with the stairs and getting my mom in and out of the motorhome. I asked if he had a pallet or something like that I could use to put under the stepstool to help break up the height of the one step. He kindly said “Let me go see what I can do.”
He came back shortly and had built a 2 step deal out of sturdy wood and it worked perfectly! When I tried to convey my thanks, he sincerely said, “No – I thank you – this is such a blessing to me to be able to help someone today. I am happy now, but I wouldn’t be if I couldn’t have helped you!”
Our angel, Earl, with the stairs he made for us. Mom and I both say every time we go down them, “Bless Earl.”
See what I mean about angels in human disguise?