Skunked, But in a Good Way

It’s been quite a week, beginning with one of those bad news phone calls in the middle of the night.

Mom was being transferred to the hospital by ambulance. Her blood oxygen level had dropped, the by-now chronic cough had changed into something worse, and she was running a fever.

At 2:30 am, I met her in the emergency room, where she was in rough shape — disoriented with a horrible wracking cough that shook her whole body and left her gasping for air. I had just seen her at lunchtime, and she’d been fine, making the transformation all the more shocking.

The ER doctors agreed with the nursing home nurses that she’d probably aspirated something into her lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia. It wasn’t showing on the X-ray, but apparently, that happens.

I stayed until late that morning, when they finally settled her into a room, and the next seven days became a blur of worry and waiting.

A modified swallowing test, an x-ray of her esophagus, and an endoscopy showed no blockage. Her esophagul muscles have simply lost their motility, making it difficult to breathe and eat at the same time, and more likely that she will aspirate in the future. This is called dysphagia, and is common in the elderly.

As a result, Mom is now restricted to purees and liquids. She also has to sit up for 30 minutes after eating or drinking to allow gravity to aid in getting her food to where it belongs.

Her response to these restrictions has been mixed — surprisingly sanguine about the pureed food, but almost insulted by the idea she can’t lay down after eating.

“I know how to eat,” she says, “I’ve been doing it for 92 years!”

As if any of us is likely to forget her vast age.

Meanwhile, my brother was diagnosed with pneumonia, which meant he was out of the picture. This was followed by some kind of a stomach upset, which left him frustrated that he couldn’t help, but too ill to chance either his health or Mom’s.

Finally, on the day before Mom left the hospital, he felt well enough to venture out and stopped by before going to work.

While at the hospital, he had a dizzy spell, but said he was fine. I put it down to not eating properly while sick.

Silly me. Given his history of health problems, I should have known better. A few hours later, on arriving home from that day’s visit with Mom, I saw I’d missed a call.

It was from the school where Bro was substitute teaching. He was being taken by ambulance — no, make that life-flighted — to the hospital.

Despite his carotid artery being completely blocked, they sent him home the next day with medication, leaving me to wonder what happened if … when it happened again? What if he had such a spell while driving? It was like throwing a bomb into the community, set to go off at some unknown time.

Also, my sister-in-law, who usually visits Mom when she’s in the hospital, was going out the door with my niece to do just that when she tripped over something, smashing her head on the patio.

She ended up being diagnosed with a concussion in the same ER Mom had been a few days before. The next day, she was back at the hospital, where they discovered she had a broken orbital bone. I wince every time I think about it.

Still, I was very grateful to my cousin, who visited Mom, and my niece who did manage to run up and say hello while her own mother was being treated in the emergency room.

In the end, Mom returned to her nursing home just a few hours short of a week since she’d left.

She was glad to be home, and I was relieved she recognized it as such.

After her last hospital stay, she thought she was there for rehab, and had no memory of the three years she’d lived there. I’m still not sure she remembers her previous life there before her hip break, but at least she’s come to see it as where she lives.

While she was still in the hospital, her doctors asked if we wanted them to insert a feeding tube. Bro and I said no. It would do nothing to improve her comfort and quality of life. And now I’ve read more about them, it seems they don’t even prevent aspiration because quite often what’s aspirated is mucus or saliva.

It was hard to tell the doctors we didn’t want to proceed with this action, difficult to voice a decision that might enable Mom to receive nutrition more directly. I am so sad that things have reached this stage, that her life had become so filled with discomfort.

Nonetheless, this decision echoes the one she made long ago when she signed a Do Not Resuscitate-Comfort Care Only order.

A feeding tube might prolong her life, but it certainly wouldn’t make her days more comfortable or happy.

Sometimes, mostly in the hospital, but occasionally at her nursing home, it seems like there’s only a thin veil between the present and the past for Mom. There’s a look in her eyes, as though she’s seeing something I don’t, as if she’s somewhere else.

It’s different from before my dad died, when he was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. His eyes became vacant, as if the father I knew no longer existed. With Mom, it’s like she’s just elsewhere.

This doesn’t happen all the time, but enough for me to feel we should prepare ourselves for the end.

Also, she’s tired, as if the struggle to live is almost too much for her.

Obviously, I could be wrong. She could live another ten, or even fifteen, years, and if she can somehow recover from the difficulties of these last months, I’d be happy with that possibility.

But, as things stand, I can’t help wondering why she has to go through all this, why her last days couldn’t just be slower, peaceful, and without such struggles.

I can find no reason, and it’s hard to realize I can’t help make things better.

Certainly, I’m not the first, not even the first of my acquaintances, to have dealt with this situation, and there’s some small comfort in knowing others have gotten through this (although I certainly wouldn’t wish this on anyone).

Meanwhile, my Bro went to the follow-up appointment with his nuero-vascular doctor. (Yes, he has one, which makes it all the more ridiculous that he insisted he was fine to go to work and that I didn’t push him on it.) She was amazed that he’d driven to his appointment and said he should have been transported.

He’s now been admitted to the hospital for an angioplasty on Monday. And although I know he’d prefer to be home, I feel much relieved that this situation is being addressed.

On another note: Once Mom was safely settled back at the nursing home, and the first doctor said Bro was fine to go home, The Engineer and I went for a hike in a local park.

I needed some of nature’s calming influence, and she did not disappoint.

It was a glorious day, over 70F, with the red-winged blackbirds trilling, the cardinals calling, and loads of skunk cabbage along the trail to assure us spring is coming. (Sidenote: This was yesterday, and today we woke up to barely 30F.)

Skunk Cabbage is such an interesting plant, not only because it is a welcome early food for bees, but because it is actually able to generate its own heat.

I must admit we felt a little jealous because we tried planting some in the yard for our bees, and it just disappeared. This is an not infrequent occurence with our gardening efforts, which The Engineer has begun to refer to as “hiding.”

“Didn’t we hide some of those plants in our garden?” he’ll ask.

Thus, we would have been a lot more tempted to break the rules (and possibly the law) and dig some up to plant in our yard if we hadn’t known it would just disappear, never to be seen again.

As it was, we instead revelled in the sight of so many plants just waiting to be discovered by the bees.

We also passed the incredible, many-trunked tree, seen below from both sides.

Even though I know my mom’s and brother’s health troubles are probably not over, I felt my tension seep away as we hiked.

Nature is so healing.

Honey Bees in Winter

I’m always amazed at the number of people who seem genuinely interested in the ins and outs of keeping bees. Because bees are one of my favorite subjects, it’s hard to not answer in such detail that they start edging away, sorry they every asked.

The Engineer can be very helpful on such occasions, kindly pointing out when my audience members’ eyes are beginning to glaze over.

I promise that’s not why I started this blog, although doing so does offer the distinct advantage of readers having the option of choosing to not read a post.

My intent in writing these posts is to share our many foibles as we endeavor to become successful beekeepers — kind “I’m telling you about our mistakes so you don’t have to make them.”

Of course, if you’re a beekeeper, that just frees you to make different ones.

Anyway, one of the more frequent questions I hear is about what bees — specifically honey bees — do in winter.

Most people think they hibernate, but this is not the case as you can see from the photo below (taken today).

It was about 60F today, and our girls took advantage of the warmth by going on cleansing flights. I’m probably anthropomorphizing, but it looked to me like they were just enjoying being out of the hive.

In the winter, they generally only venture out when the temperature is above 50F, although we occasionally seen one or two take brief excursions on those sunny clear days that look warm but are actually extremely cold.

The Engineer and I always joke they fly right back into the hive and tell their sisters, “Don’t go out! It’s f—ing frigid out there!”

Honeybees stay warm in winter by forming a cluster or bee ball, with the cluster growing tighter as the temperature drops. They keep the cluster warm by vibrating their abdomens, rotating the outer positions of the cluster so no single bee gets too cold. The mother (queen) bee remains at the center because if she doesn’t survive the winter, the hive will die also. This is because she doesn’t usually lay eggs when it’s cold, so the sister (worker) bees have no way to make a new queen.

No queen = no new bees = the hive will eventually perish.

Also, the girls waste no effort on keeping the entire hive warm; all their energy goes toward keeping the cluster nice and toasty with the center of it getting to about 95F.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of energy to create that amount of heat, which is why it’s so important to leave the hive enough honey to support the work they are doing.

A hive can also die because it doesn’t have enough bees to keep the temperature high enough to survive.

It’s a big balancing act: We hope we have enough bees to keep the hive warm, but not so many that they finish their food before winter ends and they are able to forage once more.

We cheat a little by putting sugar or sugar patties on top of the frames so they have extra food if they deplete the honey they’ve stored, but there’s not much you can do if they don’t have enough bees.

One of our hives ended up in this situation last fall. Because we had a lot going on, we were late discovering it, and although we moved it into a smaller box setup, we were sure it wouldn’t last the winter.

It didn’t, and because we knew it would take a miracle for it to survive, I’m not even counting it toward our total number of hives going into winter.

In my opinion, we had five, and we still have five, although since most hives die in March, we are not yet in the clear.

Still, it does my heart good to see them fly!

Because it was so warm, we were able to treat all five hives with Oxalic Acid vapor to try to bump down the varroa count before the queens really start laying. Our hope is this will give them a healthy start to the spring and summer.

In other news, WordPress informed me a few weeks ago that I’ve been blogging for thirteen years now. It’s interesting (at least to me) how my blogging life has changed, having begun with “Reading, Writing, Ranting and Raving,” a blog designed to support my endeavors as a romance writer, then seguing to “Keeping A-Breast: Cancer Lessons,” and eventually landing with “The Byrd and the Bees.”

I intentionally made the spectrum of The Byrd and the Bees wider than my previous blogs so I don’t have start another one if my interests/experiences shift again.

In some ways, it seems impossible that I’ve been doing this for that long, but as I look back, I can see how much my life has changed since I began.

Also, although I feel a little guilty for not having posted as frequently as I usually do, I can promise you I’ve been quite busy doing a lot of exciting (to me) stuff — crocheting vast quantities of scrap-happy afghans (see above), spending hours upon hours researching The Engineer’s mum’s genealogy, and visiting my own Mom three times a week.

She remains much the same — determined to try to move around by herself, which has resulted in multiple falls. Her hand was so badly bruised and swollen after the last one that the nurses thought she’d broken a bone (again). Thankfully, the X-ray showed no new breaks, and the bruises have begun to fade a little.

With my approval, the nurses have begun to insist she stay in the common area during the day so they can keep an eye on her. It’s certainly not ideal, but at some point, safety has to trump Mom’s ability to be independent.

Obviously, she can’t stay there all night or she’d never get any rest, and that’s how she fell this last time — getting up to go to the bathroom on her own.

In looking forward, I can see no happy ending, but I visit regularly, trying to alternate days with my brother, because even if she forgets as soon as we’re gone, Mom is at least happy when one of us is there.