My mom passed away on May 4.
It wasn’t COVID-19. Complications of complications from the cancer that she was cured of nearly ten years earlier compounded in her body until she just needed to rest. She died in the hospital, and my sister and I weren’t even allowed in the building.
Over the past few years she had given away or discarded most of her belongings. She left a house full of furniture with my ex-stepfather. Four years ago, when she left Texas for her native New Mexico, she tossed out mountains of old papers and clothes that no longer fit her new, gaunt body.
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She had been taken to the hospital many times over the past decade in various states of distress, and in February she was admitted again. By this point a small bladder infection could throw her body into crisis; a fever, then pneumonia, then a dropping red blood cell count, and hypoxia-induced confusion. Usually, no matter how bad it got, she shook the problems off after a month and was back in the Sandia Resort & Casino bingo hall a few weeks after discharge.
At first, her brothers and sisters were by her side constantly. But after COVID hit, visitors were banned, and she spent her days alone, trying to figure out how to place video calls so she could see my baby daughter. By the time she was discharged in late April, we had decided she would move in with my family in Austin.
Before she left Albuquerque she spent hours with her sister discarding clothes, jewelry, and shoes. Then two of my cousins drove a van full of furniture and boxes filled with her smaller possessions to Austin in one ten-hour push. On the way, they gawked at the people in North Texas gas stations who weren’t wearing masks.
After they arrived, my cousins and I unloaded the truck and stacked everything in a storage unit. We wore masks and were afraid to hug. We unloaded boxes of old CDs, bins and bins of photographs, a single-cup coffee maker, framed paintings and photographs, my mom’s old patio furniture, a living room set, a dining table, pots, pans, dishes, untold numbers of hand towels and throw pillows, dozens of Santa Claus figurines that she’d spread across her home every November and leave up through January at least, and so much more.
A week later, my mom deplaned at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with legs too swollen to walk on and an oxygen cannula that kept slipping out of her nose. She had two suitcases and a carry-on, all of which rattled when lifted. They each held dozens of pill bottles split into blurry categories: active prescriptions, take as needed, empty and needing refills, old prescriptions.
She was with us for only a week and a half when another infection took hold. Her oxygen saturation dropped, she started to see people who weren’t there, and I made sure she kissed my daughter twice before we took her to the hospital. She almost pulled through; her breathing and blood pressure stabilized, which seemed encouraging. But then her kidney function cratered and, after a week alone in ICU, her heart stopped beating. She was gone.
My sister and I will split up or give away most of mom’s stuff. We’re not going to cherish her washcloths and the cheap necklaces bought from friends in the bingo hall. The clothes don’t fit my sister or my wife, so they’ll be donated. The furniture will go to an organization that helps people in need. We’ll keep the pictures, of course, but they’ll probably stay in a box until we get around to buying a photo album.
But that’s not all my mom left behind. After every hospital stay she was sent home with a small mountain of supplies that accumulated for years until, at the end, they were boxed up and shipped to Texas. Now they’re mine.
Inogen One G4 Portable Oxygen Concentrator, Salter Green Crush Resistant 3-Channel Tubing (25’, 10,’ and 5’), Karman LT 980 Ultra Lightweight Folding Wheelchair, BodyMed 2 Button Folding Walker, Drive Medical Four Wheel Rollator Walker with Fold Up Removable Back Support, Canes (3, unused), Curad Xeroform Petrolatum Dressing (3 sheets), Woven Gauze Sponges (3 boxes of 200 each), Stratus Urea 10% Lotion, Hollister m9 Odor Eliminator Spray (10 ml, 4 aerosol cans), Aloe Vesta Protective Ointment (5 bottles, 8 ozs), Aloe Vesta Cleansing Foam (6 bottles, 8 ozs), Sterile Alcohol Prep Pads (hundreds), Gait Belts (10’ each), stacks and stacks of wipes, “chucks,” pads, bandages of assorted sizes, N95 masks, latex-free examination gloves, and rolls and rolls of medical tape.
And hundreds and hundreds of pills: prednisone, Detrol, Cipro, lorazepam, folic acid, iron, pantoprazole, budesonide, carvedilol, Bactrim, levothyroxine, benzonatate, acyclovir, dapsone, rosuvastatin, montelukast, tolterodine, Lyrica, fluconazole, and more.
My vivid strain of apocalyptic thinking, sharpened by the coronavirus pandemic, makes me want to hoard my dead mother’s medical supplies. If toilet paper, yeast, and bread can go missing from shelves, then what hope do we have for antibiotics? What if the hospital system is overwhelmed and one of us needs oxygen? Would we pass the cannula back and forth in front of our fireplace as we wait for the power to come back on? Might the antiseptics, bandages, and gauze help us avoid waiting for hours in an overcrowded, plague-ridden emergency waiting room? Would the prednisone give us the boost of energy we needed to wait in a rations line after another sleepless night with a howling, hungry baby?
Maybe all of these fears are ridiculous. Maybe we won’t actually run out of food and need the prescription iron supplements. Maybe we won’t trade expired antibiotics for clean water. But what if we do? A couple of boxes of supplies tucked away in the back room seems prudent. What if we lose our jobs and can’t afford the most basic necessities? The thin hospital foam would be perfect for our teenage boys who barely use soap anyway.
My wife and I will (fingers crossed) get old. We’ll likely need canes and walkers and wheelchairs. How much more will they cost on the medical black market in three decades? In mid-March, I had engaged in some light hoarding of toilet paper, frozen pizza, and white wine, which seemed prudent then, if a bit silly in retrospect. But this equipment could save our lives. My mother had at least a dozen half-full travel hand sanitizers, which basically means we’re rich.
I don’t think any of us will look at surplus the same way again. How many of us will buy a little extra tuna every week? Maybe stash some cans in the back of the pantry or in a plastic bin in a back closet that we’re embarrassed to admit even exists?
Still, in moments of clarity and hope, which usually accompany waking up my toothy and grinning eleven-month-old daughter, I realize that the demands of the present are more pressing than my fears of the future. And that meeting those demands, enjoying them even, might make that bleak future a bit less likely.
So the pills get dropped off at a pharmacy; it takes me five minutes to shove each bottle through the narrow slot of the medicine “recycling” bin. The gait belts, the oxygen concentrator and hoses, the walkers, canes, and wheelchairs are donated to a local group that supports people with ALS. The soaps and lotions and tiny toothpastes are made into gift bags for those camped out under overpasses.
It’s possible I will regret this charity. Yet I don’t want to give in to that darkness. It’s not naive to trust that society will still be here tomorrow. Each donated piece of equipment, each relinquished antibiotic, each handed-out bandage and disinfectant is more than an act of charity. It’s an act of optimism.
As I’m typing this very sentence, my daughter is waking up from her morning nap. I can hear her babbling to her pink fuzzy bunny, which she refuses to sleep without and which my mom bought her weeks before she was born. Part of me will always want to keep every useful scrap I find, but I’m giving this stuff away for her.