My Trip to Iran
The phone rings at 5 a.m. It is my cousin from Teheran. After the customary pleasantries, she gets to the real reason for her call.
“Auntie has overdosed on her medication. She must have taken two days’ worth of pills in one day by mistake. Her doctor has made a house-call and she is okay for now. But she no longer can be trusted to live by herself. You must come and do something.” My cousin blurts over the phone.
“How could that be?” I ask. “Zoe just left two weeks ago. What has happened within these two weeks?” My youngest sister who lives in Los Angeles had spent seven weeks with Mother in Teheran.
“I know!” replies my cousin. “But you are the only one who can make rational decisions about Auntie.”
Good Lord! I cannot just drop everything and travel overseas. I have commitments, not only to my school and the department, but also the speaking engagement I had agreed to almost a year ago. Briefly, I explain to my cousin it is not possible to take off right away and travel clear across the world. She understands and says for the moment the neighbors are taking care of my mother.
“But it is really essential for you to get here as soon as possible.” She emphasizes.
Within ten days I leave for Iran.
After a long flight, going through Frankfurt, I reach Teheran, and am at my mother’s front door at 4 a.m. Mina, a temporary caregiver, opens the door. My cousin has arranged for Mina to spend the nights at my mother’s. I’m exhausted but I cannot sleep. As soon as we eat breakfast, Mina leaves. The neighbors breathe easier - the responsibility has shifted now that I have arrived.
There is no time to get over my jet lag. Mother looks older and smaller than two years ago when I last visited her. She has no recollection of the events of the last two weeks. She brushes off all my questions and says “It is nothing important. Everyone gets sick now and then.” She is glad to see me, but insists she is fine and that I didn’t need to make the trip for her sake! She indicates she can take care of herself, and does not recall the medication overdose, the often-burnt food, and the dangerously high blood sugar.
What am I supposed to do with my 87-year-old mother, and what choices do I have? I spend a week to acclimate myself, to re-enter the culture, and to observe. I talk less and listen more. Every bit of information helps me to formulate my thoughts.
I think of three options: I can bring her back with me to the U.S. to live under my roof, or I can put her in a nursing home in Teheran. The third option is for her to stay in her own home and I arrange for daily in-home care. Unfortunately, when I gently describe these options to Mother, none is acceptable to her. She wants to stay in her own home, but does not want in-home care. She says she does not need one.
I’m patient and observant. She can still take a bath by herself, but slowly. She can still cook, though often burns the food. She is diabetic and is remiss in taking her own blood sugar. When she is by herself, she does not eat properly. She has also developed moderate dementia. Every day I listen to the same old stories and laugh at the same jokes she repeats over and over again.
I decide to pursue my three options simultaneously, and am determined to make decisions based on what is best for my mother, not what is convenient for me and my sisters. For the first option, I go ahead and renew her passport and get all her travel documents in order. For the second option, I begin visiting available nursing homes. For my third option, I get the name and phone numbers of agencies that provide in-home care.
After visiting a few nursing homes in the area, I determine it is not an option for my mother, at least not at this stage in her life. I bring up the topic of her coming back with me to the U.S. She says she can no longer make this long trip, and prefers the comfort of her own home. I don’t blame her. As time goes by, I realize she is indeed correct. She loves her home and knows how to function in it. I want the best for her, and this is the best. Now I need to provide her with in-home care. Unfortunately, Mother has had an unpleasant experience with in-home caregivers after her heart surgery. She tells me about missing stuff, and believes the caregivers stole from her. Indeed, people I consult with regarding in-home care warn me to be careful and I hear horror stories of dishonest caregivers. How do I find a trustworthy person?
I spread the word among friends and relatives to let me know if they hear of a reliable caregiver. Lo and behold, a friend calls with good news. A woman who had taken care of an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s for nearly two years is now available. The old gentleman has passed away, and the woman is looking for new employment. The family vouches for the woman’s integrity and honesty.
I call her up immediately. She comes over the following day for an interview. She is 61 years old. In the course of a couple of hours, she tells us her life story. She is a retired educator, has a retired husband at home who has Alzheimer’s. An unemployed son and a five-year-old grandson also live with her. She needs to work. When she tells me how long it takes her to get to my mother’s house, I’m flabbergasted. She lives too far away. She is knowledgeable and well-versed in health care areas. She wants to work from 8 to 4, which suits Mother well. We agree on a salary, and a four-day trial period. I want to observe how Mother reacts to having her in the house.
Mother, who is quiet and polite during the interview, is vocal and belligerent after the woman leaves. She steadfastly repeats she does not need anybody’s help. I keep calm and remain nonchalant. “Let’s try her four days, it doesn’t hurt.” I say smilingly.
The next morning, the caregiver shows up ten minutes early. She and Mother cook together in the kitchen. I deliberately leave the house several times, buying vegetables and dairy products. During the day, the caregiver talks about her family problems, her misfortune and the tough life she has had. Her stories are not cheerful and I’m concerned about the effects of such negative and sad conversation on Mother. Four o’clock rolls and the woman is out the door. Mother sounds like a broken record: “Get rid of her. I don’t need anybody.” Oh God, please tell me what to do! I pray.
The second day of the trial period is here. The caregiver brings some personal items such as a few change of clothing, a book of crossword puzzles, a book of poems by Hafez, her personal medication, calcium pills, and a jar of Vaseline. I ask her to use a couple of drawers in the spare bedroom to store her belongings. She definitely wants to settle in. Today, my aunt and her daughter also show up for lunch. Mother is still unwilling to accept this person. I’m at my wits end. I do not have the heart to dismiss this woman who obviously needs the job. On the other hand, Mother is not cooperating and is very unhappy. I hardly sleep that night. I meditate, cry, and pray in the solitude of my bedroom for a solution. I ask God to help me.
It is the third day of the trial period. It is past 8 a.m. and the caregiver has not arrived yet. I’m not worried, considering the distance and the traffic. But when there is no sign of her by 8:30, I decide to call her house. I dial her number. The grandson answers the phone
“Hello, is your grandma home?” I ask.
“My grandma is dead.” The young boy answers.
For a split second I think maybe the young boy is mad at grandma for leaving him at home, and that his words are the expression of his anger. I cannot think straight.
“Can I talk to your father?” I say bewildered and shocked.
The son picks up the phone. I introduce myself, and quickly ask if his mother has left the house. The young man begins to cry at the other end.
“We lost my mother. She is gone. She is dead.”
I am numb and feel as if a bucket of ice water is dumped over my head. Then I begin to cry as well.
“How did this happen? We were together the day before, ate lunch, and watched a movie on television.” I manage to say in broken sentences.
“She was hit by a car, taken to the hospital and died in a coma.” He says sobbing.
Mother comes out of the kitchen holding a box of tissue. I no longer know what to say and am pinned to the sofa. I ask the son if I can go over to their house and take back his mother’s personal belongings.
In this part of the world, people strongly believe in fate and the will of God.
Did God take the decision out of my hands? Was it her fate to get hit by a car? Why would God want this woman to die? Why did I meet her?
There are no answers to any of my questions. So I ask again: “God, what do you want me to do now?”