I have been avoiding writing this entry, wondering if I can skip it, but if this is to be an honest chronicle, there’s no leaving out the unflattering, ugly and/or embarrassing parts.
Ralph fell on Friday and ended up in the emergency room. He’s fine, but the experience was unnerving and upsetting on several levels: as a reality check on our life together now, as a glimpse into our possible future, as a mirror into my reactions.
Ralph had injured his back last Monday and spent the next four days in serious pain. He did what he always has done with his back issues in the past —lay on his back with a brace and took painkillers. I brought him food and Advil, but to say I was attentive might be an exaggeration since I went into Atlanta for someone’s birthday dinner without him Tuesday night and was in and out of house the rest of the time, actually finding as many reasons to be out as I could.
By Friday he seemed much better. When I got home from the grocery story at 5-ish, he was sitting on the front porch talking on the phone to his sister. I was glad to see he was back to his usual afternoon routine but also vaguely annoyed with him for no particular reason except maybe caregiver fatigue as I schlepped in the grocery bags by myself. Minutes later while fiddling around in the kitchen, I heard a crashing noise. I assumed it was the dog, but—and here’s where the embarrassing, unflattering part starts—a thought slipped into my head along the lines of, if that’s Ralph dropping dead it serves him right for sitting out there not helping me with the groceries.
Of course, it was Ralph. He lay crumpled face down on the ground by the porch steps. He was not moving. What had I just wished on him? To twist the knife a little more, that very morning he’d asked me out of the blue, “What will you do when I die?” In response I had laughed uncomfortably and changed the subject. What if he’d had a presentiment?
He was conscious but unable to move his legs. His speech was slurred. I thought, stroke. I couldn’t and knew I shouldn’t move him. So I made the 911 call.
Ok, here comes the next embarrassing part: The EMT said that Ralph didn’t seem to have had a stroke or broken any bones, a relief of sorts, but that he smelled liquor on Ralph’s breath. I got defensive and said all we had in the house was white wine, which was true, and how much could he have imbibed in the two hours I was gone. The EMT said I shouldn’t be embarrassed if Ralph was tipsy when he fell. Right. I was more than embarrassed. I was half-hoping it was a stroke because that would be less difficult to explain than allowing my 68-year-old cognitively impaired husband get so drunk he fell off the porch.
On the 45-minute drive behind the ambulance, I called both my kids to prepare them just in case it was a stroke although I very calmly told them it probably wasn’t. Meanwhile I was composing titles for my next blog entry in my head, along the lines of From the Border of Early Alzheimer’s into the Abyss.
At the emergency room, Ralph was awake but very out of it. He had no memory of falling or riding in the ambulance and didn’t understand where he was. I panicked oh no this is going to be my life from now on. I have read so many blogs by wonderful people caring for their seriously debilitated spouses, but I wasn’t ready to be one of them.
The hospital tests clarified that Ralph had not had a stroke. And that his alcohol level was way over the legal limit. I was horrified. How had I allowed this to happen to him? Was he an alcoholic and I his enabler or was he a guy with a bad back and a worse memory who drank some wine on an empty stomach because his wife didn’t bother to make him lunch before she went out and he forgot to eat)? Either way, I was at fault. The medical staff didn’t seem very concerned—a 68-year-old man drank too much and tripped was the general consensus.
But to me and to Ralph it was a nightmare. I had never witnessed him so totally confused. And each time he asked me to explain his current situation, he became more deeply upset that his life had come to this point. “I am a man who is in control,” he repeated shaking his head.
As I drove him home minutes after he was released, he’d already forgotten we had just been at the hospital. I panicked. Was this his new memory level? I dreaded what I would be dealing with the next day and every day to come.
In the morning Ralph woke up sore, but he remembered the fall and the hospital. If anything, his memory was sharper than it has been for a while. He was mortified, worried that someone we knew had seen him in the hospital. I assured him no one had. We discussed how much he had drunk. He didn’t know but he had eaten very little and drunk on top of his meds and a lot of Advil. I explained how alcohol exacerbates cognitive impairment. He has not exactly sworn off his lite beer forever, but hasn’t had one since. He says he is more groggy/foggy than ever, but it seems to me that his memory is better and he has more energy. We are both relieved, enjoying life the way you do when you have just skirted disaster.
But for those five hours Friday night, I saw what our future might hold—Ralph’s nightmarish confusion, my cold calm covering inward fury—and it wasn’t pretty.