Dialysis of the Mind
I was working out today when I thought of my mother; how she required dialysis at the end of her life. A test to determine whether she had pancreatic cancer shut down her kidneys. Before the cancer could be treated, her kidneys had to be restored. So dialysis it was, for two weeks.
I exercise because exertion requires the heart to pump more blood, and for the blood to take in more oxygen. This has an invigorating effect, as if my blood and my organs are cleansed by my movements. Exercising also occasionally settles my mind.
My mother had at several illnesses leading up to pancreatic cancer: Cervical cancer, for one, although we did not learn of it until after her death through the medical records. She also had peripheral arterial disease. This is a painful condition in which blood fails to circulate in the limbs; it stops, as though the route to nourishing knees and shins has been blinkered off; as if it no longer exists. Peripheral Arterial Disease is caused by smoking. My mother smoked for many years before quitting at age 49. Mild exercise was prescribed to deal with this illness.
My mother once exercised quite frequently, playing tennis several times a week. But at age 70 she injured her knee on the tennis court. Surgery and therapy were ineffective. She also endured terrible arthritis most of her adult life. She hid it by taking long hot showers in the morning. “She steamed herself open like a clam,’’ my father once said.
We knew she had also experienced something like leukemia, except her body produced too many red blood cells, instead of white. The disease revealed itself through high blood pressure. She had too much blood for her vascular system. This condition was mistreated in my mother, and the result was pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, and it causes pain, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting. It also may lead to pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatitis is most often found in aging male alcoholics, although our mother did not drink. My sister drank, and she lived with our mother until our mother
died. My sister and I had a great sibling rivalry. We competed for friends, over our grades and social status, and for the affection of our parents, especially our mother’s. Who knew her better, who was the most thoughtful of her, who sacrificed more of her life and time? Perhaps I just gave up, and moved out the house. Perhaps my sister actually won this competition.
For dialysis, my mother was required to lie on a table. An intravenous line was inserted in a vein in her arm to siphon out the blood. The blood was then run through a series of filters. Blood takes in everything: sugars from our food, oxygen from the air; the toxins there too. The fine silk of the filters removes excess water, nutrients, waste and detritus. The blood is returned to the body through another intravenous line in the arm. Dialysis is not perfect. It is a manual approximation of a natural process, and therefore lacks its grace, and precision.
My sister was with my mother as she was forced to do nothing but stare at a ceiling for four hours each day. She asked our mother which was worse: dialysis or the mental hospital. No one knew this at the time of our mother’s mental illness, but diseases of the mind are caused by the faulty cycling of neurotransmitters in the brain. Instead of dispersing into the blood once they were used, our mother’s neurotransmitters batted back and forth, over and over again, between her synapses. This can lead to obsession, mania, depression, and psychosis. These illnesses resist a dialysis of the mind.
When my sister told me she had asked our mother which was worse—the dialysis or the mental hospital–I did not say anything. My sister did not tell me the answer. Instead I thought to myself, “But did you ask her which time?”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of a full-length poetry collection, “With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women” (The Aldrich Press 2012) and three poetry chapbooks. Her experimental novel and memoir, “An Unsuitable Princess,” will be published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014.