The plan was to visit at Christmas time. That had been the plan since I’d left Mom from the summer visit. The visit where everything changed. The visit where we traversed new ground, doing our best to navigate the pathways of life with an elderly matriarch in a nursing home, and the navigation of deciphering what neural pathways in her mind were dead ends. Dead ends made newly dead by the day it seemed. Patience with repetition. Watching a mind go slowly backward in time from an 86 year old to approximately 4… and then 2 and slowly to the sleeping baby.
“Mom, say Hi!”
“Say Hi to Fleur”
“Hi to Fleur.”
The exact type of teaching you might hear at a family gathering parading the newest toddler around the room. Just at the sweet spot where they repeat everything you say.
Once leaving the summer visit we had communicated by telephone. Some days she called on the speed dial (consulting with the note on her side table with what numbers associated to which offspring.) Sometimes the calls were happy accidents. Sometimes she forgot she had a phone. And then the whole cycle would begin again.
From July to November the story was mostly that of the daily grind of Mother getting used to her surroundings. One day sleeping. The next day dressed with purse in hand for the trip to the living room couch or to a family member’s home for the day. But it soon became apparent that the energy it took for her to shuffle herself out of the Home for a visit was so exhausting for her that by the time she’d arrive she plop herself down on the nearest couch, eat a bite, then sleep for a few hours. When she woke she had just enough energy to return, ever so slowly, to the Home. It had become a nice ritual to see through pictures and video apps. She particularly enjoyed feeding her lunch to the dogs while she thought her granddaughter didn’t see.
But Mom’s body is in decline and it became apparent that by Thanksgiving there would be no more leaving the Home. Another milestone. Here is where you will stay. We will come to you.
But Mom had not quite reached the point (almost) where she would be ok with that.
I arrived for Thanksgiving, earlier than planned, because the doctors and nurses said that now was the time. Not later. Later might be too late. Later being Christmas. So come now.
There was a lot to be thankful for at Thanksgiving:
Mom was still alive. Mom still knew who we all were. Mom still had some moxie. We were all be there together. One moment I’d wonder if this was it. If this was the last time… and the next moment I’d be feeling all those buttons red hot pushed by her as she was growling about how awful the place was and why couldn’t she leave…those moments never felt like the lament of a dying woman. Just a griping one. If she had the energy to complain maybe things weren't so bad.
A meeting with the lead nurse unveiled some daily antics. We were told (in a enormously charitable light-hearted humor) that Mom regularly let the “B-Word fly” as the nurse put it. I stared in mortification… “You mean she is calling you a B----?! I had to make sure my “B-Word” was hers as well. Holding out for the off chance we were speaking of Beauty. We were not. The nurse sees my face. She reassures me this is par for the course in a home where crazy is the norm. It really is okay. What these nurses deal with daily… really. Go hug a nurse today.
That’s when she warns us that time is running out. It’s good that I came home. It’s hard to believe because Mom looks okay. She has little energy and is sleeping more but she doesn’t look “sick.”
Mom made no sense, talked in circles, and hugged us as if we were the only ones in the world who mattered and who could save her from this new hell.
On Thanksgiving Day, (the family had already “agreed” that Mom could not leave the home anymore,) I got to the Home alone around 11:00 to see her first and to have some time with her on my own. It occurred to me that morning that I didn’t know if I’d ever have that chance again so I took it. I didn’t know if she’d be asleep for the day or what type of energy I’d find in her.
As I entered the door I saw this brightly colored woven bag just pass into the living room out of sight. She was up and at ‘em. I smiled to myself. Maybe this is a good day.
She was so energetic. Full of life with that special dash of piss and vinegar. Dressed and ready with purse in hand. Ready to go.
My stomach turned. Butterflies in my chest. I felt the strongest pull. It was unbearable.
TAKE HER OUT! JUST PUT HER IN THE CAR AND GO FOR A DRIVE!
I could have done it. Right then and there. Sure it would have taken about 20 minutes to get her out the door, down the sidewalk and into the car. She would have been asleep from the energy it took out of her. But the day was glorious. About 60 degrees and not a cloud to be seen. What can this hurt? Just do it! Follow the impulse.
I texted my family.
No was the answer. Not anymore. What if there’s an accident? And by that they aren’t talking about a car accident.
It was killing me. She only mentioned the idea of going somewhere once that morning but because she has no short term memory the idea floated off never to return replaced by… nonsense.
The nurse places a mountain of Thanksgiving dinner (at noon) before Mom. She won’t eat it. She doesn’t eat anymore. She drinks vitamin C water, Ensure, and the occasional infinitesimal bites of tiramisu.
I was thinking about how the agéd sometimes begin to stop eating at a certain point before they cross over. And I thought about the practice of fasting throughout history as a form of emptying ourselves so that we may be cleansed. So that we may be purified in prayer, closer to God, resist evil and so forth.
I began to wonder… is this the final fast in it’s infancy? Some sort of inner wisdom of the elderly (whether their brain is in working order or not) to stop eating so that they may focus on God alone? Be closer? The final fast before the heavenly flight?
What do I know. But somehow it seems right to me.
And then someone will respond to this blog that their 98 year old Aunt Bertha ate them out of house and home before she died with a smile on her face, fingers still orange from the final Cheeto.
There are so many difficult moments in this process to accept. It’s hard to watch your loved one stop eating. It’s hard to believe the nurses when they say not to fight it.
And it’s hard when you walk into the room to see that your mother has chosen to pull out the bottom set of her teeth.
I astral travel an inch out of my body.
“Mom! Put those back in!!!”
One must question why this is so very disconcerting. I am the first to admit that my desire to have Mom put her teeth in her mouth where they belong is about me and my comfort level and nothing to do with her or her immediate needs.
We’ll be talking and then Mom will pick at some dry skin on her lip (“Here. Use this chapstick, Mom.”) And then without warning she reaches into her mouth and begins to pull out the bottom set of teeth!
I cringe. I look away while saying “Oh, Mom put your teeth back in, please!”
Why is she doing this? She complains they are hurting. They don’t fit right. The denture cream isn’t working…
I later have another lesson in aging:
Who knew? So Mom’s gums are shrinking and her teeth are probably just floating around in her mouth or hitting all the wrong places and it hurts.
I’m a selfish brat.
Later my brother (The Fixer) gets her denture cream and the teeth working right again. If he can fix planes (and he did before becoming a pilot) he can fix dentures. I’m not the only one disturbed by this. I think about the actual steps he had to take to make sure her teeth were in correctly.
This teeth-in-mouth ritual lasts a few more weeks until I begin to get videos of some old lady I've never met with curled in lips and severely sunken cheeks. She lisps. She's aged about 1000 years. I don’t know who she is or how she got a hold of my mother’s video. Luckily a few days later my mom returned teeth intact... for a day or two.
Really. It's astounding what teeth can do for a face. I’ll be flossing tonight. The image is burned into my brain. I'll never be the same.
We giggled and guffawed at the loving manipulation between husband and wife, young lovers writing letters, a family eating breakfast together and dressing for dinner. We watched. We, a flawed grieving family holding it together, finding out what our capabilities were. We watched this family that allowed us not to have what was happening for a brief time. A bit of truth. A little beauty. A lot of goodness.
Then out of the darkness: “Yeah that’s all a bunch of BULLSHIT.”
Welcome back, Mom! We’d thought you’d gone. The sexual revolution is alive an well in room 7 of Total Loving Care Nursing Home.
We ignored her. She watches with us. We are all together. Watching a family we never were but become in this moment. My heart bleeds hearing my brother laugh out loud at Irene Dunn’s antics with her husband.
We have needed to laugh.
We also know this might be the last time we’ll all be together like this. And even in the midst of this sweet Technicolor joy, there are sporadic stings. I leave tomorrow.
The movie ends. It’s late. Mom is dozing except that she wills herself to stay awake. We tuck her in.
The plane leaves early the next morning. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m not going to think about this thing I can’t stop thinking about.
Annie gets up close and says something I can’t hear. The rest of the kids give a bit of space because they live close by but Annie and I live a plane flight away.
It’s my turn.
I get close to Mom’s face. Her eyes are icy blue. She looks into my eyes. I’m her Bird.
“I love you. Whole bunches.” She says.
“I love you, too.” I kiss her on the lips.
We say nothing about leaving. We say nothing about going home. She won’t remember and it will only upset and worry her. We’re just going for the night.
The doctors say she might make it to Christmas.
It’s January 6, 2019, the day of Epiphany, and she’s still here. No complete sentences. Her lines are fed to her like your 18 month old. She wears her teeth less and less and it still completely freaks me out.
But she knows us.
Say Hi to Fleur, my brother says on the video app.
“Hi to Fleur… Fleur… Fleur… Fleur… Fleur.”
Thanks be to God.
You see we’ve been grieving for about six months now. I don’t know why some get long transitions to their last day on earth while others are gone in seconds. Why some don’t get the deserved chance to say their goodbyes while others get more than they bargained for. These are the mysteries of heaven.
But I do know that God is merciful and perhaps this lengthy experience is a gift of time to heal, to remember, and opportunity to have time to forgive.
And for us, time to forget. Could my mother’s Alzheimer’s be the Great Example of the Mysticism of Forgetting?
Maybe that’s why the slow deaths.
Opportunity to forget everything that happened.
So that we may say goodbye with love.
So that the end can be the truest beginning.