The skies are blue, the days are sunny. The wind blows fiercely, which I love, whipping my hair across my face, blowing away all my cares.
She invited me to join her in her morning plunge, a dip in the tidal pool at the shore. She warned it would be cold, and that for maximum benefit we needed to stay in the water at least 12 minutes. Uh, no.
This is not something I would normally do. I prefer not to rise early. I don’t particularly care for icy water. I said yes.
I waded in tentatively. It was cold, but not numbingly so. Fish swam around my ankles. I walked quickly deeper, then slowly. It was time. I started swimming to the outer wall, loving the buoyancy, loving the warmth of my muscles cutting through the chill of the water. We swam, we talked, we floated, we marveled at the beauty surrounding us.
The crying is more intense, yet shorter in duration. Once Mom recognizes me as me, she starts shaking and crying, sobbing, “My baby, my baby.” I hug her and hold her tight and murmur, “It’s okay, Mom, it’s okay.” This display of emotion lasts for about 30 seconds, and then she pulls back, her hazel eyes staring up into my brown ones, her gripping my shoulders, and very seriously she says, “Is it okay? Can we go?” I nod and she says, “Really? Really?” I nod again. Her whole demeanor changes when we’re getting ready to go out (which at this time of the year involves two layers of pants, three layers of tops, a heavy coat, scarf, hat, mittens and earmuffs). She is transformed from a zombie, wandering around aimlessly and staring into space, to an excited 81 year old lady. Conflicting emotions arise in me, all of which are true, all at once. I love seeing her happy, even if just for a brief moment. I wonder (again. Again, again, and again.) if I made the right decision to move her to a facility. Guilt, over the times I’m not there. Thankful for the time we can spend together.
It’s Christmas Eve and all of our regular restaurants are closed. We go to a hip restaurant downtown. As we sit down, I notice how busy it is and make the decision to order an easy appetizer, hummus, so that Mom has something to snack on while our sandwiches are being prepared. Mom is not patient. As soon as we get settled, and she wants to know where our food is. Thankfully, the hummus arrives quickly. The waitress places it in the middle of the table and gives each of us a share plate. Mom pushes the share plate to the side, pulls the hummus platter towards her, and asks me if I’m going to eat. I can only laugh. I tell her my food is coming as she snacks on celery and carrots and pita and hummus. The waitress eyes us quizzically as she sees the platter in front of Mom, but doesn’t say anything. Again, all the conflicting emotions are all true, all at once. Thankful that we are here together. Bemused that she’s forgotten the concept of sharing. Sad that I am now the caretaker and she is the care-ee. Anxious wondering how many more of these moments we’ll have together. And grateful, oh so grateful.
I only knew him for eight months, and yet it felt like a lifetime. He lived across the hall from Mom. He and Mom immediately took a liking to each other. When I arrived to visit, they would be sitting in the living room area, cuddled close, holding hands. The first few visits, I wasn’t sure whether to simply leave, and not disturb them (they seemed so happy together), or engage with both of them.
I would sit with both of them until Mom said she was ready to leave, and we would traipse on our adventure. Sometimes she expected him to come with us, and I would gently explain that he would stay at the facility, and we would head out. I looked forward to seeing him each time I arrived. I asked him how he was doing, and what a highlight of the day was. When I arrived during meal times, it warmed my heart to walk in on he and Mom holding hands at the dinner table.
I arrived today and his door was closed.
As I walked towards Mom’s room, a staff member let me know he passed earlier this morning. Tears sprang to my eyes, a lump settled in my throat, and I felt heavy all over. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the next step at these facilities. And, yet.
Mom and I went to the park. We walked, we sat on benches. We didn’t speak. As we sat, we held hands, and we each cried. I asked Mom if she was sad, and as tears rans down her face, she said, “No.” I squeezed her hand and even though I didn’t voice it, I acknowledged I was sad. So very, very sad. Sad for the loss of the person who I had looked forward to visiting as much as Mom. Sad for his daughters, knowing what it feels like to lose a father. Sad for Mom, who even if she can’t verbalize it, will miss sitting with him and holding hands. And sad for me, knowing that a similar loss is in my future.
“I am so glad you’re here. I have not eaten all day. I am so hungry.”
Mom shares this when I arrive, as soon as she stops crying. When I visit, she’s usually either in her bed, napping, or wandering the halls. Once she recognizes me, she starts shaking and crying, opening her arms wide. As I embrace and calm her, telling her over and over that it’s okay, she says, “I thought you’d never come.” And then tells me she’s starving. I know that she has just eaten, and I don’t mention it.
It’s Sunday. We split a garden salad. She has trouble using a fork, so she picks up pieces of lettuce with her hands and manipulates them into her mouth. We’re at a point where I state what I want to be true, and she agrees. “This is so delicious.” She nods and says, “So good.” “This is just the best day.” “Best day,” she repeats. “Isn’t it just a beautiful day?” “So pretty,” she echoes. The pizza arrives, and I caution her it’s hot. This does not dissuade her, and after attempts of sawing it with her fork, rubbing the tines back and forth, back and forth, with little luck, she picks it up with her hands.
After one slice, she declares herself full. I ask for a box and the check and we prepare to leave.
She carries the pizza box, containing all but two slices of pizza, and I help her navigate her way to the parking lot. I go to open her car door, and she says, “Have we eaten yet? I am so hungry!”
I laugh and tell her that I have a surprise for her in the car. We buckle in, and I tell her to open the box she is holding. She is delighted with the snack for the ride home. “This is so good!” She exclaims. It is. Everything is so good.
Mom’s outfit and stance remind me of Paddington Bear. She wears an oversized white sweatshirt/jacket that hangs down to her mid-thighs. I can’t remember if it’s always been this large on her, or if she’s somehow shrunk since she bought it years ago. She’s taken to wearing her sunhat low across her eyes.
She was in this outfit, curled up in bed, when I arrived. She heard me enter the room, opened her eyes, smiled, and sleepily said, “I love you.” I stroked her long gray hair, and told her to rest. She sat up and said, “No, I’m ready to go!” I helped her put on her tennis shoes and we headed to the park. October is the most beautiful month. The skies are a palatable blue; the air just the right amount of chill; the birds noisily chirping in the tree tops; and the leaves orange and red and yellow and brown. As we began our walk, Mom uttered what she tells me every week. “No one has fed me in days. I’m so hungry.” (The words don’t come out this coherently, but this is the message she’s conveying). She says this, regardless if we’ve just finished a meal or a snack. She says this when we get in the car, leaving a restaurant. She believes she is hungry, so we spend much of our time seeking food. I tell her we’ll go to our favorite restaurant, Campfire Grill, after we finish our walk. She nods.
At Campfire Grill, I ask her if she’d like to eat inside or outside. She stares at me, then says, “Outside.” The hostess sits us near vines and flowers and herb gardens. The sun is shining brightly, almost blinding, and will soon drop behind the trees. Mom unsnaps her jacket. It looks as though she has a t-shirt hanging out from under her sweater. I lean forward to see what she’s wearing. She’s put her underwear on over her sweatpants. I had not noticed earlier, because her jacket hung so far down her legs. Inside, I feel a slight pang, knowing this marks another milestone. The confusion of what things are for; confusion about order; confusion about timing. She tells me she needs to use the restroom. I walk with her; she cannot follow directions anymore, but likes to hold my hand and walk slightly behind me.
I wonder for a moment if I should try to correct the layering of clothes, and decide against it. She likes to tuck her sweatpants into her socks, and correcting the order of clothes would mean taking shoes off, taking off the (outer) underwear, untucking sweatpants from socks, taking sweatpants off, putting on underwear, putting on sweatpants, tucking into socks, putting on shoes. It feels like a lot of effort for not much gain.
I stay in the roomy bathroom with her; this is now necessary since she’s forgotten how to flush the toilet and use the faucet. When she pulls her sweatpants down, I see she has underwear on both underneath, and on top of, her sweatpants. This small discovery makes me incredibly happy. She still understands underwear goes under clothes. She just decided to add an extra layer on the outside. She finishes her business and I help her pull up her pants, and help her step out of the underwear that is on the outside. I turn on the faucet, test to make sure the water isn’t too hot, and pump some liquid soap into her hands, rubbing her hands together under mine. We dry our hands on rough industrial brown paper towels then make our way back to our outside table.
I’ve ordered her a salad with grilled chicken, and she eats a few bites then says she’s full. I tell her we’ll get a to-go box, and she’s happy about this. She hates wasting food. She used to attempt to wrap anything and everything in a paper napkin, then stick in into a pocket or purse. Because of this, I usually have a Tupperware container in my purse so that we can package up leftovers, but today I’ve forgotten. The server brings us a compostable box, and I help Mom put the salad in it. She looks at me. “Did we already eat ice cream?” I smile. Her favorite thing. “Not yet, but they’re fixing it for you now.”
A bowl of plain vanilla ice cream arrives. Mom eats the whole thing, and scrapes the bowl. The server comes and asks if we need anything else. Mom tries to tell her how much she loves ice cream, and random words come out, with animated hand gestures. The servers are so kind to us.
We arrive back to her place, take our shoes off, and climb onto her bed, ready to watch a Hallmark Movie. Mom waves her hands, and stutters “outside” “pretty day” “ready.” I ask her if she’d like to go for a walk. “YES!” She says enthusiastically, as though challenging why I would suggest anything else.
We go back to the park. We walk by the pond. She stops and asks if we’ve already had ice cream. I tell her we have, and we can get some more if she’d like. “Oh, yes.” This time we go to the local ice cream parlor, where when the ice cream scooper sees us, she laughs and says, “Small cup of Oreo?” I laugh and say, “You know it!”
This routine brings me so much comfort. I know it won’t last forever. But I can treasure it while it does.
Today is Dad’s birthday. He would have been 82. The wish today was the same as it has been every day since he passed three and a half years ago. I wish I could have one more day with him. One more conversation. One more NYT Mini Crossword. One more joke, where I would laugh hysterically until tears rolled down my face.
In a work meeting today, my colleague mentioned he was experimenting with an AI (artificial intelligence) illustrator, and showed me some pictures he had generated. He asked me to give it a go. I requested “a tall dark-haired adult woman in a floral dress with her silver-haired father in khaki pants and a blue flannel shirts, looking at a waterfall in the modern tradition.” One of the results struck me. It could have been us, on a hike, if the man had a little less hair and the woman had a little more height. Happy birthday, Dad.
Our Saturdays have a comforting familiarity. Park, ice cream, Hallmark movie. And some days we have interesting tangents. Like today.
I usually arrive midday. Mom is either in bed, or sitting on the patio staring into space. I step in front of her and call her name, and it takes her a few beats to recognize me. But when she does, it’s the sweetest of sweet feelings. Her eyes light up and she says, “You came!” I know this is a fleeting reaction, and I savor it each Saturday that she still recognizes me. We hug, and I help her get ready for our outing. Sometimes that involves bathing her, sometimes helping her change out of her nightgown, and sometimes reminding her to use the restroom before we depart.
We go to the nearby park, and walk. We used to walk for almost an hour; now our walks are one short loop, about 25 minutes as she slowly, ever so slowly, shuffles. She loves seeing the children playing at the park, and parents are so incredibly generous, encouraging their littles to say hello to Mom. I wish there were a way for me to transmit the eternal gratitude I have for these parents. Thank you for indulging an elderly lady who wants to come close to your child. Thank you for being so incredibly gracious, and encouraging your child to wave or say hello. Thank you for smiling.
As we finish our walk, I ask Mom if she needs to use the restroom. Usually she says no, and we continue to our next stop, the ice cream parlor. Today, however, she said yes. We walk into the restroom, and she entered the stall. I stand outside the stall, because she doesn’t usually lock the stall, and I don’t want someone to walk in on her. I hear her finish and flush the toilet, and then struggle with the door. Oh, no. She has locked the door. “Mom, can you hear me?” “Yes.” “I want you to slide the silver latch, okay?” Through the narrow crack between the wall and the door, I see she steps back from the door. I reach up over the door and point downwards. “Do you see the latch I’m pointing to?” “Yes.” “Okay, please slide it.” I see her step back and lean against the wall. “Mom?” “Yes.” At this point I kneel on the floor, trying not to gag. My philosophy about public restrooms is to get in and out as quickly as possible. I reach my arm under the door and point up to the latch. “Do you see my hand?” “Yes.” “Okay, touch my hand.” She does. “I want you to move your hand up, up, up, up….” She did, and when she reached the latch, I said, “Okay, now slide the latch.” She stepped back from the door. I wondered what other words I could use to encourage her to slide the latch. I drew a blank.
I realized I would need to crawl under the door into the stall. I am not a small person. This would mean laying on the floor, of a public bathroom, and shimmying into the stall. I tried not to gag as I laid down on the floor and scootched forward. I inched into the stall and stood up. I slid the latch and Mom said, “Well looka there.” I tried to rid my mind from thinking about what germs were on the bathroom floor. We exited the stall and I helped her wash her hands.
Mom’s language use has diminished. She’ll start a sentence, and can’t recall the words to express her thoughts. I try to help her, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it makes her more frustrated. Today, when we pulled into the parking lot of the ice cream parlor, she sing-songed, “Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.” I smiled. I’m so happy that connections are still made.
We returned to her home, and propped up on her bed to watch a Hallmark movie, holding hands with our legs intertwined. Al, her special gentleman friend from across the hall, wandered in. He saw me and smiled. “I wanted to see who was in bed with Sybil!” I laughed, and said it was just me, and he didn’t have any competition. He said he was going home, and would see us later. He ambled across the hall back to his room.
Vipassana training emphasizes impermanence. The good won’t last forever, and neither will the bad. I try to remember this with each day that I spend with Mom. Don’t get too attached. This is fleeting. And oh my goodness, still how I wish each day could be like this – the recognition, the tenderness, the sweet love. I know it won’t be like this always, and I say a prayer of gratitude. Today was a good day.
I enter Mom’s room. It’s 11:17 am. She’s curled up in a fetal position in her bed, winter nightgown on and sweatshirt jacket buttoned up to her neck. She hears me, but I can tell she can’t see me. “Mom, it’s Lori.” I walk closer to her bed. A few steps away she recognizes me and her face lights up. She extends her arms and I kick off my shoes and crawl into bed with her. I scootch down so that my head is on her chest, so that she feels like the Mom, and she hugs me tightly. She tells me she’s so hot, and I unbutton her sweatshirt jacket. “Is that better?” “Oh, yes.”
She squeezes me tightly. I squeeze her back. I tell her I love her. We lay there like that for a while.
“Well, I guess we should get up,” she says. I stroke her hair away from her face.
I help her sit up, and I suggest outfits from her closet. She vetoes a few choices before approving a colorful top with a bright yellow top beneath. Mom loves layers.
I guide her into the bathroom. She’s not sure what to do. I turn the shower on, constantly testing it to make sure it’s warm, but not hot. Her skin is paper thin and I want her to be comfortable, but not hurt her. I help her pull her nightgown over her head. She stands there, confused. I ask her if she’d like to shower and she replies, “Oh, yes.”
I gently guide her into the shower, and ask her to hold her head back so that I can wet her hair. I massage shampoo into her long silver hair, and constantly check to make sure no soap drips into her eyes. She stands there, water running down. I take the soap and lather her arms, her torso, her body. I ask her if she can rinse off by herself. “Oh, yes.”
When she’s rinsed herself, I ask if she’d like me to turn off the water. “Oh, yes.” I hand her a towel, and she buffs herself dry. I help her into her underclothes, then the many layers that she prefers. “Would you like me to do your hair?” “Oh, yes,” she replies.
She sits on the toilet, and I gently brush her hair, drying it on low, curling it with a round brush.
Why am I tearing up? I want this moment to last forever. Is this what it feels like to mother? To cherish the moment, and feel so incredibly sad that you know you won’t have it again? I braid her hair and tell her she’s beautiful. “Maybe,” she says.
I ask her if she’d like to wear earrings. “Oh, yes.” I carefully place them in her ears. “How about a necklace?” “Oh, yes.” I place one, then another, necklace around her neck. I hug her tightly, In my mind, I know that we’re steadily approaching an end. In my heart, I yearn for the magic that would allow this moment to last forever. Oh. Yes.
The last few months have been full of turmoil. I didn’t realize until recently that I was carrying the emotional load for two – for me and for what I imagined Mom was feeling.
I didn’t realize how lonely and empty our house would feel without Mom living here.
I didn’t realize how much I would miss, or would long for, the tender moments, with the not so tender moments easily fading from memory.
I didn’t realize how tormented I would feel when I visited Mom, and things were better, and I wondered if they could have been better if she were still at home.
I didn’t realize the heartbreak I would feel each time I left her new residence and Mom asked if she could come home with me.
I didn’t realize that minutes after I left, Mom likely didn’t remember I had been there.
I also didn’t realize that the sadness and guilt I felt upon arrival and seeing her sitting and staring into space is likely not shared by her. That her resting and having less stimulation is a form of cognitive reserve, a way for her body and mind to store up energy and serotonin so that our visits are lovely and not fraught with violence. Just because it causes me guilt, doesn’t mean it’s causing her sadness or uncomfortableness.
I look back at my writings and talk to close friends who remind me of the agony of our existence at the beginning of the year. The screaming, the sobbing, the hitting, the yelling, the throwing objects, her insistence Dad was alive and had left her. There were also many precious moments; however, I never knew what I was in store for, and mood swings were swift and often.
I compare that to our visits now. Every visit is lovely. Simply lovely. I say hello to her and it takes her a couple of beats to recognize me. A smile spreads across her face, and she exclaims, “You came!” or “My baby!” Followed by a tight hug that neither of us wants to release.
She associates my arrival with leaving her residence. She asks, “Where are we going today?” It’s always the same, and I’m happy to repeat myself. “Would you like to go for a walk in the park?” “Oh, yes!” She exclaims, “I would really like that.”
After we do our lap at the park, which is becoming slower and shorter, I ask her if she’d like to get ice cream. “Oh, yes!” I order her a small cup of cookies and cream, and I’m well on my way to sampling each of the flavors at the Mexican paleteria: Ganzito, cafe, coco, mango, limon, and fruits I’m just now learning.
On the way home, we stop at Ingles supermarket. She likes to push the cart, very slowly, fondly picking up packages and handling them oh so carefully. Occasionally she’ll ask if she can have something, and I always say yes. Old age is not a time for boundaries. We generally get a package of Chips Ahoy and a package of almonds and a bouquet of a dozen red roses. Once home, she carefully takes the roses out of the bag, slowly trims each stem, and places them in a vase that I’ve filled with water. She enjoys the act of trimming and arranging, and seems surprised when she turns around and sees me there.
We crawl onto her bed and watch the Hallmark channel for an hour or so. We sit beside each other, holding hands. Sometimes she’ll lay down, insisting I keep the tv on. Sometimes I’ll bring a book and she’ll “read” her paper (sometimes right side up, sometimes upside down). Sometimes she’ll ask me to give her a manicure (but never with colored polish). Sometimes she’ll ask me to do her hair (I love French braiding it and twisting it about).
Every visit is peaceful. There are no outbursts, no violence, no yelling. Yes, she’s on more medication, and she seems content.
I’m learning to enjoy each visit for just that. A lovely day together. And I refrain from wondering if I made the right decision. Wondering if we could have this peaceful existence in the home we shared. Wondering if I could have eventually kept her safe at home. When I get ready to leave, she asks me if she can come with me. I tell her, “Not today.” She shrugs her shoulders, casts a glance downwards, and says “Okay.” I’m sure that my guilt over not bringing her “home” persists much longer than her accepting my answer and moving on.
Mom lives in the present. She’s not fretting about the past or debating over the future. I’ve been doing that for both of us, and with the help of an amazing grief counselor, I am learning not to. Baby steps.
2022. Salvage Station, Asheville, NC. Old Crow Medicine Show. Holy wow. This is how this band needs to be seen and heard. On a huge outdoor stage, on a beautiful summer night, watching the sky turn from clear to dusky blue to midnight black, a half moon rising over the river. Enough stage space for hijinks to abound. Enough audience space for singing and smiling and dancing. So grateful for a wonderful night.