The Overwhelming Comfort of Routine

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.

Mom, aka Paddington Bear, at the park
Enjoying October

Saturdays

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. 

Oh, yes.

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.

Baby Steps

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. 

Me and Mom at the park – living in the moment.

Old Crow Medicine Show

2008. The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA. Old Crow Medicine Show. An amazing concert at one of my favorite venues.

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.

Old Crow Medicine Show at The Salvage Station

June

June is fireflies. 

June is chirping crickets.

June is rocking slowly on the front porch.

June is watching dusk transform to evening to pitch black night. 

June is magic.

April Showers

So many questions, usually answered with tears.

  • Did I make the right decision?
  • Did I make the wrong decision?
  • Did I act too hastily?
  • Should I have been more patient?
  • Was it a mistake to move in together for a year and a half? Did that make this current move even harder on her?
  • Will Mom ever believe that her current living situation is her home?
  • Will she ever forgive me for moving her “into an old folks’ home”?
  • Will we ever have a visit where it doesn’t end with her begging me to take her home, crying, promising that she’ll be good, and me trying to hold back sobs until I exit the building?
  • Am I seeing my future?

There are moments she seems so lucid, when she tells me she is *not* going to continue living where she is. And there are moments when she cannot string words together in a coherent thought. And most heartbreaking, the frequent moments when she asks me if we can go look for Dad, because she hasn’t seen him for a while, and she’s worried about him. And then she’s angry, so angry, that he’s deserted her. There are no words to comfort her.

Last year, I bought this larger house so that she could surround herself with her furniture, her things, hoping that would make her feel more comfortable. And now those things, those artifacts from her and Dad’s life, mock me when I walk in the door, reminding me that I quickly lost one person I cared for so deeply, and am now slowly losing another.

There are days I want to give it all away, not have the visual reminders. And other days I regret the hastily discarded things after Dad’s death. I’ve been cautioned not to make any major decisions right now, to give myself time to feel the feels and let emotions run their course. More than May flowers, I hope all of these April showers bring some sense of peace when I ponder these questions.

Buying All The Things…

I generally avoid taking Mom to stores in person. There’s the whole COVID thing, but even more importantly, it generally ends in tantrums and fits, which I haven’t figured out how to handle. And this weekend, she wore me down. She was incessant. “Why can’t we buy something?” “Let’s go to the places where they sell things.” “Can we do the thing where we get all the things?”

I needed a dryer clamp to re-attach the vent to the dryer. “Would you like to come to Ace Hardware with me, Mom?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed excitedly. She dutifully carried the shopping basket as I browsed dryer clamps. She was intoxicated by the selection of all the things. She ran her hand gingerly over the vents, and pipes, and tapes, mesmerized. After selecting the proper clamp, I indulged her by walking up and down each aisle, even though we didn’t need anything else. She asked if we could buy a couple of plants, one with pink blossoms, another with white. We added them to our basket and checked out.

In the car, she asked where we were going next. I told her home, and she burst into tears. “You promised me colors!” she sobbed. I had no idea what’s she was talking about. “You got some colors. You have pink, and white, and green,” I say, pointing to the plant she’s holding. “Noooooooooo! The purple, and the blue!” I’m flummoxed. “Mom, I don’t understand. Tell me what you mean.” She wails, “I’m so stupid!” “No, Mom, you’re not stupid. Tell me once more what you’d like so that we can go to the right place to get it.” “SHUT UP!”

I have patience. Until I don’t.

“I’m sorry. Did you just tell me to shut up?” She sobs quietly. She eventually tells me she wants to buy clothes.

We enter Target, and she pushes the buggy. We walk up and down aisles. She gazes longingly at the items. We are in the children’s section, and she picks up a sweater set, size 24 months. “So beautiful…” “It is pretty, Mom.” “I want to buy it.” “For who, Mom?” “LORI!” she shouts exasperated. “For me!” “Mom, this is children’s clothing. This won’t fit you. Let’s head over to the adult section.” “LORI! You don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course this will fit.” I place the sweater set back on the rack and we make our way to the adult clothing section. She pouts and sullenly follows me to the women’s clothing section.

“Oh! I like this one! Can I have it? Do we have any money?” “Yes, we have money. That’s really pretty.” I hold it up to her to make sure it will fit. “It looks like it will fit. If you’d like it, you can have it.” “I need three, or four.” “Why don’t you pick out three for today?” We walk through the department, and she lovingly caresses each sweater, exclaiming how beautiful each one is. She chooses three, and I tell her good job, and we’ll check out now. “NOOOOOOOOOO!” she yells and starts crying. People turn their heads and stare. “Mom, you’ve got some beautiful sweaters; let’s pay for them and go home.” This is my first mistake. Thinking that logic will resonate. Still sobbing, she blubbers, “You don’t let me have anything.” Again, I try logic. “Mom, you have three beautiful sweaters. Let’s walk towards the check-out.” “I hate you!” and she stomps her foot.

I want, so badly, to grab her by the arm and drag her to the check-out. And I’m overcome by a sense of deja vu.

I’m four years old, and we’re shopping at the downtown Sears. I’m not sure what I’ve done, but Mom is not happy with me. She grabs my arm, by my teeny tiny bicep, hard, and yanks me through the store. I remember her yelling at me, saying that she would never take me out in public again.

Back in present day, I sigh. I hug Mom and she pushes me away. I start walking towards the front of the store, and she walks a few steps behind me, stopping every so often to look at something. She’ll catch up with me and add something to the cart. When she stops to look at something else, I take it out of the cart and hang it, in the wrong place, in the wrong department, saying a silent apology to the team members working that day. Occasionally, I turn to look and she’s not there, so I backtrack, wondering which department she’s snuck into. After a half hour of this, we make it to the check-out and are on our way home.

We pull up in front of our house and before I can turn off the car, she turns to me, “Can we go shopping?”

Shhhh….

Today’s Bloganuary prompt:

Where do you go when you need solitude?

If I have the luxury of time, I head to the mountains. One of my favorite things to do is hike without the consideration of time. Wandering up hills, down paths, staring at the sky, sitting still on a rock or hillside, embracing the quiet. It’s my time to think about hard things, or nothing at all.

If I don’t have the luxury of time, I head to my back deck. Our house is built on a hill, so even though the deck is off the main floor, it’s among the treetops. In the summer, I’m surrounded by a canopy of hemlocks and maples, green all around. In the winter, it’s more stark, but still offers me a quiet escape, even if only for a few minutes.

Magical Moments

Early in the morning, Mom crept into my bedroom and crawled into bed beside me.

“Did you look outside?”

“I did, Mom. It’s really pretty out there, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

Silence.

“Let’s go back to my room. It’s prettier in there.”

“Your eyes are closed. How do you know it’s prettier?”

She tugged me out of bed.

In her room, we sat in her bed, propped up against her headboard, looking out over the front yard, the street, the majestical trees, all covered with snow, and soft, clumpy flakes continuing to fall from the sky.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It is, Mom. It is.”

There are hard moments. And there are magical moments like this.