Happy Birthday, Dad

Facebook reminded me this morning that it is Dad’s birthday. As if I could forget. I woke up, ready to FaceTime him and sing a very poor rendition of The Beatles’ Birthday song, as I’ve done every year for the past, oh, who knows? how many years. And have him listen patiently and laugh at me.

I cried a few (okay, a lot of) tears, wishing that we had just one more celebration together. One more chance to tell him how much I loved him and how grateful I am that he’s my Dad. But I guess that’s how every milestone will be from here on out. Wishing that Dad were still here, wishing I could tell him one more thing.

This was the last picture we took together. It was on January 21st of this year and it was our “Hooray! We’re being discharged from the hospital for the last time!” selfie. Except that it wasn’t. We were in the hospital many more times after that. And we always thought there would be more opportunities to take pictures.

Last selfie.JPG

So Many Tears

I don’t know why this weekend was the weekend of tears, but it was. It’s not an anniversary. Or a birthday. Or a special date of any sort.

Friday Evening
“Can you come over? I need to talk to you about something important,” Mom said. Talking on the phone can be confusing for her, so I got in the car and headed over.

“I just don’t like it here. I don’t belong here. I can’t sit in my room all day. Can I get a job?”

I put my arms around her and said, “That sounds hard. Tell me more.”

“All they do is complain. At dinner tonight the little old ladies were complaining about the food. The food is fine here. Why are they always complaining?”

I found this ironic, given that growing up my most vivid memories of my mom involved her complaining. About everything.

“What would you like to do?” I asked. “I don’t know; I just, I just can’t sit here.” The tears streamed down her face. I held her and tried to hide my tears. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

I pulled out my computer and started looking for volunteer opportunities. Mom peeked over my shoulder. As I read each one out loud, she said, “no,” “no,” “no,” “no.”

Was this one of the things that she would forget about? How seriously did I need to take her inquiry? Would she remember tomorrow?

“Mom, the arboretum is open for another couple of hours. Let’s go for a walk.”

We walked through the empty grounds; no one else was there on a Friday night at 8:00 pm. We sat on benches and listened to fountains. We walked down mulched paths and watched fireflies light up. We read signs about NC native flora and fauna. We watched a hummingbird go from plant to plant to plant.

On the way home, I asked if she’d like to get ice cream. “Sure!” which has become her default answer to almost all questions. We sat outside in the heat, which was slowly becoming cool, eating the rapidly melting sweet cream.

Saturday
I tried to meditate Saturday morning. I sat for about three minutes before the tears came. I tried to focus on my breath, and all I could do was sob. That would be my practice for the day. Tears.

Later in the day, after running errands, I decided to get my car washed. As I sat on the bench, waiting for them to finish vacuuming, I stared into the distance. Across the street was Range Urgent Care. Where we took Dad at Christmas 2017 when his legs were swollen and he was having trouble breathing. Where they told us to go to the ER right away and I had to ask, “Where is the ER?” being so new to town. I sat there, dark sunglasses on, hot tears streaming down my face in the warm afternoon.

Sunday
I weeded the yard, much too late in the morning. Fearing heatstroke, I came inside, poured myself a tall glass of iced tea, and started reading. “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies” had been recommended to me. Two pages in, and I started crying. I put the book down. I sobbed for what could have been minutes, but was actually hours.

I called Mom. “Would you like to go downtown with me?” “Sure!” “Okay. I’ll be there in about 30 minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” This last sentence was necessary because when I went to get her last week, I wasn’t in the lobby when she thought I should have been, and she just started walking. Fortunately, the concierge noticed, and called me. When I found her, I laughed it off, saying, “Oh, did you decide to go to lunch without me?” but inside I was terrified that this was a new stage – wandering.

I couldn’t put on makeup because my face and eyes were too swollen. I hoped that sunglasses would hide the redness and puffiness. She was in her apartment when I arrived. We walked around downtown, disappointed that so many stores were closed on Sunday. We stopped by Harris Teeter to buy ice cream. I put one half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” I put another half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” “Mom,” I said. “More,” she countered. I put another half gallon in the buggy and started walking away.

We got back to her apartment and put the groceries away. “Where are those books that talked about when Daddy and I travelled?” I looked in her bedroom and found the photo album labeled “Volume 2 – Thailand, Turkey, Italy, and France.” We turned through each page, looking at faded photographs and receipts and postcards and souvenirs Dad had pasted in the photo album. As we neared the end, I said, “That really was a great trip you took.” And the tears rolled down her face. “I miss him so much. I love him so much. It’s not supposed to be like this.”

I hugged her. “I know. I know. I know.”

Changes

And just like that, everything changed.

“Who picked this place?”
“I did, Mom.”
“Did you look at other places?”
“I did.” (honestly not prepared for what might come next)

“You couldn’t have picked a better place for me. I’m so happy here.”

I stared at her, not sure quite how to react.

I finally said, “I’m so glad that you’re happy here.”

And we sat in silence, looking at the mountains.

Trying Times

This has been the most difficult twelve days I’ve ever experienced. My Mom has Alzheimer’s. My Dad was her caretaker and they lived at home together and basically didn’t share anything about her condition with others outside the family. Before he passed, Dad and I talked about care options for Mom and decided the best option would be to move her to a community in Asheville where as her Alzheimer’s progressed, they could provide more and more care.

On a Monday, Mom’s pastor and I told her that we found her a new home in Asheville and we’d be moving her.

A full twelve hours, non-stop, of her crying, me holding her, and saying, “I know. I know.” “But Jerry promised me I could live here until I diiiiiieeeeeeddddd.” (he didn’t) “But this is my hoooommmmmmmeeeee.” “What about all my pretty things?” “Why can’t I live by myself here?” These weren’t soft tears. These were heart-wrenching, full of pain, break-your-heart-in-a-million-pieces tears. I couldn’t argue or reason with her; I simply listened and held her and gave her Kleenex.

Then the anger. I had mentioned that Dad had left money in his estate for her to make this move, so that she would always have a home for the rest of her life. She then cried angry tears, screamed and cursed my Dad and said she hoped he was rotting in hell, and threw her wedding ring across the room. I listened, held her (when she would allow me to touch her), gave her Kleenex, and picked up her wedding ring for safe keeping.

Days later: “I can’t find my wedding ring.” I mentioned she took it off and she asked why. I said she was mad at Dad and she didn’t want to wear it. She asked why. I simply said, “You’re angry he died.” She nodded in agreement and I gave her back her ring.

She wanted to visit the new unit before we moved in. My sister met us there six days before the move-in. We pulled into the parking lot. “This place is so ugly!” We entered the lobby. “Why would anyone paint the walls such an ugly color?” We entered the unit. “This? This is where I’m moving? It’s so small!” (it’s larger than any of the places I lived in San Francisco). She collapsed in the middle of the empty living room floor, crying, “It’s so smaaaaalllllll. I’m embarrassed to live here.” I sat down next to her, held her and asked her to tell me more. Why would it embarrass her to live here? After much holding, and comforting, and tissues given, she told me people would think she was poor. My heart broke again. Both she and Dad came from modest backgrounds. They both worked so hard to both live comfortably and provide for us, their three children. I remember Mom clipping coupons and rationing food as we grew up – money was always a source of concern.

As we started packing up her condo in Winston-Salem, she insisted she would take everything. I encouraged her to pick out her favorites and we would pack those first. After she had gone to bed at midnight each night I packed up everything else. When she was out of the house, we would take boxes to Goodwill to donate. We packed her favorites during the day. She labeled boxes and my heart broke again. Once a voracious reader and writer, she had trouble spelling words, and sounded them out like a first grader. “Br..” I heard her saying. I returned to the living room and saw the word “bricle” (breakable) all over a box, written a dozen times in combinations of capital and lowercase letters. She put pieces of blue masking tape on the furniture she wanted to go to the new unit. Each day, more pieces had tape on them. I’d take tape off. She’d put tape on.

She continued to worry that the new place was too small. One night, after she had gone to bed, I marked off our living room with masking tape of the dimensions of the new living room. I rearranged the furniture, based on where windows and doors were. When she woke up, I asked her how she liked the new arrangement. “It’s great.” I explained that was the size of the new living room. She nodded.

“But it’s such a drab color. I want it the color we have here (a super pale yellow).” I confirmed with the new place that it was okay to paint walls. They said they’d call an outside vendor to get it done before Mom moved in. My sister, in Atlanta, bought the paint and dropped it off in Asheville, on the way to Winston-Salem, the next day. Move day was four days away.

By Tuesday night we had everything packed up. “Why are we still here?” I explained the movers were coming on Thursday; that we couldn’t move everything ourselves. “It’s a wasted day. When we leave here, I never want to return. Too many bad things have happened here.”

She saw neighbors in the hall, who said they were sad she was leaving and they would come and visit her in Asheville. She told them that she and Jerry had always planned to retire to Asheville, and sadly he died before he could get there. I didn’t correct her.

The morning of the move, she said she couldn’t find her purse (a normal occurrence). We walked through the condo. It wasn’t in any of the usual places. She started crying hysterically. I feared she packed it in one of the boxes when we weren’t looking. “Why did you pack my purse?” she hurled at me, accusingly. I shrugged and said, “I thought it’d be safe.” “I’m not leaving here until we find it!” She cried for hours and I asked her caregiver to take her to her favorite bakery. She returned and wasn’t crying anymore.

The movers loaded the truck. When they arrived at the new place and did a walk through, the head mover looked at me and said, “There’s no way everything on the truck will fit in here.” I told him I understood and would they be willing to take a few pieces ten minutes down the road for an extra generous tip. They said they’d be happy to. I thanked whatever being is looking over us a million times for small acts of kindness.

I had carried all of Mom’s plants in my car. We set up her balcony, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, first. Her rockers, a small table, and dozens of potted plants with brightly colored flowers. She sat and rocked as the movers worked.

That day, the facility let us know the painters had a three week delay and couldn’t paint her unit before move-in. My sister and I asked the movers to put furniture in place, but not up against the walls. We would paint that night. I went to the hardware store and bought tarps, paint rollers, and masking tape. I returned and Mom came into the unit to see how far along the movers were. She mentioned that they did a good job on the paint job. My sister and I exchanged looks. “You’re happy with this color?” my niece asked. “Yes, it’ll do.” We started moving the furniture against the walls and hid the painting materials. I felt pangs of guilt in my stomach. I didn’t do what I said I would do. I hated accepting that Mom couldn’t process events any more.

We started opening boxes. About 20 boxes in, we found her purse. My sister and I did a happy dance, and brought it to her. “Look what we found!” She cooly looked at us and said, “I knew where it was.”

We entered the dining room. All the tables were full, so we sat at a four top by ourselves. Other folks came in after, but no one joined us. I felt madly protective of mom. Would the other residents be nice to her? Would someone join her when she was at a table by herself? Would they overlook her lapses in memory? Or shun her?

We needed to buy a bookshelf. All of her bookshelves in Winston-Salem were built-ins. She has so many books. She reads the same one over and over, but it’s a comfort to have hundreds of paperback novels. As we walked through the antique store emporium, I asked “What about this one?” and she would say it was too narrow, or not the right type of wood, or didn’t have a back. We found a couple that were okay, not great, and I said, “Okay, well let’s remember this, and we’ll keep looking.” She laughed and said, “You can remember it, but I won’t.”

We were getting off the elevator as other residents on the hall were waiting to get on. We stopped to exchange pleasantries. They asked Mom if she was new. She said yes, she had just moved in. They asked when; she looked at me. I explained that we moved in on Thursday. They asked where she was moving from, and she said Winston-Salem. She mentioned that her husband had recently passed away from cancer. They said, “Cancer is a horrible disease, but you know what’s worse? Alzheimer’s. I hope I never get that.” Mom’s response? “I agree. I hope that I never experience that.”

I returned to her new home in the morning and found her sitting on the balcony, rocking and reading the newspaper. “Isn’t this just beautiful?” she said, as she motioned to the mountains. I nodded, and said it was.

I’m hesitant to believe that she’s happy, permanently happy, in her new home. Just as she forgets bad things, she also forgets happy things. I want her to be as independent as possible. I worry I’ve made the wrong choices. I miss my Dad so much and wonder what he would have done in this situation, what he would have said, what decisions he would have made.