Happy Birthday, Mom

“…Happy birthday to yooooooooouuuuuuuuuu!” I sang over the phone.

There was silence.

“Mom?”

I heard her sobbing quietly.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I miss him so much. Why did he have to die so soon?”

And I marvel at how Mom can’t remember the last thing she said or the last thing I told her, she can’t remember any finite memories of Dad or anything they did together, but the love that they shared is in her bones, is in her psyche, and she misses that. Terribly, achingly, constantly.

“Oh, Mom. I miss him, too. It hurts so much.”

“Yes. So much. I miss him.”

“I do, too. So much. I’m working today but I’ll come and pick you up around 5 for your birthday dinner.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom! Happy birthday!”

“Mine? Are you sure?”

“Yes! I’m sure! I’ll pick you up and we’ll have dinner on the porch. I’ll see you then; have a good day.”

At 5 pm, she settled into my car. She turned to me, “I have my shoes. Where are we walking?”

I laughed. Again, amazed at how our routine is ingrained in her body. Every Saturday and Sunday we go for a walk, then she changes into sandals and we sit on my porch, her reading the newspaper, cutting it up, taping it into a spiral bound notebook, and me reading a book. I’ve disturbed her algorithm. It’s Monday. We’re not going for a walk; we’re celebrating her birthday.

“We’re going to my house for your birthday dinner and cupcakes.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Yes,” I smiled and clasped her hand as I drove out of the parking lot.

We sat on my porch and she unloaded the tote bag that she always has with her. Running shoes, anklet socks, Hershey’s nuggets candies in a Ziploc bag, today’s newspaper, a spiral-bound notebook, scissors, Scotch tape, felt tip pens (no tops so the color bleeds through the tote bag), a bag of pretzels, 4 pocket size packs of Kleenex, two sets of house keys, two romance novels, and a tank top.

“Mom, don’t start any projects. We’re getting ready to have dinner.”

“Are we going for a walk?”

“Right now we’re eating dinner. It’s your birthday, so we have a special dinner. Fried chicken, sesame greens, cucumbers from the garden, and chocolate cupcakes for dessert. We can go for a walk after dinner if you’d like.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Really!” and I laughed.

“How old am I?”

“79.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

After dinner I FaceTime with my sister and her two children. They talk to Mom as I bring out a cupcake with lit candles. We all sing Happy Birthday, out of sync and out of tune. We tell her to make a wish and she says, “I wish I’ll live two more years.” My heart breaks and I choke back tears.

Mom opens presents, confused what they are and why she’s getting them. My sister and her children are great. They laugh with Mom, not at her. They tenderly say, “I love you, Gammy,” and we laugh and say goodbye.

Mom eats the cupcake – her favorite, chocolate cake with vanilla icing. She again asks whose birthday it is. I tell her it’s hers. I wonder if I could have made my favorite cupcake, vanilla cake with vanilla icing, and if she would have noticed.

I take her home and sign her back in. She waves at everyone sitting in the rocking chairs outside, in the lobby watching tv, saying, “Today’s my birthday!”

Mom and I, masked up, outside my house, on her birthday.

A Very Bad Day

Her voice choked and I could tell she was crying. “I really thought you were going to come visit me today. I was waiting for you to come.”

My heart dropped. That was what I wanted, too.  And I know how emotions spread, so I tried to remain calm as I explained, “Mom, I’m not allowed to come there anymore.”

“Why?”

“Because of the virus. They’re trying to keep everyone safe. Visitors aren’t allowed; they don’t want anyone bringing in germs.”

“Well, I’ll just leave.”

“You can’t do that, either, Mom. Everyone has to stay at home. I miss you so much, Mom.”

“Well, how long will it be this way?”

And this is where I had to swallow the sobs that were rolling from my gut, through my chest, and stuck in my throat.

My  voice trembled as I said, “I don’t know, Mom. It’s already been several weeks, it might be several more. It just depends on how long the virus lasts. They’re trying to keep everyone safe.”

“This is a very bad day.”

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

I called Mom this morning and asked if she’d like to go to breakfast together. “Hm. Have I had breakfast yet?”
“I don’t know. Did you eat anything this morning?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to eat something?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you hungry?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in a few minutes and we’ll go to breakfast.”
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
I laughed, “Sure.”

I picked her up ten minutes later.
“Why are you here?”
“I thought we’d go to breakfast.”
“Okay.” Pause. “What day is today?”
“Saturday.”
“Do I go to that place today?”
“The YMCA?”
“Yes.”
“Not usually. We can go if you’d like to.”
“No. I only go M, T, W, Th. What day is today?”
“Saturday.”
“Do I go to the Y today?”
“No. Want to go to breakfast?”
“Sure.”

We were handed menus.
“I can’t read this.”
“Do you have your glasses with you?”
“No.”
“Would you like me to read it to you?”
“Yes.”
I read the things I thought she might like. No, no, no, no. I asked her what she’d like.
“A piece of toast and some fruit.”
“Would you rather have toast or a biscuit?”
She looked at me plaintively.
“Toast is a piece of flat square bread. A biscuit is round, and a little fluffier.”
“Oh. A biscuit sounds good.”

The food arrived and we ate. I asked her how she liked her breakfast.
“Well, it’s not Tiffany’s. But it will do.”
And she laughed.

I was dumbfounded. Humor is hard. It’s one of the hardest things to master when learning another language.  And yet, even though she can’t master time, or remember what we said a few minutes prior, and is losing the ability to pair the abstract word with the concrete thing, she can still make jokes.

And I laughed, too.

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.