My mother left me a few years ago. Not in the normal ways that a mother leaves her child through abandonment or even death, but in the heartbreaking frustration that is the tragedy of Alzheimer’s. My visits with her have taken on a new urgency, an urgent need to inhale her, to touch her, to smooth her fine silver hair and jutting bones, so soft and jarring underneath her pink sweater set she insists on wearing every day.
My mother did not protest when we moved her from the home in which I grew up, the home she shared with our father for almost fifty years. She didn’t protest, in fact I think she barely knew. The ghost of my father had longed stopped haunting her.
We moved her into a dementia facility three years ago, after we found that the nursing rotation had had a mix up and no one had been to her house where we found her sitting in a bathtub with her clothes on dumping boxes of powered Jello in with her, staining her a nasty brown from the mix of lime green, cherry red and orange.
My mother was never one to suffer fools lightly. “Oh Mary, please pick yourself up, straighten your spine and take care of the problem.” This was more or less her mantra with regards to any problem I’d bring and lay at her feet as an offering - from a scraped knee to a failed test or to a lost job or even my failed first marriage. A strong woman, she had graduated from college when everyone told her she wouldn’t. She married a man everyone told her she could never “catch.” She made an entire family love her when everyone said she wouldn’t fit in. She became a partner in a large CPA firm within five years when everyone said no woman had ever done that before. My mother was formidable.
When I told her that I wanted to be an artist, I bit my lip expecting to be berated. Instead she simply looked at me in her cool way of assessment and simply asked me, “Are you any good at it?”
I laughed, and said, “I hope so.”
She gave me a side-eye and said, “Can you make a living being happy?” And that was the last of it. I work part time as a teacher and the rest of the day my time is spent on painting and I could honestly tell her, “Mama, I am happy.” Seeing her slight smile of satisfaction was more than any gift of pearls or diamonds or money.
I craved her approval. I was not a mama’s girl, but her approval and respect was of utmost importance to me. I am not entirely sure that I ever fully earned it, but it made me into a better woman and a better human being, to strive to live to her standards.
The slipping began when she eyeing retirement. My father had gotten sick, a life-long pipe smoker, and my mother wanted to nurture him. She took an early departure from her career and made my father’s last months on this earth as pleasant as she could. I think they were never closer than during those last ten months where they spent day and night waking in the big house, empty of children now, and looking out the backyard on their beloved garden. She would feed him, and as he grew weaker and more dependent she never once made him feel as though he was losing his dignity. I hoped that I could do the same for her.
“My mother was asking me to help her end her life before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s.”
After my father died, the grieving period for all of us masked the symptoms we only realized in retrospect were early signs. We of course kick ourselves daily and wonder if only we’d recognized the symptoms earlier, could we have prevented it. The doctors kindly and patiently tell us no, but a child always wonders how they have failed their parents when roles reverse.
It began with misplaced keys and credit cards. It slowly escalated to missed meetings, and then outright forgetfulness of what she was doing mid-action. Often she’d find herself standing in front of the refrigerator while the air filtered out or driving to the post office but having no idea why she was there.
Once she called each of us children one by one in the middle of the night asking us if we knew where our father was. We attributed it to grief, as she’d been prone to sleepwalking and talking a few times when we were growing up but in the morning when we told her she didn’t remember a thing, and informed us that she’d driven her car in the middle of the night to the next town and was found wandering around in her nightgown. A policeman spotted her but she had no ID and couldn’t remember who she was or even where she’d parked her car. In the morning she was lucid but had no memory of any of it.
We three children held a meeting. It was the most difficult meeting I’ve ever been to - more than meeting a shark divorce attorney, more than when my child broke his leg and had a concussion from a football game, more than my sister’s car accident where a truck t-boned their car with their new baby in the backseat.
How do you tell someone you love that their mind is going and they can no longer take care of themselves? Mother had her lucid days, when she would get very flustered and upset when we explained to her again and again what she’d done and what would happen to her.
One evening she called me up again and my strong, beautiful mother was weeping into the phone. “Mary, can you help me?” It took me a long while, but I realized that after many fits and starts, she was telling me that she didn’t want to go down this road. She wanted to discuss alternatives.
I turned to my husband and broke down - helpless, beyond helpless. My mother was asking me to help her end her life before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Of course I would never agree to that, but the pain of knowing that SHE knew what was going to happen was almost too much to bear. I walked around like a wounded animal for weeks, whimpering and asking the universe what I had done to be put in such a position. The decisions were well beyond the price of sanity that one person could handle and I didn’t know what to do. I prayed every night for guidance, and found none forthcoming.
My mother did not ask my brother or sister this “favor.” The burden was on me. I walked around in a daze, ignoring my work, my students, even my family. I simply didn’t know what to do. Luckily the decision was made for me as my mother was admitted to the dementia care unit after the Jello incident, and she never brought it up again. I don’t know if she doesn’t remember or doesn’t wish to burden me again. I’m too afraid to ask and stir demons. I live with this burden, this guilt, this agony.
My mother is half her former size. She is frail and weak, but at times the determined, almost stubborn ribbon that runs through her, kept her spine straight, shines through and I see the mother I have, the mother I lost, and the mother that I love.
Thank you Mary, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Mary Hudson and Story of My Life®