“Can I take my Mom for a drive? Who do I notify that we want to go somewhere for the morning?”
“Sure, you can take your Mom anywhere you’d like, ” Ann smiled as she looked up from the computer screen on the other side of the countertop.
Mom and I were standing in the foyer of the assisted living home where she was now living. We were ready to return her electric water pot that had mysteriously sprung a leak since she’d purchased it a month ago. I’d flown in that morning to spend a few days with her for the first time since she’d relocated here months ago.
The home was different than what I’d imagined it would look like. I’d walked in to see a foyer with a large fireplace thirty feet in front of the double glass entry doors. Chairs were pulled up to the fireplace and several people were dozing in front of the cozy fire. Pictures of pastoral scenes in gilded frames graced the walls. A large, fat cat sat to one side of the green marble mantel obviously at ease, well known and well fed. The cat seemed to give a Cheshire smile each time someone reached over to slide his or her hand down its silky back.
There was no disinfectant odor. Before coming my most awful assumption had been that I would walk in and be accosted with the acrid smell of Pine Sol. Carpet with a filigree pattern covered the floor and extended down the hallways on either side of the fireplace. Chandeliers flooded the area with golden light. To the right and beyond the fireplace was a large dining hall, also carpeted and with tables set for the afternoon meal, a single flower in a bud vase adorning each table.
“Do you have the receipt, Mom?” I’d asked earlier when she told me the pot leaked. I’d noticed the crimped plastic where the pot should have been seamed together so I wasn’t surprised when she’d said, “Jess, my coffee pot is broken.”
“Yes, I have it here,” she was pleased to report even though we couldn’t find the receipt after rifling through her stack of correspondence and searching her purse inside and out.
We boxed the electric water pot—there was no receipt to be found but the original box sat on the small kitchen countertop in Mom’s room —and we were ready to head out the door.
“And Fred Meyers is down the street?” I asked Ann. “It’s just like Wal-Mart, Jess,” Mom had informed me.
“Pull out of the driveway, turn left, and it’s on your right at the first light. Can’t miss it,” Ann instructed.
We quickly learned that returning any item to Fred Meyers without a receipt was not a problem.
“Mame, if you’ll fill out this form I can give you a Fred Meyers card. When you misplace any receipt we can check the card to verify your purchases. That way when you need to return anything, a receipt won’t be necessary.” I wasn’t sure whether the woman was addressing Mom or me.
“No, I don’t want a card,” Mom spoke up on her own behalf and then turned to me.
“Jess, what’s the card for?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that Mom was no more capable of filling out the form than she was capable of keeping track of the handy dandy card after it went into her purse.
The exchange brought back memories of many similar exchanges six months previous when I was Mom’s caretaker. Being the caretaker for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease had been one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. After caring for Mom for over a year, my siblings and I had made the decision to move Mom into an assisted living home. This decision was not without a significant level of internal guilt and external frustration after each one of us had attempted to be her caretaker.
There was little distortion to the reality that Mom needed assistance beyond what we could provide her. She was no longer able to accomplish basic tasks that used to be foundational to her role as wife, mother, and grandmother in a large home.
We retrieved a cart and headed for the house ware department.
“Jess, let me push the cart so I can lean on it,” Mom said and I moved aside for her to direct the cart down the aisle.
“We come here once a week. Do you know, Jess, that when we come here the other people fill their carts with junk? Where do you think they put all of that junk in their rooms?”
I looked at her. She wasn’t asking for an answer. She was making a judgment—something she’d done all of my life. Mom’s Alzheimer’s seemed to accentuate her tendency towards criticism.
“Maybe the things they buy are important to them, Mom”. No way was I going to debate her values or beliefs—those times and the need to challenge her on them was long gone.
We located the kitchen appliance section and picked up a new electric water pot. Wandering into the grocery section, we picked up a box of day old donuts that caught Mom’s eye. We exchanged the water pot and turned to leave the store pot and donuts in hand.
“Hey, Mom. Let me run back and get some coffee, okay? It’d be good with the donuts.” She nodded her assent. “I’ll just stay here so I can lean on the cart, Jess.”
I’d only been with Mom for a few brief hours and we’d only been at Fred Meyers for half an hour but her frailty was apparent. In the six months since I’d seen her last, her physical stamina had decreased noticeably.
I returned with coffee and creamer in hand, “Ready to go?” I asked.
Mom stepped away from the cart as I reached to return it alongside the line of carts at the entrance to the store.
“Jess, my leg feels funny,” she said nonchalantly.
I reached my right arm up under her left arm for support. “Does paralysis in the arm or in the leg indicate a stroke,” I thought to myself. “Or is the Alzheimer’s advanced enough for her to be losing her balance already?” I wondered.
“Will this help?” I asked aloud as my arm began to support her and she leaned into me. I could feel the weight of her body against mine. “My leg still feels funny,” she announced drolly.
We managed to walk slowly to the car and I helped Mom into the passenger seat. Five minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of the assisted living facility.
“Mom, this parking spot is tight. Why don’t you get out and stand by the side of that car right there while I pull the car in”? I pointed to the car adjacent to us. Mom opened the car door, got out and stood at the back bumper of the car to our right. I could see her in the rear view mirror as I eased my foot on the accelerator to shift the car forward.
I turned off the engine. Grabbing the few purchases from the back seat along with my purse, I opened the door just as I heard Mom’s cry from the other side of the car.
“I’m going down!”
I dropped everything just in time to see her body hit the asphalt and her head slam into the wheel well. A crazy thought ran through my mind as I dropped our purchases, “Another electric water pot to return!”
“Oh! I hit my head!” a sharp cry of terror came from Mom a second later as though she feared that blood would spurt from her forehead.
The instant her head hit I had images of the same spattering of blood, although a quick recall of her fall told me that even though her head slammed into the wheel it was without enough force to cause her skin to break or blood to flow. A nasty bruise maybe, but no blood.
I reached her within seconds of her falling down. Turning Mom’s upper body over gently, I gathered her into my arms while she remained seated on the asphalt. I didn’t have the strength to help her stand and I knew that she shouldn’t be immediately moved. An assessment needed to be done regarding any damage to her body.
I looked around. No one was in the parking lot except for a woman who had just exited the entryway doors.
“What happened?” she called out as she rushed over to us.
“My Mom fell.”
“Don’t try to move her. Let me call the nurse.” She hurried back inside the facility.
Mom looked up at me. I brushed her forehead off carefully, as I looked for any marks or swelling on her head. There were none.
I held her in my arms. This was my mother and I couldn’t remember ever embracing her so closely. Her watery blue eyes looked a bit foggy as though she couldn’t place how she’d come to be in such a position. She didn’t attempt to move. I noticed her paper-thin skin blotchy with spots. I was already starting to get those same brown spots on my hands and a few on my face. I kissed her on the forehead. Squeezing her softly, I held her in silence with a sudden urge to rock back and forth as though I was holding an infant. Mom was lying in complete stillness, without resistance, without critical comments, and without scrambling to move in any way. The moment lingered. We were in limbo. Neither one of us uttered a word.
Soon enough, the nurse that I’d met earlier that morning came running out.
“I fell down,” Mom said simply.
“Call the paramedics,” she instructed the woman who’d followed her out of the double doors pushing a wheelchair ahead of her.
“Don’t try to move her,” the nurse said to me. I wanted to retort, “Do you see me trying to move her?” My fear for Mom’s condition asserted itself as a definite attitude.
“I won’t,” I said aloud.
“Audrey, how do you feel?” Mom looked at the nurse and answered, “I’m tired.”
The nurse glanced at me and mouthed, “I hope her hip isn’t broken.”
The paramedics arrived within minutes. They asked Mom if she could stand up. She indicated that she wasn’t in any pain. They quickly determined that no bones were broken and lifted her into the wheelchair. After performing all of the vitals that are the mark of their training, the paramedics indicated that Mom didn’t appear to be any worse for wear due to her fall. They turned to me.
“She looks alright and her vitals are fine but we recommend you take her to ER to get a doctor to look at her.”
The nurse concurred. “It’s best to have a doctor do an assessment.”
“She has no broken bones and apart from slightly elevated blood pressure, everything else seems to check out okay, is that it?”
The paramedics nodded.
I turned to the nurse. She remained moot. Suddenly, I tuned in to the politics of what was happening. Everyone was waiting for me to make the call. The assisted living personal didn’t want to make any decision that might later come back to haunt them. Prudence was the best call. Go to ER.
“I’m hungry!” Mom suddenly burst out. I looked at her. No bump on the head. No broken bones. I wasn’t convinced that a doctor would say anything differently than we already knew.
“Let’s take her in and get her some lunch,” I stated emphatically, my decision made. “I’ll call my brother for his advice while she eats.”
A week previous to my arrival, my brother had been with Mom and she’d fallen down in the elevator in the assisted living facility. Boom! She’d dropped like a lead balloon. Six hours in ER and the doctor’s conclusion was that, for some reason, Mom’s heart medication wasn’t doing its job and thus he recommended a change. The nursing staff at the home surmised that a result of the change in medication might be causing Mom to lose her balance. They’d asked that her PCP be informed in order to determine the cause of her recent fall and whether the medication had been appropriately titrated before starting her new medication.
Forty-five minutes later, I wheeled Mom to her room after she devoured a turkey sandwich, pickle, chips, and a full glass of cranberry juice. Within minutes of sitting in her comfy armchair she nodded off. Occasionally she stirred and looked over at me in the armchair next to her.
“Jess, what are you doing? I’m so tired, Jess. I think I’ll just sit here for a little longer.” And without waiting for a response she fell back asleep.
For two hours Mom slept and I pondered: This is my Mom. She has Alzheimer’s disease. For years, she said with tremulous fear, “I’m gonna get Alzheimer’s just like my Mama.” For years, she denied that her memory was failing her. For years, my parents refused to talk about Alzheimer’s. “The doctor said that if you recognize that you don’t have Alzheimer’s, that’s clear indication that you don’t have it,” my father told me one time as though convoluted denial would wipe the disease away.
For two hours the image of holding Mom in a moment of quiet stillness came back to me. Never had I held her so tenderly. Never had she allowed me to. When she awoke, I asked her how she felt after her fall in the parking lot.
“What fall, Jess?”
Mom’s Alzheimer’s is going to take her on a vicious downhill battle that she will inevitably lose but that moment of holding her in my arms and kissing her on the forehead, that graceful moment that she allowed me to comfort her, will remain with me for a long time.