I punched in the door code and walked into the locked memory unit of the senior living residence where Mom was now living. As I walked into the hallway, I was surprised to see her seated in a wheelchair right in front of me.
“Hi, Mom” I said softly and her blue eyes filled with tears and recognition. Mine did the same. I walked the three feet between us and leaned over to give her a hug although I noticed she didn’t rise out of the wheelchair to greet me. My brother had warned me that she was much frailer than when I’d seen her last year and, indeed, she looked it.
She was small and tenuous like a young bird out of the nest for the first time unsure if its wings were going to launch its body into the air. I felt tentative, too. Alzheimer’s was doing its thing and slowly erasing Mom’s memory and I hadn’t been sure when I arrived if she would recognize me.
That’s my fear, you know; that when I open the door Mom’s pale blue eyes won’t make the connection between Mother and daughter. For now though, I saw her face light up softly like a sunrise that peeps up and over distant hills in the morning.
I pushed the wheelchair into the common room where other residents were seated around a table with a red and white-checkered tablecloth. A woman bustled around the table with spoon in hand, wearing a red and white-checkered apron that matched the tablecloth. Her smile was big and her words buoyant.
“Audrey! We’re making lemon cake and we need your help! Would you please squeeze the lemon for me?” Her words were saturated in smiles and good intentions as she walked over to Mom and handed her a lemon and a hand juicer.
“Oh, my! You look just like your Mom!” the woman exclaimed upon seeing me. When I smiled a confirmation, she continued recruiting. “Would you help your Mom out? She might need help holding the bowl and the lemon at the same time.”
Grateful for the assignment, I settled into my weekend stay with Mom as I squeezed the lemon and Mom held the bowl. A task between us was just what we’d needed to reestablish a face-to-face relationship since my last stay with Mom had been over a year ago.
“Do you have an iPhone?” asked the lemon-cake staffer. “Let me take a picture of you and your Mom,” she offered, as Mom mixed the lemon juice and powdered sugar for the cake’s frosting.
Phone calls in the past year had alerted me that Mom’s language was deteriorating as Alzheimer’s continued to rob her of her verbal skills. When speaking with her over the phone I could hear a momentary hold in her breath when she couldn’t pull forth a word from her diminishing vocabulary. I would hear her borrow a word that I had just used by repeating it several times to show that she was doing just fine keeping up her end of the conversation.
Even then, our phone conversations lasted a mere four or five minutes. I could feel Mom’s exhaustion as she tried to keep up during the phone call even when I slowed my words and shortened my sentences so that she could contribute.
I noticed right away during this visit that rather than speaking, Mom did a lot of watching and observing.
“Mom, you’re so observant of everything that’s happening around you,” I commented.
“Well, there’s a lot to observe,” she responded wryly. Ah, so her dry humor is still there, I smiled; pleased that her dying brain cells hadn’t yet ravaged her humor.
Maybe, too, her observational skills were directly connected to the shrinking vocabulary. Those blue eyes of hers didn’t miss much in a comforting way that I suspected filled her days. Her voice was a bit runny, like an egg yolk. It didn’t stand up to the brash or brittle voices of those around her, so much so, that several times during the weekend when she spoke to someone seated close to her they would say irritably, “Speak up! I can’t hear you!” This, too, was quite a change from a year ago. Mom had always had an opinion about things going on around her, but now, those opinions weren’t shared nearly as often as they used to be.
Later in the afternoon, while the cake baked in the oven, Mom and I sat quietly. Several of the residents were seated around the table in wheelchairs, heads lowered down onto their chests, their eyes closed. The room had a feel of vacancy to it even though there were a dozen people with similar memory challenges as Mom shuffling around slowly in their wheelchairs. There was not a lot of talking going on.
“Look at them,” Mom whispered to me using her head to point in their direction. She waited for me to acknowledge where she had pointed. I nodded and she continued.
“They disappear into themselves,” she pronounced. It was as though the statement had come from a subterranean well deep within her fragile psyche.
My eyes grew wide. How does my Mom, never one to have philosophized much about the meaning of human behavior, make this profound statement without one iota of doubt or temerity? When did that fledgling bird take wings and soar above the clouds into the heavens?
Tears sprang from my eyes and I peered into those powder blue eyes that stared back at me in a pool of their own tears. We looked at each other without averting our gaze. “We’re looking into each other’s soul,” I realized. “Alzheimer’s has yet to steal all of my Mom away from me.” I breathed in the magic for a moment longer.
“This is my Mom!” I murmured to myself. My childhood was filled with her sharp, acid tongue and unforgiving negativity. She was always more interested in the nuts and bolts of behavior, i.e. “Do what I say!” rather than what motivates the human heart to compassion or comfort.
I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe that’s what happens at the end of life,” I offered. I didn’t say anymore; I wanted to hold onto the moment when this inner wisdom I didn’t know my Mom even had, trumped the disease that is slowly robbing her of mobility, verbiage, and much dignity in daily living.
Mom’s days appeared to be filled with a regular routine: meals and steady snacks were offered throughout the day; medications were monitored and administered exactly on time; various activities were scheduled for in-between times. A staffer that I remember from the last time I visited Mom, made a suggestion.
“Why don’t you and your Mom eat in the large dining room this evening? It might be a fun change for her. Just let the desk know and they’ll reserve a table. Also, at 3:00 p.m. there is a volunteer in the dining area who plays the piano. Audrey always enjoys listening to her.”
The clock showed 3:15 p.m. I grabbed my phone from the table and pushed Mom down the hallway to the dining room door. We went to the desk and made reservations for dinner. We rolled into the dining area and I situated Mom’s wheelchair alongside a chair next to me. A dozen or so people were seated in front of a piano. I set my phone on my lap as we clapped our hands when the volunteer finished her first piece.
“Do you know Pop’s phone number?” Mom asked suddenly, glancing down at my lap. She had this tendency to ask questions that didn’t seem to relate to anything going on at the moment. Thrown off by the timing of the question, I hesitated. Something motivated the question, but what was it?
“Sure” I answered, opting for a vague answer because I didn’t know what information she was looking for. I had already discovered that if I asked Mom for too much clarification when she asked a question out of the blue, she would back down, mortified. I would see it in her eyes. They would enlarge and she would say, “Oh, never mind.” Her retreat was like snuffing out a lone candle in a room filled with shadow and suspicion in the sudden dark. I couldn’t bear to see the look in her eyes when she was asked for something beyond her capability to respond.
However, Mom wasn’t tracking my own discomfort. She glanced at the phone in my lap and asked triumphantly, “Why not call Pop and find out where he is?”
Suddenly, I was the mortified one. I’d already been warned that Mom constantly asked the whereabouts of my father, even though he’d been dead for three years. When she asked where he was, staff would say, “He’s gone for a bit, Audrey. He’ll return soon.”
Case in point, upon arriving earlier in the day, Mom had asked immediately, “Jess, I know you’ll tell me. Where is Pop?” Last year during my visit, I would gently respond by saying, “Mom, he died; he’s no longer here.” But earlier, staff overheard Mom’s question and answered for me, “Audrey, he’s on an errand; he’ll be back later.”
Reality vacillates in the midst of advancing Alzheimer’s, I was discovering.
The volunteer finished her afternoon concert and sing along while kitchen staff busied themselves setting up for the evening meal.
“Mom, shall we stay out here until dinner is served?” Mom looked at me with those blue eyes that spoke much more clearly than I remembered last year.
“Is dinner ready in there?” she answered with her own question and pointed down the hall.
“I’m sure it is,” I replied. I turned the wheelchair around, waited for Mom to lift her legs so I could push the wheelchair along smoothly, and realized that Mom’s comfort zone was slowly diminishing as the Alzheimer’s was steadily advancing.
As we entered “Mom’s” dining room, she turned to me.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t eat out there, Jess,” she said with a level of clarity that surprised me. I hugged her, tears springing once again from my eyes. “That’s okay, Mom. We can eat in your dining room.” I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. As we entered the room, another resident called out to Mom.
“Oh, I wondered where you were! It’s time for dinner. We’re having chicken tonight, Audrey. It’s the kind you like.”
Those persistent tears! They wouldn’t stop flowing this visit and I made no effort to hide them. “This is my Mom!” I exclaimed to myself with awe and relief. “This is how she’s coping with Alzheimers! And she’s doing a damned good job of making the best of it!”
We ended my stay the same way it had begun: her seated in her wheelchair and me standing in the hallway next to the exit door, overnight bag in hand. I punched the code in to open the door and looked back. “I love you,” I said, saying good-by one more time. Her blue eyes looked at me without wavering. She placed her open fingers on her mouth and blew me a kiss. Not one to use superlatives, I tell you honestly, Mom has never blown me a kiss, not once in my entire life before that moment!
Amidst advanced Alzheimers and advanced age, Mom has created a life for herself that is safe, secure, and filled with a connectedness that I’ve not often felt from her.
I am thankful for the few hours we spent together last weekend!