Sitting quietly next to Mom in the Nursing Home Dining Room, as she picked the pieces of carrot out of her vegetable soup, she said: "I've never understood warm strawberries, have you?" Gently smiling, I quietly answered: "No, I never have."
Remembering the words of a kind friend twenty-five years ago regarding the death of his Father, he said: "As children of our parents, we all have our turn." Not forgetting my Mother's journey ahead of her, my Sister and I are both quite fortunate now to be able to have our turn with our Mother.
During her elongated dazed gazes, Mom's eyes would widen, as large as saucers, then would calm. Although the cause was most likely more T.I.A.'s (Transient Ischemic Attacks), her soul seemed to be traveling in and out of her body. Her mind seemed to be in and out of conscious, however, somehow subconsciously, on some level, she was aware of what was going on with her health when in the present. She drifted back and forth from present life to childhood, young adulthood, and present again. Confused and disoriented, Mom sometimes seemed more lucid than not, but the Doctor said not really. She seemed to be clearer in her thoughts than not, but could not speak the exact words, yet we knew what she meant by her manner, expressive eyes, and tone of voice.
At only 78, there sat my Mother, beautiful, brilliant, always ahead of her time and fiercely independent, slumping in her wheelchair next to me. She was frail, gaunt and pale, with a ghost like yet luminous complexion. As a Hospice nurse my Sister says many of her patients have this angelic glow to their skin. Mom still possessed her Lauren Bacall looks, high cheek bones, and "Jackie O" aura even after her weight loss and heart attack and the entire nursing staff often commented on Mom's beauty. Yet, she was sadly now a physical and mental hollow shell of the woman I had grown up with and so altered after the heart attack with recognizable full blown dementia. As her eldest daughter, of course I grew up in awe of her, admiring and aspiring to act, talk, walk and dress just like my mother.
My Sister returned from the nurses station and sat down with us. Mom had, again, only eaten a few bites and did not want the chocolate pudding, her favorite. Suddenly, Mom perked up, her eyes growing wide, again, as she said: "Kathy, you may have my pudding because I am in a hurry. I have an appointment soon with a woman about my departure." I reticently looked up at my Sister and her facial expression had changed to one of surprise, then a knowing look came over her face. As we wheeled Mom out of the Dining Room, I quietly whispered to my Sister if the nursing home has a "Departure Counselor" and of course, she nodded a "No."
Tired now, Mom wanted to lay down. She began fussing the wheelchair was not lined up properly so she could swivel herself onto the bed. She started giving orders in her weak Katharine Hepburn voice about her wheelchair should be lined up against the bed, the gently used wheelchair she had frugally purchased for Christmas, thinking she had gotten a deal. She knew the breaks were not sufficient as did my sister and I, so I gently answered: "Don't worry, Mom, we've got you."
After about five minutes of seemingly painful, mostly fearful "Ahhhh's", and frustrating "Ohhhh's", struggling to stand and balance herself, with the aid of my Sister lifting Mom from the front and myself balancing her from behind, she was able to sit on her bed and rest. She did not rest, however, but immediately wanted her security blanket, her control mechanism; her purse. Within this purse, for as long as I can remember, Mom carried her wallet, checkbook, toothbrush and lipstick. Always reapplying the same shade of lipstick she had worn since my childhood. "Where is my wallet? I want my checkbook. I need to pay some bills." Out Mom pulled her checkbook from the small, leather trimmed, navy canvas purse, and with slow, shaky manicured hands, began to try to pay a few bills my sister and I had brought her.
My Sister left to go speak with the nurses, and I sat quietly, marking with a permanent marker Mom's last name in all of her clothing including her socks and unmentionables, as required by the nursing home for their laundry service. I thought of the many years Mom had written our names in our clothing for the summer camp laundry.
Patiently, I watched and waited as my mentor, completely perplexed, confusingly sorted and tore through her bills for forty full minutes. Mom was Valedictorian of her 1952 High School class. Mensa in math, she was one of 2 women in a class of 10,000 to graduate University with a B.S. in Business Administration in 1956. She was always a woman ahead of her time. It was hard for my sister and I to see Mom so declined, yet she was determined to pay these bills as though all were normal. To my surprise while watching her, Mom wrote our childhood address and phone number on the back 'address change' portion of one of the bills. She then filled in whatever dollar amount on whichever payment portion of any bill and stuffed them randomly into an envelope sealing each with a dry lick...without the check enclosed. Heart wrenching to watch, but a crucially important exercise for Mom. Paramount for her to maintain dignity, relevance, purpose, and normalcy in her mind.
Two years ago, Mom's weekly Bridge partner became very sick with Cancer, then died. Another Bridge partner developed Alzheimer's. Her college boyfriend she had recently caught up with suddenly died from an aneurysm. She stopped looking for more Bridge partners, then stopped playing Bridge all together. She stopped going to church. She stopped volunteering in local Politics. She stopped watching television, sewing and laughing. I thought to myself after listening to her tone on the phone she had lost her natural 'Joie de Vivre' for life. Then, her health started to slowly fail.
Soon thereafter, Mom told my Sister she thought she had made bad choices in her life. Yes, we all do make a thousand different little and large decisions every day about how we choose to live our lives. And, all of our choices are not always stellar, but it is important in life to get the big choices right, not to live one's life moving from one bad choice to the next bad choice.
As a young girl, I remember Mom driving me to tap dancing, ballet, piano and horse riding lessons. She took us to movies and Museums during the week when my Father was away working. She took us to plays on Broadway and out to dinner with the adults while visiting my Grandparents on the weekends. She taught us our table manners by serving us a fried egg on a plate and toast on a bread & Butter plate every Sunday after Church. She drove us always on our vacations and weekend breaks to every cultural attraction and historic marker along the highway. She let us have breakfast for dinner. She fed us Swiss Cheese Fondue with French bread, our favorite mod dinner in the 1960's.
A few years later, Mom chose to have that cigarette. She chose to drink three fingers of bourbon, instead of two fingers of bourbon each night. She chose to have that English Muffin with triple fruit marmalade. She chose to loose faith. She chose to let the bitterness into her heart.
The surprisingly delightful treat of our journey this week with our Mom, was seeing brief glimpses of her happy, young soul, and her kind, hopeful, free spirit we had not witnessed since we were very little. During a visit, my Sister said to Mom: "We'll be back this afternoon to visit you, OK?" Mom looked up with longing eyes and sweetly said: "Promise?" This melted us both to soft butter.
Yesterday, my husband and I called Mom. We asked what she was doing. She answered: "Counting my address book." We answered: "Oh, OK. We are counting the Red breasted Robins in the yard. They are waiting on Spring." Mom loves birds, gardening and bird watching from the porch. She laughed a bit and weakly at that. She then said: "I'm getting stronger every day. Do you have my car keys? I need to do my laundry."
Mom was admitted to the Hospice Unit this week. It's nice. She has a private room. I decorated it with her Mother's linen table toppers, her dresser mirror and perfume bottles, fresh potted hydrangeas, a beautiful large multi-colored basket of dried field flowers, old photographs, and a few random pictures of Golden Retriever dogs which she adores. There is a full moon this week. My Sister says she is swamped every full moon in her Hospice work. It's kind of cosmic and may have something to do with the lunar pull or the high tides, who knows, but many of her Hospice patients pass away during full moons. So, we just pray and are thankful our Mother is safe, warm, well taken care of, and happy.
Mom died today, this Easter Sunday. My Sister and I consider ourselves fortunate to have had our "turn" with our Mother and we hope in her eyes, we will have done our well best to remember to have given her a dignified journey filled with a sense of worth, purpose and peace in a life well done, for worse and for better, and peace everlasting.