February 11, 2007
Mom’s memory is mostly gone. She remembers my sister and me, but has no memory of her grandchildren. She talks often about visits to her long-gone parents. She imagines getting on a bus to see them in Brooklyn, although she’s lived in Florida for more than thirty years, long after their passing.
In her mind, she sometimes prepares dinners for her older sister Lillie or Dad’s four sisters and two brothers. She imagines she’s back in the Brooklyn house that held the family together.
Her caregivers in the nursing home tell me, “Your mom’s been baking a cake this morning.” And they smile.
When I visit, she says, “Let’s go upstairs and have coffee and cake with your dad.” Of course, there is no upstairs to go to. Her skilled-care unit has 35 beds. She shares a room with a woman frozen immobile, silent, and twisted like a pretzel by Parkinson’s. Mom has macular degeneration and is severely deaf, and has no idea the woman is in her room. I wonder if Mom is aware that she herself is in a room at all. Does her mind even register physicality, materiality?
Most of all, Mom’s attention is focused on Dad. She’s built her life around him. After sixty years of marriage, he alone is still the center of her universe. After he sold his business in New York, Dad and Mom moved to a senior community of single-family houses near Fort Lauderdale. They spent the happiest years of their life there, after turbulent decades earlier.
Eight years ago, they downsized to a small condo apartment. But as Mom’s health declined, and Dad couldn’t manage her care by himself anymore, my sister and I found an elder facility that offered “independent living” for Dad and full-time care for Mom.
Dad had a studio apartment, furnished with a minimum of their possessions. He visited Mom every afternoon, taking the elevator from the second to the fifth floor. He had a tiny kitchen and preferred to prepare his own meals rather than have dinner in the congregate dining room for the “independents,” mostly widows who park their walkers and wheelchairs on the edges of the room and engage in what was to him meaningless conversation. Or maybe he preferred not to put his hearing aids into his ears.
When Dad died suddenly, falling onto the floor of the bathroom in the dead of night, we didn’t tell Mom the next day, when we discovered him. My sister and I were stunned by the shock. We didn’t know how Mom would react, nor how we would handle her reaction. We imagined her shrieking with horror. We feared she would have another, a possible third, heart attack. We imagined her crying uncontrollably, pitifully. We didn’t know how we could console her.
We held his funeral without her.
As it turned out, when we finally did tell Mom, she couldn’t grab her mind around it.
“What?” she asked. “Where is he?”
A moment later she’d forget, and ask where he was. Over and over, day after day, hour after hour of our visits, we would have to remind her that he was gone. Every time she heard it, it was as if it were the first time. But she didn’t scream, didn’t cry. All she did was repeat the questions.
On a few occasions, the director of the skilled nursing unit heard us. One day she said, “Stop telling your mother that her husband is gone. Every time she hears it, it’s a fresh assault.”
It was hard for my sister to lie at first, but when Mom asks me, “Where’s your father?” or says, “Let’s go upstairs for coffee and cake with your dad,” I answer, “Daddy is taking a nap,” or “Daddy is at the store,” or “Daddy is at work.”
These lies seem to satisfy her, to make order in her universe.
Still, she visibly brightens up when a man’s large figure passes through the reception room where we have our visits. Through her eyes grown dark with macular degeneration, she believes the shadowy form is her husband, come to sit by her side and talk gently with her about family, memories, the life they had together.
One day my thirty-year-old son comes to visit with me. After he leaves, she says, “He has a nice nature. He’s very friendly.”
Of course, as his mom, I agree, finding her newly acquired perception disarming and charming, even if she doesn’t recognize him as her grandson.
Then, from the midst of her dementia-fragmented mind, she makes a Zen-like proclamation, which I like to attribute as arising from her deeply buried and suppressed essence: “Not everything comes. One thing comes. Another doesn’t come.”
Isn’t that just like life?