My mother is in the severe stages of Alzheimer’s. This intelligent, educated, practical, news-hound, who I’ve gone to for life’s answers my whole life, is now in a wheel chair, unable to talk except uttering the odd incoherent sentence or jumbled string of words that I can only decipher some of the time during my weekly visits at her care facility.
As many people know, this type of illness lingers on for what seems forever. Friends and family fall away as the years pass, continuing on with their own lives. My partner Mack joins me sometimes when I visit Mum, and once in a while my friend Joyce takes time from her extremely busy schedule to sit with us, remembering only too well what it was like when her own parents suffered from Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease. Otherwise, no one sees my mother but me.
Except for our hairdresser of 25 years.
Henny has come every couple of months or so to cut Mum’s hair. She accepts no payment for this, telling me that Mum has been her client for so long, it’s just something she’s happy to do. Her grandmother was in a care facility until she died last year, so she knows how people and the routines of daily life we take for granted can slowly slip away.
Mum really needed a haircut. There had been a quarantine in her care facility for five weeks because there was a flu going around. The facility is hyper vigilant in trying to contain any kind of illnesses that can spread. So Mum’s haircut was put off.
The day of Mum’s appointment, I searched through the common areas looking for her. Had to ask one of the staff where she was.
“She’s right there.” A nurse points. I had walked right past my own mother.
I stare at the large, new black wheelchair she sat in. I had never seen it before. Her hands were resting on a black tray attached to the chair. What struck me was that her head was back, touching the cushy headrest behind, and her mouth was wide open as she slept. That and her hair was much longer than it should have been – she would have killed me if she knew how long I had left it.
“Mum’s dying.” Was my first thought.
How could she have deteriorated this much since I saw her last week? Mixed feelings always come up about her death. I know Mum wouldn’t have wanted to live in this condition and I don’t want her to either, however, I still dread the day when she does die.
“Oh my God.” I say.
“Oh, it’s okay. She’s just sleeping.” Another nurse responds to my strong reaction. “She ate a good lunch.”
She walks over to Mum. “Phyllis. Phyllis. Your daughter’s here. You’re going to get your haircut.”
No response. Once I came out of my trance, I went back downstairs to meet Henny, thinking we wouldn’t be able to cut her hair, and felt badly for wasting Henny’s time.
But when we returned Mum was awake and looking around, albeit a little sleepy.
“Hey Mum.” I kneel down beside her and rub her arm. “How are you? You’ve been sleeping. Look who’s here. It’s Henny.She’s going to cut your hair.” Mum rubs her left eye, looking straight ahead with the right.
We wheel her back to her room. As Henny sets up her work area, I get an old broom they keep in the small kitchen area. It’s my job to sweep up Mum’s hair as it is cut to the floor.
Yet another nurse has to help us take the headrest off of the wheel chair so Henny can get in close enough to do her job. But after that Mum seems content to sit with the requisite shiny black hairdresser’s cape over her body, still rubbing her eye that looks a bit red today.
“Mum. Does your eye hurt?” I ask.
No reaction to my question.
I offer Mum a Purdy’s chocolate from a box that I have stowed away in her side table drawer. She can no longer eat using utensils, but can still hold the small milk chocolate with the vanilla cream inside. I wonder when the day will come when she won’t be able to swallow.
“She still has a built in stop button. She’ll only have one, two at the most.” I say to Henny and then look at Mum.
“Hey, Mum, I’d eat the whole box of chocolates, but you never would!” Mum mimics my smile.
When Henny finishes, she bends down to Mum’s eye level and smiles at her while rubbing her arm. “Hey, Phyllis, what do you think. Do you like your hair cut?”
“Thank you.” Mum says as she touches her own hair.
“Did I hear her say thank you?” I ask as I fix up Mum’s bed.
“Yeah, she did.” Henny replies. I look over to see her now watery eyes still looking at Mum.
“You’re a good man.” Mum tells her as she touches Henny’s cheek.
“Well, you’re a good man, too, Phyllis.” Henny smiles and clasps Mum’s hand.
“Wholly crap.” I say. “That’s amazing.”
Henny nods as we watch Mum touch her hair again.