I called Mum’s care facility as I hadn’t seen her in a week and thought I’d at least check in.
One of my favourite nurses answers. “You know, you’re Mum is doing well. She’s enjoying her food, she smiles a lot, seems really content. She’s going through a good phase.”
I’m always relieved to hear that Mum is okay. She no longer speaks coherently, and can’t walk anymore but I still consider this a reprieve before the next layer of decline sets in. Once a routine is established and I’ve adjusted to her being able to do even less than she had a few months previously, it all changes.
“The only thing is she’s still getting sick every two weeks or so.” I focus in on this bit of information and search through my mind whether I’ve heard this before.
“Really?” I wait for more.
“Yeah, we still haven’t figured out why it happens. There’s another patient that does the same thing.”
Now I recall that Mum did throw up after I took her to the dentist but I thought it was because she had swallowed too much saliva and filling matter during the procedure.
“She doesn’t have the flu or anything?” I ask, knowing that Mum’s immune system is so sturdy she never even gets a cold when it’s going around.
“Not at all. One possibility is that she’s taking too much in at meal time. She’s a small person and since she can’t feed herself very well anymore we don’t know when she’s had enough.”
I decide to just ask what I already know is inevitable. “Do you think it has something to do with not being able to swallow as well?”
“Oh yeah, it certainly could be a bit of Alzheimer’s aspiration.” I’m relieved that she hasn’t tried to gloss over her answer to me.
I knew one day that my otherwise completely healthy mother, not yet 80 years old, would start having problems with swallowing, breathing, and then eventually be bedridden. That her death certificate may actually have Alzheimer’s written as the cause of death due to the breakdown of the cerebellum – the control centre to every function within the human body. When I learned that if you die by pure Alzheimer’s the body curls up into the foetal position I felt the energy drain out of me, the image placed right in front. I had to process this one for a while just in case it was going to happen. It made me sick to think about it, but I made peace long ago that I can’t stop what is happening, only try to deal with it as it comes.
When I visit Mum the next day, she’s bright and relatively focused.
“Hi Mum! Hey Mum! How are you?” I walk towards her, bending down slightly so I’m in line with her vision. I give her a big smile and wait for her to return it.
“Oh, mmae hemm ooonm! E yddoe do skool skak vow. I know.” The inflections are still the same even though the words have gone. I translate it as “Oh, there you are! It’s so nice to see you!” I rub her arm and today she takes my hand.
“You look good Mum.” She hasn’t lost the ability to smile or at least mimic me. “You know it’s spring now and I got your garden pruned and weeded.” She looks away and I wait for her to make eye contact again.
“Your garden looks great Mum. It’s got nothing to do with me though. I have this person who comes in to do the pruning and clean up – she’s an Arborist. And your flowers are blooming, especially the Rhododendrons in the front yard and the crocuses you planted under the Japanese maple. I did manage to plant a few daffodils and tulips, you know, in the planter along the window and they look really good. You did such a great job Mum.” She’s been fiddling with the hem of her pant leg. When I stop talking she turns to me and smiles.
I want her to know what’s happening outside in the world that use to be her’s. I don’t hesitate to tell her tough stuff too like when her oldest brother died last year. We were outside in the care facility’s courtyard, sitting in the shade enjoying their garden.
“I have some news Mum. Your brother John died. I’m so sorry.” As I explain in more detail that he died quickly and wasn’t in pain, she looked at the ground for several minutes. At one point I was going to launch in and start blithering away to fill the gape, but I decided to wait and let her process what she could. Her mouth turned down slightly and she stopped fiddling. Eventually, she looked up at me and jerked her head back while saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize fomma wooz teesom.” And laughed.
The English hasn’t been bred out of us so when I was growing up hugging and kissing were done primarily when we said goodbye or when I was sick or cried, not nearly as spontaneously as we do it now. I am forever rubbing Mum’s knee, touching her arm, and I always kiss her forehead or cheek while telling her I love her every time I leave, only looking back to make sure she isn’t upset that I’m walking towards the elevator. When I look back today, she’s taking her right shoe off and letting it fall to the floor.