June 2, 1936 – December 13, 2001
Reflections about my mother
I wrote this piece in December 1998, three years before my mother died.
The Last Time
Ever since my grandmother died she’s been my guardian angel. I often think of her whenever something good happens and thank her for being up there looking after me. But when my mom dies, I don’t expect such benevolent treatment. Not after what she’s been through.
It’s ironic, really, because Mom had such an angelic quality about her. She genuinely cared about people. She especially loved the company of others and took great pleasure in plain old everyday conversations. Yet when she was in her mid-fifties, she began experiencing problems with her speech. She would pause mid-sentence, and struggle to come up with common words like “refrigerator,” or “napkin.” She would go to the kitchen for a glass of water, and would come back five minutes later, empty handed, wondering why she went there in the first place.
Within months, her behavior became even more odd. She would sweep the kitchen floor and then flick all the crumbs with the broom down the basement stairs. She would lie on her bed staring at the same page of a book for half an hour. When setting the table, she would place the forks horizontally at the top of the place mat, and the knives at the bottom. One day, she couldn’t count change, or tell the time anymore.
Alzheimer’s. Why didn’t we think of it at the time? We didn’t dare to! When she forgot words, we blamed it on “the change of life.” And then when things got worse, we took her to a psychiatrist who told us that her confusion and inability to perform routine tasks was due to severe depression. That was a relief! He prescribed Prozac. It didn’t help.
Finally, Dad took her to a specialist. Test after test was performed. She was prodded, poked, and quizzed. “What day of the week is it?” “Say the alphabet backwards from Z.” “How much is thirteen minus five?” She failed miserably, and they sent her on to a neurologist. More tests. More questions. Finally the day of reckoning came and the word was finally said out loud. “Alzheimer’s.” As they left the neurologist’s office, my Dad’s knees were shaking. Mom’s only comment was, “I liked him. He was a nice man.”
That day marked the end of “Phase I: The Denial Years.” Although we didn’t know it, sometime between the day she forgot her first word and that horrible moment of truth in the neurologist’s office, Mom made her last set of waffles for her grandson from scratch. She read her last book. She remembered my telephone number for the last time and experienced her last moment of satisfaction for something she’d done on her own.
Then we entered “Phase II: The Waiting and Hoping Years.” Dad, her valiant protector, was determined to keep her at home, and at first, that appeared to be relatively easy. After all, she was blissfully compliant, gladly allowing herself to be looked after like a small child, accompanying her husband on everyday errands, and out for an occasional dinner, like a normal retired couple. Dad would go out of his way to make her happy with little gifts and special foods that she liked. They would watch comedies—and Mom would always laugh at the right places.
There were even some moments that made us laugh. Like the time in the lingerie department at Sears. How does a sixty-five-year-old retired Anglican minister explain to a sales clerk that his wife needs a new bra when she’s standing right there with him? Poor Dad! He didn’t even know her bra size, and of course neither did Mom!
Some time during “The Waiting and Hoping Years,” Mom bathed and dressed herself for the last time. She got up in the middle of the night and actually found her way back to bed on her own for the last time. She polished her silverware for the last time and expressed her last real opinion. And nobody celebrated these final events, because nobody knew they were the last.
And still, they carried on… until the day that Mom managed the toilet routine on her own for the last time. And on that day, although we didn’t know it, she entered the next phase, a tortuous period that doesn’t deserve a name. The time when Dad finally began to admit that he could no longer care for her on his own.
Early on, when Mom could still wonder about such things, she asked me who would look after her if something happened to Dad. Without thinking, I replied, “I will, Mom. We will build a little apartment for you at our house and you can come and live with us. I’ll always be there for you.”
That will never happen. Mom has ended up at sixty-two spending her days sitting in a wheelchair staring vacantly in a small town nursing home with a roommate that is older than her own mother would have been if she were still alive today.
Children with parents who have Alzheimer’s are cursed to forever examine their own forgetfulness. Today, I struggle to remember the last honest conversation I had with my Mom. I wish I could recall the last time she shared a secret with me or reached out to hold my hand. I would give the world to remember the last time she asked me what her grandsons were up to these days.
When Mom finally dies, I will forget what she became, and mourn her as she once was.
And I certainly won’t expect her to be my guardian angel. I hope she comes back to haunt us all with a vengeance, for she’ll be a bitter ghost after what she’s been through. I’ll think of her if a china plate slips out of my hands and shatters on the kitchen floor. I’ll trip carrying groceries up the front porch stairs, and her face will appear before me. A sudden gust of wind will slam the front door shut, and I’ll imagine her ghost on the other side.
And I won’t blame her for her tricks. No, I will celebrate her fury because it means that she has finally regained her free will.
I held my Mom’s hand as she finally passed away peacefully on December 13, 2001. The night she died, the wind blew in my brother’s 13th story apartment window and the florist where I bought her flowers in Perth Ontario burned to the ground. Was that her fury? I’m not sure. All I know is that she continues to give me gifts for which I will be eternally grateful.
I love you Mom and miss you more than these words could ever say.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear how much I love you, so please don’t take my sunshine away.”A favourite song