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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

To My Mom

By Olga Hebert of Confessions of a Grandma

It started with Ed McMahon and Publishers' Clearing House. I'm not blaming Ed McMahon, may he rest in peace. I'm just looking back and thinking that was an early clue, although I may not have fully realized it at the time.

I had arrived at my mother's mid-Saturday morning as was my custom in those days. We would have coffee and maybe a donut, then go out to do grocery shopping. After returning to her apartment, I would do the laundry and help with any other Saturday chores.

This particular morning, though, something was a bit different. My mother was sitting in her chair. She had a smile that extended from the tip of her head right on down to her toes. Glee seemed to radiate off her in a shimmering yellow glow. "Well, it certainly looks like a good day!" I had to remark. "What's going on?"

"I won!" Words and giggles bursting from her. "Wait til you see! I won! I'm rich! Look at this!"

She thrust the envelope from Publishers' Clearing House, the one with Ed McMahon's picture on the front, the one with MILLION DOLLARS in very big letters and an invitation to enter in very small letters, the same one I had gotten myself in yesterday's mail.

"No, Mom," I tried to explain, but it was quickly clear that she was not inclined to believe me. I'm sure she was telling herself I was just being a killjoy consumed with jealousy, so I let it drop.

She smiled right through the grocery store trip and completion of laundry and every once in a while I noticed she could not contain a little shiver of happiness. "Congratulations," was all I could say when I left.

The next day, when our whole family gathered at her place for Sunday dinner, there was no mention of her millionaire status. I was tempted into believing she had just been teasing me the day before.

That day she was joking about her homemade rolls that had turned out to be more like crackers. She said at some point in the assembly process the recipe book had flipped a few pages and when she noticed, she got confused, and just carried on with the second recipe. She thumped her head lightly. "My head is so thick, sometimes," was her comment.

It wasn't over, of course, and it wasn't innocent teasing. For every time I found her ecstatically believing she'd won a major jackpot, I was just as likely to find her in an agitated funk. "Oh, look at these bills," she'd moan." I don't have the money to pay these."

She would have unearthed a stash of old bills from the early 70's. She would not be soothed with my pointing out the dates and assurance that they had been paid long ago. In desperation, I started sneaking stacks of old, useless paperwork into my bag when she wasn't looking and tossing them at home.

Eventually, she stopped reading her mail or understanding any written material. Cue cards we'd set up to get her through simple daily routines no longer worked. She could entertain herself by watching the preview channel on TV.

Over time, my visits became more frequent. Mom wasn't able to handle shopping in a grocery store, dealing with money or even finding her way home from the church across the street. My brother took the burners out of the stove and eventually unplugged it altogether after a serious fire incident.

He fixed her breakfast on weekdays and Meals-On-Wheels brought her a lunch. We hired some one to sit with her during the day. I would bring her prepared meals in the evenings and through the weekends. Her head thumping became more distressed and distressing.

My mother, whose ultimate expression of love for her family was through her wonderful cooking, could no longer even manage to make her own toast and coffee in the morning. She tried, though.

One morning, I found her in the kitchen. There was a pair of shoes placed side by side on the counter and she was stuffing two slices of bread into the openings. Another time, while I was doing laundry, she took the vacuum cleaner out the front door. She was irritated that my brother hadn't mowed the lawn in far too long so was going to take care of it herself.  We put a large black mat outside the front door so she would not wander outside after a neighbor called to let me know she had wandered into his house, convinced that that was her home.

One Saturday, I was able to gather very little laundry after searching in the freezer, the oven, under the bed and in all the dresser drawers. That's when it became clear to me that she was putting on a new outfit each day but without removing her attire from the previous day.

Getting her out of her day dress into pajamas became another nightly task for me. Perhaps the hardest task of all, though, was bath time. She liked having her hair washed at the kitchen sink. I could soak her hands and feet and give her a manicure and pedicure any old time. But strip her down to get in the tub or shower? Now there was a battle complete with screaming and cries of "HELP! HELP! She's trying to murder me."

On good days, she recognized me at least as a benevolent person who brought her food. On bad days, she accused me of being there to steal her money. I'd try to clean and organize. It appeared she spent her days shuffling stuff around and shredding her meals into crumbs that could lead her from one room to the next.

Opening cupboards and closets would likely get her upset, though, and I would be stung by her accusations of my intent to rob her. On the other hand, my sister, who was farther away and busy with young children so never had the opportunity to experience bath time, was greeted like an honored guest when she would visit.

All this happened gradually, bit by bit over the course of ten years. Inevitably, there came the time when I was both physically and emotionally exhausted, not to mention consumed with the guilt of not being able to do enough. I did not feel badly that my mother went into the Birchwood Nursing Home, November, 2000. It was the time to admit I could not continue to care for her and maintain my own sanity.

When I visited, as I did often on my way home from work or on the weekends, I was always glad to realize that she was safe, clean and well fed. She seemed content, something that was not a hallmark of most of her adult life. She enjoyed the music programs and exercise that were provided.

She started greeting me like an honored guest even though she really didn't fully know who I was most of the time. She really seemed to enjoy when I could take her out for a walk down to the park. I never asked about how bath time went, not wanting to know, but I did find out that she was sometimes in trouble for trying to steal ice cream. (My mother, stealing!!)

I said what I knew would be my final farewell to my mother on the morning of August 1, 2005, just shy of her 92nd birthday. Alzheimer's Disease can be devastating, but in the end I believe my mother was at peace. Music and dancing and ice cream - that is what carried her out and beyond. That seems not such a bad way to go. I hope I said it at the time, "I love you , Mom."

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


This is such a heartfelt and well written story. Although my own mother, who died at 94, did not fade mentally, everything else became extremely difficult for her as well as for me to witness.
Thank you for sharing.

Beautiful story. Beautifully told.

Yes, beautifully told. I've been reading a blog written by a woman whose husband has Alzheimer's and it is unfathomable.

My mother-in-law resisted going to an assisted living home until we found her trying to heat some leftovers in a plastic container on the electric range. After she went there, she learned to love it, and often asked why we didn't move her there sooner.

Alzheimer's has to be the very worst disease for the family. It is a tragic thing to watch the mind of a loved one fade away and become irrational.

You are to be commended for all you did for your mother for as long as she lived.

You have written beautifully about your mother and the journey with Alzheimer's. As time goes on, and I learn more of the journey that others are sharing with a loved one, I see that it is always individual. Some similarities, but always something that distinguishes mine with my husband from that of others.
Thank you for sharing this....

What a good daughter you were to your mother. She was lucky to have you.

Dear Olga - Thank you for sharing your beautifully written story. You were indeed a wonderful and caring daughter. Losing our parents is difficult but Alsheimers is the worst. You have to do what needs doing in your situation, so NEVER recriminate yourself. No one walks in your shoes, but you. B'shalom!!!!

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