Holding Mom

A few weeks ago I got this email from my older sister, who has been on the front lines for my parents ever since they moved to Lewiston over a decade ago to live in housing appropriate to my mom's increasing dementia:

"Just thought I should share this sobering update. I have noticed lately that Mom seems thinner and she is often sleeping when we stop by. I checked with the nurse and she said that Mom is not eating much. Most of the time they have to feed her to get her to eat anything, although she does have days where she does a little better. The nurse said this is what to expect since she is in the end stage of the disease, and added that she would be surprised if Mom made it to summer. Of course she also expected Dad to go a good year before he did, so it is just a guess on her part. Still, the nurse got my attention. I always kind of thought their deaths would come in close proximity. I am sure that somewhere inside Mom's poor tangled self, she misses her lifelong companion and is ready to go."

Dad died late last November, having made it past his 95th birthday. We didn't tell Mom. After he spent some time in the hospital for hip surgery and pneumonia, when he came back she regarded him with suspicion and no longer seemed to retain that last bit of connection that had outlived the departure of almost everything else she ever knew, including the names of her children and how to speak English. (I dubbed her speechlike vocalizations "Klingon," a nickname that stuck among all the Star Trek fans I grew up with.) She can't retain or fully comprehend anything we say to her, and if she could, why give her even that passing moment of pain before the new information vaporized?

After Dad died we moved her into a smaller single room at the care facility and she began to retreat into herself even more. When I got my sister's email I laid plans to get to Lewiston for a visit. 

Not exactly for Mom, since she doesn't know who I am, although she brightens when she sees me. They're sort of for me--a fulfillment of a sense of duty to the mother who did such a good job for so many years even though that woman packed up her bags and left a bit at a time, years ago. They're definitely for my older sister, who has borne the brunt and who can skip a visit if I make one.

Over the past few years I've felt lucky that I usually got a good visit. "Good" meant that Mom was awake, seemed happy to see me, and might even occasionally get a phrase or sentence out in the midst of the Klingon. 

The last time I was down for a visit to see Dad a few days before he died, with my older daughter and her husband accompanying us, at the lunch table Mom brought out quite clearly, "Aren't we having fun!" with a pleased expression. We heartily agreed that yes, yes we were.

My visit this Monday is one I'll cherish. She looked at me a bit uncertainly when I arrived and said to her, "Hi, Mom, it's your daughter here to visit!"

She asked quite clearly, "Who am I?"

"You're Gladys Greene, and I'm your daughter," I said, squeezing in alongside her on the big upholstered chair she sat in facing the TV, where a very young Clint Eastwood confronted the judge in Hang 'Em High.

"Buh--" she began, looking at me and raising her eyebrows questioningly.

"Yes, I'm Barb," I answered, thinking that she really did seem to be trying to get my name out and had the right linguistic association.

She smiled and began telling me something in Klingon. Thanks to Second Daughter pointing out years ago that one could interact with her quite smoothly by simply ignoring the meaninglessness of the words and responding solely to tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, I'm pretty fluent in our interactions. I smile, nod, provide verbal filler like, "Oh really!" or "I see" when she pauses, and generally go with the flow. 

As my friend Maggie said years ago about visiting her mother-in-law who had Alzheimer's, "You're going to a foreign country and observing the culture. It isn't your job to try to change them--you just use good manners, thank them, and then come back to your country when the visit is over."

Mom seemed worried about something. She went on at length in Klingon and then asked me something like, "How did you manage all those people?"

I said, "Oh, it went all right. It was fine." She didn't seem convinced. 

"When was this?" she asked.

"A couple of weeks ago--a while ago," I answered.

The phrase "a while ago" seemed to get stuck--she couldn't repeat it back and puzzled over it, and was still worried about whatever it was I'd done with all those people.

I leaned forward, put my arms around her, patted her back, and said, "It's all right. It will all be okay."

Immediately I felt her relax into my arms as her arms went around me in return. She gave a deep sigh, then another. I rocked her a bit, holding her and patting her back. She pulled back, looked at me, and said, "Thank you very, very much." I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around her again.

Victoria, a South African aide I hadn't met before, stopped by our chair and asked if I wanted her to take our picture--I was so glad she did.

We stayed like that for 20 minutes or more, mostly silent. Every once in a while she gave a little start--perhaps that falling sensation that gets you when you're falling asleep was happening--and I'd pat her back again and tell her it was all right. She would relax again. I got tears in my eyes more than once as we sat together, holding each other.

I realized how little loving touch she receives any more and how important that is. She is assisted, moved, bathed, and more by very nice aides, but they have to handle her in a very clinical fashion. With Dad gone there isn't anyone there every day to give her hand a squeeze or make eye contact and smile with something passing between them.

When it was time to leave I eased my arms out from around her, told her I needed to go, and kissed her on the forehead, telling her I love her. She yearned toward me--I could see it in her expression--and I stroked the side of her face. She sat with eyes closed, absorbing my touch.

I didn't want to go. It makes me smile just thinking of how contented we were, holding each other. It was the best visit ever.

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  1. Hi Barb,

    It has been many years - and I wanted to offer my sincere condolences on the death of your father. He was such a great man in so many ways. I also had wished so much better for your mother. When I was married to Bill, she was always so kind to me, as was your whole family really. You seem to have grown up into a great mother,which is no surprise seeing the parents you had, and a great writer and advocate. Keep up the good work!


    Theresa Greene (No - I never changed my name back)

    1. Thanks, Theresa. Mom is failing fast now and I'd guess I don't have many more chances to hold her. The woman she was packed up and left a long time ago but I still appreciate all she did as my mother and what I've been able to pass on to my girls in turn..

  2. Hello Barb I haven't been to your blog for quite some time. Believing you to be someone (like me) who can't help but have an opinion on big media events I wanted to get a link of a blog I wrote and couldn't fine a way on this site anywhere so I'm leaving it here. Feel free to edit &/or delete this after you have the link because it's "off topic" to be sure.

    First, I wanted to say that I looked over this post and wanted to say I'm sorry about your Father. My step-father just passed away in April and he'd been having a few issues that your mother is experiencing, but for different reasons (brain cancer). He was very frail during the last few months so it actually made his passing more of a relief than a sadness because he didn't have a good quality of life.

    I don't know if it's rational or not, but I've started saving small clips of my family members voices and you never know when it'll be the last time you get to hear the voices of family members. Although I'm really not sure if I'd want to listen to them afterwards or not. At least I'll have them if I do want to listen right? I've told my mother that if she decides to move back here that she can move in with us if she wants (I've never had a problem with the ole' Waltons idea and my wife's a nurse so were set up for it pretty well. Anyway, it's great that you could get that visit with your mother and I hope everything works out for the best.

    Ok, so here's the link to my blog pg about using critical thinking and not getting involved with the emotions, racial tensions, or preconceptions irt the Zimmerman case. Comment or don't but I would be interested in your thoughts both from a formatting and content stance because you're definitely a thinker. However, it's just an offer and if you don't want to comment you won't hurt my feelings :-) The title is slightly over the top to encourage interest (you know how it is irt getting people to want to read a blog post right?).

    Have a nice day.


    P.S. I noticed in the don't buy in bulk post that you said you're growing some of your own food (need extra heat for those tomatoes/peppers/eggplants/etc. heat lovers in Seattle). I just finished planting 12 new fruit trees this yr (28 total now, a regular orchard LOL). I now, 28, I'm crazy... At least they're semi-dwarf?... There are just "so" many fruit trees that sound good (Nectarine, Plum, Apricot, Plumcott, Peachplum, Pear (European and Asian), Peach, Apple, Walnut, Almond, Filbert, Oh My!). I'm going to have to change my property tax classification to farm...

    P.P.S. Your Archives pg shows your top post as occurring almost a yr in the "future" in 2014. You must have broke out the DeLorean. lol :-)


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