In the last year I have watched my 86-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, get progressively worse. The scores of tiny cerebral infarctions she suffers each week rob her brain cells of the nutrients they need to retain information. She used to forget where she put things. Now she forgets where she is.
Last Fall, her one good knee gave out on her, leaving her wheelchair bound. Then, last Saturday, I got the call that she had fallen and broken her hip. When I got to the hospital, I heard that what I feared to be the case was true. This was no hairline fracture that would eventually heal. It was a clean fracture of the part of bone that separates the ball, where it goes into the hip socket, from the femur. If she doesn’t have hip replacement surgery, risky at her age, she will be bedridden.
I listened to the doctor explain all the risks and thought of the disclaimers that pharmaceutical companies put on their pill advertisements. “Side effects may include death…” That one gets your attention. As her next of kin I had to make the decision. The nurse handed me a clipboard where a single sheet of paper spelled out in print the same dire risks the doctor had just gone over with me verbally. I stared at the signature line and hesitated. What would she want?
I asked the nurse for a little time and stood beside Mother’s bed. She was awake and I noticed how clear and blue her eyes were. Are the eyes truly the “windows of the soul”, I wondered? Maybe peering into hers could tell me something. She was smiling sweetly and her eyes seemed to be searching for the substance of something of which she was only vaguely aware. She looked almost childlike… as if each moment was new and unfamiliar to her.
I thought about the sensitive, intelligent woman I knew growing up. She was beautiful then, too. I remembered how that when I was in the second grade she drove me to school one day. I was late and she walked me to my classroom. As we entered the room I felt the eyes of my classmates on me and her. I quickly pulled my hand from hers and while she talked to the teacher I found my seat. The kid behind me leaned forward and whispered, “Your mother looks just like Marilyn Monroe!” I was so proud. I think it was the first time I thought of her like that. It occurs to me now that I did know who Marilyn Monroe was and knew her to be the epitome of girly prettiness.
But Mother was always a pretty woman. And even now, despite her many afflictions, she still wears pink lipstick in the hospital bed and worries about her hair. At first I thought how like our family it was….to be so concerned about appearance, even in a setting like this. But then I looked at her frail, hopeful face and instantly regretted the critical thought. I recognized about her that her real beauty lay in the fact that she did not surrender to any of the maladies that gnawed at her health and pushed her away from youth. She fought them determinedly. That's what the lipstick meant. This docile octogenarian, despite her mental haze, was a fighter. And, although she could not articulate it, I knew what she would say if she could. I knew with certainty now that she would opt for risk over safety if she knew that, for a few more summers at least, she would keep her mobility. If she were making the choice, she would tell the people with the lab coats and stethoscopes to do their best and she would do the rest. Smiling down at her, I had my answer and wrote my name.