Monday, June 16, 2014

Remembering Mama

Mom and me in November 2013
      My mother doesn't have much longer to live and that's the sad truth of it.  She is 91 and Alzheimer's has just about won its 12-year war with her, stealing her mind a little at a time.
       I sat by her bed at Shannondale Nursing Center in Knoxville, Tennessee last week and watched her sleep. The doctor told us that she is in the "final stages" of Alzheimer's.  That's when they they forget how to do such basic things as swallow.  She barely eats.  Her chart says she is only taking in 750 calories per day.
       Only eight months ago she was able to sit up and roll around in her wheel chair.  She spoke in mumbles and could even feed herself.  Now she can't leave the bed.  
     A nurse comes in to check her vital signs and change her. I excuse myself and walk down the hall to speak to the floor nurse.  A wheel chair convention is in progress at the nurses station.  They let them do that at Shannondale.  Residents in wheelchairs gather in the lobby of the third floor where there is an aviary and a flat screen TV. Inevitably, the party spreads to the common area in front of the nurses station.
2005 with her "memory" notebook
      Five years ago, when mom was still able to walk and talk, she used to laugh at the "roller derby" as she called it, never imagining that she would join them in a few years.  In those days, because she knew her memory was fading, she kept a notebook close by and would try to capture on paper what her mind could not recall.  I looked at it one day and saw that she had written my name, my wife's name, the names of our children and grandchildren multiple times. On the top of one page she had put: "This is TOMMY'S family...DON'T FORGET!!"  She filled up five or six notebooks with memos like that before she lost the ability to write.
        As I stood at the desk waiting for the head nurse, several pairs of eyes stared at me from the wheel chair traffic jam.
      "Can you help me?" I heard a plaintive voice say.  I turned to see if the question was directed at me.  A pert woman who looked to be in her mid-80s was looking at me with panic in her eyes.  "Can you please help me?" she said again.   She had coiffed silver hair and wore light purple velour pants suit. She looked as though she had been elegantly pretty in her youth.  My inclination was to ignore her - the way you would a drunk or a beggar but I bent down to her.
      "How can I help you, honey?" I said. I had no Idea where this would go but it seemed rude to ignore her.  By the way, "honey" is a form of address in Appalachia and can convey many things.  In this case, I meant it to convey concern and sympathy, but it sounded condescending and disingenuous when I heard myself say it.
       "I want to go home."  she said earnestly, reaching up for my arm with her frail, age-spotted hand.   "I've been here at Levi Strauss for 31 years and I never thought it would come to this!"
       In its middle stages, Alzheimer's plays devilish tricks with the mind.  In her dementia, the woman imagined she was trapped at work; "they" would not let her leave.
       "What's your name?" I asked , attempting to calm her.
      "Jenny," she said, brightening.
      "Is that because your name is Jennifer?" I asked.
      "No, Virginia,"  she clarified.  "My son Dan is supposed to come and get me and I think he is in the lobby waiting for me. Can you help me?"
      "How many children did you have?" I asked her.
      She was sharp enough to know that I was deflecting and gave me a shame-on-you look that said, "I know what you're doing.  She released my arm and held up one bony index finger, indicating that Dan was an only child.
      "And where does he live?"  I asked.
      "Right here in Knoxville," she said impatiently, as if that was the most ridiculous thing to ask.
      The pleading look returned. "Can you help me get out of here?  I've been here with Levi Strauss for 31 years as a supervisor, and I never thought it would come to this!" she said indignantly.
Mom as a young woman in 1942
       I was saved by the arrival of the floor nurse.   I asked about my mother's condition and she showed me her chart.  Her vital signs were relatively stable, considering.  Although she could rally (she had seen patients do that in the end stages of Alzheimer's), it would surprise her if my mother lasted another six months, but they were doing all they could to keep her comfortable.
      One reason we hold onto memories so tightly and for so long is because memories don't change even when the people the memories are about do.  I remember a beautiful woman in her 30s who always made sure I had new school clothes every year and helped me do my homework.  I remember a blond-haired angel hovering over me and worrying when I was sick.  I remember holding her hand when she took me to see movies at the Strand Theater.  I remember the cherry Cokes we sipped together at Freel's Drug Store afterward.  I remember helping her plant flowers in the spring.  I remember feeling so proud when she took me to school one day and  all the boys in the second grade told me that she looked just like Marilyn Monroe. I remember a woman who taught herself to play the piano and loved to sing.
      When I was 13, Mother had a nervous breakdown followed by a bout with depression that lasted for about six months.  I'm sure there are fancier words for it now, but that's what they called it then.  She lay in the bed and couldn't stand noise of any kind.  I don't think she ever saw a doctor for it.  She just suffered through it until the cloud lifted enough for her to continue with life.  During that spell, I was playing with a BB gun in the house and accidentally shot the mirror over the fireplace, chipping the glass.  She didn't scold me.  She just went into her room, closed the door and sobbed.  I stood at the door listening to her for a few minutes and then gingerly opened the door to tell her I was sorry.  She sat up and motioned for me to come to her.  She hugged me fiercely and, still weeping, told me that she knew it was an accident and that she loved me.  That was rare.  Our family did not hug.  We never said "I love you" to each other.  That just went without saying.  It was understood.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was as if saying it out loud somehow cheapened it.
      I go back to see if she is awake.  Her eyes are half open but they don't see me.  Her mouth sags and she looks so weak and pale.  I lean over and kiss her cheek and stroke her forehead, smoothing back strands of thin, white hair.  Even though she doesn't hear, I call her Mama, and tell her quite loudly that I love her.