In the final lap of life, anxious, but embraced in love

How much longer does she have? That is our mostly unspoken family question. Occasionally one of my siblings or I will venture an opinion. One brother suggested that my mother has no more than three months to live. My own opinion: she could easily live a year or more. Of course, it is a bit ghoulish to talk about your own mother’s date with death. However, between us there is not much else to say about my Mom, who continues her slow but progressive decline.

We can remember her as she was, of course. Yet that seems an insult to someone who is still living. Five summers ago, she and my father celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They still lived the retired life in Michigan. We were all there: two parents, all eight of their children, and most of their extended in-laws and grandchildren. They picked the Long Lake Resort outside of Luddington, Michigan for our reunion. I have memories of my mother rushing around their cabin’s kitchen doing what she does best: preparing yet another favorite family meal, such as Pasta in a Pot or Beef Stroganoff. Even then, she was a bit awkward keeping up her traditional pace. She had many hands eager to help her. In kindness, we swapped evenings making the meals. For the day of their anniversary, we all drove into Luddington. We had a fine celebration in a first class restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan. I could slip the DVD into my machine, watch the videos, and see my 80-year-old mother in her fine blue dress, still looking twenty years younger than her age.

“Do you remember that, Mom?” I asked her yesterday. Yes, she remembers. We sat in the shade in the modest eighty-degree heat. We were in the garden at the Renaissance Gardens nursing home where she now lives. Thankfully when well rested she can still be quite lucid. We admired the flowers. We reveled in the quiet of the garden: quite a contrast from the 24/7 hustle and bustle inside the nursing home. The breeze blew like a gentle whisper. An occasional bird would venture into the garden and grab some seed from the birdfeeder.

I arrived yesterday about half an hour before lunch to find her in the activity room. She was in her wheelchair propped in front of the television. Like everyone else, she was asleep. She was parked there, as many of the residents are that time of day, because lunch was approaching. The activity room made a convenient staging area. I gently touched her hand and she awoke. “Hello, Mark,” she said. She knew I was going to be coming. My wife, who visited her the day before, gave her the news.

The news on the television tells any residents who are awake things they should not care about anymore. News has become obsolete because it no longer has any bearing on their lives. What matters is the increasingly narrow scope of things they can control. Visits and the personal attention they bring mean the world to these residents, as they do to my mother. Unlike a woman with Alzheimer’s who wanders the halls looking for her husband, my Mom’s mind is still reasonably sharp. Nevertheless, she sometimes looses track of space and time. She sometimes does not understand why she cannot go back to the apartment. On other days, she thinks she is in upstate New York, where she lived for many years.

Yesterday, she was anxious. She was used to seeing my father for lunch. She wondered why he was not here. She was feeling very scared and abandoned. I wheeled her back to her room. I pulled my chair directly in front of her wheelchair. This was necessary because with her condition she can only see directly in front of her. I tried to explain things but my logic did not penetrate very far. The truth, which I do not say aloud, was that my father was not there because he was on respite. I was there both to see her and to give him some respite. However, she did not understand it. Are they not married? Should not he be there anytime she wants him? I held her hands. Sometimes I cradled her head in my hands. Yes, Dad will see you later today. “I don’t believe it,” she said. She felt abandoned. Yes, she knows we all love her she said. Nevertheless, she still felt anxious and scared.

It was time for another lunch in the fifth floor dining room. Another lunch that was nice but so routine. The same woman with the stroke sat to her left. Another younger woman with Parkinson’s disease ate from a large plate of fruits. The man next to her largely ignored everyone and with relish ate every morsel on his plate. I spoon fed her soup (which she did not like) then helped her eat a Spanish omelet, which she did like. She enjoyed the decaffeinated coffee and the strawberry cheesecake ice cream. However, mostly she was tired. The moment she was done with lunch I took her back to her room, helped her brush her teeth and with the help of an aide put her back into bed for a nap.

My Dad and I planned a surprise: get her to the local McDonalds in the afternoon for a burger. However, she did not get to bed until 1:15 p.m. I called my Dad and explained how Mom was very tired and confused. He called off the trip. His experience was that when she is this way she becomes too difficult to manage for a car trip. She will need more rest than she will get, he thought.

I sat in the half-dark room and watched my mother’s labored sleep. She must have the head of the bed elevated, but even so, it was difficult for her to breathe. Eventually she started snoring. She cannot sleep on her side anymore. She has to sleep face up. Because I had neglected to bring something to read, I was reduced to reading Reader’s Digest. Since I half expected to stick around for a car ride with her, I waited for her to wake up. I do not want her to wake up with me not there and with no explanation. She would feel abandoned again.

After an hour’s rest, she awoke. Much to my surprise, she was well rested. An aide helped her into her wheelchair. We ended up in the garden, under the shade, looking at the birds and flowers but mostly talking. Mom, do you remember when? Yes she did. We talked about places we lived, people we knew, things we did and things going on in our lives.

I live for moments like this with my mother. I wonder how many of them remain for us. For an hour, everything seemed about as right as it can be under the circumstances. The weather was warm but neither too hot nor too humid. Outside it was quiet with only the bubbling garden fountain for noise. It was a hypnotic noise, and it was hypnotic to watch the cement statue of a little boy endlessly spill water from its mouth. We sat close. I held her hand. I often placed the other hand over her shoulder. Our heads touched.

She saw a bird watching us from just over the fence. We were delighted to see it move in toward the bird feeder. Wasn’t it Jesus who suggested that we could be happier by being like the birds and give no thought to tomorrow? It is not easy for us humans to live in the moment. Nevertheless, for a while at least my mother and I lived lucidly in the moment, just mother and son, smiles and reminisces. I was able give her all the loving attention I wanted as an infant but she could not give me at the time. (She had three of us in diapers.) For now, at least when she is lucid, it was like there was all the time in the world.

She is greatly diminished but she is still in the land of the living. Moments like yesterday are fewer and more fleeting, but they are moments we both live for.

Friday my wife visited and started crying when my mother told her that she loved her. How many daughters in laws hear that from their mother in law? For me, my moments are more sublime. When she is so obviously not herself, I do my best to give her personal care in the time that I have. I revel in those brief snippets of time when mother and son commune fully as one once again.

I hope that this was not our last time. There is no way to know for sure. Nevertheless, if it was our last time, then I will have no regrets. If I felt angst as an infant for getting insufficient nurturing from my mother, my time with her nearly fifty years later seems to have closed that chapter of my life at last. And if part we must, I can know that we parted embraced in love and its warmth.

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