My Mother Forgets Stuff. But Sometimes She Remembers Other Stuff.

My mother always was one to sweat the little things.

Maybe that’s why I’m so blithe and indifferent to details. Mama always took care of them for me.

The difference — and it is rather stark — between her crossing of every t and dotting of every i before dementia and her going over and over and over and over the same thing 20 times in 20 minutes after dementia is my sanity.

It’s especially tiring when I’m tired to begin with. And it’s especially overwhelming when I’m tired to begin with and she piles on by going in a circle from one little thing to the next and back again.

So it was yesterday. I had a pause and could take her to lunch. I picked her up at her day care, and we were off. We have a thing we do with lunches and such. I give her money. She puts it in her purse, and then, when we get to the restaurant, she proudly (and with no memory that I gave her the money in the first place) buys my lunch for me. Mama loves to treat me by taking me out to lunch. She gets a big kick out the whole thing, and frankly, so do I.

The trouble was that yesterday she kept going into worry wart mode because she couldn’t find the $40 I’d given her. Every few minutes, she would open her purse and begin searching for it. She had folded the bills into a lump the size of a postage stamp and tucked it behind the photos in her billfold (she’s big on hiding things) and that meant they weren’t in the folding money slot when she looked for them.

She would become upset, and I would pull the car over, take her billfold and show her where she’d hidden her money. She would nod sagely and say “Ohhhh, that’s where it is.”  Five minutes later, she’d start looking again. I don’t remember how many times I pulled the car over and showed her that money.

We had a fun lunch, talking about how good broccoli and cheese soup is and visiting with the waitress who goes to our church.  When we got back to the car, she wanted me to take her to buy a Coke at a drive in. We headed for the drive-in and she started the “I’ve lost my money” thing again.

I pulled over a couple of times and showed her where her money was. Then, after we paid for the Cokes and were driving away, she did it one. more. time.

Before I could zip my lip, I said, “Mama, will you puleez stop it?”

I didn’t yell. I didn’t raise my voice or grit my teeth. It was plaintive rather than angry. I think that was what got her attention. The sound of distress in my voice triggered her Mama gene. She put the purse away and started talking about something else.

Which almost immediately moved into a lament over the fact that she doesn’t have a car anymore; which went rather quickly to her standard tale about how I have “stolen” her car and she wishes she hadn’t let me do that to her.

After she finally wore that out, we had a nice talk about my piano lessons. She’s fascinated with my piano lessons, and seems to believe that I’m headed for a career as a concert pianist. That’s standard Mama, by the way. Everything I do has always been the best thing anyone ever did in the whole history of the world.

We drove past part of the tornado damage from last spring, and she talked for a while about that.

Then, we parked the car so I could return a book to the library. She picked up the book I’d been reading (American Prometheus) and looked at the photo of Robert Oppenheimer on its cover. My mother, who can’t remember where she put money in her own billfold five minutes ago, looked at that photo and said,

“He developed the bomb for this country. He saved the lives of a lot of boys who would have died invading Japan.”

She paused, flipped open the book and looked at the photos. “Our government was really dirty to him, accused him of being a traitor, and after what he had done for us.”

She closed the book and looked at me with eyes that belonged to the mother I used to know. “I wrote a letter protesting that,” she said. “They were only after him because he told the truth about how dangerous those bombs were.”

All I know about Robert Oppenheimer is what I read in this one book and sketchy facts about the Manhattan Project. I know of his famous comment, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when the first atomic bomb was exploded at Trinity site. He’s a feature of history to me.

I never knew my mother had an opinion about Robert Oppenheimer. I certainly never knew she wrote a letter to her Congressman protesting his treatment by our government.

I took the book and returned it to the library. When I got back to the car, the mental door had closed and Mama returned to chiding me for stealing her car.

But for that brief moment, the photo of a long-dead scientist cracked open the doorway into who she had been as an adult and let me see a brief glimpse of a bit of the hidden things of her life that I never knew.

 

This is Robert Oppenheimer, discussing his memory of the first atomic explosion.

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2013 Favs: Mama

Mama

Mama, out on the town at her favorite hamburger joint. She made the bead necklace she’s wearing at Adult Day Care — her “Job.” 

My mother smoked like a diesel for almost 70 years.

I guess she was lucky.

She didn’t get lung cancer. She never had asthma. But at the ripe old age of 85 or so, she developed COPD.

I’d heard of this disease, which, nearly as I can tell, is basically emphysema with complications and a larger understanding. But I didn’t know a lot about it. I have to admit that now that I’ve been the caregiver for someone who has it, I still don’t know a lot about it.

Extreme old age is tricky.

People this age have an overall feistiness that, when it combines with the lack of memory that goes with dementia, means they can fool you. One of my worst memories of care-giving was the time about a year ago when my mother almost died because I thought that making an appointment with the doc and taking her in the next day would be enough.

As I said, extreme old age is tricky.

They can be doing their “I’m ok,” feisty act one minute and gasping for breath the next.

We’ve had several close calls in which we had to literally pick her up and carry her to the car, then drive the few blocks to the nearest ER (if it had been further, I would have lost her.) But that day was the closest of close calls, and it was, as these things always are if you don’t act quickly enough, complicated by other problems.

Extreme old age is tricky.

Everything in the body is worn out and running on habit. When one thing (breathing) goes wrong, then the old heart starts to beat funny, and when the heart starts to beat funny, the lungs get cloudy, and when the lungs get cloudy, the heart stops being able to do its job, which somehow or other craters into kidney failure.

All in a matter of minutes.

If you don’t get it stopped at the breathing is getting difficult point, it’s like taking that first step out the hatch of the airplane without your parachute. It can take days to get her back ticking again.

That particular night, it was hours of ER close calls and docs who told me they didn’t “like the looks of it” followed by a week in the hospital.

Then Mama came home, feistiness fully intact, and thanks to no-short-term memory, blissfully unaware of most of what had happened. But I remembered. For a while after that, I was taking her to the ER if she coughed twice.

Extreme old age is tricky.

And the primary care-giver is also the first diagnostician. I make a lot of medical calls for my mother, including the all-important when to go to the doc or the ER. That’s dicey for the simple reason that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never dealt with this oddball combination of small child skating along on the ice in an 88-year-old body before.

And she is a small child.

A pampered, spoiled, demanding small child.

The further she gets into the dementia, the more childish she becomes. For instance, she loves for me to take her out for drives.

She loves for me to take her out for drives frequently. In fact, I think she would be happy to have me chauffeur her around all day, every day.

If I’m working on something, she says, “I want you to take me out for a drive now.”

I say, “I’m busy. We’ll do it in a few minutes.”

She looks at me almost exactly like the actor pretending to be a toddler demanding a cookie in Convos with My Two-Year-Old, and repeats “I want you to take me for a drive now.”

She doesn’t quit until I give up and do it.

She goes to Adult Day Care every day. I am going to write in more detail about Adult Day Care. It is a wonderful program. She loves her “job” as she calls it.

She loves it so much that she gets up about 5 every morning and starts announcing that it’s time to “go to work” and she’s going to be late. You can’t turn her off. It’s. Every. Morning.

Even though she loves Adult Day Care, she has a very short attention span. If there’s a lull in the good times, she’ll call me and tell me to come get her. Sometimes, she’ll announce that everybody is just sitting around doing nothing and she wants me to come get her. I remember once when I called the Director of the Day Care Center and told her Mama had called and I was coming to pick her up and she said, “You don’t want to watch the dancers, Mary?”

There were dancers, getting ready to perform, and my elderly toddler got tired of waiting for them to get with it and called for me to come get her. If I’d gone over there, she would have gotten miffed because I stopped her from “having fun” watching the dancers.

If the “I’m bored,” explanation doesn’t move me to come get her, she’ll tell me she’s sick. I always go when she says she’s sick. I don’t have a choice, since there’s no way to know if it’s real or bluff.

In fact, I got one of those calls just a few days ago. Obedient daughter that I am, I drove over, parked the car, went in and got her. As I was guiding her and her cane/jacket/stuffed animal-she’d-won/painting-she’d-made to the car, she told me “I was having fun.” It seems that between the sick call and when I got there, the staff had gotten the fingerpaints out and Mama had gone from too sick to stay to having too much fun to leave.

On the last day of May, the whole town was under threat of the widest tornado in history. As our family gathered around the tv to watch what was happening and decide what to do, Mama kept talking.

She does that.

Talk, I mean.

Non-stop. Just like a toddler. You can’t really have a conversation with her anymore, but she rattles non-stop as long as she’s awake.

I usually just un-huh her the way I did the kids when they were babies.

But we needed to hear the tv.

“Hush,” I told her.

She paused for a beat, then started in, talking about one of the lamps or something.

“Mama,” I said, waiting until she stopped chattering and looked at me, “Hush.”

She stared at me a moment, then turned away. “Well alright. I guess if I can’t say anything, I’ll just be quiet. I don’t know why I can’t talk. But if you want me to just sit here and not say anything, then, I’ll shut up. If that’s what you want, then I guess I’ll have to do it, but I don’t see why I can’t talk

“…

“sigh

“…

“That lamp shade is crooked. Or maybe it’s made to look like that. No. I think it’s crooked. Mary Belle had a lampshade like that. Only hers was pink. Or maybe it was purple. I want you to take me for a drive …..”

We give her the medicine she’s supposed to have. Then, we watch her swallow it. Otherwise, (for reasons I do not know) she will hide it behind her bed.

We hide her medicine so she can’t find it. Otherwise, (again, for reasons I do not know) she will decide she’s not getting enough and upend the bottle into her mouth.

I give her money to take with her to her “job.” But I can’t give it to her too soon because she will hide it, and then she’ll forget that she hid it and tell me somebody stole it.

She gets lost in the house.

She tells everyone that I “stole” her car from her.

And to this day, if I needed a heart transplant, she would say, “Here. Take mine.”

My Mama. My sweet, baby Mama.

I love her so much it makes my teeth ache.

It is no burden, taking care of my Mama.

It is a blessing and a privilege. I cherish every day with her.

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Book Review: The Way We Were

To join the conversation about The Geography of Memory, a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimers, or to order a copy, go here

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The Geography of Memory a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, is a personal memoir, written by a woman whose mother died at the age of ninety after a long slide downward into dementia. 

Jeanne Murray Walker writes about growing-up in Nebraska during the 50s against the backdrop of her mother’s slowly worsening dementia. She describes her efforts to participate in her mother’s care, despite the fact that she lived half-way across the country from her mother. 

Caring for a dying parent seems to rip open the seams on the bag of memories we all have inside us. I experienced this when my father was dying. Things you thought were lost in the fog of time step out of the backdrop and present themselves to you, complete and fresh. I suddenly remembered my father as he had been when I was a tiny girl. I saw his face, heard his voice from back then. The experience taught me that we don’t forget. We simply file away and lose as the detritus of our daily living piles itself on top what happened back when. 

Evidently, Mrs Walker experienced something like that when her mother was sliding down. This book is the result of those awakened memories from her life, built around the backdrop of her mother’s slow leave-taking. 

Mrs Walker’s mother was a magnificent woman. She was one of those kind-as-Christmas, tough-as-a-Missouri-rail-spike fundamentalist Baptist women I grew up around and have known all my life. The faith people follow shapes them in powerful ways that are reflected in their overall character. It also infuses them with strength and a kind of power that people without faith, or with only a wishy-washy faith, simply do not have. 

This woman lost her husband at a young age, and was faced with supporting her three children back in the 50s and 60s, when career opportunities for women were limited mostly to jobs that paid less simply because they were “women’s work.” 

Fortunately, she was an educated woman for those years, a nurse. She told her kids that she would never afflict them with a stepfather and pushed on with the business of bringing home the bacon, paying the bills, and, as we say in this part of the world, raising them right. The Baptist church, with its simple theology and rock-ribbed certainties, formed the spine on which she built this life and raised her kids. 

When her only son died of asthma, she did not despair. She kept going and going, right through what sounds like a beautiful second marriage after her children were grown and on into an interested and interesting old age. 

Her mind began to betray her when she was in her mid 80s and then slowly unraveled itself as she aged into 90. Even though her daughters managed her care and placed her in what sounds like the best care facilities, she basically traversed this path alone. 

But The Geography of Memory is really about Jeanne Murray Walker rather than her mother. It tells the story of how Mrs Walker traveled the country in an exhausting round of visits and suffered the pain of separation from her mother during the time her mother was slowly dying. It describes honestly the confusion, pain, anger and exhaustion Mrs Walker felt while doing this. 

It also tells the story of what it was like to be raised by this woman. It is a memoir of a time, place and people that could only exist in the middle of America. The rock-ribbed faith and equally rock-ribbed courage of this woman infuse the daughter’s life with a strength that allows her to step out and move on. 

This is a familiar story to me. I know women like Mrs Walker’s mother. I grew up around them. I have also seen their daughters’ ability to separate and spread their wings, something that only really great mothers give their children. Read through that lens, The Geography of Memory is as much a book on the lost art of courageous child-rearing as it is a book about the slow declines of old age. 

Mrs Walker’s mother was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I doubt that was what was wrong with her memory. This thing that happens to most elderly people is a slide backwards into childhood and, ultimately, confusion. It’s as if the brain becomes disorganized; a tangled heap. 

I haven’t had a family member with Alzheimer’s, but I’ve seen a lot of it in my constituents. The word “alzheimer” has become a catch-all for the various dementias of old age. But it is a specific thing all its own that does not, so far as I can see, only strike the very elderly. My constituents with Alzheimer’s are different from the way Mrs Walker describes her mother. With them, it’s not so much a matter of losing their way to the bank as it is not knowing what a bank is. Over a period of time, they go blank. Instead of being a tangled heap, their brains seem to be hollowed out.

The reason I’m saying this is because it matters in how we treat our older people. 

The Geography of Memory is a beautifully written memoir about a magnificent woman and her magnificent daughter. The lessons it teaches are about living far more than they are about dying. Perhaps its sweetest lesson is that the memories of our lives are worth telling. 

My Golden Mama and Her Slow Good-bye

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Let me tell you about my mother. 

She is 87 and she gets confused. 

She gets confused a lot.

For a couple of years there, every day was a challenge just to keep her alive. We rushed her to the hospital several times so they could drag her back from the edge. Now, her physical health has stabilized, but her mental health is going downhill, a little bit at a time.

She reminds me quite often that I took her car away from her. She’s lost that sense of time that lets the rest of us grieve a loss and then move on, leaving it in our past. When she remembers that she doesn’t have a car, the indignation is as fresh for her as the day it happened. The day I took that car was a sad day for me, too. When she tells me, as she does at least once every day, that I “took” it from her, it re-opens the pain in me, as well.

Other than the car memories, my mother is as sweet as a small child. She accepts whatever I suggest as the best thing and she trusts me the same way my children did when they were little. Like them, she talks almost non-stop, prating along about things that happened, or didn’t happen but that she thinks happened, 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. 

For my part, I’ve fallen into the same u-huh, u-huh, answers that I gave my babies when they chattered to me as they “helped” me wash dishes or plant flowers or whatever. I do a lot of the same things with her that I did with them. We sat in the backyard yesterday and counted the blue-jays and the robins to determine which are the most numerous. 

The differences are that when I told them something, they remembered it later that day. Mama doesn’t. That, and the fact that my babies were moving forward toward independent life, while Mama is moving inexorably away from independent life and then on to the next life on the other side of this one. 

Forgetfulness is a blessing of sorts. At the beginning of this journey, she knew when she forgot and it upset her. Now, she no longer remembers that she doesn’t remember. She’s much happier this way. 

I never remind her that she’s asked me that same question several times. I just answer her again. I don’t chide her about calling me 10 times in 15 minutes when I’m at work. I just talk to her each time as if it was the first call; because for her, it is. 

I love my mother. I always have. But in some ways, she’s more precious to me now than she ever was before. She is so sweet, and so good. The pretensions we hide our real selves behind are gone from her. Her personality is stripped down to the unself-conscious realness of its bare self. What that is in my mother is a person who is all love, all generosity, trusting and deeply, profoundly innocent. 

Caring for her during these years of her slow good-bye has given me the chance to see my mother as she really is without any cover. What I’ve seen is that she is a wonderful person, all the way through. 

This is precious time, these years with her. I would not trade them for anything. There are moments, every once in a while, when I miss who she used to be. I would love to just sit down and have a talk with Mama as she was. But that can’t be and I know it, so I run my mental fingers over the weave of the thought and then fold it up, put it away and go back to the reality of the sweet baby Mama I still have. 

Old age is not a tragedy. It most certainly is not a waste or a burden to those who aren’t there yet. It is a gift and a treasure; a phase of life like any other. My mother is going through a slow and beautiful passage from this life to the next one. It make take her years yet. Her family is a very long-lived tribe. Or, it may end suddenly, at any time.

Whichever way that happens, I know that she and her ultimate future are in God’s loving hands. I only thank Him for giving me this present time to love and cherish her now. It is, like she is, golden. 

The Gift and the Miracle

“Old age is a shipwreck.”

That quote is attributed to Charles de Gaulle, John Kennedy, Orson Welles and various others. It would seem that a plethora of famous folks feel that old age and its attendant ills and declines is a misery and a curse.

I am taking care of my 87-year-old mother in the weakness of her slow going home and I have to say I disagree with these famous men. Old age is a gift. It is a tenderness and a sweetness and a time of extreme clarity and trust.

My mother was a tomboy. She climbed trees and played baseball. When she wasn’t playing sports, she was an absorbed fan, watching from the bleachers or listening to games on the radio and later watching them on tv. Now, she walks with a cane, and I have to help her up and down, in and out.

My mother loved to drive her car, insisted on owning one. She got her driver’s license, in an era when girls didn’t always get a license, the first day she was eligible and she drove herself where she wanted to go every day after that. Until the day I had to take her car keys from her so that she wouldn’t hurt herself or someone else. Now, she waits for rides and comes and goes according to other people’s schedules.

My mother lit up her first cigarette when she was 17 and smoked like a diesel for the next 70 years. Until the day the doctor told her that another cigarette might shut down her copd-afflicted lungs and I had to ban them from her existence.

My mother, who was and is my most stalwart supporter, my cheering squad, my best friend. No matter what I’ve done, both good and bad, my mother was always there to back me up, stand by me and help me out. I’ve always known, never doubted, never for a single moment considered any other possibility, that she would lay down her life for me anytime, anywhere, any hour or day that I needed it.

If I needed a heart transplant, my mother would say, “Here, take mine.” If I started robbing banks, she’d get mad at the bank.

I talked about my father in another post. My parents were insanely proud of me, totally trusting of me, and they convinced me from an early age that I could climb the Empire State Building bare-handed if I wanted to.

So, why, now that my brave tomboy mother walks with a cane and is dependent on family for all her care, do I say that old age is NOT a shipwreck?

Because, well … because it’s not. It’s a time of life; a return to innocence and trust and a laying down of responsibility and worry. My mother was always a worrier, a half-empty child of the depression who knew that every silver lining has its cloud. But she’s past that now. At some point that neither one of us noticed when it happened, she turned all her worries over to me.

The same mother I’ve trusted all my life now trusts me to care for, manage and make right all the bothersome details of her life. She trusts me the way my children trusted me when they were babies. She is so sweet, so dear, so unbelievably precious, that I could never, ever, never, regard this time of care taking and leave-taking as anything but a gift.

Is taking care of my mother while managing a demanding job a “burden?” Is it something that I resent or wish was different? Nope.

It’s a gift and a blessing. All God ever wants to do is bless us. But sometimes His blessings look different than we expect. We pray, in the words of Janis Joplin, for a Mercedes Benz. We get instead blessings of love, life and the responsibilities for one another that are part of living and loving.

Old age is not a shipwreck. It is one of the times of our lives. It is a gift of grace and beauty; a return to innocence and childlike joy for the one who is aged; a time to cherish and give back for those of us who haven’t gotten there yet.

I would not miss one day of the time I’ve spent with my mother, not from the days she took my hand and walked me safely across the street, to now, when I do the same for her.

That is the gift and the miracle of love.


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