I took my mother to a doctor’s appointment yesterday.
I don’t think she knew who I was.
Oh, Rita smiled in recognition when I arrived, but it’s been months since she’s spoken my name or that of anyone else in the family. She asks, “How’s the family?” in the same disengaged tone with which you would question the most casual acquaintance.
In her room at the assisted-living facility, the calendar on her wall still reads November 2009. It’s appropriate, because time seems to stop when you’re dealing with someone suffering from dementia. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day, except in reverse.
In the classic movie, Bill Murray lives the same day over and over until he gets everything right. With my mother, we are living the same day over and over until everything goes wrong. This story will end not with Murray and Andie McDowell falling in love, but with a funeral.
Rita had been showing signs of memory loss for several years, repeating stories and questions, but she was still able to live on her own and take care of herself. I spent many happy afternoons during this time visiting and chatting with her, discussing the news, while retrieving as much information as I could from her about family history.
Things began deteriorating rapidly in October 2008 when she tumbled down her cellar stairs. She may have lain there overnight with a broken hip. Fortunately, my brother drove by her house every morning and when he saw the newspaper still lying on the porch, he knew something was amiss.
Rita received hip replacement surgery. Unfortunately, during her weeks in the hospital, she began to experience disorientation, a common phenomenon when an elderly person is removed from his home. A woman who would rather say nothing than tell a lie, she began weaving stories about the past that we knew were untrue. She began inquiring about the health of family members who had been dead for at least a decade, insisting that they had promised to visit her. When she lived at home, she would watch the news on TV every day; at the nursing facility, I don’t think she’s turned on the TV since she moved in.
In the rehab center, Rita, one of the most peaceful people on the planet, got into a physical altercation with a nurse who was force-feeding a patient unable to feed herself. Since the patient was African-American, my mother thought she was taking a stand against racial injustice. The clinic abandoned the idea of sending her home after her rehab was completed.
In recent weeks, my brother has heard her tell a nurse’s aide that her entire family died in a house fire. She has also been heard getting the number of her children wrong.
She’s very hard of hearing and her hearing aid only seems to help her sporadically, so anything beyond the most basic conversation is often an impossibility. Sometimes visiting her feels like a duty, like filing your taxes. Yet we do it, taking care of whatever needs her facility can’t.
Although my mother has been suffering for 2 ½ years, I have declined to write about it, not because of painful emotions but rather of the firm sense that I do not want anybody’s sympathy. For all the effects of her dementia, she’s still in better shape than the vast majority of the other patients at her facility. Many of the others just sit there in the lobby, head down, oblivious to their immediate surroundings, alive physically but not in spirit. Meanwhile, Rita can still walk with a spring in her step and she can josh with the medical staff.
Many people in my age group are going through this right now and many have it far worse than I do. Some are dealing with it while raising their own children; mine are fully grown. Some are dealing with it while living hundreds of miles away; my mother is in the next town and one of my brothers is also nearby.
I also decline sympathy because for most of my 60 years, my mother has been a strong, positive influence on my life. Whatever good qualities I hope that I have and hope that I have passed on to my own kids – patience, generosity, understanding – I have gotten from my mother. I always knew that I could talk to her, solicit opinions about family issues, and receive assistance when I needed it. I may have taken her for granted at times – a common problem for the terminally nice – but she never complained about it.
Many people have not been so fortunate. Perhaps their mothers died at a young age. Perhaps their mothers abandoned them – emotionally, if not physically. Their relationships with their mothers were sources of deep wounds to be healed, emotional damages to be overcome. Mother’s Day is a day of grim remembrance for them, not a day of honor.
So if you want to feel sorry for anybody, feel sorry for them.