2006/ Year Four of Alzheimer’s
My parents are arguing over fiber pills, what they’ve both called “shit pills” for as long as I can remember. My dad calls a spade a spade: he’s got blood pressure pills, headache pills, sleep pills, mood pills. Makes me glad they don’t talk about Viagra, which would surely not be “dick pills” but the German name for penis: “schwans pills.”
My dad puts a fiber pill out for my mom each morning, but she refuses to swallow it. Today I tell her that I take two fiber pills a day to lower my cholesterol.
“I should do that, too,” she says. “But your dad will never give me anything like that. Will you?” She says it snidely in his direction.
“What did you say?” he asks.
She says to me, “And he can’t hear either.”
This ends the way it often does: my dad screaming about taking “shit pills” and my mom saying she’d take a shit pill if she knew what a shit pill was.
This reminder has been on my parent’s refrigerator white board for months: Leave for Jeannette’s at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 22. My dad sees his three siblings just once a year when they meet for a weekend in Manotowish Waters, where my aunt has a cabin. The See siblings are ages 83, 82, 80, and 79. “If I don’t see them there,” my dad says, “I’ll see them laid out at the funeral home.”
My mom has had her suitcase packed for two days, I think because a week ago my dad threatened to leave her home. They argued about it, and he told her he’d never say that to her. This is the stage she’s at: we can say anything and have the option of taking it back. She can be easily manipulated.
Days before the trip she asks me if I thought my dad would go without her. “I can’t stay alone,” she said quietly, as if she was letting me in on a secret.
My dad has been in good spirits. I talk to him in the garage while he is hot-gluing clear plastic cups together to make outdoor ornaments with leftover Christmas tree lights. He’s always been a putter-er and a crafty guy. He even made a cribbage board out of a toilet seat once.
“I just go with the flow,” he says. What’s a guy gonna say, I guess.
“Will you really go to your family reunion without her?”
“Depends,” he says.
“I can stay with her, but I still have to teach. Your kids in town could take turns.”
“I don’t want to cause you any hardship,” he says. Hardship. I think about his word choice.
The morning they are supposed to leave I come by their house at 10 a.m. My mom is on the couch in her nightgown, and my oldest sister, Sharon, sits near her.
“I’m sick,” my mom says.
I sit beside her on the couch and feel her cheek. “Nausea? Dizziness?”
“How did you guess?” she says. “I’ve never felt like this before.” I smile at Sharon. We both know she’s complained of the same symptoms on and off for months. Her doctors say it’s her brain playing tricks on her. They offered nothing for the nausea, which is amazing to me given we live in a world in which doctors can prescribe something for a penis to stay erect for hours or to stop severe hallucinations, but this old woman is told she has to live with her nausea. I keep feeding her Tums, hoping each time that it will help or at least that she’ll be tricked into thinking it will.
I get her three soda crackers and half a glass of Diet Mountain Dew, which she calls her “coffee.” I sit beside her on the couch. “You just need something in your stomach,” I say. I had good luck with this approach last week when my parents drove to Milwaukee to visit another sister. I got Mom ready and out of the house—and it all started with soda crackers.
She nibbles the crackers and sips the pop. When her little bowl is empty, I put three more in as she talks. I think I’m being sneaky.
The carbs revive her. Her whole face brightens.
“So,” I say, “all you have to do is put on the outfit I have laid out on your bed.”
“Where am I going again?”
She sucks in her breath. “That’s a far way for your dad to drive.”
I shrug. “Not too bad.”
“Would you like to ride that far?”
I shrug again.
“Where am I going?”
I tell her.
She sucks in her breath again.
“I hope Dad can make it.”
We go on like this a few more minutes, me putting crackers in her bowl, her taking little bites till they’re gone. Sharon brings more pop.
“Time to get dressed,” I say.
Later I find her in her bedroom—bra, underwear and lipstick on. “I feel dizzy,” she tells me.
I focus on forward motion: get her clothes on, get her in the car.
“Just get dressed and you can rest in the car.”
“Where am I going?”
I tell her.
I put her earrings in while she stands in front of the mirror.
“Get your clothes on, and I’ll come back and help you with your shoes.”
“I’m not a baby you know. But I’m so glad you’re here. I have the best kids in the world. The old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be.”
This is a new trend for my mother: she’s quite complimentary concerning just about everything and everyone. Her husband and kids are “perfect,” and she’s getting the “best care in the world.” Sweet, until you hear it thirty times a day.
When I come back in, she’s sitting on the bed. “I can’t go,” she says. “I’m too nauseous. Dad should go and Sharon can stay with me. She’s a nurse.”
This is what we’ve waited for: her permission.
I go outside where my dad is wandering from minivan to garage, staying out of our way as we try to get our mom ready. I tell him, “She says to go without her. I think you should go.”
He clears his throat. “You know she’ll try to hold it against me if I go alone,” he says. “Every day I’ll hear about it. I can’t take that.” He turns away. I know he’s going to the garage to cry.
Back inside, Sharon asks Mom if she’d feel better about going up north if she came along with them. My mom shakes her head and lies down on the couch. She’s in her travelling outfit: blue checked crop pants and a red, white, and blue shirt. Her lipstick is perfect. She looks pretty.
“I can’t go,” she says to my dad.
He covers his face with his hands, two big mitts that obscure everything—his oversized aviator glasses down over his chubby chin—and he sobs.
“I just can’t do it,” she says again.
“Then Dad should go,” I say. “Mom thinks you should go,” I say to him. “She said you should go.”
He cries some more under his big hands.
“Just go,” Sharon says to him. He comes close to my mom for a kiss.
“You’re not going,” she says. “You have to take care of me.”
He kisses her on the lips, and she grabs him around the neck.
“Don’t go,” she says. “I need you. Don’t go.”
“Just go,” I say to him. “We’ll be fine.” He unhooks her arms from his neck.
Sharon walks him out the door.
My mom hears his minivan pull out of the driveway. “I want Joe,” she says.
She starts to cry a little bit. She rubs the bottom hem of her shirt between her thumb and forefinger as she cries. I move to the couch and sit next to her, wrap my arms around her. Soon she’s sobbing.
“Get Kleenex,” I say to Sharon.
I haven’t seen my mother cry since 1973, when I was in kindergarten, and a frozen pork roast fell on her toe. She put her head on the kitchen counter and sobbed as I stood near her, dumbfounded. It was the first time I realized that crying can sound a lot like laughter.
Now she alternates questions: “Where did he go again?” “Where is Joe?” “Why did he leave me?” “Jo-Jo,” she wails, “I want Jo-Jo.” I have never heard my mom call my dad that before. He is a lot of things, but certainly not a Jo Jo, which at the moment reminds me of a miniature poodle or those wonderful potato crisps we used to get at Tootie’s Bar with fried chicken when I was a kid.
My mom cries for 90 minutes straight. In the middle of it, Sharon goes to the pharmacy for anti-nausea medication. She’s a nurse. She does what she does best.
I hold my mom, and I say the same responses over and over to her same questions. You told him to go. He needs to see his family. He’ll be back tomorrow. We’re going to have girl fun while he’s gone. Her living room couch faces a clock with a different bird that chirps on each hour. I fixate on the hands of the clock while she cries. We hear three different bird calls—owl, heron, and mourning dove—at the top of the hour before she stops crying.
I come over the next day after teaching my summer class, and I bring along fixings for blackberry doughkin, a Polish fruit pastry that is my dad’s favorite, and muffins with fresh blueberries. I need to have something to do. Sharon and I think the worst is over. She and my mom were up till 3 a.m., Sharon sitting on the edge of my mom’s bed, my mom crying and crying. If I had a choice of crying shifts: the three hours after my dad left or the three hours before she fell asleep, I’d go with the one I got. Everything is easier in daylight, especially dealing with your broken hearted Alzheimer’d mother.
We get my mom into the bathtub after suggesting she should get cleaned up for Dad’s return.
Sharon tells me that her only child has already recommended a nice rest home for her. Though it was a joke, Sharon suspects her daughter wouldn’t take her in if she needed it.
“Will Alex take care of you?” she asks me.
“Hell no,” I say. My son is fifteen, and of course a conversation between Alex and me about my end of life care has never occurred. These twenty hours with our mother have made us loopy.
“I’ll take care of you,” I tell her. “Don’t worry.”
“I wish Mom would just close her eyes and go to sleep,” Sharon says.
“I know. I don’t want to wish death on my mom, but it would be so much better than this and what’s ahead.”
When I check on my mom, she’s agitated again. “Why did Dad leave me?” she calls through the bathroom door.
“He went to see his family,” I say. “Finish your bath, and we’ll talk when you get out.”
“It’s just not right,” she says.
She’s crying when she comes out of the bathroom “Thirty eight years and we’ve never been apart,” she calls to me. “My heart is broken. Things will never be the same. I hate him.”
“You told him to go,” I call back.
“It’s not right. He left me, and now I hate him.”
“You don’t hate him, you’re just sad. You’re going to be so happy to see him in two hours. Get dressed.”
I wait till she gets her shirt on, then I sit next to her on the edge of the bed, wrap my arms around her shoulders. I can smell the cold cream on her face and arms. She says, “Thirty eight years of marriage and I would never leave him.”
“You’ve been married fifty-nine years,” I say.
“See,” she says. “In fifty-nine years I’d never leave him. If he was sick, I’d stay with him.” She sobs.
Caretaker rule number one: don’t argue with the Alzheimer’s patient.
She rubs her eyes. “And he made my eyes burn.”
I get a bath towel to wipe her cold cream out of her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she says. “What’s wrong that he left me? He didn’t even ask me to go. If he asked me I’d have gone. I’m going to have to divorce him.”
I explain the plans that were in place for months. I pull out her bag, still packed, and hold it open for her to see it. Nothing helps.
She cries and cries. Yesterday I had a fist in my gut all day. Today, I just want this to be over. I leave her in her room, and I go eat a big slice of my doughkin with ice cream. I’ve been waiting for this for an hour—fresh out of the oven. When I come back to her bedroom, she’s dressed. I offer her some pastry. “Really good,” I say. “Dad’s favorite.”
She cries, and I eat doughkin. I’m so so sick of this. Sharon comes in and Mom says, “I’m going to get my haircut so he doesn’t recognize me when he gets home.” Then, “Let’s go gambling. I want to spend your dad’s money.” What it must be like inside her busy but confused brain.
By the time my dad pulls in the driveway, Sharon and I have convinced Mom that she had the great idea to send him to his family reunion alone, that she had a wonderful time with us. She buys it, and we’re both shocked, nearly to tears. We’re so glad to see our dad.
When my dad’s been home for an hour or so, Mom says to him, “I love you so much. Do you love me?” She’s an abandoned child again, a dumped teenage girlfriend, an elderly woman who’s been left behind once and is desperately afraid she’ll be left again.
My dad tips back in his recliner, eyes closed. He doesn’t answer her.
At dinner, my mom pulls her chair close to my dad’s. “You’ll never leave me again, will you?” she asks him.
“I don’t know,” he says. He eats his corn on the cob in a typewriter motion.
She says, “I was so sad when you left. I was crying. Don’t leave me.”
“If you had your way,” my dad says, “you’d have a casket built for the two of us.”
“Wouldn’t that be great,” my mom says mournfully.
Sharon and I let out a uniform wail, and we laugh until we cry. My dad chuckles for the first time since he came home.