2008/ Year Six of Alzheimer’s
I look at my mom’s slick scalp and know it’s time: I have to get her in the bathtub today. It takes weeks for curly hair like ours to get greasy. There’s a fine line between respecting her privacy and simply swooping in and doing it for her.
“I tell her,” my dad says to me, “but she won’t listen. She thinks she just took a bath this morning.”
I lead her to the bathroom and get her started with each task. “Arms up,” I say. She does what I ask. I pull off her soiled shirt, droppings from many meals. She takes off her bra. My sisters and I often saw our mother naked. A house full of kids and just one bathroom meant someone was always in the tub when another needed to use the toilet. But I’m an adult now with no interest in seeing any family member without clothes. Today my mom is not the least self conscious, which helps me not to be.
Still she says, “I’m not a baby. I can do it myself.”
“Of course,” I say. “I want to make sure you don’t fall.”
She nods as I slip off her socks.
Turns out she loves bath time. “Feels so good,” she says when she sits in the tub.
“Get your hair wet,” I say.
“I know what to do,” she tells me.
My sister warned me that between the time a glob of shampoo is squirted into Mom’s hand on the way to her head, she forgets where it goes. I squeeze shampoo directly onto the top of her head. “Rub it around,” I say. I pat her head so she gets my drift.
“Feels so good to wash my hair,” she says. She scrubs and scrubs, then asks for her pink brush. I leave her alone, but I keep the bathroom door open so I can hear her from the next room. I sort through clothes on her bed and hanging out of her dresser. I find dirty underwear and shirts stuffed into drawers. She’d been packing to go “home,” my dad told me when I arrived today. She believes she has another house somewhere, away from this home she’s lived in for fifty-five years. He said she spent three hours sorting through which clothes she’d take with her.
He tells me that he said to her, “I’ll get a suitcase for you to pack to take to the nursing home.” It’s her greatest fear.
“You didn’t,” I said.
He shrugged. “She won’t remember it.”
I imagine that he screamed “This is your only home” and slammed the door on his way to the garage. Poor guy. He didn’t expect his “golden years” would be spent taking care of my mom, who is now more like an unruly child than a wife. I imagine she rubbed the cloth of her shirt between her thumb and forefinger, like she does when she’s agitated, and after five or ten minutes she forgot why she was upset.
I’m sure it wounds him each time she forgets where she is or any part of their life together. I can only imagine the horrible things she says to him when no one else is around—how she’s transported back in time to earlier, troubled years when he spent too much time away and left her with a house-full of little ones. She’s bolder now, ready to tell him what she thinks—scream at him for what he did to her. But it’s been fifty years, and he honestly doesn’t remember the wrongs he’s done.
I lay one outfit on my mom’s bed, along with her bra and underwear. I hear her splashing. She calls to me, “What color hair do I have?”
“It’s a beautiful silver,” I say.
“You mean gray?”
“Yeah, it’s gray and silver. Really a nice color.”
“No,” I say, “it’s not brown anymore.”
I come in with my arms full of dirty clothes and sneak them in the hamper before she can see me.
“Use the soap, too,” I say. “And wash your bottom. Front and back.” It’s just what I said to my son when he was four.
“I know,” she says.
“Ready to rinse your hair?”
She nods. I dump a cup of warm water over her head.
I say, “You’re like my big old Barbie doll. I get to do your hair and pick out your clothes. You’re my Grandma Barbie.”
I stand next to the tub as she gets up. “Grips,” I yell. “Use the grips.”
“I don’t know what that is,” she says.
I guide her hand to the silver grab bar just above the tub. “Hold this when you step out. Good. Now put your other hand on this one. Always hold onto two of them.”
I watch her dry off, and I hold her robe open. It never occurred to me a person would have to towel off underneath a breast. She still knows what to do.
“Do you think I’m fat?” she asks me.
“No—you’ve lost a lot of weight.” Her year of nausea has made eating a challenge. Her plump frame has slimmed down by twenty pounds or more.
She grips her stomach with two hands. “I still have this.” She has been obsessed with her weight as long as I’ve been alive.
“You had eight babies,” I say. “You can’t get rid of belly fat.”
She stares at me blankly. She says, “How long have you worked here?”
My dad is waiting for my sister to come over to give him a haircut. I tease him that no one but Joe See would think Joe See needs a haircut. He looks at the TV and smiles. He approaches his own head the same way he treats his lawn—one longish one and he’s ready for a mow. My mom has dressed herself in an orange and blue striped shirt and bright pink pants. She stares in the direction of the TV.
It’s teen week on Jeopardy, and for once I can actually answer some of the questions. I say the responses before the kids beep in, and Alex Trebec calls on them.
Teen contestants often have goofy names. Their parents have doomed them, so they might as well be smart. Zia answers, “What is Algeria” after I say “Nigeria.” Hunter’s just too slow for both of us.
My mother doesn’t follow that I’ve answered wrong. “You’re really smart,” she says. “You’re faster than those other kids.”
I laugh. She looks at me. “What’s your name again?”
I laugh some more. I’m not sure what else to do. “Patti,” I say. I look at my dad in the easy chair across from us. He’s fixed on the TV, holding the remote—I know to turn up the volume if my mom and I get too loud.
“Oh, Patti. I have a daughter with that name.”
“That’s me,” I say. My dad stares at Zia. “I’m your daughter. You have six daughters.”
“Yep, my sisters are Geralynn—”
She cuts me off before I can name the others. “We have a Geralynn, too!”
“We’re all your daughters.”
“You are? How long?”
“40 years,” I say. “I just turned 40, and you’ve had all these other kids for much longer.”
I look at my dad. He shakes his head and keeps staring at the television. I’ve already made a crack about Zia’s hair hanging in his eyes—something about getting a haircut when you know you’re going to be on national TV. I said it to make my dad laugh, as I knew he would.
I reach for our recent family picture from on top of the TV. “Here,” I say to my mom. “These are all of your kids.”
She holds the photograph in both hands and looks for a few seconds. “This girl looks familiar.” She points at me in the front.
“That’s me,” I say. “That’s Patti.” I name all of the others.
“These are all of my kids?”
“I’m their mother?”
“Who’s their dad?”
My dad shakes his head again, disgusted or frustrated or worn out or everything all at once.
“Joe See, your husband,” I say.
“Does he know?” she asks.
I burst out laughing. What else can I do? “Yep, he knows.”
“Virg,” my dad says, “take a nap like I told you before. Rest your brain.”
I take the picture out of her hands. “Who are your parents again?” she asks me.