2011 / Year Nine
My mom is in the hospital for observation following a series of mini strokes. She did not want to go out like this: after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she said she never wanted to burden her family or have a life in which she couldn’t do what she liked.
I sit close to her bed and flip through TV channels. I settle on Terminator 2—not quite as dramatic on this tiny TV mounted in the far corner of the room. My mom hasn’t been able to follow a storyline for about seven years now. Still, she understands the universal language of blowing stuff up. “Wow,” she says periodically throughout Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shootout sequences.
A cardiac sonographer wheels his portable echocardiogram into the room and asks if now is a good time. I mute the TV, and he attaches his round, sticky pads on my mom’s chest, careful to never expose either breast. He talks to my mom about what he’s doing.
“She can’t really communicate anymore,” I tell him.
Still, he says to her, “This echo will tell us if your heart is damaged.”
She keeps her eyes on me and smiles. On the small monitor this grainy slug of my mother’s heart looks like a gray hand flipping a middle finger with each quick beat. My eyes well as I watch in awe. How many of us have seen an ultrasound of our own unborn babies, but few have an opportunity to view a parent’s beating heart.
“Everything looks just fine,” the sonographer says. I cry some more. She could linger like this for many years. Alzheimer’s teaches us there are possibilities worse than death.
My mom can no longer walk on her own, and we know that eventually she will lose the ability to smile, to swallow, to speak. This prompted me to record my parents’ voices starting a few years ago. I hold my Mp3 player in my hand, and its small size means my recordings are more like a casual visit than an awkward interview. Though I have prepared questions to ask my dad (“what were your jobs on the farm as a kid” or “what surprised you about the way your life turned out”), mostly my recordings are daily adventures of an octogenarian couple and their adult daughter. On one I’m mixing cookies, narrating as I stir, while my mom has a conversation with the button on her sweater and my dad reads the grocery store flyer aloud to us. On another my mom sings along with a Christmas album. She doesn’t know her own name, but she can sing “Adeste Fidelis” entirely in Latin. Today in the hospital I contemplate that I may never hear my mother speak a coherent sentence again.
After the sonographer wheels away his equipment, the breakfast tray arrives and I coax my mom into eating a few bites of waffle. I narrate just as I do with her at home: “Look: syrup in a little square container. You like syrup.”
She doesn’t know what to do with the straw in her mouth, and she has trouble swallowing. Finally I give up feeding her and flip through channels.
I stop when I get to nuns. My mom perks up as soon as she sees them. We join the Rosary in progress, in the midst of the Joyful Mystery. The nuns are in full regalia and for a moment I can’t think of what their outfits are called. I might have twelve years of Catholic school behind me, but today I’m functioning on too little sleep. My mind is murky.
My mom hasn’t spoken much beyond “wow” in almost 24 hours. Now she says the prayers with these church channel nuns, as real to her as if they were in the same room with us. She says the Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, the Glory Be. She knows every word.
My mom fingers the edge of her blankets, I suspect looking for her rosary beads. All of her life she prayed the Rosary in bed, in her livingroom rocker, at the kitchen table. She believed that on every road trip, praying the Rosary kept our car from a head-on collision or that every pregnancy — her own eight and her children’s sixteen — produced a healthy child because of her daily devotions. “I never lost a one,” she often said to me. She put her entire life in the hands of God, and she found comfort in the power of her Rosary.
Now, the more prayers she says, the louder her voice becomes. I hold her hand. So much amazes: her strong heart, her stronger faith, these lessons she still continues to teach me.
“Habit,” I say out loud to my mother. “Look, they’re in their full habits.”
One Saturday, months before my mom’s mini-strokes brought her to the hospital, I’m recording our conversation while her Big Band album plays in the background. She breaks into song “ . . . It’s been a wrong, wrong time.”
I say, “I think it’s ‘long, long time.’” We have listened to this album every Saturday for almost three years now. Our pattern is that I give her a bath after breakfast, and we listen to music in the living room until naptime.
She belts out, “Lick me once, and lick me twice, and lick me once again.”
I burst into laughter. “It’s ‘kiss,’ you goof.” I laugh some more. “Kitty Kallen couldn’t sing ‘lick me’ on the radio in 1945.”
“They can get licks in there too” she argues. “Some of the kids do that.” She keeps singing, “Kiss me once, and kiss me twice, then kiss me once again. It’s been a long, long time.”
“I bet you were quite the kisser,” I say.
“Uh-uh. I love it.”
I laugh until I cry. A daughter’s joy. A mother’s mystery.
Note: This piece originally appeared in 5ive for Women, Jan. / Feb. 2012