Every morning I wake up and wonder, “Is this the day my mother will die?” This morning, the sun coming up on the hazy lake, I fall apart: big sobs as I lace my tennis shoes and begin my work out. By evening, I’m okay again. I tell myself, “It probably won’t be today.”
One night, just home from my parent’s house—where my mother is working on dying and my father says it’s too soon for a nursing home, too soon for us to let her go—my husband flips through channels. He stops at classic Looney Tunes. Classic, which means he watched them as a kid, but they may be older than me.
I don’t say anything, just curl onto Bruce’s lap, no matter this recliner was built for one. He strokes my head and says, “Rough day.” I nod.
We watch “Yankee Doodle Daffy”: Daffy Duck pitches his ideas for a movie to famous director Porky Pig. I laugh and laugh. Daffy in drag. Daffy as a clown, a cowboy, a singing flyboy. The whole repertoire-ey.
The timbre of Bruce’s laughter vibrates through his body to my chest. Bruce, who listens to my stories each day, who pays attention and knows when to ask for more and when to keep quiet. Who makes sure dinner is ready when I get home from work or from visiting my parents. Who says to me once, “You even make Alzheimer’s sound fun.” Now he holds me in his arms, and we watch Daffy Duck. He goes into his finale and what a finale.
I stay there on Bruce’s lap till my arm goes numb. I know it’s been some time since he could feel both of his legs.
A small sect of Christians says that true believers will be assumed into heaven, today, May 21, 2011, this “day of rapture.” It’s about noon and my mom is still here—the greatest believer I know has not yet been assumed to heaven. If my mom isn’t going, no one is.
She sits at the kitchen table watching me mix cookie dough. No eye contact, just her blank stare toward my bowl. I narrate, as usual. “We’ve got the two eggs cracked. 2 cups of sugar. Look, no flour. How does this recipe work?”
I stop periodically to kiss her, the only language I’m sure she still understands. My dad reads the coupon section of the Saturday paper, mapping out his route for groceries.
“Yoo-hoo,” he says in a sing-song voice in her direction, “look over here.” My mom stares blankly at my mixing bowl. He says, “Where’s your Joe?”
When my mom could still talk, she’d wake up in the morning and say, “Where’s my Joe?”
Now everyday my dad says to her in his sweetest-talk-to-a-baby voice, “Virg, where’s your Joe?” And she looks around with this blank look on her face. Everyday, perhaps many times a day, he keeps asking her “Who am I?” She stares back at him and fails the quiz every time.
One of his markers for sending her to a nursing home was when she could no longer recognize him. The time is upon us. There are moments when she seems to be in there—our Virgie—looking back at us. Those moments come and go.
I read recently that viewing anything in outer space means we’re always looking at the past. “Lookback time” is the time light from a distance object has traveled to reach us on earth. For instance, it takes eight minutes for the sun’s rays to reach us, so the sun is always in the past. Somehow I think that this is what Alzheimer’s must be like. I often gaze at my mom and wonder what might be going on in her head. Is her mind just a blank screen blinking, blinking. Does she recognize the passage of time?
My dad wants his kids to decide when to take my mom to a nursing home. The vote might be 8 to 1, he tells me, but majority rules, and he’ll accept what we choose.
I don’t have the guts to tell him I would offer a write in vote: stop feeding her. He goes back to cutting his coupons, soon out the door to find the cheapest bratwurst in town.
Every Friday morning I listen to National Public Radio’s weekly selection from Story Corps. All over the United States people visit Story Corps booths in malls or convention centers and interview their loved ones about their lives. The broadcast occurs when I’m working out, usually jumping rope on a mat in my livingroom. Story Corps helped me realize that I can indeed cry while I jump rope.
This morning, Bob Patterson, a gentleman living with Alzheimer’s, tells his wife, “I can remember things that occur in my heart much better than things that occur in my head.” Bob Patterson is an insightful guy.
His wife says to him, “Memories are not who you are.”
He says, “The head is an overstated organ; the heart is where all the action is.”
I realize instantly that my mother has always lived with her heart, but when she started to get sick she was so afraid of losing what was in her head. How many times did she ask me: what happens when I forget who you are? And how many times did I say that I’ll just be that nice woman who visits you and takes care of you? And here we are, connected not by memory but by our hearts.
When I visit today, my dad seems upbeat. There is a bed for my mom available at Our House Memory Care where my niece works, but he just can’t decide if he wants her to go.
He could visit every day. He could have a life. I won’t mention it to him today. I know that he hates words, words, words, talking about things constantly. For now he’s off to find the best bargain on peanut butter.
A few days later when I visit, my dad is stirring soup at the stove. “I just can’t do it,” he says. “I can’t put your mom in a nursing home.” He sobs and sobs while he stirs. I put my arms around his shoulders.
“Ok. Then we’ll keep helping you at home. But you have to get out of the house more often. You have to visit your kids.” He nods. My siblings and I have mourned the loss of our mom, a little bit at a time, but the past few years we’ve also lost our dad. No one can get him to visit us or do anything away from our mom.
Now Dad says, “I just feel so selfish because I want to have her here with me. I’m not ready to let her go.”
Selfish? This man amazes me. Since Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he has endured terrible bouts of her depression and anger and paranoia-induced accusations. He has cared for her all these years. The last word anyone would ever use about my dad is selfish.
I say. “If you’re not ready, then we wait for another opening. There’s nothing selfish about that.”
He nods some more, still stirring.
A few weeks later there is an available room at another nursing home. Since the last opening my dad has changed a number of dirty diapers, including one today on his living room floor. When I arrive and see the brown spot, I know immediately what it is.
“How did that happen?” I ask.
My mom is asleep on the couch. “Well I tell you what,” he says. This is how countless Joe See stories have begun: I tell you what. “I thought she was sleeping, so I was sitting at the kitchen table, and I heard something. Virg was standing out here with her pants half down. I didn’t want her to fall so I laid her on the floor.”
“Oh no,” I say.
“I got her cleaned up with a new diaper and back on the couch. She doesn’t have any slacks on. I got most of it off the floor.”
For a guy who swore a sailor’s blue-streak most of his life, I find it charming that when shit is right in front of him he doesn’t name it.
“Then I decided I needed a stiff drink before I cleaned up the rest.” He holds up his drink and smiles. I’m guessing it’s mostly Windsor with a splash of diet Sprite, what he still calls “wash.”
“So that’s where you’re at?” I laugh. What else is there to do? I look at the crap smeared into the carpet, at his rags and his bucket.
“I’ll clean it up,” I say. “Shit doesn’t bother me, only spit.”
“What’s the difference?” My dad’s been hard of hearing for years.
“An ‘H’ and a ‘P,’” I say. Then I annunciate. “Shit not spit.”