The Big One

Each time I visited Dad this week, he mentioned that Mom wasn’t eating much.  This morning when I stopped on my way to the nursing home, he told me, “She was a little dopey yesterday.”

When I get to Golden Age, Mom is slouched in her wheelchair, head lolled to one side, and drool leaking out of her mouth.  She can’t sit up or hold her head up.  I’m shocked by her decline in just seven days.

When I can’t get Mom to suck milk through her straw, I ask the CNA’s to help me put her in bed.  At least then I can hold her in my arms and look at her.

Once she’s in bed I throw my torso over her chest and cry—big, heavy, heaving sobs.  At the dining table down the hall, the one nearest Mom’s room where Dave and Frank and Sandy sit for each meal and where today they may be pushing baked cod and frozen corn around their plates, my muffled sounds may give them pause to look up. Or they are so used to these intimate sounds—constant grunting, crying, screaming, sometimes begging—that they all just keep on chewing.

I cry and cry against my mom.  When I look at her face, her lips are moving, as if she’s trying to tell me something.  I am doing her no good.  If even on some primal level she is aware of my overwhelming sadness, how distraught she’d be as a mother who cannot offer comfort.  I settle down and lay my face on top of her chest.  I stroke her arms and hands.

We’ve had false alarms before, all of us siblings thinking about Mom, “This is it.”  Each time I remembered Redd Foxx on “Sanford and Son” clutching his heart and saying to his son, “This is the big one.  I’m comin’, Elizabeth.”

Today is my parent’s 64th wedding anniversary.  “Don’t die today,” I say to her.  The next time I look at Mom, she is asleep.

“You’re still pretty,” I tell her.  She would want that.  How mortified she’d be living these last few days among strangers without her teeth in.  She looks pretty right now, even with her lips sucked in a bit.  I watch her chest move up and down with each heavy breath.

Mom in July

I touch her arms, her hands, her face. I pull back the covers and touch her thin legs and her feet through her slippers.  All I can think about is how she’s been poked and bothered by kids her whole life, starting when she was a little girl taking care of her two younger brothers and then as an adolescent and teen caring for her nieces and nephews.  Then at nineteen, her babies started coming and didn’t stop for nearly twelve years straight.  And me—the woodtick—always attached to her somehow.  Even when I was older, twelve maybe, and Mom sat down on the couch to read the newspaper at night, there I’d be next to her, swatting the back of the paper as she read.  Play with me. Notice me.The meanest reaction I ever got from her was an exasperated, “Don’t be a pest,” which sometimes made me dance around the room, do a pirouette (or, more likely, my athlete’s version of a clumsy spin) and kick the newspaper out of her hands with my bare toes.  What a little shit I was, though it was all in good fun.  And now—here I am still touching her when all she wants to do is sleep.

My dad’s plan was to bring Mom home tomorrow—Sunday—for a cookout to celebrate their anniversary.  When I’m pretty sure I can talk to him without crying, I call to tell Dad we shouldn’t attempt to transport Mom.  “She can’t even hold her head up today,” I say.

“Okay,” he says.  “Cancel the wheelchair cab for tomorrow.  Did the graham crackers work out?”

This is so like Dad, to think of other business.  This morning he sent along a package of graham crackers for Dave, a resident here.  It’s my job each week to bring four packages of honey grahams for Dave on Saturday morning.  Today I forgot.  Since I didn’t have time to get to a store before lunchtime, my dad offered me what he had in his cupboard: cinnamon grahams.

“Yeah,” I say into the phone, “Dave liked cinnamon just fine.”


About Our Long Goodbye

I am a college teacher, tutor program coordinator, kidney donor, and dumpster diver / recycler extraordinaire. My stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Salon Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Education, The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Southwest Review, HipMama, Inside HigherEd, as well as other magazines and anthologies. I am the co-author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, 3rd edition (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011) and a poetry collection, Love’s Bluff (Plainview Press, 2006). You can reach me at
This entry was posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Caregiving, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Nursing Home, Sandwich Generation, Terminal Illness. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Big One

  1. tersiaburger says:

    I am sitting in front op my laptop trying of something to say that may have some meaning. All I can however come up with is my own memories of my Dad when he was in the final stages of Alzheimers. It is truly a long and cruel goodbye.

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