The next day, I visit Mom before Dad’s cookout. All but one of my seven siblings will be there, a great distraction for Dad, who loves to play host. He sent an email invitation to all of us about two weeks ago, telling us he was “cleaning out his freezer,” which means the brats and ribs he bought on sale this summer will be grilled for a See family party this Labor Day weekend.
This morning Mom is in her wheelchair at the dining room table, pillows on either side to keep her from sliding out. Her head is slumped onto her chest. I bend at the waist to put my face beneath hers, and I look into her eyes. Open wide, blank stare. I move her straw around her lips to see if she latches on, like getting a newborn to suckle a nipple. Nothing.
I ask the two CNA’s to move Mom to her room. I’ve gotten to know them both well, since they often work together on weekends when I’m here. After watching the women interact for weeks and then overhearing them talk about a family reunion, one day it dawned on me: they are sisters. I asked, and they both giggled to confirm.
Darla talks so fast it’s like she’s perpetually trying to catch up to herself. She has kind eyes and a long, blond ponytail hanging down her back. Konnie has a gentle touch with each of the residents, and I’ve never heard even a hint of disgust in her voice when she responds to Delores’s constant pleas for someone to come and get her. They are both fueled by two-liter bottles of diet Dew, Pall Malls, and what seems an endless supply of patience.
Once they get Mom in bed and turned on her side with legs separated by a pillow, I ask about her bed sores. “Are her pressure sores open wounds or—”
“Not open,” Konnie says. “More like—”
“Exactly” she says. When did we start to complete each other’s sentences, I wonder. I tell her that’s what they were like on my mom’s butt cheeks when we still had her at home.
“We’re turning her every two hours,” she says. “That will help.”
“We don’t want her to linger like this,” I say. “Mom would hate this.”
“Oh, I know,” she says gently. Of course she doesn’t know what my mom was like. She only knows her in this stage of Alzehimer’s, only these past thirteen months. How many patients has Konnie seen like this? I’d wager it’s more than she can remember. I can only imagine the many times she has said to her husband or even to her own teenaged sons, “Don’t ever let me die like this.”
“You remember Rita,” she says. It’s not a question. How could any of us forget Rita? We watched her wither away to maybe 80 pounds, her pressure sores so terribly painful that her last month of life she was simply wrapped in a sheet in her wheelchair. Her family was on a death watch around the clock for nearly two weeks waiting for her frail body to die. Her last few days, I stopped in her room to talk to her family and glanced at Rita in her bed, her mouth in a hollow “O,” her bone-thin arms curled toward her torso. She was kept comfortable, the only solace for her family as they waited. Konnie says now, “Rita lingered.”
“I remember,” I say.
When I’m alone with Mom, I pull a lawn chair close to the head of her bed and hold her hands. I brought my camera along—for the party later today, but also to capture my mom. As I sit watching her, I wonder why I didn’t take a photo of my mom and dad every day of my adult life. Or why didn’t I capture on film some part of each day of my son’s life. He’s twenty-one now, and surely I missed many moments that I would never remember unless I had a photo in my hands to prompt the memory. Studies show that most of us have limited recall; we remember less than 20% of our lives, often only the most repetitive or the best and the worst. Gazing at my mom today, I consider everything I may have overlooked these 40 some years I’ve been trying to pay attention.
Perhaps I get to be overdramatic today of all days. What did my mother’s hands look like the month I was born? How big were my son’s feet the month he learned to walk? I contemplate his childhood, when those wonderful first years were a hectic but happy blur for me.
Now I take photos of Mom’s whole body, then just her hands, her face, her fuzzy slippered feet. She opens her eyes briefly, and I get a shot of her blue, blue eyes. They are my eyes, which means my son’s.