When I visit Mom at Golden Age today she sleeps the whole time, even when a CNA moves her from a recliner to her bed down the hall. Like a sleeping baby carried from car to house, she never even stirs.
I sit next to her bed and watch her sleep. Her eyes remind me of marbles moving back and forth beneath her thin eyelids. I hope she’s dreaming. Maybe she’s playing baseball on the farm with her brothers and sisters. Someone hits a ball that soars higher and higher. She raises her bare hands to catch it and feels the sting on her palm. Or she’s dancing with my dad at Lang’s Ballroom, where they first danced. I’m being romantic. After all, most dreams are about everyday experiences. Mom’s in her kitchen, looking for her colander or her whisk. She’s folding clothes at the table, basket after basket of laundry. I imagine her rapid eye movement means there’s some activity in her brain. I hope the emptiness of her expression is not a reflection of what’s going on in her mind these last weeks. She lets go three heavy breaths and then some so silent I have to put my hand on her chest to see if she’s still here.
My sister, Juliann, arrives this evening so her twenty-something daughters can say goodbye to their grandma. It’s over a four hour drive for this 15 hour visit. One granddaughter climbs into bed with Mom as soon as she walks in the door. The two young women brush their grandma’s hair and talk to her inches from her face. She sleeps on.
We all pose for pictures with this sleeping granny, the way we might with a groggy newborn. Juliann tries to close Mom’s mouth for one photo. I put my face above my sister’s as we pose with Mom, and I tease Juliann that her fuzzy hair always blocks my face in our family photos. Mom snoozes. At first one granddaughter is hesitant about posing with Grandma like this. “It’s a little goofy right now,” I say, “but we’ll treasure this forever.”
Mom can’t keep her mouth closed any longer. In just 48 hours she lost the muscle tone to control her jaw. Today she can’t suck from a straw or drink from a cup. The CNA brings in disposable oral swabs to keep her mouth moist. They look like dum-dum suckers but in place of the candy is a pink sponge the size of a dime. I dunk one in lemonade and put it to Mom’s mouth. She sucks the liquid out. I do this many times. I notice that a white substance lines the roof of her mouth and the back of her throat—the mashed potatoes Dad tried to feed her yesterday for lunch. I put the sponge sucker to her mouth over and over and eventually she swallows the potatoes.
Yesterday Juliann brought along a bag of letters that Mom and I wrote to her some thirty years ago. Like our mother, my sister is a “pack rat” who saved every card or letter ever written to her since she moved away after high school graduation. Now I sit next to Mom’s bed and silently read these old notes she wrote to Juliann, beginning in 1972 when Juliann was a seventeen-year-old living with our older sister 90 minutes from home.
It’s a gift just to see Mom’s handwriting again—loopy but perfect cursive she learned from the nuns at St. Killian’s. I can hear Mom’s voice as I read. She writes about the mundane: signing me up for swimming lessons even though I already know how to swim or driving with Dad to my brother’s “away” football games so she can be there if he gets hurt or stressing about whether Dad’s job will be moved to another city. As I read letter after letter, I can understand how Julie and my other two sisters who lived away were sounding boards for our mother. Mom’s letters were a place to share news, tell stories about the home life, and sometimes vent about her children. Mom loved to write, and she loved her kids. Both are evident from these letters written decades ago.
Recently my brother and I were discussing how much Mom enjoyed telling everything she knew about anyone. He said, “Mom was the original Facebook.” I hate it when he’s so funny and so right. In these old letters I can see Mom was writing “status updates” for herself, my dad, and each of us kids.
Today the letter that makes me put my head down on my mom’s bed and weep is one from 1980, when I was twelve. Mom wrote about how “lost” I was when Juliann left on Sunday to return to Milwaukee. Mom alludes to some family disagreement; I have no idea what it may have been. She writes, “Patti says we all have to stick together.” That my mother found this important enough to record in a letter amazes me, and it’s particularly poignant to me today.
Next I read something I wrote to Juliann when I was seven years old. “Guess what?” I say in my first line of big, blocky printing. “Ann Landers got divorced and Cher got married.” I imagine Mom read the newspaper before we gathered at the table with our stationary, and she shared with me these celebrity tidbits—pretty risqué for 1975. I can almost hear her: “Write it down. Julie will get a kick out of this news.”