a mother without words

I did not visit my Mom today.

Most every day I stop in — if only for a few minutes.  Sometimes I stay awhile.

Today, I was busy from the moment my feet hit the floor until late — and never made it.

Her Alzheimer’s has progressed, and her ability to speak has rapidly diminished.

For quite some time now, uttering a sentence has taken on the difficulty of balancing a chemical equation.  Her efforts have sometimes born fruit, but most often give way to mute frustration.

In the past few weeks, she’s hardly said a word.

It’s not important that she talks — or does not talk.  That’s not why I visit.  These days, it takes all of her energy to take a step, sit-up, open her eyes.  So I don’t aggravate her frustration further by trying to get her to talk.

But when those rare, fleeting, audible moments happen, they are special surprises — and big moments in my life.

In order to speak to her, I have to bend over, get fairly low, and look up.  She tends to keep her head down, eyes pointed straight down at the floor (if they’re open).

A couple of days ago, I got in her face, as I was leaving, and said, “Bye Mom!”

She said “Where are you going?”

This was quite a lot for her these days.

A few days before that, I said, “I love you, Mom!”

She said “I love you…”  Then she uttered another sound.  I’m pretty sure she strained briefly to remember my name — and quickly let it go.

I visited her two weeks ago, on my birthday.  I think I’ve talked to my mother on each of my birthdays — if not in person then by phone.

Last year, on my birthday, we had a little party at her house that included her, my wife, and her caregiver.  We brought a cake.  She knew it was my birthday and joined the celebration.  We had dinner and I blew out a lot of candles.

In past years, she did what most mothers do:  she made a point to tell me how happy she was that I was born, and shared a few awkward details about my life as an infant.

In fact, I think this was the first birthday of my life that didn’t include an enthusiastic commentary from my mother about the virtue of my existence.  I always found this talk rather uncomfortable, tuned out most of it, and now remember few of the details — although I remember the gist of the message quite well.

This year, I knelt in front of her, looked up, and said, loudly, “Hi Mom!  Today’s my birthday!”

“I forgot,” she said.

My mother had been quite a talker.

I’ve spent much of my life waiting for her to finish talking so that I could move on to matters more important to me.

How many times did she tell me to get a master’s degree?  Hundreds.  I never did.  How many times did she tell me to get a job?  Many.  (Even though I’ve always had a job; one job was never enough for her).  How many times did she tell me to stop chewing my shirt?  So many.  (It’s a habit.  I’m chewing it now, as I type).

How many times did she help me with my writing — offering insight and critique that only she could provide?  Every time I asked.

How many stories did she tell?  That would be like counting the leaves on a tree.

Alas, those are only memories now.  She was a person who did not withhold her opinion.  If she thought she knew better, she said so.  Now, by not speaking, she’s teaching a different kind of lesson — probably the most valuable of them all.

a memory walk

Took a pleasant walk tonight, right after dinner.  I needed a couple of miles in order to complete my daily 10k steps.

It was a perfect temperature for walking.  The soft rain kept people inside, and made the evening dark and quiet.  The slick streets reflected the glow of the street lamps. I remember seeing two students walk through the campus parking lot with umbrellas.  Other than that, I had the streets to myself.

Sometimes when I walk, I listen to audio books.  Sometimes I walk with my wife, or my dog.  But I often walk alone and listen to the sounds of the city, or the woods, and give myself space to think, or not think.  It’s good for my spirit, and better for my head, if I enjoy the time away from noise (especially my own noise).

I love walking this time of year.  When it’s too cold, or too wet, I walk in the mall, or even Walmart.  If it’s hot, I walk late at night, usually on dewey grass, after the earth has cooled.  But April, for me, is far from cruel; it’s one of those perfect months.

Usually I’m quite eager to hit my 10k steps goal each day, but tonight I watched the latter half of Glee with my wife and daughter and didn’t feel particularly enthused about rising from the couch and finishing those steps in the rain.  But it’s a compulsion, and I did it.

It was one of those days.  I had worked a good bit, driven to Mooresville to drop off papers, driven to Kannapolis to pick up my car, and visited my mother twice, briefly, in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carillon.  While there, I also had a nice visit with my neighbor.  We’ve lived only a few feet away for 24 years, and she recently moved into the assisted living.  Today’s conversation is probably the longest one we’ve ever had.  I also had a few rather knotty conversations with siblings and health care folks.

As I walked tonight, I was thinking about my mother, whose dementia, for various reasons, has progressed quite rapidly these past couple of weeks.

The thought that came into my head was a book, and a memory.

It’s a common memory, one shared by millions and millions of people.

I remember, as a child, sitting beside my mother on the living room couch, listening to her read me a book — The Little Engine That Could — one of the most popular bedtime books ever read to children by their mothers.

It occurred to me that she set a good example of a little engine that could.

Me?  I’ve had it easy and complained a lot.  But she grew up poor in a Great Depression and World War.  Her parents spoke with an accent.  She had a somewhat ethnic name before ethnic was fashionable, and lived above a downtown store, before that was fashionable.  She once told me that her parents never took a vacation.

She had some ability and fulfilled her potential.  She was a star student and a star reporter.  She raised a large family.  Those who know her would confirm that she was a workaholic.

She’s a person who, when her mother had cancer, would take her to see her sisters in Latvia one last time.  Visiting relatives in the Soviet Union in the 70’s required a bit of scrutiny — and passports and visas, which they did not have.  And because she couldn’t wait weeks to get them, she would go to Washington D.C. and knock on doors and return in three days, with passports and visas.

She’s quite weak now, and has virtually lost her ability to speak.  But she still moves around as much as she can, shuffling through the halls of Carillon, investigating every nook and cranny, speaking to others who are similarly afflicted with Alzheimer’s, offering to give those in wheelchairs a helpful push.

Last night, as I slowly walked the halls with her, watching her point at various pictures and rooms and books and papers and people, I couldn’t help but to admire her energy, her desire to keep moving in such a confined but seemingly vast space.

And tonight, as I walked down my street, noticing, across the vacant lot, in the distance, that home I grew up in, thinking about her and how she’s declined so quickly in recent weeks and days, I enjoyed a vivid memory of her reading me that book she and so many mothers read their children, and realized that she was and still is the one who really lives up to that creed:  “I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can.”

Notes from the Sandwich Generation (update on my mom and her Alzheimer's)

Legend has it — and it may, quite possibly, be true — that Rose Post, my mother, won more NC press awards than any journalist in the history of the state (while raising five children).

Whether she won “the most” or just quite a few, she achieved what she did for many reasons:  high energy, longevity, and talent.

Now, she’s taken up a humble residence in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carillon Assisted Living, her memory so depleted that I feel a pang of joy each time she remembers to call me by the name she gave me:  “Sammy.”

She moved to Salisbury, NC, as a young child, and lived here almost her entire 84 years — over 50 of which were spent as a newspaper reporter for The Salisbury Post.

She knew a remarkable amount of local history.  Not necessarily the textbook type of history — battles and government events and churches, although she knew a lot of that — but much of the human side of life in the American South in the second half of the 20th century.

All of her fellow residents at Carillon certainly knew their share.  Each was a vibrant, functioning person with the entire constellation of thoughts and activity we all in enjoy and sometimes take for granted.

But she was a particularly nosy busy body who had a tendency to write stuff down and publish it for all the locals to read.

I remember listening to her gossip about who carried on with who during the various wars, when boyfriends and husbands were overseas.  People sneaked around and climbed through windows and even got pregnant.  The tabloid stuff.

But she also intimately knew the history of civil rights and desegregation, school merger and higher education, tornadoes, floods, leaders, writers, crackpots, business ventures, centenarians with perfect memory, changes in Russia and China, and even a bit of presidential politics.

And she knew many of the players.  She interviewed all kinds of famous people.

She knew about immigration, since both of her parents escaped messy regimes in Europe for a better life here.

When a school principal once told me that he didn’t expect Mexicans to do well in school because, after all, they don’t hear English at home, I replied that it’s actually quite possible.  My mother’s parents didn’t speak English at home, and she could read and write in English just fine (a lot better than he did, even though his parents did speak English at home — although I did not say that).

It’s not so easy now.

Alzheimer’s Disease strips away the past and future, and leaves one in a virtually speechless, fleeting fog of here-and-now.

The adjustment to this new residence — a life that leaned toward the vast, now reduced to the minimal — so hard for her family and her friends, seems to be have been quite easy for her.  She doesn’t seem to know where she is anyway.  Her new, communal home, comes with a bit of built-in social life.  There’s an old friend or two among her suite mates, even an old college friend, a woman who raised five children here in Salisbury in the same era.  I sat between them yesterday, thinking how long and well they knew each other, even though they barely seem to know that now.

They are receiving care that is loving, gentle, and kind.  Do I dare say, given her condition, that she enjoys it?  Possibly so.

There were other options, and there’s been quite a bit of controversy in the family about how to deal with Mom’s care.  At one point, a couple of years ago, I renounced my Power of Attorney because I couldn’t live my life while engaging in each sibling battle/decision.

I do know that Mom took care of her mother, in her home, as long as she possibly could.  My grandmother, Bubie, ultimately died in a nursing home at the age of 97.  Mom bought long term care insurance for herself precisely because she did not want to be a burden to us.  She told me so.  She also told me that she wanted to stay in her own house as long as possible, until she didn’t know where she was anymore.  Then she wanted to move into a place similar to where she is now.

So, despite the controversies among her children — and there could be more — I feel her wishes have been honored.

My home, in the only house I’ve ever owned, is only three blocks from hers, the home I grew up in.  It’s an easy five minute walk.  So the ties were close, and the adjustment may be more difficult for me than for Mom.

But I’m lucky that she’s in a good place that specializes in Alzheimer’s that’s only a five minute drive.  I’m content, knowing she’s safe, and surrounded by people who have some training and respect for what she’s dealing with.  I like visiting her there, and I’m not worrying as much about her when I’m not there.

Psychologists and economists tell us that, as much as we like to pretend we care about others — and, of course, we do — we mostly care about ourselves.

I could run for President of that club.

Some say that we’re experiencing an Alzheimer’s epidemic that is not entirely attributable to the aging population.  I try to drink plenty of water, exercise, do lots of deep breathing, eat blueberries and fish — but…

Yesterday, I dropped off my car at the mechanic and walked home.  He called, a few minutes later, and asked where I had left the key.

“Right beside the cash register,” I said.

“It’s not here,” he said.

I knew that’s where I put it, but I checked my pocket and there it was.

So I guess that’s my albatross, and the albatross of millions of others in my generation.  Each time we lose our keys or forget where anything is (I often lose my glasses and my shoes), we get to wonder if we’re getting Alzheimer’s Disease and, if so, how it’s progressing and how much of this good time we have left.