As many of you know, my seventy-nine year old mom has advanced Alzheimer's. She's in a nursing home. Last month, she went into the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. She's forgotten how to swallow and even though they'd liquefied her food, it often sat in her mouth. She breathed it in and got pneumonia. It was touch and go for quite a while; she had congestive heart failure and a cornucopia of other physical problems. A priest even came in and gave her last rites. We all thought this was it. Then she came out of it, weak but fairly coherent, and they sent her back to the nursing home. She's been going downhill ever since. My sister and I decided that we weren't going to let her go through that again. My maternal grandmother died a horrifically prolonged death, and Mom looks like she might be going down the same route, gasping out her life with breathless screams of "help me help me help me," panicked and terrified. The doctors told us there was a way of simply making Mom as comfortable as possible but just letting Nature take its course. That's what we're going to do. But it is AWFUL.
I haven't been able to talk to Mom directly for over a week. She's in Illinois, I'm in New York. She did something to her phone and it ended up in the laundry, destroyed. When I was her caregiver for four years, she used to inexplicably hide things in her bedding, usually after pulling a Vera Donovan/Dolores Claiborne with them. One time I found a small flashlight inside her pillow. She's cut the ticking open with a fork and stuffed it in there.
I call the nursing home and they try to convince her to let them take her down to the office to the phone there (anything to get her up and about) and even bring the phone to her, but she refuses to talk to anybody. So I communicate with the staff and the nurses and the occasional email from family letting me know Mom's condition.
Today was the worst day yet. She's started screaming all the time, which is what she did right before we put her in the nursing home. She used to scream if I went outside to fill the birdbath and screamed all night, every night, for hours at a time, unless I was in the room with her. It became too much for me, and I told my sister I couldn't do it anymore. Mom had to have professional help. The nurse talked to me today and told me that Mom kept trying to get out of bed, even though she can't walk, stand or sit up anymore, insisting there was a little boy drowning in a pond and she needed to save him. Mom lost a childhood friend that way, so I assume she's reliving it. When there aren't horrible memories plaguing her, she hallucinates that spiders are crawling all over her and/or demons are coming through cracks in the walls and ceiling to drag her to hell. Her right leg has been covered with some sort of awful blood blisters, as big as my palm, something she got a lot when I was in Illinois but hadn't had for a while. Now they're back. All of them burst today and the bed became saturated with blood. They doped her up and she's lying quietly now. I have no idea how much longer she'll hold on in that nightmare of a body, but as I've written several times: we're impossible to kill. I pray, every night, for her to die now. I just want her to go to sleep and not wake up, quiet and calm, not terrified all the time. As far as I'm concerned, my mother is already gone. Alzheimer's ate her alive. All that's left is a screaming, wretched shell. I want her suffering to end. I want her out of that body. Now.
So if you've read FREAK, my memoir, you know a lot about my mom. She wasn't the greatest mother by any standards but she was still my mom. There's no getting around that fact. I wanted to share some of the happy stories between Ma and me, here, in the twilight of her life.
When I was a tiny kid, Mom helped me take a bath. I remember this distinctly. I don't know exactly how old I was, but I was small enough for the porcelain side of the tub to hit me in the crotch when I stepped over it. Very little. Mom would sit on the toilet, directly beside the tub, and lay a clean towel on the floor for me to step onto after I was done. She held another one in her hands. I stepped over the side, up on tiptoe because the porcelain was cold, and shook water droplets off my foot so the towel wouldn't get too wet. Mom said, "What a good idea! What a nice, smart girl you are." I recognized the fact that she was doing that specifically to make me proud of my genius, and I was grateful for it. I must have shaken the other foot for a full minute.
She played tennis with me as a kid. Nobody else ever wanted to play tennis, none of my friends were interested in it but I loved it. She sucked but I didn't care. She played tennis with me. Even drunk as hell, she'd swing that racket. I stopped wanting her to when I was around fourteen, having joined the tennis team. She retired gratefully. Still, I never forgot that kindness.
She was an AWESOME grandma. All her grand kids adored her and with good reason. She was sweet, attentive, very funny and laid back. Charlie was with her by the time my kids came around and we'd go home every summer for a month or two to hang out with her. Mom and I bonded then, more than we ever had when I was growing up. By the time my kids were adolescents, she'd given up the booze. I saw a wonderful person peeking out from behind the addict. When I was twenty-six, she apologized for everything she'd done as a drunk, and there were some pretty terrible things in there. She didn't remember half of them. I decided not to describe them and simply accepted the apology. I never thought I'd ever get one. It was incredible.
She introduced me to movies. Mom was a film fan since her own childhood, and used to bribe tiny me into going to whopper epics like Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago with her, usually double features. I bartered for Sugar Babies and popcorn, Milk Duds and huge sodas I could swim in, and I got them. The truth was, I adored going. After she got off her nutball Southern Baptist kick, where movies and Kmart were evil, she embraced a surprisingly eclectic selection of movies. We'd share Saturday and Sunday matinees on television, where she'd bake a Johns cheese pizza and we'd watch Sinbad, The Haunting, Gidget films, Elvis Presley flicks, monster movies, comedies, dramas and romance. We watched Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus together. It was the first movie I ran a fever at. When the whole "I'm Spartacus!" scene begins, the tears started flowing and didn't stop for two hours. Mom threatened to never let me watch a movie again if I didn't stop. That's the only thing that dried me up. Movies are now one of my greatest loves. Up until I moved back to New York, she and I would watch movies. As the Alzheimer's progressed, our fare turned from spooky or violent to children's movies and old black and whites, but we still watched one pretty much every day. Up until a month ago, I sent her a DVD every week. I have a stack of movies ready to mail she'll never see, which I was saving for her birthday. Even if she pulls out of this, her mind is gone.
She taught me forgiveness. When my brother Ian was killed on his motorcycle by a stupid hotrodding teenager, she went to the boy at the inquest and told him she didn't blame him. She knew he didn't do it on purpose. If he wanted to know what he could do for her, she wanted him to be a good boy like her son. To live a happy life. He collapsed in the courtroom and had to be carried out. She meant it, too. She actually meant it. I never forgot that, even as the crazy, fractured creature I was at nine years old. I remembered that forgiveness and decided to aspire to it. I'm still working on that particular virtue.
My birthday is right around Christmas. For the first twelve years of my life, every year I got a birthday present wrapped in Christmas paper. I made a joke about it the fall before my thirteenth birthday. That year, I got a gift encased in bright yellow paper with birdies and butterflies all over it. Mom had bought me real, non-Santa wrapping paper. I don't even remember the gift but I remember that paper.
There are a lot more little precious memories like that, silly little things that add up to a lot, but I'll end it there. Sure, Mom did awful things as a mother, let her kids be destroyed in a hellhole of a family life, but there were those little moments I can look back on now with affection. Many of them, like stars. There's so much bitterness in us, we insecurity addicts, we damaged and broken human beings, and sometimes it eats us alive. But there's always a bit of gnawed bone that remembers something good, and from that, we can regenerate. I spent so many years, the majority of my life, incorrectly trying to right all the wrongs from my past, begin again, turn my back on my many terrible memories. That's impossible and, being impossible, leaves one with a lot of frustration and even more self-rage that we just can't DO it already. GET OVER IT, YOU CHICKENSHIT WIMP!!! That's the internal self-hate dialogue of a fractured person trying to glue themselves back together with soggy tape. But I find, for me, the better road to to bring it with me. It is my past, and part of what makes me who I am today. I just pulled its teeth so it'd stop biting me all the time. The Bumble Snow Monster from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Still big and scary but without its choppers. All I get now is the occasional nip. Good luck with your own dentistry, my dear brothers and sisters of circumstance. May you have big honking pliers. Take care.