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Reflections May 2018

It Came Down to This

By Frances Hansen

She encouraged me that we might not be able to connect with Mom in the old ways, but we would be able to on a new plane. Within that realm, the past doesn't exist. In the present, we can share the joys of the moment, getting to know each other in a new way. That gave me new hope.

We finally did it. We took that heart wrenching, gut-squeezing step. My heart sank as we washed and dressed my 82-year-old mother. We had to get her out of the house under the guise that she was going to the podiatrist. The tormenting thought that she was leaving her home of 50 years weighed heavy.

I was five when they built that house. I imagined the smell of shellac and the sight of my dad painting those gleaming hardwoods. I shuddered thinking that those floors were black and warped. Mom got up early on school mornings while everyone was still home to make a cake for birthdays. My teenage years in the crowded house were spent pumping the pedals of the player piano. I bellowed out songs that were my grandmother's favorites years ago.

Nostalgia was relentless as we drove up the hill. It was deceptively pleasant, surrounded by grand old pines, the scent of lilacs, and a majestic city view. I wheeled her through the front door. The security guard came over to take Mom's picture. This roused her curiosity. Who goes to the doctor and gets their picture taken?

She was easily distracted due to dementia. I gritted my teeth, convincing myself that this heartache was worth knowing she was safe. She wouldn't put that china teapot in the freezer, silverware in the fridge, or food in her jewelry armoire anymore. She wouldn't be found lying on the floor, with a straw hat on her head, unaware of how it happened. She would have warm meals and showers and socialization.

"Why did he take my picture? Something's not right here."

The social worker distracted me. Our eyes met above my mother's head.

"We are taking mom to the podiatrist today." I cautioned her not to drop the reality bomb. Upstairs sat rows of gray-headed treasures, lined up at tables. Some slept, with drooping heads. Some were crying out. We were escorted down the hall. Those in chairs talked to themselves. Mom's bed was the twin next to the window. I was glad to see bright instead of gloomy. A pleasant man came in to take an x-ray of her foot. I was sure that contorted foot was broken, but found out later I was wrong. We placed pictures of family on the windowsill.

"I want you all to know I am going home! If I have to walk down that hill naked!" Her voice was adamant. That message spewed forth all day. She told everyone. She was given an alarm bracelet that would prevent the escape.

Years passed. She got to a point where she didn't always talk about going home when we visited. I began to think that perhaps this forgetfulness was a blessing in disguise to prevent her from going through emotional pain.

I was distraught. I lost nights of sleep and cried every time I left her. I met a nurse from Oregon who worked in an Alzheimer's clinic. She encouraged me that we might not be able to connect with Mom in the old ways, but we would be able to on a new plane. Within that realm, the past doesn't exist. In the present, we can share the joys of the moment, getting to know each other in a new way. That gave me new hope.

I took her for walks outside. In a visiting room downstairs I put the radio on and sang to her. Once, I played ‘40s songs that she had taught me. Her conversation became word salad. It was a mixture of nonsensical words and garble. I strove to communicate and wondered if she knew me. Her brown eyes and smile or her disgruntled look was what was left for me guess how she felt.

In 2016, the emotional Memorial Day weekend was ahead, laden with painful memories. It was my anniversary weekend. My husband had been a Vietnam veteran, so I always made a pilgrimage to the cemetery. That Friday, before I could leave work, I received a call. She was gone. I was devastated, having fully expected to be there with her. I didn't want her to be alone when that time came. There would be no more worrisome nights or singing old songs to her. Now I am the one singing that ‘40s song she always sang and loved. I'll be seeing you, Mom.