This is the second in a three-part series after Mom’s fall.
“You gotta have heart to do this job,” Sieta said, while I spooned oatmeal through Mom’s pursed lips. Sieta was one of Mom’s caregivers and her long braids, like those of an African queen and topped off by a bun at the crown, swung in the air as she turned away to pour Mom a glass of juice.
On a low dose of pain medication, Mom chewed and swallowed through a bit of a fog. At the intersection of pain medication for comfort after a hip fracture versus a state of constant wakefulness and distress for my mother, I had turned to the drugs.
And now I wondered about the meaning of Mom’s life. How would I define of meaning? How would Mom? And how would the assembly of caregivers who surround Mom and fuss over her every need?
After Mom ate breakfast with syrup on everything, I wheeled her into the courtyard. The day was warm with rain just spittin’. In her other state, my mother would have been yelling at me. But now, Mom didn’t. I giggled a bit. I was getting away with something.
Having obtained my driver’s permit for her unwieldy wheelchair, I now steered Mom outside at all hours. I fed her breakfast in the dampness of morning. And lunched with nippy ants crawling over our arms and legs. Wherever Mom was, wherever she was going, I wanted her to have sunshine and fresh air for the journey.
Did that give meaning to Mom?
I returned to the quandary, the theories my husband and I had been batting about all week. Was Mom leading a meaningful life?
Would the honest answer be, “No. No, Mom was not?” But that didn’t mean Mom’s life wasn’t meaningful, I reasoned, as Sieta’s words about her heart floated back into my head.
In the days after Mom’s accident and subsequent confinement to a two-wheeler, I cried and hugged the caregivers every time I scurried in and out of Mom’s room, the kitchen, and the outdoors. I thanked each woman—and they were all women—for whatever they had done, for whatever they were about to do, especially as it related to Mom’s bathing and cleansing, self-care had been utmost to my mother.
I had always shied away from writing about Mom’s incontinence—out of respect for her. Over the years, Mom underwent several surgeries and owned a digestive tract that never cooperated with what she wanted to eat. And she always wanted to eat, except those days of the grapefruit diet.
But many of her early years with dementia were spent in shame after soiling her clothing. Her condition was the cause of much hardship for my father and sister, Jeanne, for Mom, and anyone else who cared for her. Mom and I often found ourselves twisted and tangled in a cramped bathroom stall of a Bob Evans or McDonald’s or even in my own home, trying to change her pants or socks or shoes, eventually transitioning to disposables when Mom no longer understood the changeover.
As Mom’s dementia worsened, so too her brain lost control of her digestive organs. If I could have taken one thing away from her in all this, it would have been that embarrassment. I would have chosen for Mom to keep her dignity. In the end, the dementia did offer that.
Yet, never once had any caregiver of Mom’s complained. They jumped or rushed to change her clothes to keep her comfortable. Not doing so would lead to UTI’s that led to seizures that led to…that led to…
Back in bed, Mom lay with legs curled, unwilling to extend them for fear of hip pain. I observed Janice and Angel as they bathed Mom’s ninety-year-old body. Her shower would come tomorrow with hospice help. For now, warm, worn washcloths tickled mom’s tummy and her short arms and the legs she kept pulled in to her core. It was most sacred what I was watching, as Janice ran the cloth along Mom’s legs, under her arms, beneath her single breast, and Mom opened herself up to this practice. Inside myself, I melted. To witness Mom be so vulnerable, surely these women of Arden Courts were angels.
A former boss of mine once said, “Never ask anyone to do a job you wouldn’t do yourself.” And that had been my mantra for Mom’s care. Yet there were legions of those who had performed the job nobody else would do.
Like Janice, her face showing worry, who tells me to text her while she’s on vacation if anything changes with Mom.
Or Kre, who grins, her white teeth gleaming, and leans into Mom’s face. “Hello Mamma,” she says and Mom beams back.
Or Lakeisha, who was once a caregiver at Arden and now visits Mom as her hospice person. Mom lights up in Lakeisha’s presence and her sassy attitude.
And when Jayna and I last spoke, she was upset at not being able to change her charges quickly, yet there are those who lay about all day, soiled, in other care home settings.
My mother was best at mothering and the women here—Jayna, Kre, Lakeisha, Janice, Becky, Cleo, Valerie, Suzy, Sieta, Angel, Tiffany (and so many other givers of care in charge of one woman’s body and mind) —had been like daughters to her. I so desperately wanted them to know another Mom – a different one – yet they had been content to love and care for the one in front of them. While we as family or loved ones might have felt as if Mom’s humanness had been diminished, her caregivers still saw her growing as a human being.
Janice plated the meal for lunch, ladled gravy over the potatoes, knew who wanted cereal for lunch instead of chicken, who needed ketchup or Diet Coke, who still required sleep and who just needed to see her serene face.
“Here you are my friend,” Janice said with somewhat of a southern accent on friend. She set the plate on the table. Mom gazed up at her with the adoration of a second-grader taking communion. Mom used to echo, “friend,” back. She will again.
Janice was truly a beautiful person and the first word that came to mind was duty, but her actions more described devotion. And while I bragged Mom was one of her favorites, Janice lavished on the residents the same love and attention anyone would wish for when turning 84, 92 or 103.
And there was one other dutiful one.
On Mother’s Day, I woke to a touching email from Becky, the activities director at Arden Courts. She was one of Mom’s many. Over our chats, Becky and I had determined that she arrived to work at Arden two months after Mom. She had also witnessed my struggle to cope with Mom’s recent captivity.
Happy Mother’s Day. I am thinking of you today and standing with you in spirit. I read the blog today. I don’t know what your particular spiritual beliefs are, but my experience as a witness to many last years of living is that, far beyond the time people are able to communicate, they are able to love and accept love. Your mother has been absolutely blessed by the fierce, unwavering, unconditional love you have given her in the time I have known you both. Please know you are not alone. Lean on those people you trust. Take care of yourself. I’ll be there- Janice will be there- for your mom through the end.
The email was proof of the commitment of the women at Arden. Proof that we were all capable of loving from a place with no genetic strings attached.
So what was the definition of meaning? Something intangible that knew no bounds?
Mom clamped her lips tight. Lunch was over. I handed in Mom’s plate like a kid in a junior high cafeteria and reported on her consumption.
Was Mom leading a life with meaning?
In 2004, when Mom underwent hip replacement surgery, she cooked her meals and froze them before surgery. Now, in her weakened state, she required more care than ever before.
If this end is not what I wanted for Mom, then the best I could hope for was Mom had been welcomed, raised, and loved by the women of Arden. Her life had given others work filled with meaning, and a heart filled with love.