Rocking Chair Reflection

* This is the first in a three-part series.

I sit in the oak rocker, a green, crocheted afghan cushioning my back. It’s too hot now, this time of year, for the afghan to provide warmth. The warmth Mom needs is outside, only we, she is not outside.

As a matter of fact, it was Mom’s travel outside of her care home into the tranquil courtyard that was her undoing. The years I worked to train Mom’s muscle memory or retrain it when necessary, to remember she is free to wander outside. The many Springs whenever the temperature rose above 68 I coaxed her outside. To remind her of that first kiss of summer yet to come. The times I overworked her in PT to get her walking again, so she could easily stroll outside with no hall monitor again, once her taut little legs could handle the weight of her belly and the direction of her mind. The times she cussed me out.

And finally, it was Mom, free, outside, toddling along the sidewalk, possibly another resident in her path or possibly they were walking hand in hand or arm in arm without the other one aware, and one pull or push in the wrong direction.

Both fell. One landed in the mulch. Mom landed on the rocks. On her hip.

The hip fractured.

Then, a flurry of calls from the care home, and my pleas for the ER doctor to wait to prod Mom until I arrived so I could discharge her from hospital duty. “She is DNR/CC,” I say over and over. “DNR/CC,” I say again as I pass through hospital corridors on a Friday night, with plenty of other patients who should be the same.

Finally, transport arrives so we can leave again. So I can take Mom home. To her home, a place that’s been her home with people who love her in ways I can’t possibly comprehend.

In Mom’s room, her rocker is my stead, my captain’s perch, widow’s walk, the place where I wait and rock and imagine my mother rocking me in this chair, though I don’t know for certain how old the chair is. Perhaps it came along when my younger sisters were born. I sold off my baby rocking chair after I moved back from Oregon. Sadly, I wasn’t planning for more children. Had the rocker been a sleek model such as this, with curves in the right places, but not extra butt room, I might have kept mine.

And now, I rock and wait. Will Mom cry out when she twists her body? Will she wake up and smile and make my day? I collapse into the curve of this chair, as if absorbing and resting from the many miles Mom and I have traveled together while she has lived here. I tell Mark, “I don’t want to remember Mom like this.” Curled up, possibly in a pain that she cannot articulate. But honestly, the hours she and I have spent together have erased the hours in my younger years when my memory might recall a different Mom. Our time together in the past six years has been compressed into moments, the good ones, the hard ones, everything in between. If I string together all those moments, I might have a grand day, at least.

Mom and Annette - CheeringThe nurse was just in. She’s new. She mentioned the pictures of Mom and I hanging Arden, taken during a Cheering for Charity event. Mom was joyful that day and thus I was too. The photographer captured that joy. Of course, I recall how Mom loved my husbands, my little boy, the girls now mine, our trip to Italy. Those moments were important. But these times are different. These moments are extraordinary because they are simple, fleeting.

As I sit and feed Mom, I imagine what I looked like, sick in bed, home from school on days when she stirred up my favorite “get better” concoction – an egg, beaten, with sugar and vanilla. It was an old Italian thing, she told me, and, a long while back, I found a book with a similar description. Some days, I still mix up the concoction for myself, for the memory, not for the ailment or relief.

I rock and rock and rock. Its only 11 a.m. How will I fill my next hours, when they were once filled with our strolls outside? Mom looks like Dr. Dre wearing Beats headphones, listening to Sinatra off my iPhone because I can’t stand the voice anymore off her CD player and I know his voice keeps her calm.

I made the decision today to move forward with hospice for Mom – for comfort care – instead of surgery for a fractured hip. It’s not end of life care, I repeat to siblings and friends. There is a difference. Will my mother’s life be shortened now that she fell? Perhaps not anymore than if she hadn’t. Will she be comfortable in the Cadillac of wheelchairs and hospital beds? Probably so. She was already napping plenty. Still, it’s hard to say no. No, to more surgery or medical intervention.

Her body is worn down from being worn down.

Mom is snoring now, like a jackhammer during the construction going on near my home. I am glad I am not at home today, because the sunny weather would have brought all sorts of construction trucks to the street and driven me insane.

Mom’s room is near the TV room. I hear Dorothy’s voice in the Wizard Oz. It’s the scene where Dorothy first encounters the wicked witch. I used to crouch behind the couch whenever I sat to watch the show as a youngster. Or wrap my arms around my mother – and shut my eyes.

And here she lies before me, sometimes snoring, sometimes wide-eyed. Mom’s not said much but offered a few smiles and stroked my hair. I know she knows I’m here.

“I’m here,” I remind her out loud. “We’ll get through this together.”

“We’re off the see the wizard,” the troupe’s tune drifts in from the other room. Someone just turned up the volume or fixed the TV to raise the volume higher.

We’ve always been on a yellow brick road to see the wizard, Mom and I. At times we have been each other’s Dorothy, or the good witches and bad. We’ve been the lion filled with fear, the scattered-brain scarecrow, and the tin man looking for love. Yes, even the lollipop kids.

And now we have arrived at a point in our journey when Toto tugs back the green curtain.

But Mom never needed the Wizard to pull the levers nor Glinda, the Good Witch, to magically transfer the slippers to her. She knows the way. I just have to listen to her, for once in my life, and let Mom make her way home.

I’ll be in the rocker, Mom, waiting.

 

* This is the first in a three-part series.

 

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I Want the Frim Fram Sauce: Carrying Mom’s Music

Standing in the bathroom, notes of classical music grating on my nerves, I brushed my teeth after a visit with my mother, swaying and humming to a different tune.

“I want the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay /With chafafa on the side” 

My niece emulated Pink. My son obsessed over the Chainsmokers and my daughter, Cheryl, stalked The Mountain Goats. Friends Nic and Em insisted on queuing up Neutral Milk Hotel. Even my husband had his favorites, the latest a pianist from the CSO, Jeffrey Kahane, and he cranked the classical music loud as ever while I took a shower, immersed in the sounds of an Olympic skating competition.

IMG-6294For me, I chose the Classics. The music of my mother.

But my route to the standards wasn’t straight. It was more like learning the steps to the chromatic scales.

I belonged the generation whose fingers were forced to march through the rigors of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms at the mercy of piano teachers who rapped knuckles with wooden rulers or lived alone in homes where broccoli burned on the stove.

And I did so at the beck and call of John W. Schaum piano books, beginning with the Pre-A Green Book.

Then, if luck or practice, or Mrs. Scutt or Mrs. Bacon had their way, I was invited to master the piano utilizing the lessons presented in the A – Red book.

images-1I was a quick learner, mostly because I wanted to advance fast enough to be through with old John and my lessons. I tickled my way through the beginner books and soon was assigned the red book. And each week, I might receive a check or check-plus on my level of skill in mastering the masters and move on to the C – Purple Book or D – Orange.

I also bored easily.

One day, I discovered my older sister, Laura, had acquired a new piano book from the Driscoll Music Store down on Broadway in Lorain. The book was a combination of Broadway and jazz favorites from the 1950s and 60s. I seethed. Laura had been assigned more contemporary songs to conquer. Laura was a lefty and I would not deny she had been gifted with a bit more artistically than I had. Still, what my older sister possessed, I wanted for myself.

I picked up the book, As Time Goes By, with a rose centered on its cover, flipped it open, and plunked out the melodies to A Time for Us, The Impossible Dream, Moon River, Autumn Leaves, Jean, Jean. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and Misty. I memorized the words that accompanied the melodies. Because the lyrices were there to learn.

When my mother heard me play, she tossed her dust rag on the floor, joined me on the piano bench, and sang along. She would pop out a few notes, or the whole song if I let her. Nervous around Mom or anyone else, I fumbled over notes or apologized, saying, “Sorry, Mom. Let’s start over.” It was a maxim we shared, one that captured our relationship succinctly then, and now.

Mom rearranged the furniture often in our home on Lincoln Street. Over time, she had the piano wheeled from the sea-foam green, sunlit living room to the high-traffic family room. She assumed one of her children would play the piano more frequently.

I played less. I relished the feel of the vacant, sea-foam green living room, alone, with an audience only I could identify. And, I didn’t want my mother’s singing to remind me of my own mismatched voice and how I couldn’t reach the nuance of the lyrics she crooned.

I had grown up and moved on to other pursuits. After junior high, I allowed my skills to lapse.

The book lay crushed beneath the Schwaum collections, and flute and trumpet sheet music, in the bottom of the piano bench, untouched for years.

During my first marriage, I acquired a piano of my own from Aunt Lynne. I asked Mom’s permission to keep the piano book of standards. My fingers soon danced again over A Time for Us.

The piano was forced into storage when I moved to Oregon. I broke the piano out of storage when I moved back to Loveland and installed it, of all places, in the living room, where the bright sunlight of the early morning streamed into another green room, this one a warm khaki, and enticed me to play from that same classic book, rediscovered beneath other musical failings.

IMG-6292Twenty years later, I found myself at my mother’s dementia care home where extracurricular activities (everything is extracurricular after age 90) centered on popular music, movies, and books from my mother’s era.

Recently, I read a social media post predicting what genre of music will be playing, when baby boomers, or post-boomers, like myself, lived in community with others once more.

One commenter predicted Dylan. And I had to break the sad news. Dylan was already on the playlists. Not because of the onslaught of boomers, but because of a few early-age Alzheimer’s residents who deserved to hear their music.

During the most recent music event at Arden Courts, a group called Wild Honey was contracted to play. Several times, I noticed the base player watching me sing along while he plucked away at his strings. I retreated into myself, embarrassed. He probably wondered what kind of 50-year-old knew the lyrics to those songs, Our Love is Here to Stay, April in Paris, by heart and whispered them into her mother’s good ear? What kind of music life did she have?

I wanted to answer Kesha. Or some EDM superstar like Odesza. Or The National. They’re from Cincinnati. Yes, even Neutral Milk Hotel.

But the answer was, I had none. Other than that acoustic space inhabited by memories of my mother’s music.

My children know to fire up The Boss when my time comes. For now, I work my way through lengthy Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra discographies and sing a few Nina Simone songs with Helen, another resident.

I departed Arden Courts with a little earworm or two wiggling around in my head throughout the rest of the day.

Like a spy, my mother and her first loves somehow planted those notes.

They are the seeds of Mom’s life that I carry now, along with the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay with chafafa on the side.

I don’t want fish cakes and rye bread
You heard what I said
Waiter, please serve mine fried
I want the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay
With chafafa on the side

Now if you don’t have it just bring me a cheque for the water.

– Visit the Nat King Cole video.

 

 

Cheering on Lives

68718I entered Arden Courts, arms loaded with a box of cookies. High-pitched vocals echoed through the hallways and I cringed.

From down the hall, a familiar voice rang out. “Your mom’s down here.” It was Becky, the activities director.

I nodded her direction. “Ok. I’ll just put the cookies away (meaning out of sight of lurking cookie monsters) and come find Mom.” I shuddered to shake off the shrill, but pleasing, notes drifting alongside me as I coursed through the hallways.

I let one of the caregivers know about the cookies’ whereabouts and sauntered towards the community center. As I closed in, the singing voices sounded more like, well, cheerleaders. Wasn’t it way too early in the day and my coffee intake for cheerleading?

I approached the doorway, glancing around the room for signs of Mom. At first, my eyes skipped over my own mother because she was squirming in a wheelchair. Probably to move her more effectively for the music show.

I entered the room from the rear. Blood pulsed through my ears as they were again struck by the voices of the woman crooning and carousing with the crowd of residents who merengued with shakers and tambourines to the tunes. A chorus of residents hollered, “You’ve got the cutest little, baby face.”

For a spell, I watched this spectacle and Mom from back of the room. Like the bouncing ball over top of old songs on TV, Mom’s eyes followed the bopping women around a room cramped with wheelchairs and restless residents.

Finally, the two blonde-haired women and their accompanist, one female singer and one male, stopped to catch their breath.

“Hi, Mom,” I whispered in her ear. I kneeled down and lifted her hands to help shake the plastic maracas she held. I couldn’t tell Mom to do so, because, well, she wouldn’t.

Hints of Me and My Gal floated around the room. I couldn’t move, mesmerized by the women and their accompanists with such chipper manners and the thinnest layer of makeup to enhance the joy they exuded and extracted. The two lead singers’ faces gleamed while they danced around in blacks tights and a purple sleeveless athletic shirt. They also wore something else. Contagious smiles.

Becky leaned in to me. “They’re former Ben-Gals. Priscilla, and Julie helped, started this group and they’ll be coming the next few weeks.”

Another resident wandered off and a chair opened up next to Mom. Settled into an oversized- transport chair, Mom wasn’t likely to meander. Each time Julie or Priscilla patted Mom’s arm or passed her by while dancing to Ain’t She Sweet, Mom’s hazel eyes grew brighter. She lifted her eyebrows as if in disbelief.

Over the course of an hour, the women met Mom’s gaze or that of the other residents with an intensity I cannot replicate. One ran her hands along the sleeve of Mom’s bejeweled shirt and Mom caressed the performer’s glistening cheek in return.

During the next song, Priscilla stood before Mom, holding and swinging hands. She was the true founder of Cheering for Charity. Priscilla’s mother passed away in 2008 from Alzheimer’s complications and Priscilla founded the organization shortly thereafter, to bring more life into the world of those with dementia or living in other care homes.

Still locking arms with Mom, Priscilla spoke her words to me. “I see my mom everywhere.”

I nodded. Her work had become about her mother’s life. That mantra I understood.

The pianist played a few notes, prodding the audience towards the next tune. “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” she serenaded the residents and the velvety tones covered the room in warmth. Then, I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad) followed.

Peggy, a petite and ebullient resident, stood from her chair and tugged at Julie’s sleeve. “Do you want to see the gal that married dear old dad?” Her hands shook. From between two tattered cards carried in her purse (many women carried purses), she pulled out an old-fashioned, airbrushed photo of her mother.

“She’s beautiful. She looks just like you,” Julie directed back.

Peggy beamed. “Everyone says that.”

I bent over the photo. “What was your mother’s name?”

“Margaret. Just like me.” Her chubby cheeks grew round.

After the close of the event, Leah, the pianist, handed me a business card. Later, I sent the group an email in appreciation for their gift of goodwill: My mother is not one to follow directions, so she won’t shake a tambourine for instance, if you tell her to, but I discerned, from her smile, that she found your presence a light in the midst of her sometimes dark mind.

I meant it. Theirs had been the rare entertainment with exuberant voices, a hop in their steps, glowing smiles, and a compassionate touch.

Only an hour earlier, I had sat in the parking lot, hands glued to the my steering wheel, debating whether or not to listen to the president’s press conference about the mass shooting in Las Vegas. My heart clamped down to prevent the flow of news. I exited the car and trudged into Arden Courts.

When I departed 90 minutes later, I faced the bleakness again, this time with more strength. There had been a catharsis in those moments with the cheerleaders. I used that term with the utmost respect.

I had given up cheerleading in ninth grade to tryout for volleyball (it was a win-win for many folks). Throughout the morning performance of Cheering for Charity, I had maneuvered my thoughts away from Las Vegas and towards my junior high cheerleading days. Getting stuck grabbing a basketball net while another cheerleader walked out from beneath me, and our seventh grade history teacher who tried to helped me down. Skirts flipped up by the boys seated behind me in Spanish class. The fact I could never do the splits, not all the way.

Many ah-ha moments often washed over me whenever I left my mother. Pressing the ignition button with my index finger, I hummed to myself. “I’ll be loving you, always. Always.” I tried to mimic Julie’s sweet tone. The memory of the glow circling my mother’s face lit up the interior of my car.

That particular day, the women had not only cheered on Mom to find a way back to the youthful lightness of her days. The group had cheered on the ever-so-small movements in the midst of a horrific maelstrom occurring 2,000 miles away. For forty-five minutes, I too had forgotten my despondence and joined in the chorus of cheering on lives.

AJW, 10/3/17

The Sacrament of Cookies

Cookies for Arden flashed on my calendar that Friday. It was time again for the weekly rite.

IMG-3186Arden is my mother’s home. Her care home. Mom has lived there for five years, just the past week. She lives amongst sixty-some residents who experience some form of dementia or memory altering condition. Mom has outlasted at least a third of the residents who succumbed to death, departed through lack of funds and or the need for a environment more suited to a particular condition. However, it is unlikely Mom will beat out Miss M., currently careening into her hundreds.

Five years was an eternity to evaluate the relationship I had to my mother’s disease. But the span offered me the gift of not only loving and caring for Mom, but of embracing other residents and caregivers.

It was on a different Friday, a year or so ago, the notion of “Cookies for Arden” was mixed, rolled, baked, frosted, and served.

I was departing the city for the weekend. The cookies were essentially a bribe to the caregivers to watch over Mom for the weekend (as if they didn’t already do that with such care).

Regina, an older caregiver, was delighted when I produced the sweet bounty of colorful tea cookies boxed up from Busken. Jillian, Mom’s most consistent caregiver, groaned. She had been trying to lose weight, despite chasing after the ever-active residents and her obligation to feed, clothe, and bath 15 women and men.

When I held out the box, Mom’s hand aimed for one on top. She grabbed several cookies, denting the swirled frosting on each.

Another resident, B., who was charming and cunning all in one instant, beckoned me towards her. “Hey, I’ll pay you if you bring me in a full box for myself.”

“And they better be Busken. Those Servatti cookies are Italian and they’re not made with the same butter as Busken.

B. had insulted a whole forest of my family trees and was clearly wrong in her presumption that Servatti cookies were made by Italians. The bakery was named after a cafe where the cookies were sold in Munster, Germany, in a location near the Church of St. Servatii, an Italian saint. And, the cookies were made by Germans. But B. also made a point. I, too, relished in the Busken cookies over Servatii’s.

Astounded by such reception, I erratically continued the tradition of bringing in the cookies. Always on a Friday, but not every week.

When I finally typed the entry Cookies for Arden in my calendar, I found that I routinely fulfilled my duties.

The same duty my mother once fulfilled on a September day, in 1994, for my marriage to Devin. My mother baked four of my favorite varieties of her Italian cookies. Pizzelles, rolled Italian cookies, nutroll, nut horns. She obsessively placed them in old May Company shirt boxes layered with waxed paper, and transported the goods from northern Ohio to Cincinnati in the back of Dad’s suburban. My entire family relayed the cargo across Fountain Square through Oktoberfest to our wedding reception at the Banker’s Club, ten stories above.

No image better signified Mom’s dedication to cookies as consecration than that of white department store boxes filled with cookies, bouncing along the heads of siblings towards the delicacies’ eventual consumption that night.

No matter where I am in the world – at home with the dog, in Washington Park, in Oregon or northern Ohio, if its Friday, Cookies for Arden pops up on my phone screen. And I smile.

On the most recent Friday, the cue flickered on my screen while I was in the midst of a neighborhood walk through West Price Hill.

“Yes, yes,” I spoke out loud to the phone. “I got it.”

Hours after my shower, I stopped at Busken Bakery, only to find the bakery cases emptied. I was stupefied. “Where are all the tea cookies, where are the sprinkled ones?”

The clerk offered me a morsel of relief. “Oh don’t worry. They’re in the back. We got wiped out today. It was back to school week.”

In a matter of minutes, the clerk loaded up a box with piles of red, blue, white and sprinkled mounds of butter. (I do wonder who decides on the color scheme each week).

When I arrived at Arden, the receptionist spotted the gold container with a plastic window into the world of delight. “It must be Friday.”

I lifted up the box with a broad grin on my face. “You bet.”

As I entered the kitchen of Mom’s hallway, many of the women were still seated around their breakfast table, including Mom.

“Hello, girls.” I announced. “I’ve got cookies.

Miss J., the other Miss J., lit up at the word, “cookie.”

I sauntered over to Miss R., relegated to a corner table filled with wooden abacus like toys, and she took a pink one. “Thank you,” she mumbled and her visage returned to a blank stare.

Miss M., known for crying without tears ( which may be a condition known as pseudobulbar), accepted a green one from me. However, not even cookies could stop someone from overcoming that condition.

Again, Miss B. proposed payment for the entire collection. I politely declined, though she was good for her word and the money.

FullSizeRender (60)Mom finally acknowledged my presence – and that of the cookies. She waved her hands in the air. “Hey, hey.”

I inched towards Mom and presented to her the box resplendent with rainbows. Mom fingered three of them, placed the first one wholly in her mouth, and clasped the other two, again crushing the swirl of icing between her fingers.

I stashed the remainder on top of the microwave, where all the staffers would know where to look for the prize. The hiding place was like the cookie drawer in our home on Lincoln Street. But Mom never stored her good cookies there, only the packaged ones. The good cookies were kept locked away in old Charles’ Chips cans, like the sacramental offering they were.

At the last minute, I swiped a cookie for myself, to join in the ceremony of cookies. It was the closest I came to receiving a blessing that morning.

If My Mother Was My Boss…

img_8609

The holidays had brought forth what felt like the Twelve Days of Mom.

In that approximate time, Mom experienced two ER runs, one in which I drove her, the other in which I didn’t dare. She was diagnosed with three infections, multiple scab wounds, pain and discomfort from shingles, a disease for which most folks are given chicken pox vaccinations, or don’t live long enough to experience the adult onset of chicken pox. And a week of the runs caused another ER run.

And this was AFTER Mom’s trifecta of seizures, soap swallowing and sun exposure earlier in the year. (See soap blog, part 1 and part 2).

By the end of the year, I was tired. I pondered a change.

Back in my corporate days, New Year’s had signaled job change. Or at least, looking for a new one. The rush of the holidays always led to a significant energy drain. Like any good employee, I directly attributed the drain to my job or boss, but never myself.

As 2017 approached, I had found myself in the same mode. Tired. The kind of tiredness that comes from knowing what comes next in my mother’s moment, and also, not knowing.

At month’s end, when I spoke to her house doctor, he flipped through her bulging chart. After five minutes or so, he looked up at me. “She’s one tough lady and you have one tough boss.”

Yes, in what job could I be employed by a boss who forgot all the good years I had put in, for the sake of one awful moment in which I accidentally bumped Mom while trying to hold down her arm so the nurse could get the blood pressure cuff around her triceps long enough for Mom to yell, “Oh, no, oh wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute?”

In what job could I work for a boss who voices a long stretch of No’s when she doesn’t like something? Remember what Ralphie said about his dad in A Christmas Story? “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” If Mom were still in northern Ohio, she would have blanketed all five Great Lakes with her words.

Where else could I find work where I will never get a promotion? In fact, I’m not sure I would want a promotion, because that would mean the woman I worked for is no longer in need of me. In essence, downsizing of the most tragic kind.

Where else could I be chastised by the boss for what I was wearing, as if there was a dress code for visitors at the care home? “What the hell are those things on your feet?” “Umm, boots?”

In what job could I endure my boss’s harassment for which there is no name? Its not ageist, nor sexist. The closest approximation I can come is reverse genetic harassment, in that my boss only harasses those to whom she gave birth to and is directly related.

Where else could I work where there is no strategic planning by the boss? When I plan to visit for the Christmas show, my boss takes a snooze. When I hope to bring the boss home, my boss bawls loudly and sometimes growls.

Where else could I sit at a job, thinking about all the other things I could be doing while my boss is fast asleep, but holding me in place by the death grip? If she couldn’t leave, neither could I.

In the end, the calendar turned over. My tiredness waned.

Lucky for Mom – and me – she was not my boss. But if the years with Mom taught me anything, my most important job was to sit in her quiet space and make room to meet her where she was, ER or not, furniture mover and all, and hope to one day receive a raise in hugs.

Still Saving Seats in Old Age

FullSizeRender-28Big, burly Jack moved closer to the adjacent chair.  Jack was saving that seat in the activities’ room for Emma. But Emma was already gone.

With youthful-bobbed white hair, Emma had been a resident at Mom’s care home. Always upbeat, Emma never stopped smiling, could still stroll the path at the former Blue Ash airport, and waxed poetically about times when she was little.

Emma’s husband had passed away, prior to her entering Arden Courts. Rumor was, Emma also had a boyfriend named “Jack” before her family had admitted her to the care home. When Emma arrived at Arden, she was soon found seated in the westside parlor with another resident, Big Jack. The two could be seen finding humor in themselves (see Vignettes from a Care Home), gazing out the window, or interacting with visitors and staff.

The parlor faced the secure door. Oftentimes, upon my entry, I gravitated towards Emma and Jack first, before seeing my Mom, and offered a hug, a laugh, a where have you been sort of joke to turn the tables on their lives and mine. Their presence, an unusual lightness in their togetherness as Jack was always seated on the chair and Emma on the love seat, lifted and warmed me before I would learn what condition or mood I might find Mom in for the day.

It was as if the two had already shared lifetime together.

Both residents possessed moderate cognitive impairment. For caregivers and staff, who care for more difficult cases and love each person for who they are, residents like Emma and Jack were subtle reminders of the lives residents used to lead, the persons they used to be before they slipped out of those skins. Emma and Jack were also tokens of how sneaky and impactful love can be.

Their joy in each other’s company was evident, palpable, such that I often sat with Mom in their company to relish in that bliss. Theirs was the purest form of love.

Emma had found joy in someone who she didn’t know where he had worked. Jack had discovered delight without knowing how many children Emma had birthed. Neither had known where the other one lived or was born or what was important to them, though I suspect some topics might have risen to the surface and then soon were let go. The only thing each of them remembered was love.

One morning, I arrived to learn Emma’s son had moved her to another care home. That event occurred often, when the money ran out, when the siblings fought, when the individual progressed into a new phase of the disease.

There was never a guarantee that the first place or the best place would be the last place.

Now, I see Jack sitting behind his walker in his usual chair near the exit door, as if ready to depart. The caregivers informed me he is still saving a seat for Emma, yet his disposition is as corny as ever. “Dad” jokes come to mind. Jack still returns hugs when I offer my arms. When I say, “I’m off to go see my mom,” Jack responds, “Tell her I said hello, would ya?”

As for Emma, love had left her time and again. But she didn’t act like a person who would ever lose the capacity to love. Emma will offer and find love at her next place, of that I am certain.

Perhaps Emma’s time with the residents was to give just that, the ability to love again.

And the empty seat next to Jack? The ratio of women to men in memory care centers is 3:1. Sadly, plenty of women will arrive to take Emma’s place. But I hope Jack stands (or sits) his ground, and doesn’t relinquish that chair, as a reminder of how fleeting and precarious unions can be, and yet still be profound.

Hugs Not Hikes

Every year, I say, “I’m not gonna do it.”

Register for another walk, another march to “end” a disease. Another two-mile jaunt with balloons, strollers, drawn-out faces or heavy breaths. Another fundraiser where one can secure a FAST PASS, meant for the elders perhaps, to the front of the registration line or be handed a bag of goodies for sponsors or items not needed.

My mother’s condition was never diagnosed as Alzheimer’s, based on scientific testing, hers was of the slow-slide dementia variety. But there is no “walk for dementia awareness”, so naturally most efforts fall under the Alzheimer’s category, because its an identifiable name.

FullSizeRender copy 10“I’m not gonna walk, to end Alzheimer’s,” I say, as I sit with Mom these days, and wonder how she is still here, when her present lasts only seconds and her past does not exist. Then she glances at me, and smiles. Mom’s is a child-like smile, unlike any witnessed in younger, more somber photos of her, as if not wanting to participate in the ritual.

Mom’s smile causes me to gasp, especially when she says goodbye to my son, off to college. He won’t see her until Christmas. She is seated in the sunshine on a worn wooden bench in full view of the burnt orange mums recently planted, and the fountain which will be turned off soon, its gurgling gone away. My son leans his lithe body into her and gives one last squeeze. Mom receives the squeeze with grace.

She reaches up, beaming. “Goodbye, sweetie,” she says, brushing his cheeks with her still soft hands, as if years of Jergen’s lotion really did the job. I am near tears, remembering how she used to cradle a five-pounder in her arms. Nana’s little snuggler.

“I’m not gonna walk this year,” I think, noting her stature has shrunk now, following two seizures, which impacted her posture. She has a permanent “lean in” which would make Cheryl Sandberg jealous. As we stand and I try to straighten her, l lift her arms past the shoulders and tell her we are practicing sun salutations. Mom would kill me if she knew this was yoga.

She wobbles to keep her balance while I support her arms overhead. Then, she really leans in – to me – and nestles into the crook between my head and heart. She has become the snuggler now. Clutching, grasping, patting my back.

“I’m not gonna walk this year,” I tell myself, then encounter the brave caregivers who stroll corridors with or chase down Mom and respond to her every need. Or I am met with the real, live bodies of other residents in mother’s care home. With Jim and Ella, I am discussing the pope. “Well, I haven’t seen him in a while,” Jim says. And Ella says, “I really haven’t been watching television,” despite my last visit when Ella was in the room while we were watching news about the pope’s upcoming visit.

“I’m not gonna walk,” I say. Then Matty smiles at me while eating a late lunch or early dinner, as I spy her through the window of her dining space. She rarely is without grasping the arms of a male, whatever male is in her reach, to lead, coax, sit with or share. I wonder what her marriage must have been like.

Then I sit at lunch with Madge, and she says, “Everybody get out of my house.” And  I’m ready to high tail it out of there, given her mood shifts. But I don’t.

Or I place a red cowboy hat on Sue Ann’s head, for “cowboy day,” knowing she used to listen to Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. She giggles and hums.

“I’m not gonna walk, “I say. Then, I’ll lead Mom around her hallways, occasionally attempting to move her outside because it’s warm. She is reluctant because if the sun is not out, she doesn’t consider the temperature warm.

To exit, we have to dance around Gerry, the caregiver, and another resident, Karen. Karen’s young life at age 60 was once full. It still is, only now her days are spent walking, walking, walking. She never sits long, not even to eat. She is thin, worrisome on her best day, agitated on her worst.

“I’m not gonna walk,” I think. Then Karen’s eyes light up when she spots me. I hold her in a long embrace. Karen has a grip on me and I am OK with that, despite Mom’s impatience. “C’mon, c’mon,” she chides, moving me out of her way.

I wish this walk wouldn’t use such an impractical phrase as, “Walk to End Alzheimer’s.” The writer in me believes the slogan feels more like a gimmick than goal. But what I really want is for walks to be replaced by hugs. Hugs to raise money. Hugs to end our fears. Hugs to “lean in” to the nakedness and vulnerability we have all felt at times. Hugs to remember the humans inside each of these creatures that look, sound and yes, even act like the rest of us.

Regardless, this year, I’ll walk.

But next year, I’m gonna hug my way through the day, knowing that fierce hugs ignite a brain in a way medicine and marches cannot.

 

 

 

*All names, with the exception of Mom’s, have been changed.