My mother is an astonishing 102 years and 8 months old. Five years ago she still drove herself to church and to the grocery store. Just two years and two months ago she lived by herself. She fought fiercely to stay in her home and to keep her independence but her eyesight gave out and we finally convinced her the time had come to move in with my sister Carolyn. A new environment combined with very poor eyesight made her much more vulnerable and fearful. She wasn’t as sure of herself and became much more dependent on those around her. Just a few months after she was in her new home, she came down with a horrendous case of shingles. She had problems with her false teeth rubbing her gums sore. Her and Carolyn were involved in a minor collision that could have been much worse. Mother was checked over at the hospital and it was decided she had a hairline fracture in one of her vertebrae so she was in a neck brace for several weeks. This summer, she came down with a case of pneumonia but my sister, being a retired RN caught it immediately and after several weeks in a hospital and an after-acute care facility, she was given a fairly clean bill of health. All of these things have taken their toll on this once amazingly independent woman and her quality of life is now pretty much nonexistent. She receives the most wonderful care anyone could ever have. Many times I have told people, my sister Carolyn does not take care of mother, she dotes on her! But Mother is so blind now, not only does she never wear her glasses, she never opens her eyes. The cruel arm of dementia is rapidly taking its toll. When I see pictures of her from just a year ago, it takes my breath away to still see the light in her eyes compared to the shell of a person she now is. Conversation with her is pretty much non-existent. The one phrase she does hone in on is “I love you.” When someone says I love you to her you are pretty much guaranteed to hear her say “I love you too.”
Poignant moments you remember forever don’t seem like anything at the time. It is later when you realize a certain memory will be with you forever. I had one of those moments with mother this summer, before the pneumonia weakened her and dementia increased. Carolyn and her husband wanted to go to their granddaughter’s sweet 16 party and would be gone till late in the evening. So Mark and I went to stay with mother so they could go. I had never helped or been around when Carolyn got mother ready for bed so Carolyn had written me out a list of what to do. When it was time to get mother settled into bed we went into the bathroom to go through her nightly routine. As we went through the list mother started getting fairly agitated and fearful acting. When we came to one particular part of her personal hygiene routine, she firmly cried out “NO! We don’t do that!” A dear friend who had gone through this with her mother, told me one of the most important things we can do for an elderly parent is protect their dignity when they no longer can. Her words rushed back to me and I said, “Mother, you know what? I don’t have any idea what I am doing. I need you to tell me what you want me to do. I will only do what you tell me to and I won’t do anything you don’t want me to do.” She immediately perked up and said, “Alright!” and proceeded to give me instructions. We brushed her false teeth and she brushed the few remaining ones she has. We washed off her face and applied face cream. We washed her hands and rubbed them with lotion. We went into the bedroom, got her undressed and got her jammies on. I put eye drops in her eyes and gave her the very few pills she took before bed. We got her in bed and all tucked in. I knelt beside her and we said her prayers. It struck me how reversed the rolls were, it used to be her kneeling beside my bed, teaching me to pray. When we got all done, I told her I loved her and she said I love you too. Then she reached her hand up and cupped my cheek. She smiled and said, “You did a good job honey!” I said, “Well, thank you!” I thought, “How Sweet” and fought a few tears as I went back to the living room to sit down by Mark for the rest of the evening.
Now, after several months have stolen more and more, in fact everything from her, this small exchange is burned into my mind and I know it will become even more precious to me with every passing day. I have had a few small conversations with her since, but this is the only and last one I remember. I have also come to realize what took place. Anytime I helped with her care, she became extremely agitated. I could tell she didn’t like me helping her. I thought it was just because I was different from her usual caregivers, but I don’t believe that was the only reason. She looked at me different, I’m almost two decades younger than my older sisters, who are both retired registered nurses. She accepted them and my older brother as her caregivers, but she didn’t like it when I tried to put myself in that role. That night, at the moment I told her I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed her to tell me what she wanted me to do, I took myself out of the caregiver position and became her little girl again. And in return she became my Momma once again. The feel of her soft hand on my cheek and her sweet chuckle as she told me what a good job I did – Sigh – Words cannot even begin to express how precious that moment has become and will always be to me. It is a memory I will have as all the others, the ones of how much time has taken away from her, will fade completely away. I am so thankful for this precious moment she gave me. What a gift.