Monday, March 30, 2009

The Cat Who Misses His Family

There are four pictures on the door to my mother's room. Cut from the last calendar she hung in her home these pictures are drawings of cats, her favorite animal. Her cats rest against the backgrounds of the four seasons, and daily she mentions to me how much she likes to look at them. I like them, too, although we disagree on which one we like best (for me it's winter, she claims summer).

We play a game with these cats, a "Which One's Your Favorite" game. I watch her look at them in the same way you look at a newly hung picture on your living room wall, a studious look, a look that gives thought to placement, balance, color. She does this every afternoon and even though I choose a different cat each time, she does not. She always chooses the cat of Summer.

In this picture her cat has yellow yarn wrapped around his paw, the ball sits to his left. In the window behind him, daisies and sunshine. She likes this cat because to her he is sad, visibly sad with eyes focused on the yarn. She watches him as I ask why he is her favorite. Her answer, "Because they've gone to the beach without him and he knows it."

Her ability to weave a story, to imagine stories behind pictures appeals to me and I ask her about the others. The Winter cat, staring at the cardinal through the window crusted with snow "wants to bite the bird". The Fall cat sitting in the basket of leaves "is happy", the Spring cat surrounded by tulips is "glad to be outside". The stories, her stories of her cats, as immobile as the pictures themselves fill some of our time together and with each day that passes these stories, her stories, remain between us. Between us and the cats.

Last night, when sleep wouldn't come for me, I thought about all she has forgotten and the new memories that fail to take hold in her. Her great-grandchildren, visitors, friends and even the staff who care for her day after day arrive new to her each day. But her cat, this summer cat with his sadness based in loneliness, she remembers. I can't help but wonder if she remembers this because it is what she lives and can't voice. That when we come into her room it is for fleeting moments, short-lived stretches of her life interrupted by extended hours without us. Those hours when we are at the beach without her and she knows it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom

On this day 84 years ago my mother was welcomed into the world, held and loved by her parents and grandparents. She was a baby with all the promise of life ahead of her. I am sure her parents saw in her what I saw in my children when I first held them. What I saw in my grandchildren on their birth days. I never met my grandmother but today I knew that at one moment of this day she held her daughter and was amazed at her perfection, her beauty.

I found myself on the verge of tears today. Not just once or twice, but repeatedly. Small things, little things caused the lump in my throat to swell and my eyes to water. I didn't give in to it, that lump that closes my throat. I forced it down, swallowed it again and again. When I sat beside my mother's bed this evening (she didn't feel like walking all the way to the dayroom) and listened to her tell the same story I realized how short a span of time 84 years really is and just how much life fills those years. How many people and places and times fill in our lives and how we hardly notice its happening until so much of it has passed. How when we are young we look only forward and when we are old we look only back. In the middle we're too busy to look one way or the other.

My daughters and granddaughter, my sister's daughter, son-in-law and grandson visited my mother this weekend. We sat together in the dayroom of the Nursing Home and wished her a Happy Birthday. We talked together and pretended everything was fine, that celebrating a Birthday in a Nursing Home was normal, that forgetting the granddaughter in front of you was born on the same day was okay. That having her ask who she had come with when she has been in the same place for 5 months was not unusual or alarming. Around us other families altered their definition of normal.

I received an email from a friend today. A friend who struggles as I do, as we all do, with life changes and decisions. Her father turned 85 last week and before he greeted his grandchildren she got him ready. I picture her with him, adjusting his shirt, shaving his chin then watching him as the family gathered. Gathered to create another memory.

Many of us don't look too far forward these days. I don't look too far back, either. Perhaps that means I have reached the middle ground. Or maybe I can only comprehend the immediate. Today the immediate is that my mother is with us. 84 years after her arrival in this world she is here and she is greatly loved. There are worse thing than this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Missing Conversation

There are a lot of things I miss about my mother. Things I don't suppose I gave much thought to before they were gone. It sounds trite to say that you really don't know what you have until it is gone, but it is true. Cliches are truths afterall. Today I missed the part of her that was interested in life, fascinated with the movies and the stars who filled her teenage years, up to date with all her friends and their families and aware politically of what was happening in the news both here and around the world.

We don't have new conversations anymore and today I learned that while she repeats a story to me, a story about an old boyfriend and how her father told her if she married him she'd be miserable, to my sister she tells a different one, the one about her sister's mother. (My Aunt was adopted by a family in Rockland in 1928....long story....I bet my sister could tell it!) Clinically we call this scripting, the process through which a person suffering from dementia repeats a story over and over again because it is safe. This script is one they are sure of when they are unsure of so much else. The human brain is an amazing organ.

I have so much to tell her, so much I want to share with her. I want her to know that we just spent the weekend with cousins up north. I want her to hear how they are and how much fun we had and how beautiful it was out on the lake standing on 30 inches of ice. I want her to know what a good reader her great-grandson is and how sweet he is to read to his baby sister whenever she asks. I want her to know my sister is going to be a grandmother again and how we are all looking forward to another baby among us. I want her to know how proud I am of my daughters and what beautiful women they have become. I want her to know what projects I'm working on at the hospital and that I testified at the State House and on Capitol Hill. I want her to know that I miss her.

Several years ago I drove down Stevens Avenue and when I stopped at the traffic light my mother was in the next car. I honked the horn and she looked up and smiled. Her smile was not just a friendly hello kind of smile but a genuine smile that reflected true pleasure at my unexpected appearance. I have always remembered that day and her smile because at that moment I knew how much my mother loved me. I felt it in her smile and it felt like everything else faded away and my mother's love surrounded me with such sincerity and depth that nothing else mattered. Imagine being that lucky, to be loved so purely.

I want my mother to know that I remember that day and that sensation of being loved by her. I want my mother to know that I feel the same way about her. I want my mother to know that I will always be grateful to her for the mother she was. I want my mother.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Close Call

Most of the time I believe I have come to terms with my mother's dementia. Well, maybe not most of the time, it's more like some of the time. Probably closer to a short amount of time, something that borders on moments. But that aside I do know we fast approach a time when she will be gone, cognitively and physically although we have no way to know which we will face first. I know this with the same sense all children come to this knowledge about their parents not because I am more in tune with life or because my years of Nursing experience have taught me this. I know this is a fact.

So while I anticipate this parting with my mother (anticipate it kicking and screaming all the way!) I lull myself into the false sense of security that this loss will be the next one. In the natural order of things it will be my mother who 'goes' next. This morbid security was shaken to its core this weekend when my daughter called to tell me she and her husband had been in a car accident. Hearing her voice I rushed to the conclusion that a small fender bender in the snow was nothing to be concerned about. As the details of the accident traveled through the phone they brought with them the realization that this day could have ended differently, that my daughter and son-in-law now stood among the statistics of survivors and our family remained whole.

Through the night images of the accident replayed in my mind and sleep did not come. (Dozing doesn't count.) As their truck slammed into the concrete wall of the median on the interstate there were people behind them who must have watched their spin out of control on the black ice with horror. These people, strangers to my family and to each other, stopped and ran to the aid of my daughter and son-in-law. Ran to help. Called for help. A couple of them were Nurses. Nurses who helped.

I hear stories about how no one cares anymore, that our society is filled with people who think only of themselves and care nothing about what happens to others. These people must exist, must live somewhere. They do not live in my world. They are not present in the CNAs who blow kisses to my mother as they pass her room. Or in my staff who leave no stone unturned to access care for their patients. Or in my friends who continue to ask how my mother is, even though they know the answer in advance. These people do not live in the strangers who stopped their cars on a snowy day and ran to the aid of a young couple in need.

Tonight, if the images once again disturb my sleep I will change them. Instead of what could have been I will see what was and what is. I will see strangers help my family. I will see my staff, amazing women who find resources where none exist. I will see my mother, asleep in her bed, a bed she is helped into every night by people who care. I will see all these things and I will be grateful.