“A gray head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31, NASB).
I mentioned to my mother that she would be going home. She looked at me, sincerely, and said, “Oh, I thought this was my home.”
And so, instead of being all here, my mom began perseverating on going home. Instead of participating fully in everything my family and I were doing, she was agitated and confused, saying things like “… wherever my home is” and “is my home in New Jersey?” and other phrases that broke my heart. I don’t think she wanted to leave. In truth, I wish she could have stayed.
As a teacher, the holidays meant I was on vacation, and with my son busy with a high school basketball tournament, my mom and I were busy with Christmas festivities and attending his games in a nearby town, visiting quaint restaurants afterward, and taking leisurely walks, she aided by her walker. We had done the requisite household chores, but I largely ignored my usual productive school work or deep cleaning I welcome while on a break.
I started my Christmas holiday from teaching at a breakneck speed—140 mph, if my speedometer can be trusted (which it can’t). As soon as classes ended on the 21st, I pointed my van in the direction of my mother and returned nearly six hours later with this special 80-year-old lady in the passenger seat. Christmas had begun with its hectic pre-holiday scramble, holiday cooking and cleaning, and the basketball cheerleading that followed. My mom—despite her years and painful hip joint—kept up with me. Until I mentioned she would be leaving.
I haven’t spent the Christmas holiday with my mother since I married and became an instant mother of four eighteen years ago. She’s aged a bit. 🙂 I, of course, have not, except for my career-ending golf thumb ailment. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) Knowing my mom was going to be here motivated me to hang the outside Christmas lights and purchase and decorate a Christmas tree. But I was also a little afraid. She has lost a bit of her short-term memory ability of late, and I was afraid the drastic change in environment would be too disorienting. Once 5 foot 7 inches, she has shrunk with the years and seems a bit fragile, and the last time she was here, she seemed perpetually lost in my labyrinth of a house that once regularly housed seven people.
But she did well. I lined the halls with white Christmas lights close to the floor to light the way to her bedroom. I wrote signs to post in various places: “Barbara’s room,” “Bathroom,” “Coffee? This way” with arrows. Rather than being offended, my mom was delighted by the signs–and she was always able to find her way to the kitchen, though I sometimes had to point her toward her bedroom and bathroom that held the elevated toilet seat.
She needs a new hip, but after walking through that experience with my dad, who, for a week after the anesthesia wore off, was certain he was being held hostage in a McDonald’s but not allowed to have any french fries, we were afraid. He had been mentally stable when he had the surgery; my mom is already struggling. But after watching her grimace, trying to hide her pain, each time she struggled to get out of a chair, I am certain a new hip would make her life much better.
I’m fairly certain wearing her hearing aids also would make her life better—but she doesn’t even remember she has them. So, instead, I tried to pretend I was in a movie theater when the TV was blaring and be humored rather than frustrated by our miscommunication due to Mom’s hearing loss. For example:
- Me: “Mom, do you want to watch TV?”
- Mom, incredulous: “Do I want a martini?”
or when I offered her my jacket and she asked what I would do for warmth…
- Me: “I’ll be fine; I have a wool sweater.”
- Mom, dubiously: “You have a weak bladder?”
The painful hip, the hearing loss, the mental slips. It was hard to watch, and I found myself quite sad at moments–which I had to hide, because my mother is still quick to interpret my facial communication and apologize for what she cannot help. This role-reversal with my mom has been a steady progression, but my phone calls and short visits kept the severity of the changes from me. Being on duty 24-7 for over a week made it abundantly clear that the mom I now have isn’t the mom I once had.
In truth, at times, I just wanted to yell, “I want my mommy!” and then simply cry at the loss. But then I thought of my dad who is just in my memory or spoke with friends who have lost their mothers, and I realized that I needed to embrace the changes and love on this lady who has given me so much. After all, I still have her. And this really isn’t about me, anyway. It is about what is best for her.
When the Pollyanna side of my personality kicks in, I see how blessed I still am. My mom, despite her pain, does not complain. She perseveres. She is easy to please. Pleasant. She sees every day, every place, every item as if it were new. She receives every plate of food or dessert with a drop-down jaw response of wonder and awe. She delights in the little things–the cute saying on her morning coffee mug, home-baked goodies, the country roads taken instead of the quicker interstate highway, the plain vanilla ice cream cone, or the small-town hamburger eaten in the parking lot.
This past week, when she got bored at the basketball games, she would wander the halls, within my view, and make friends. By the end of the tournament, the concession stand ladies would greet her in the hallway and offer her coffee–for free! “Just let me know if you need anything, Sweetie,” I heard one say. After spending just a few days at games with my mom, a fellow team mom went and purchased a gift for her and then drove to my house to deliver it. My mother was astounded—and much, much blessed.
My little token attempts at decorating for Christmas (this compared to my mother who once decorated every room, including every bathroom, for the holiday) brought me lavish praise. She daily doused me with “You are tremendous” and “You are awesome” for the tiniest of acts. (And, of course, I believed her.) She remains my most faithful cheerleader.
Trust me. Just as she tries to hide the pain in her hip, my mom tries to hide her memory issues. I know that the things she sees triggers memories that she rebuilds with a mix of fact and fiction. Her “I remember this…” comments—when she is seeing something so new that even I have never seen it—are simply her manner of making sense of the current world by what she remembers from her past, much clearer memories. I can see her frustration when she tries to wrap her mind around new concepts—and fails. I see her confusion—and I see part of her realize she is confused and get embarrassed and apologetic. But I also hear her advice to me, when she is still that wise woman who has guided me all along. I rejoice in those moments when she seems to be just who she always was. I also hear her pleas to God that He continue to use her—in some way—and I hear her fears that maybe she no longer has a purpose here.
And it hurts to see my mom struggle so with the changes, especially when she doubts her value and purpose in these, her latter years. I see her value, her purpose, and the way she continues to touch the lives of those around her, even those who just a short time before were perfect strangers. Hers is a different walk of faith for now, trusting in God even more as she sees her body and mind become less reliable. Trusting that He has a purpose, that He will still use her.
I trust that He will, too, because I continue to see how her life impacts mine. She who imparted so much wisdom and care still loves me dearly and remains my most faithful cheerleader. And I will be hers.
P.S. Listening to Charles Stanley one morning, I jotted down something he said: “Helplessness that leads us to prayer is one of our greatest strengths. The greater your perception of self-sufficiency, the greater your potential for disaster.” My mom—and those of us trying to help her through this—are experiencing great strength as we recognize our inabilities and acknowledge where true strength lies—in God. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “… for when I am weak, then I am strong.”