My mom became a perfect square this year: 81. I envisioned throwing a Pinterest-worthy birthday party, where we decorated in squares, dressed as squares, ate square-shaped food, and framed photos of my mom during her other perfectly square years (1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc.). It would have been a lot of work—and she wouldn’t have remembered a bit of it.
Besides, she insists she isn’t a day over 80. My mom isn’t vain. She is simply losing her mind.
My wise mother—my cheerleader and go-to person for advice. My mentor, my inspiration, my best friend. My mom—the newspaper columnist and reporter, the local politician, the small-time author, the local radio talk-show host. My mom—who didn’t continue her college education until I, her youngest child, left for school but then schooled to become a college professor herself. That self-sacrificing, deep-thinking, always-caring woman is suffering from severe dementia.
My four siblings and I began noticing a decline in Mom’s memory soon after she suffered a series of losses within a couple month’s time in 2005-2006: the death of my father, then her mother, then her long-time stepfather. She had been the primary caregiver of all three. We had hoped—as my mom had hoped, for she, too, noticed the change—that the stress and grief of losing so many so close together had prompted the memory loss and healing would take place over time.
“I think I’m doing much better,” my mother would say to me when I called or visited. She had participated and become a facilitator in the GriefShare program at her church and learned that great losses can trigger temporary memory loss or dementia. However, my siblings and I and our families never saw the improvement my mother declaimed.
While we wanted to keep her in her home as long as possible, we didn’t feel she was safe to be constantly alone and were relieved when my nephew returned from the Navy to live with her while attending college. My sister and her son had lived with my parents in his early years, and my nephew had returned to my parents’ home in his years prior to joining the military and was quite comfortable with them and they with him. Though he was busy with classes and working, we were happy someone was able to check on Mom and ensure her safety somewhat.
At Christmas this past year, I had the privilege of hosting my mom for the holiday. My nephew had planned to travel over the break from classes, and it was a perfect opportunity for me to have Mom. It wasn’t the first time she had stayed with me, certainly, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience into the depth of the dementia plaguing her. Her 10-day visit prompted a full-fledged discussion among my siblings and the realization that my mom needed more than my nephew could offer (as well as a reflective blog post). We added Meals on Wheels to ensure she was eating. We considered an adult day care. We hired a daytime “nanny” to visit and help Mom around the house. And we began diligently looking for an assisted living facility.
These past couple of weeks featured a flurry of text messages and emails between family members, including this highlight from my sister:
“Mom went for a walk last Friday by herself and locked herself out of the house (a door she never locks), and Kathy K. found her on the road. When I went to her house on Saturday, she had 3 meals on wheels in her fridge and about 10 frozen meals but wasn’t sure if she was ‘allowed’ to eat them. Just to mention a few recent scenarios….”
It was time for a big move—but where? My sister, my sister-in-law, and my niece had found an assisted living facility they liked the best, but it still had two people in line ahead of my mother; they then visited a brand new facility and felt it a great second choice. My sister took my mom to see the facility and even pick out a room, and she seemed delighted. (My sister had to visit the model room with my mother three times, because she kept forgetting that she’d seen it. Trish finally shot a photo of my mother in the room as proof. Despite this, an hour after the half-day visit, my mom had no recollection of the event.)
Moving my mother out of her home into a facility was a tough decision, but we were all on board. For Mom’s safety, we had to make the change.
My son and I drove three hours to meet my mom at church on Sunday. When we arrived, she was happy—but not surprised—to see us. I’m not sure she remembered our names. I sat beside her in the church where I had grown up, savoring the worship time with my mom, trying to make note of her attentiveness to and participation in the service. She seemed so like herself with her well-worn, quite dilapidated Bible in her lap. After the main service, she and I were to head to Sunday school—except that my mother didn’t know where to go. My niece led us to the room, and my mother was surrounded by ladies who insisted she sit at their table. One carried the book my mother had written on the history of the church and shared what a blessing it and my mother had been in her life; the class teacher also discussed the book, and all the ladies in the room applauded my mother, who looked pleased but startled, as if she had no idea what they were talking about.
Later that day—after my son and I had taken her to lunch and told her all about the move that would take place the next day (because she had no recollection of the visit or the expressed plan and suspected we were there to “put her away”)—my mom told me how she had gone to church that day and how so many ladies had approached her and asked her when she was going to write another article in the paper. (She stopped writing for the newspaper in the 1980s.) She had no memory that I had been in church and Sunday school with her.
Sunday afternoon we gathered together to get Mom packed for her big move Monday. The day was a countless series of question and answer sessions, usually on the same topic: “What is happening tomorrow?” “You’re moving to a beautiful assisted-living facility where you will be safe and get plenty of social interaction.” We went through closets and emptied her bedroom furniture in preparation, labeling her clothes and linens as we would a child’s belongings before going to camp. Mom chose her Bibles and books that she would bring, along with the promise that we could bring more as she needed them. It was a long day. Just before we called it a night, Mom asked again, “Now, what is happening tomorrow?”
When my sister-in-law arrived the next morning, my mom had collected a pile of kitchenware that she wanted to bring with her. Dixie explained that she wouldn’t have a kitchen, just a bedroom and bathroom, but that her new home would make sure she had all the food and drinks she needed. The plan was for Dixie to take Mom shopping for some essentials for the move before the rest of us arrived to load her furniture and boxes into our vehicle. Getting the room ready and making it as inviting as possible was our task for the day.
Dixie sent us a text just after she and Mom left the house, my mom for the last time:
“Mom said, ‘Am I ever coming back here?’ I told her no. She gave a big sigh. Then she said, “OK. Let’s do this!’ “
We “movers” took our task seriously. My brother Jack, Dixie’s son and daughter, Jack’s grandson, Trish and her son, and my son and I were quite a presence in the memory care facility lobby. The staff was absolutely lovely and aided our move of the furniture and other belongings into my mother’s room. We set it up to the best of our ability and awaited her arrival–which was accomplished in tears. Of joy, actually. I think my mother was so relieved to see all of us on the other side of the locked doors that she immediately burst into tears. We proudly showed her the room. She was delighted. She joked with the staff. We all ate a facility Labor Day luncheon of a hot dog, purple coleslaw, baked beans—and (the real reason my mother was OK with this situation) an ice cream sundae for dessert. We prayed, we ate, we slowly departed.
And I said good-bye to my mother, leaving her in her new home.
I had to make the 3-hour drive in Labor Day traffic and heavy rain. It was nothing to the stress I felt over leaving my mother. The staff at the facility was pleasant and seemed to love our family—and my mom. Some of the residents introduced themselves and said things like, “We are so happy that you have chosen to come live with us, Barbara.”
But Tuesday at work, I was close to tears—and in tears—numerous times during the day. I had awakened at 1:30 a.m. thinking of my mom. I chose to pray, not worry, and it was likely my tearful state was due to exhaustion rather than fear. But I called the facility to talk to my mother as soon as I could when I got home from work.
She sounded confused but happy and seemed to think she was on a church ladies retreat.
I recollected that some of my happiest moments have been while on retreats and immediately felt comforted.
When my mother was in her right mind, she never would have chosen a facility such as the one we have now chosen for her. She had declared early on that she didn’t want to live in a retirement home—but after seeing the struggles her mother had with dementia after breaking her hip, she had told us to do what had to be done. She didn’t want to be a burden.
My mother was never a burden; we just wanted her to be safe and happy. She was the deep one, the serious one. Prior to this time in her life, I couldn’t see her playing games or completing crafts or partaking in idle conversation. I can still hear my jovial dad impatiently saying, “Why are you always so serious, Barbara?” She was the one who cornered individuals at family or even church gatherings to have a serious conversations. We called her “the counselor” and often joked about who her next target would be. But as her dementia progressed, I saw that when she was surrounded by people and forced to be social, she did better. Clearly, when she ate and was hydrated she did better.
This morning, I felt glad we had made the choice we did. My mother called me today—not confused or concerned—and seemed more lucid that she had in months! She seemed happy, excited over the prospect of going to church (because my dear sister-in-law and niece were planning on taking her weekly), and generally content. She had word-finding issues and some confusion, but overall, she was her old self.
When I had called her on Tuesday, she had said, “When are you coming to see me?” as if I hadn’t seen her in months, not hours. I thought, “Why bother calling or visiting when she doesn’t even remember I’ve done so?”
Back in December, reflecting on her visit and her mental struggles, I had decided to be my mother’s cheerleader, my mother’s advocate—for her. But I realize that I also do that for me. I don’t think I could live with myself if I were to forsake her now.
I wish that we had celebrated her 81st birthday in “perfect square” fashion. She would have delighted in the day—even if she forgot it the day after—and we would have delighted in remembering my mom as she was through her “square” ages as well as loving her as she is now.
I’ve heard it said that God sees us as we can be but loves us as we are. I think I see my mother as she was in all her glory but love her as she is. Perfect square or simply my perfect mother. I count myself blessed.