It’s been an emotional week… July 9 was the 10 year anniversary of my father’s death, and July 11 was the 10 year anniversary of his burial. He was only 68, a strong, healthy marathon runner whose life was cut short by cancer. This is me and Dad in the late 80s, probably just a year or so before we moved to Memphis, dancing on a house boat on the Ross Barnett Reservoir at a party for employees at the business he and my mother owned for fourteen years, “Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports.”
I’m also anxiously waiting to hear from our son, Jonathan this week, because he's returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq any day now. He flies Kiowa helicopters and was stationed at Baghdad, but he’s made it to Kuwait, so at least he’s out of the most dangerous area for now. But I’ll feel better when he calls me from the States. This is us with Jon and a model of the Kiowa behind us, at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
And… today was my monthly visit with my mother at Ridgeland Pointe Assisted Living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. You can read about my visit last month, “The Good Daughter, Part I,” here. So now for Part II:
It’s hard to decide, when caring for someone with progressive dementia/Alzheimer’s, how much to try to micro manage the domestic and personal care issues they can no longer carry out. I’m really trying to let her live in peace, without spending every minute of our visits together picking up the pieces of her life that she continues to drop. For example, for several months now I’ve been ignoring the growing pile of clothing that now covers half her bed. She continues to pull clothes out of drawers and off hangers in her closet, trying to decide what to wear, what things need cleaning, what she doesn’t want any more, etc. I’ve offered to help with the process several times, but she’s always declined the offer in the past, choosing instead to go out on excursions in the car—Starbucks, shopping, lunch, etc. But today she was tired and wanted to stay in, so I started in on the pile of clothes.
"Those clothes aren't dirty."
"Mom, they even smell bad."
"I can't smell anything."
"Look at the food stains."
"Oh--those won't come out. They wouldn't come out the last time I washed them."
But I persisted and eventually she just sat on the half of of the bed not covered with clothes and watched as I sorted things into piles to be washed or given away.
The laundry room is just down the hall, so I loaded up three machines with her clothes and then went to work on the stacks of newspapers and trash in the sitting area of her apartment. She allowed me to carry these out to the trash without argument, which cleared a spot where I could sit with her and watch the birds on her birdfeeder outside her window.
“Look! There’s my redbird! I just love to watch the birds.”
“Did Ken (the maintenance man) help you put up the new column of food?”
“Yes, just the other day. I could sit here for hours—the view is so pretty. Look at the clouds.” Mom has always been into clouds.
I try to stay in the moment, but I can’t help but notice that her hair hasn’t been washed in a while and her fingernails are chipped and ragged.
“Did you get your hair done this week?”
“No. I just didn’t feel like it.” The beauty parlor is in the building. But it's not open on Saturdays.
“Would you like me to take you to someone out in town and get a perm today?”
“No, I’ll get them to do it here one day soon. It’s really not bothering me. Look! The cardinal just came back!”
Okay, this is good. She’s letting go of menial concerns and enjoying the important things. I could learn something here. So I try to “chill” and just visit while making runs back and forth to the laundry room to hang up blouses and slacks and fold undershirts. Suddenly it’s noon and I ask if she’s like to go out for lunch.
“No. Let’s just eat here today. It’s too hot to go out in the car.” It was really steamy, so I agreed.
The dining room has tables for 4, and Mom has 3 regular tablemates, so we pull up a 5th chair for me at her table. Her best friend, Elizabeth, has been such a good companion for Mom since she moved in two and a half years ago. Although she has physical problems and needs a walker to get around, I’ve always thought her mind was sharp, so she and Mom kind of balance each other out. Until today.
While we were waiting for Jamie, a regular at the table who is younger and very clear-thinking, Elizabeth starts giving me her take on Jamie:
“The woman who sits next to me has Alzheimer’s, but she doesn’t know it. We never know what she’s talking about. She just goes on and on about things, and she doesn't know she has Alzheimer's.”
“Jamie?” I’m astounded. I glance at Mom for a response, but she's looking off somewhere else in the dining room and not paying attention to Elizabeth's words.
“Yes,” Elizabeth insists. “They brought her here and asked me to watch after her, but I told them I’m not equipped to do that, that she’s too far gone. And besides, I’m already responsible for the cats.”
Elizabeth has 2 cats in her tiny apartment, and she feeds the wild cats who live behind the building. She's had open heart surgery and both her legs swell, which is why she uses a walker. And of course, she's not responsible for Jamie, or anyone else.
Jamie joins us and I find myself paying more attention to her, being sure I wasn’t wrong that she’s the one who’s still in her right mind. First she wheels another resident to her table (in a wheel chair) and tells her she’ll be back after lunch to help her. Then she greets me by name and asks about my family, clear as a bell. She proceeds to tell me what’s wrong with her eyes and how difficult it’s been to have to give up driving. Her two sons live in town, which is a big help. Very clear words. Another resident stops by our table and reminds Jamie of their date to play Scrabble at two o’clock. Jamie is definitely alert.
Next Elizabeth begins to point at another woman who is pushed into the room in a wheel chair a few tables away.
“Look, she’s back. Poor thing. She was born without any legs and you would think the doctors could find some appliance that would help her, but she’s just been to a convention where they display all the latest things and they didn’t have anything that would work for her.”
I look over at the woman and I’m speechless. It’s Bernice, the mother of a close friend of mine from high school. She had a stroke just over a year ago and moved into Ridgeland Pointe. I’ve been visiting with Bernice each month when I go to see Mom, but I noticed she wasn’t there last month.
Did I mention she has both legs?
So, I go over to visit with her and tell her I missed her last month, and she tells me she was in the hospital for 6 weeks—another stroke. She has an aide helping her eat, as she's lost more control of her arms than before. But she's in good spirits. We have a nice chat and then I return to my mother’s table.
Mother and Elizabeth are finishing their deserts and Elizabeth is filling several containers with leftover cornbread, rice and lima beans for the cats. I guess they’re vegetarians, but I don’t ask. I’ve already heard more than I can process from Elizabeth today, so we say goodbye for awhile and head back towards Mom’s apartment. But first we stop off at the laundry room to get her clean clothes.
As I’m folding the last of the clothes, Mom begins stroking her clean blouses which are on hangers and talking to them, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry she put you in those machines and got you all wet. You were just fine the way you were. I tried to tell her so."
“Mom, can’t you just say ‘thank you for washing my clothes’ and be happy that they’re so fresh and clean now?”
“They weren’t dirty.”
“Well, they’re clean now.”
“But they weren’t dirty.”
Sigh. We took them to her apartment, hung up the blouses and slacks and put the other items into the drawers by her bed. It occurred to me that she might have a hard time finding them, since she’s been used to them being on the bed, so I labeled the drawers with sticky notes and carefully showed her where the blouse and slacks were, after moving the winter clothes to the far end of the closet. It all looked so fresh and neat and made me feel so good.
“It looks strange in here,” was all she could say.
We visited in the sitting area for a while again, and finally I said, “Would you like to go somewhere?”
“We could go to Starbucks… and maybe to Le Nails for a manicure and pedicure?”
That was easy. We got our drinks at Starbucks, then drove to the nail salon and walked in to find there would be a thirty minute wait, so we sat in the waiting area, looking at magazines and picking out nail colors. Having a nice outing, or so I thought.
But as the minutes ticked by, Mom became agitated.
“It’s hot in here.”
The air conditioning seemed fine to me.
“Do I really have to do this?”
“Why wouldn’t you want to, Mom? It’s been a month since you had your nails done, and you used to do this every week, remember?”
“Did I? Was it always so hot?” Now she’s pulling her shirt off her shoulders and fanning herself with a magazine. Then she begins whining: “Please, I don’t want to. Can’t you just take me home? Please!”
“Okay, sure.” I let the technicians know we’ll come back another day and I help Mom to the car. It’s ninety-something degrees, of course, but compared to the air-conditioned nail salon, Mom seems to like it.
“I just didn’t feel like doing that today.”
“That’s fine, Mom. I just thought it would make you feel better to have your nails done. But we’ll do it next time," and then I add, "if you want to.”
She perks up during the drive back to her apartment, and again I point out familiar landmarks from the sixty years she’s lived in Jackson. As we pass a small red building I ask her, “Do you remember what that building is, Mom?”
“It’s your dentist’s office. I haven’t taken you there in over a year, because you said you didn’t want to go any more. You had some crowns done that will hopefully help you keep your own teeth so you won’t have to get dentures. But I could take you to have your teeth cleaned some time if you’d like me to.”
She opens her mouth in a Garfield smile to expose her top and bottom teeth and says, “Look, my teeth aren’t dirty.”
“Like your clothes aren’t dirty?” I ask.
She just nods and smiles.
Once we’re inside the lobby of her assisted living facility and she sees some of the other residents, she’s happy again.
So it’s come to this. Her world is getting smaller and her concern for things like hair and teeth and fingernails and clothing is dwindling. But her interest in birds and clouds and trees is growing. Yes, the disease of Alzheimer’s is eating away at her mind. But she’s still a person, created in the image of God. As I finish these reflections tonight, I remember the words of Jesus, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”
Maybe she’s closer to the Kingdom than I am. And not just because she’s eighty.