Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Mother's Keeper

After a cruel childhood, one must reinvent oneself.
Then reimagine the world.—
Mary Oliver

I’ve been reading these words, penned by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, over and over lately. Not only because of the things that are stirring in my soul and memory as I continue work on my memoir, but possibly even moreso because of the increasing time I am spending with my mother in her physical and mental decline. The words are powerful to me because I believe that my mother endured a cruel childhood at the hands of her father, my grandfather. And that same cruelty was perpetrated on me in my early years, also by her father.
Mary Oliver experienced this suffering, and she writes about it in her book, Blue Pastures:

“Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them.”

What struck me about these words as I read them again this morning, is that my mother has become a child again, a victim of Alzheimer’s and a broken hip. Helpless as a child in her current circumstances, completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers, family and friends. As her only living child, I am her connection to those sources of kindnesses. I am my mother’s keeper.

Thankfully, I have help. Comfort Keepers have been providing sitters around the clock for Mom since the day she entered Baptist Hospital, October 8. I’ve had the joy of getting to know one of those sitters in particular, “Sondra,” a delightful woman from South Africa. She’s been Mom’s day sitter for the past couple of weeks, and now Mom thinks she’s a friend who also lives in the nursing home with her. Every morning Sondra brings Mom a thermos of fresh coffee from her home, with just the right amount of sugar in it. During the afternoons, while Mom is in physical therapy, Sondra takes the thermos to the dining room at the nursing home and refills it for Mom’s afternoon coffee when she returns to her room. She calls me on her cell phone every day and keeps me informed of Mom’s progress, and also of her concerns, so that I can address them with the proper people there—sometimes a social worker, sometimes a physical therapist, sometimes a nurse.

Yesterday Sondra said she had a question for me. “Is that large, colorful picture of a parrot on the wall on the other side of her room hers? It’s hanging by her roommate’s dresser, but your mother is saying it’s hers and she’s telling me to take it down and bring it to her side of the room.”

It’s actually a huge jigsaw puzzle of a parrot, surrounded by tropical plants, that has been glued together and hung on the wall. It’s the only thing of any color on the other side of the room, where Priscilla “lives.” Priscilla is older than Mom, black, and diabetic. I caused a huge stir last weekend when I offered her one of Mom’s chocolate candies. The nurses came flying into the room, wrestled them from her as she was screaming, and then scowled at me for giving her the candy. What was I thinking? Of course I had no idea she was diabetic, but now I understand that you never offer food or drink to anyone in a nursing home (or hospital, for that matter) without asking the nurse.

Nor do you help an old lady in a wheelchair onto the elevator. Mom’s room is on the second floor, and as I was leaving the building one day last week, a woman was struggling to get herself onto the elevator to go downstairs.

“Can you help me, please?” Her hands were gnarled and curled onto the arms of the wheel chair. Her feet touched the floor, propelling her along the hallway.

“Of course,” I smiled cheerfully and held the elevator door open for her. She still couldn’t get the chair over the threshold, and just as I began to help her, a nurse came running around the corner. The lady’s “alarm” had triggered the nurse… she isn’t allowed off the floor. If she had made it downstairs and out the front door, no telling what might have happened.

Again, I listened humbly to the nurse’s explanation and apologized.

As humiliating as they were, both experiences gave me confidence in the nursing home’s care for its residents, keeping them safe from sugar and strangers. Since Mother can’t remember where she is or why she is there most of the time, I’m encouraged by the security in place in the home.

Even when I fought against it at first. When I found they had put Mom in a diaper, I was as upset as Mom was. What an affront to her dignity! She begged me to get her panties for her and to get her out of the diaper.

I charged down to the nurses’ station and asked why my mother was in a diaper, when she’s perfectly capable of using a toilet?

“Her orders say that she can’t put any weight on her legs at all yet. Only a physical therapist can get her in and out of the bed.”

“But, we have sitters with her 24/7. Why can’t they help her?”


“Because they aren’t trained to move her in just the right way. Even the nurses aren’t allowed to do that yet. If she puts weight on her leg in the wrong way, or falls, she could break her hip again. Once she’s done a few days of physical therapy, we’ll probably get orders that she can use the bathroom with help.”


I tried to explain this to Mother. And sweet Sondra patted her hand and told her she’d leave the room when Mom needs to “go” and then she’ll quickly change and clean her. She’s allowed to do that since Mom has the strength to hold onto the bed rail and pull herself onto her side. The sitter isn’t allowed to turn Mom herself.

A week later Mom is making progress with the therapy and I’m told that she’ll be allowed to use the toilet, with the sitter’s help, in a day or two. She seems to find this comforting, and asks for something to write down the date so she will know when she can use the toilet. Mom has survived the past five years or so with increasing dementia mainly by writing things down. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I make it through my day, too.

That and cable TV. I took Mom’s small TV from the bedroom of her assisted living apartment to the nursing home last week, and the Comcast cable guy came out on Friday to hook it up. His name was Mike, same as my brother, who died in January, 2007. But Mom didn’t seem to associate him with Mike. Instead, she just enjoyed his presence immensely.

“Have we met before?” she asked him.

“Yes. In Paris, back in 1948, I think it was.”

“Paris?” Mom looked at me. “Have I ever been to Paris?”

“Don’t you remember our weekend together?” Mike didn’t miss a beat.

By this time the sitter and I were laughing and Mom started laughing, too, and soon Mike had her cable set up and began asking her what kind of TV shows she liked to watch.

Of course Mom didn’t remember, so I helped out, mentioning Atlanta Braves baseball, any football games that involved Peyton or Eli Manning, and old movies. Before we knew it, Mike had programmed several stations that would play these things so that all she had to do was push the “FAV” (favorites) button and it would scroll through those channels. He even included a music channel that played ‘40s swing music. He clicked it on just in time for an old Benny Goodman number, and he and I started dancing and Mom started swinging her arms in the bed and smiling to beat the band.

Yeah, Mike the cable guy is a keeper.

Yesterday the head nurse and marketing director from her assisted living home visited Mom at the nursing home. They were checking on her progress… assessing whether or not she will be able to live in the downstairs/assisted part of Ridgeland Pointe in a few weeks, or whether she’ll have to move to the upstairs/Alzheimer’s wing. I toured the Alzheimer’s wing last week, and I really hope Mom can stay downstairs, where she has the run of the building, with it’s cathedral ceiling dining room, airy and sunny lobby, and front porch. Evidently Mom has become everyone’s sunshine at Ridgeland Pointe, and they all miss her and want her back.

So, Mom was in the living room at the nursing home when Kelly and Erin came to visit. Sondra had taken her down in her wheelchair to hear someone sing, which Mom loves. When Kelly and Erin approached her, she lit up, smiled, and greeted them cheerfully, but soon it became obvious that she had no idea who they were. She sees them every day at Ridgeland Pointe, but she’s been away for two weeks. Sigh. I hope her lack of memory of them won’t be a mark against her. They’ll assess her again next week.

Much more to say here, but I’m off to my Memphis Writers’s Group’s monthly meeting, then driving down to Jackson for a few days. So, this is to be continued. Oh, and my Oxford Writing Group meets Saturday, so I’ll spend the day there on my way back to Memphis on Saturday. Framing my days with Mother between these two escapes into the world of creative writing and literature. That’s what Mary Oliver did:

“Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing. I quickly found myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place.”

Oh, I think I hear the siren call of poetry and prose coming from my writing group buddies at Starbucks… and the more distant sound of novels-in-progress wafting up from the Yoknapatawpha Writing Group in Oxford.
Oh, and Friday night I'm going with my friends, Father Paul and Sissy Yerger (who live in Clinton, Mississippi) to see "To Kill a Mockingbird" at New Stage Theater in Jackson. Alleviations and blessings, all. 'Bye now.

1 comment:

mary said...

I am reading all of these u sent me on Alzheimer's and your mom.
I am so excited to have finally found some comfort in caregiving my mom. Your experiences are and will be the same for me and I thank the Lord I have found u and your writings to help me through my journeys with mom.
God bless you!
Mary Eckert Zimmerman