Every time I visit my mother in the nursing home in Jackson, I take time to visit with the facility’s youngest resident, Charles Wilkins Walker. Sadly, Charles is only 55 years old. He appears to have had a stroke, but it could be something else. He uses an electric wheel chair, and his speech is difficult to understand, but his mind seems fairly alert.
The last time I was there, Charles said he was having trouble with his remote control and would I come look at it. I went to his room, just down the hall from Mom’s, and there he had a computer, lots of books, television, and shelves of photographs of himself with friends—which must have been taken before whatever tragic event landed him in the nursing home. Radiant smiles are on all the photographs, and the other people in the pictures are attractive, and appear to be active members of society.
So when I drove down to see Mom on Friday, sure enough Charles found us visiting in the front lobby and wheeled over to visit with us. My dear friend Sissy Yerger had met me for lunch and had gone with me to visit Mom. When I introduced Charles to Sissy, Charles said, “Are you related to Wirt Yerger?”
“Yes, he’s a distant cousin of my husband,” Sissy replied.
Now usually when I’m visiting with Charles, it’s hard to include Mom in the conversation for two reasons—for one thing, she can’t understand what he’s saying very well, and she can’t follow the conversation or remember most of the people we’re talking about. So, it’s always a balancing act, to be sure Charles doesn’t “take over” the time and attention I’m trying to give to Mom, but to also be sure I’m spending time with Charles, as he’s bound to be starved for company with folks his/our age.
“He was in the insurance business, wasn’t he?” Charles continues, talking about Wirt Yerger.
“Yes,” I interject, “and so was my father, Bill Johnson.”
I look at Mom, trying to draw her into the conversation, and she smiles a far-away smile but nods, so I feel that I’m succeeding.
“How long was your father in the insurance business?” Charles asks me, and also looks at Mother.
“Hmmmm,” I have to think about this. “For about thirty years, I think. And when he retired from that, he and mother opened Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports. Dad was a marathon runner, and Mom helped managed the store and organize the aerobics business.”
Mom is smiling and nodding, but not jumping into the conversation as I hoped she might. With each visit I realize I’ve lost more of her, fearing each time that she won’t know me. But she surprised me with what she said next:
“He was with the F.W. Williams State Agency of U.S.F.&G. Insurance Company.”
The words rolled off her tongue as though she said them several times a day. Dad retired from USF&G in 1982—27 years ago, and yet this information was such a big part of her memory that it’s not lost yet. Interesting how the brain works. She couldn’t remember if she had lunch or not, did physical therapy that day or not, but she could repeat this rather complex name of the company my father worked for so long ago.
As we walked up and down the halls a few times, as we do each time I visit—Mom “peddling” along with her feet in her wheelchair, me at her side—we ran into Mia, the nurse in charge of her wing. “Your mother is fitting in here perfectly,” were Mia’s words this time, which brought me great comfort.
A few minutes later one of the aids stopped and chatted with us—she and Mom exchanged a few light-hearted teasing comments to each other—and then the aid said to me, “Miss Effie tries to pretend that she’s a bad girl, but we know better.”
Interesting comment. Later Mom told me that she “got into a row” with someone that morning (probably the physical therapist) who wanted her to do something she didn’t want to do… and that later someone else “fussed at her” for not eating her lunch. I found her lunch tray in her room, so she must not have been in the mood to go to the dining room that day. I picked up the aluminum cover off her plate to see the stale French fries and sandwich, mostly untouched.
But she seems to have put back on some of the weight she’s lost since she broke her hip 3 ½ months ago, so I’m not worried about her nutrition. And each time I visit I pick up two giant cookies from McAllister’s deli and she inhales them as we visit, so she hasn’t forgotten how to eat!
This time when we were leaving, she came up to the front lobby to see us out, and it saddened me to see her watching us go through the doors to my car. She seemed more aware that someone dear had just left her world, whereas last time I left, she dismissed me as if I was another resident with a room down the hall. As much as I hate Alzheimer’s and what it does to the mind, there are times when it seems to cushion the difficult truths. The truths about all that she has lost—her life partner of almost 50 years, her independence, her physical strength, and significant portions of her mind.
And I look at Charles, trapped in a facility for old people because of his physical limitations, and I wonder whose truth is the most difficult. Yeah, reality bites.