Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Long, Slow Journey

I had a plan for a post today that I have scuttled in favor of a more personal commentary.

My mother celebrated her birthday a week ago today. She never liked to admit her age, and I won't reveal it here.

She's a tiny thing, only about a hundred pounds. For as long as I can remember, she has been filled with a kind of frenetic energy. For most of my life, that energy was directed toward fighting dirt. She was a formidable housekeeper, constantly cleaning floors, blinds, counters, driveway and sidewalks.

Daddy died ten years ago. She had never spent a night alone in her life to that point. She'd grown up in a boisterous Irish family and left home to marry my Italian father. They'd had five children, four of whom grew to adulthood.

Mom only had a high school education, but she was a prodigious reader. She read to all her children and hauled us weekly to the library in a little red wagon which she pulled up and down the hills of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. We would fill it with books and she would then lug it home again. She took enormous pride in the fact that her four children all graduated from college.

She didn't learn to drive until I was nineteen years old.

When Daddy died, I dragged Mom to the pound to find a dog. She would not get out of the car, but finally entered the building because of her fear that I would simply adopt a dog for her if she didn't come in (she was right).

I looked for small dogs--thinking of a toy poodle or chihuahua--but while I was busy, she fell in love with a trembling, thin whippet. She announced, "His name is Dancer." That whippet grew into an enormous blessing.

For the first five years after Daddy's death, she lived a comfortable, although somewhat restricted, life--reading, talking with her three sisters on the phone, taking Dancer for rides in the car and playing with her four grandchildren. She had the remarkable ability (and willingness) to take whatever role a child required of her in play.

For the past five years, she has been failing--not in body, but in mind. I knew she had Alzheimer's long before the doctors gave her a formal diagnosis. My brothers argued she should stay in the Florida home she'd inhabited for forty-five years; I wanted her in a safer environment. I asked her to come live with me in Dallas; she refused. My youngest brother assured me that, when the time came, she could live with him and his family in Florida.

That time has come and passed. Mom's short-term memory is completely gone. I'm sure she's afraid, but she is expressing that fear in rage--anger at the people who are sneaking into the house to steal her scissors, her wireless phone or her earrings. Her paranoia is so enormous, we could never move a companion into the house with her.

Dancer has become her caretaker. He wakes her in the morning, they take a walk together, he leads her home. For dinner, she makes them each a frozen dinner in the microwave (he often cons her into giving him a second one by pretending she didn't feed him) and he lets her know when it is time to go to bed. He protects her fiercely.

My youngest brother assumed the bulk of the burden of caring for her--taking her shopping, paying her bills, calling her every night. I call her every morning, and we talk for twenty minutes as I drive to work.

Over the past weeks, I realized my brother was struggling. We talk frequently, and I could hear the strain in his voice. Mom accused him of stealing money from her checking account. He had to buy three new pairs of scissors in as many weeks because "people keep coming in to steal them." He is a sports columnist. She calls him while he is at work or on the road to rage and then hang up on him.

I suggested that, after my surgery in early February, once I was up and about, Mom might come to stay with me for two weeks so he could have a break. I suggested I might try to convince her to move into a nursing home nearby me. I no longer believe she can live with me. I would be afraid she would wander away while I was at work.

My brother and I have talked weekly (and sometimes daily) this month. No matter what I said, he would not budge from his plan of moving Mom into his home. I reminded him of the burden he would be putting upon his wife and children, and suggested he talk to his wife.

Today he called. He and his wife had had a long talk. My sister-in-law, who is a wonderful woman who has treated Mom with great love, had been honest with him. Like me, her greatest fear is that Mom will wander off and get lost and not be found. Or fall into their enclosed swimming pool.

He acknowledged it is time to think about a nursing home.

My middle brother will go along with the decision. The issue will be my oldest brother who refuses to see how bad things are . . . and, of course, Mom herself who will see this as an enormous betrayal. I insisted that all of us tell her as a group so my youngest brother does not bear the burden . . . or the guilt.

I am very sad tonight.


Mike Keyton said...

I am sad for you too. Nothing else really to say.

Maria Zannini said...

I'm sorry, hon. I know it's not a surprise to you, but it's hard to accept nonetheless.

You're doing the right thing for everyone concerned.


Jen FitzGerald said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your mom, Maya.


Gina Black said...

Doing the right thing so often is the hardest thing to do. Hang tough. Sending hugs.

Sharon said...

What a difficult decision you and your family have had to make because you want what's best for your mom. You are in my thoughts.

Peter L. Winkler said...


Please accept my condolences in this time of your personal difficulties.


Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind words. I appreciate them more than I can say.

I know we'll get through this. My father died suddenly. This is a slower, more painful death.