Flowers would be good, I thought, selecting an appealing bouquet from a nearby small, upscale market’s display. Maybe one of her once-favorite fish fillet sandwiches and a soda from the golden-arched fast food purveyor would bring a smile to her face. It couldn’t be like it used to be, with beribboned boxes holding pretty nightgowns or dinner at a nice restaurant with family gathered around. I wasn’t sure what “family” meant anymore, with children scattered geographically and both my father and brother gone forever. I shook my head to rid it of the ridiculous snippet of music that played there so often these days…”and the cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone…”
Would she even know who I was today – her only daughter – or would she gaze blankly at me because I no longer had the flowing blonde hair and unlined face of my youth? As I walked into the Long Term Care facility, the floors were crowded with other families making the same journey: adult children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with small gifts and balloons in tow. I entered her shared room. There were no private rooms here, just curtains that could be pulled across to mimic that illusion. Her roommate moaned, “Lady, lady…somebody help me, help me, please” over and over. It seemed callous to ignore her, but she repeated those words most of the day, every day, unless she was sleeping. It would have outraged me to have my mother in that room with the constant, droning distress calls if not for the fact that she is deaf. Mom was the perfect roommate for her.
Would she be awake? I usually had to time my visits to fall either just before or just after a meal. With so few visitors and deprived of the sensory stimulation of conversation, she slept 18-20 hours each day, preferring to retreat to her memories for comfort. As I moved her empty wheelchair to sit in her bedside chair, she smiled hesitantly when she saw me, googling her brain in search of recognition. My current face wasn’t on file, so she waited for me to provide the clues.
“Hi, mom. It’s Kathy. Happy Mother’s Day. How are you?”
“Kathy?” She would often be unsure at first, so I picked up the lined school notebook and pen to “talk” to her, the only way she would be able to “hear” me. I wrote, explaining who I was, and pointed to the picture she kept of me in my graduation gown.
She nodded, “Oh, that’s my daughter,” smiling sweetly. I pointed to the picture and then to myself. Her brain clicked suddenly and she laughed – at herself, I hoped, rather than the differences in how I looked between the picture and today’s reality.
“How’s Johnny?” she asked, hoping that my brother would be visiting today too. “He hasn’t been feeling too well, mom, but maybe he’ll be able to stop by later,” I reassured her. My brother died over a year ago, but we decided to spare her that painful news.
“Daddy was here yesterday.” I blinked and then raised my eyebrows at the news. My father has been dead for 12 years. “He tried to convince me that we should have another child, and I told him that two were enough. We can’t afford to have three!” I used to try to bring her back to the present by telling her how long he has been gone, but no longer. I’ve come to realize that the comfort of memories are the only real comforts she has left.
I showed her the floral offering that I’d brought and put them in a vase with water. She inhaled their fragrance and smiled appreciatively. The decades-old picture of her tending her azaleas and candy tuft flashed in my head. Her sturdy German hands worked the soil as she grunted in sweaty exertion in the warm spring sun. Dad stood nearby, trimming the hedges in his khakis and undershirt, as Mom fussed at him not to stand too closely to the laundry drying on the line nearby.
Now I was doing it, too.
I’d been there for five minutes, and her eyes were beginning to droop in anticipation of her three hour afternoon nap. She began a brief conversation that was garbled by fatigue. I smiled and nodded, having no idea what she just said. Then I kissed her and waited until she fell asleep. Happy mother’s day, mom.