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    bare branches

    More Than Two Birthdays

    A daughter ponders her shortcomings as she cares for her dying mother.

    By Teresa Nicholas

    January 26, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      I lost my dad to alzheimers while in memory care. The last year of his life was miserable. He was totally bewildered, disoriented, and agitated, surrounded by complete strangers 24 hours a day. My mom visited him daily, but that was a small reprieve. All I can say is that if you can possibly arrange in-home care, I have to believe it's a far better option in most cases.

    • Debra Southworth

      My parents both in memory care. I live in another state. I understand the feelings of visiting, brightening the days for them, then leaving... They call it the long good bye, dementia...

    • Catherine

      I loves this writing & relate to it exactly... only I couldnt keep saying goodbye so I now Im almost 4yrs in on 24/7 care.... what best to do is always the dilemma...

    She has outlived her bones. All January her pain increases, settles into her low back. X-rays are taken and vertebrae found to be fractured. Dr. Thompson mentions a procedure, vertebroplasty, to glue the spinal bones in place, but Mama would have to undergo the operation in a Jackson hospital. We worry about the distance, and about her having another stroke under the anesthesia. He recommends bed rest instead.

    One Saturday morning I call from Mexico and, making idle conversation, ask if she’s ready for lunch. She replies, “I don’t go to lunch.” (I hear the voice of deprivation: We was powerfully poor. We didn’t have what other people had.) I explain she’s having bed rest to help her back heal. I ask if she wants to get up. “I was tempted,” she answers. I feel guilty she’s dealing with this by herself. I feel sad her already reduced world has been further reduced. I can’t stop thinking about her. I can’t stop feeling guilty. She has outlived her bones.

    She spends the first six weeks of the year bedbound. Slowly she gets better. Toward the end of February she’s cleared to get up. At first she seems not to tolerate sitting in the Tracer. Slowly she learns to tolerate it. Then my sister Lisa plans a visit. When I ask my mother who will be with her for the weekend she screams into the phone, “Santy Claus!”

    We all get together for her birthday in March. Her eighty-seventh. Coincidentally, my memoir, Buryin’ Daddy, comes out that month. I show my mother the book. She smiles, nods vigorously, but she can’t read it. I suspect she’s relieved she can’t. Later my sister Debbie reads her the first chapter – enough, apparently, because she shows no curiosity to hear more. I think back to my interviews about her life, her refrain: Don’t nobody want to hear nothing about that mess.

    One day my mother says, “I feel fit as a bowling ball.”

    Her birthday is on Monday, but we hold her party Sunday afternoon. In addition to Debbie and Lisa, there’s Willie Belle, my mother’s sister Ada and her husband, Lou, and all the elders of Hilderbrand House, my mother’s unit at the Green Houses nursing home. Hattie makes chicken salad, a favorite of my mother’s, and we linger at the dining table, polishing it off with saltines. Willie Belle has baked a birthday cake, vanilla with vanilla icing, and Lisa has brought pink sugar-free cupcakes. The party lasts until four, and my mother and Ada hold hands for much of it. Lisa gives Mama a framed photo of her trip to the Grand Canyon, while we give her the duplex’s street numbers fabricated from Mexican tile. It’s doubtful that this gesture means anything to her, but I’m still unable not to remember, unable not to associate her long life with the duplex, even if she no longer does, even if she can’t recall what she’s eaten for breakfast that morning.

    Teresa Nicholas with her mother on the porch of her house

    The author with her mother on the porch of her house. Photograph courtesy of the author.

    My husband, Gerry, and I stay in Mississippi for another month. One day my mother says, “I feel fit as a bowling ball.” Another day, in response to my question “Are you poky?” she replies, “Poky is as poky does.” Despite the occasional humor, she seems sad, remote, washed out. There’s no light in her eyes. Some days she eats, other days she doesn’t. Sometimes after her whirlpool bath she sleeps all day. That’s normal, now and again (isn’t it?). What does she have to get up for? Sometimes she might look at me and smile, but sadly. There might be some gladness in her smile, but it’s embedded in sadness, in tiredness, in remoteness.

    She bears up, or tries to. One day her voice might be clear – “Poky is as poky does” – and another she might produce whole paragraphs that are only sounds joined together like strings of lights. The sounds go up and down, start and end, but there’s no meaning. One night the aides leave her alone to brush her teeth. Don’t they realize how hard that is for her, with only one hand? And with no language to ask for help? She bears up, or tries to. Perhaps her life is not so bad because she doesn’t remember? Because she can’t think at supper what she ate for breakfast? Does she also forget her pain? Is there something about old-age forgetfulness that aids the spirit of the elderly? In forgetting, is there forbearance?

    One late afternoon we sit, she and I, in the half-dark of her bedroom. She is alternately watching Gunsmoke reruns and the greedy sparrows that come to the bird feeder outside her double windows. All of a sudden she extends her left hand toward me.

    I look up from the book in my lap.

    “My fingers are swelling up,” she says, dropping the hand and letting her wedding ring slip off onto the bedsheets.

    “Do you mean your fingers are getting slender?”

    “Swelling up,” she answers. Her meaning is a muddle, but her speech is clear.

    I pick up the wide gold band, which is actually her second wedding ring, a replacement for the original that had grown dime-thin over the many years she’d worn it.

    She waves her hand high in the air, an arc of loveliness originating at the elbow. “Mail it to Debbie,” she says. Three years ago, when Mama was about to be admitted to the nursing home, Lisa asked to keep her diamond engagement ring. Mama decided that someday she wanted Debbie to have this replacement band. Now that day had come.

    “And tell her to pick up the dishes,” she added. She meant the Syracuse china, a wedding gift that we used only at Christmastime. Debbie had been bequeathed the china, Lisa the Reed & Barton silver, me the Imperial Candlewick crystal.

    Easter dawns bright and quiet across the town. At the Green Houses, there’s the traditional dinner of ham and broccoli casserole. On Easter Monday we enter Mama’s room early. She is sound asleep, slid down in the bed, toes jammed against the footboard. We turn on the lights and pull her up. The aides bring in breakfast. We wait while she chips away at the bacon, eggs, grits, and biscuit. Later, I know, she won’t remember. We say our goodbyes. I try to be casual, cheerful. She does too. We both must wonder at moments like this if we’ll see each other again. We both know the end could come quickly. But will it? And will I be with her?

    On Christmas Day we get to my mother’s room early to unwrap her presents, most from Lisa. She sits in bed, scraping off foil paper with her left fingernails. This is another day full of memories of how things used to be. During the big unwrapping, both sisters call. Debbie says, “I hate it. What has happened to Mama.” Later Gerry and I keep company with my mother at the dining table while she finishes her Christmas meal with the other elders. We return again later and spend the afternoon with her. Watching old movies, we make it through. This Christmas Mama can’t say, “Flower died.” She says nothing. There’s only her hand.

    We celebrate New Year’s Eve in the nursing home, too, around the dining table with the elders. Mama puts on a silver paper hat with a gold brim and tries to blow a purple noisemaker. (She inhales.) Her cheeks are plumped and colored like apples. She drinks fruit juice from a stemmed plastic glass. “Happy New Year,” I say. She chuckles. What is the meaning behind her chuckle? That she doubts having a happy new year? Nobody wants to leave the table, not the elders, not their visitors, as if leaving means leaving for good. As if they know they have to savor this moment in which they are alive, cognizant. After all, who knows what will come next? At least this New Year’s Eve, unlike the last, is tornado-free.

    To care for someone in my mother’s condition is to question, everything.

    “I am tired of life,” Mama told me yesterday. When we are with her, does she feel more alive? Does she look forward to our visits? To maybe three hours of cheer each day? Is that enough to keep her alive? Have I kept her alive thus far? Have I done her a disservice? If I hadn’t spoon-fed her baby food after her stroke, if I hadn’t encouraged her to go on, would that have been better? Better for whom? And if I am the one responsible, a big if, am I also the one responsible when she doesn’t do well? When I’m not here and she languishes, sleeps sixteen hours a day, doesn’t smile the wan smile, doesn’t get up? Is that my fault too?

    When the time comes, will I be able to sell my mother’s house, the duplex? (I still think of it as hers, even though my name is now on the deed.) Can I part with her things? Even throwing out her old white tennis shoes is hard. Once they were her symbol of normalcy. Now the rubber has flaked off the bottoms and fallen onto the floor of her closet. Little pink rubber crumbs. I vacuum them up; they don’t want to go. I pick up the shoes to put them into a garbage bag. My hand hesitates. Can I bear to throw them away? Into the bag they go, but not without memory. When did I last see her wear these shoes? Stand in them? Walk in them?

    New Year’s Day. Gerry and I are leaving in two weeks. Lately Mama has been brighter. Not bright, but brighter. She giggles when she makes mistakes talking. (I wonder if the giggling is due to neurological impairment, some quirky manifestation of dementia.) When I’m here, am I training her to be brighter? When I go, will she slip into glumness? I dread going, but I can’t stay. Bit by bit I’m watching my mother die. Yesterday before Dr. Thompson checked on her, I asked her to tell me her biggest concern. She replied, “I want to know what he is going to do with me.” As if he could do anything more with her.

    We’re leaving in two days. We buy her some cut flowers along with a new sock monkey from Gilbert’s Gifts. A green sock monkey with polka dots. Darla the aide names him Darla. My mother seems to cheer up, but it lasts only a few minutes. Then the anguished look returns, the furrowed forehead, the “ouch” and “oh” of the leg pain.

    We’re leaving today. We arrive early to her room. She attacks her cereal with gusto. We hover, Gerry and I, for a few minutes. “Take care.” “Be good.” “See you for your birthday in two months.” Words uttered in habit and haste. On the plane, I stare down into the rising clouds and see the sketchy earth and wonder what she’s doing. Eating? Sleeping? Watching an old movie? A western? Her life so small, so circumscribed, and I have been with her in that small life, out of the world for these last months. My life too has diminished. But this world of airplanes and movement and luggage seems as false as hers seems real. Will this change in time? Will the days ahead – at home in San Miguel – chip away at my small reality?

    One day in late January I call my mother and she says, “Hello, darling daughter.” Just that clear. When will I hear these words again? When will I have such an open path into her mind? And she has been clearer of late, her voice stronger, her speaking almost normal. She says her leg hurts “on and off.” That she will “think about getting up for supper.” That she misses me. She has been giggling a lot lately too.

    I tell friends in San Miguel that I feel guilty. They seem surprised. The situation is nobody’s fault, they say. You are doing your best, they say. At fifty-seven, I have my own life – isn’t that what we always say? But what about her life, easing her from this pain-filled existence – where is my responsibility? I know she would not wish me not to live my life. Yet I know she wants me with her. So what do I do? My best is not good enough. Not for her, not for me. Where do these feelings of inadequacy go? To care for someone in my mother’s condition is to question, everything.

    Excerpted from The Mama Chronicles: A Memoir by Teresa Nicholas, Copyright © 2021 by Teresa Nicholas, published by University Press of Mississippi. Reproduced with permission of the author and University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.

    Contributed By portrait of Teresa Nicholas Teresa Nicholas

    Teresa Nicholas is the author of The Mama Chronicles, winner of the 2022 Life Writing Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

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