Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day Eight: The River Will Keep Moving Along

The first business on Monday was to drive to Mifflintown to take sign some papers associated with my mother's trust fund. I was looking forward to this part of the day -- the people at the bank are really incredibly good at what they do, and I've emailed them, talked on the phone with them -- but never met them.

Before he let me do that, however, Bernie took a side trip off the road to a new Juniata River access point, built since the last time I was back East.

It was beautiful! If I lived back East, I'd be just about living at that access area. There's a nice boat launch, the parking lot is big, there are loads of areas that a rabid river fisherwoman could stand and fish and fish and fish. For one brief second, I wished we'd move back there.

A very brief second, to be sure.

The bank business went quickly, and then I gathered my fears and we drove to The Hearthside nursing home to see my mother.

The morning in-charge nurse had recommended to me a couple weeks ago that we take some soft ice cream for Mom -- something she would like, and we approached a common room, caramel sundae in hand.

Now, the last time I saw my mother, she was skeletally thin (and that is NOT AT ALL an exaggeration), a jittering, viciously angry talking skull, eyes bulging in emaciated sockets. I looked for her among the residents in the room, and didn't at first recognize her.

She weighs about 40 pounds more now, her gray hair has gone straight, and she was dozing quietly in her chair. When we called to her, "Tere! Hi! We brought you some ice cream," she responded, "For free?"

She took Bernie's arm when he offered it to her (declining me taking her hand) and we moved to a peaceful little lounge that has big windows. We asked her how she felt, and told her we were glad to see her looking so well. She told us that she had been born in Mexico, and that she had four brothers, and that the day they all became citizens of the United States was the best day they ever had. She really loved the ice cream.

Tere was bright enough in demeanor for me to be assured she wasn't drugged; her clothes and hair, hands and face were clean. The sagging wrinkles that had hung from her emaciated face three years ago were gone. She's being well-cared for. In her dementia, she's creating her memories as she goes along; she remembers very little of her life. I thought it was strange and sweet when she told us how very much she had admired her mother, and how, as a child, she wanted to be just like her. That's news to me, I thought as I watched her. She must have fibbed to me for nearly half a century. Again, it was sweet to think she's remembering nice things rather than bad and bitter things.

She didn't know who we were, and didn't ask.

After about 45 minutes of visiting, we took our leave of her. I hugged her, and told her I loved her. Goodbye.

I made it about 15 feet down the hall before my tears spilled over; the nurse put her arms around me and held me between her and Bernie. And then it was time to return to the world.

The visit was far less stressful than I thought it would be; it hurt so much more than I expected that she didn't know me. Still, what I needed to do, both for her (to see her cared for properly) and for me (to say farewell) was accomplished.

There was more, though. The past four years of my mother's decline have been hard. The outpouring of bitterness and meanness that presaged the loss of her memory and judgment, her refusal to admit to her illness, her pig-headed imposition of isolation on my sister, her uncooperative belligerence to her caregivers while she had 24/7 care in her home -- although I knew what Alzheimer's does to the people who have it, I carried, in some hidden talisman in my soul, a wad of anger for what her illness did to the people around her. In meeting her on Monday, seeing how very little of her life is left, I was able to put the anger down and leave it behind. Let it drift on down the river, so to speak. I have no need of it now; I can see that I only kept it to hide my fear and sadness.

I've looked at my mother's illness as a kind of purgation for her; a purification of soul on the spiritual journey. All the things that she clutched uncompromisingly to herself have been taken away. All the things that she grasped with unholy selfishness, now all gone. Her property, her possessions, her vindictiveness, her independence, her very memories ... with nothing left, she's calm and pleasant; as she told Bernie and me, "I'm very content." Her purgation and mine are connected at this time. In her inability to refuse my love now, and my leaving behind my anger -- together, we achieved a kind of reconciliation.

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