The last mile is the hardest
It’s painful to watch alzheimer’s suck the life out of its victims as it takes them down a long, dark road of no return.
WE live in an age of unpredictability, yet some things come with certainty – death, suffering and ageing. My mother-in-law was born in 1919 and she celebrated her 90th birthday with pomp and exhilaration. Everyone admired her strength and the way she walked upright and greeted the guests warmly. She dazzled us with her clear thinking, confident critical judgements and her gentle smile. She had verve. Nothing fazed her – that is, until Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of her dignity, sensibility and mobility. She is now reduced to a spectre of her former self.
Ma, as I call her, was a spunky and sensible lady in all her 90 years. After her 90th birthday, her health started to go downhill fast. She began to hallucinate and suffer psychotic episodes. It was eerie to see her talking to imaginary beings in the living room. She even waved to unseen beings. A geriatrician confirmed that Ma was in the clutches of the dreaded disease after conducting a slew of tests on her.
As 2011 progressed, she entered a new phase. Ma occasionally walked backwards and missed the chair she wanted to sit on. Still, she refused to use a walker or a wheelchair. Sometimes she stood in the middle of a room, disoriented and confused. There was a faraway look in her eyes which once sparkled with wit and intelligence. She wandered about in the dark at night. She had delusions about family members taking her money. Her nerves were in shreds. We had to engage a maid to look after her and closed the door to the kitchen for safety reasons.
By 2012, she wavered between lapses of clarity and oblivion. She was losing her personality by the day. The debilitating disease addled her brain. She retreated into the comfort and security of her reclining chair. She had moments of lucidity but they were occurring further and further apart. She was the pared-down version of the mother we had known. A subsequent stroke left her virtually in a catatonic state. It was the beginning of a long goodbye.
Now she needs to be fed and cleaned. She does not know day from night. She has no bowel control and wears a diaper. Her eyes open occasionally but they are dull and glazed. I look at her age-tattered frame sadly and miss the times when she was healthy and alert.
Ma was the stalwart in the family before Alzheimer’s disease consumed her. She raised 12 children, three of whom have passed away. Her late husband worked outstation, leaving her to take care of the brood. When money was short, she babysat for others and took in clothes to wash. Ma was never the kind to panic easily and was fiercely independent.
She had always taken care of her appearance and had a cupboard full of clothes. Now she has only four sets of clothes specially sewn to resemble the overall that one wears before an operation.
She loved entertaining guests and was a delightful hostess who made sure her guests stayed for lunch or dinner. However, in her present state, she is oblivious to all her visitors.
I watch her breathe through her mouth which is always agape. Her eyes are closed and her right hand is at an odd angle after the stroke. The outline of her skeleton is etched clearly beneath her papery skin. Since the beginning of 2013, her life has been reduced to this gross routine – eat, sleep, pee and poo. Thankfully, we have an empathetic maid who is patient and even jokes about Ma’s prodigious bowel movements. She even sings Indonesian songs to Ma, just like lulling a babe to sleep.
When Ma has constipation, the skin around her eyes becomes dark. So we make sure she has enough fibre in her diet by feeding her mashed bananas. She used to have a full head of hair. Now her second son trims her hair very short for hygiene reasons. Her fourth son would help the maid carry Ma to the bathroom for her weekly bath. My husband, her seventh son, uses a sturdy nail clipper to trim her nails which have become thick and ridged.
She was an active lady right up to her late 80s. She could climb the steep flight of steps to church, unaided and with nary a pant. She sewed pyjamas for her grandchildren from leftover cotton materials.
She took care of me during my confinement. Being a good cook, her dishes were delectable and memorable. I was always amazed at how soiled nappies become pristinely white and clean after she had washed them. She used to put a lot of talcum powder on my children’s faces after she had bathed them when they were young.
Now the maid does the same to her and she is not in a position to comment. She used to be able to grip my hand when I held hers but alas, she cannot even do that anymore. All signs of communication are being cut off and hijacked by this insidious disease. What the drugs did was work on the symptoms and not on the disease itself.
My family and I often gather around her. My husband would regale her with the major happenings in our lives and joke with her. She remains silent safe for the heaving of her chest. When she gives the occasional snort, hubby puts words in her mouth, such as, “So you know and you agree, ah?”
On solemn days when the grim reality of Ma’s pathetic state hits hard, all we could do is pray. Then we sing her favourite hymn to her – Jesus, Keep Me Near The Cross.
Looking at Ma now, I wonder what goes on in her tangled mind. Her strength is dissipating and she could hardly move the clappers we put in her hand.
As Ma quietly approaches the end of her life, I feel privileged to be her seventh daughter-in-law; loved unconditionally by her, like her own daughter.
I miss her calling my name. I mourn for it. Life is strange – how we can mourn for a loved one who is still with us. I guess we are mourning for the huge part of her that has gone missing. What’s left of her is all we have.
Dearly loved: a 2012 file photo of Madam Tek Moi.