Sundays with Mom: The receding past, the looming future
Iknow how this story will end. Any day now a certified nurse’s assistant on her morning rounds will find Mom deceased in her bed. Chances are no one will have been there when she passed. Like many others, she will have died alone.
As prepared as I am, I have no idea how deep my grief will be.
On my latest visit to her nursing home, I find Mom slumped in her wheelchair in the dining room in front of her Easter dinner of ham, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The ham has been cut into bite-sized pieces. Mom hasn’t touched any of it. Her eyes are closed, and she is humming an old show tune.
Across from Mom a woman glares sourly at me as if she is judging my filial commitment. I want to tell her I already have plenty of guilt. The woman next to her is about to let her head fall into a bowl of melted ice cream. On this Easter, there are no signs of resurrection.
For one cowardly moment, I consider turning around and getting out of there as quickly as possible — like wet soap out of a hand, as I once heard escape described. The devil on one shoulder whispers, You don’t need this sadness in your life, while the angel on my other shoulder says in a louder voice, This is your life, buddy.
So I gently take Mom’s hand and give her a kiss. She opens her beautiful blue eyes and says, without emotion, “Oh, hi, Stevie,” as if I’d been sitting there all along.
Increasing dementia has narrowed her world to what is immediately in front of her. At this moment, her youngest son has materialized like an apparition. When I leave in a few hours, she will not remember my visit.
I urge Mom to eat. She refuses. Rail thin, she still stubbornly “watches her carbs.” The recent falls and hospital stays, medical procedures, anesthesia and pain meds have taken their toll and amplified her confusion. In this age of increased longevity, Mom is what I would call an old 86-year-old.
I push her wheelchair back to her small room and pull a stack of decades-old photos from an envelope. Mom studies each picture as if it had only recently been taken.
Probably for my own benefit, I want these images to help her remember — if only for a transitory moment — the full spectrum of her life: Mom with her second husband (“Was I really married three times?” she asks. “Was I that stupid?”); Mom with her two sisters surrounding their father (“That’s Daddy!”); the house in eastern Iowa where she grew up (“I wish we’d never sold it.”) and her 70th birthday party (“When was that?”).
Mom is soon distracted, so I suggest a trip around the floor.
On this Easter Sunday, the corridors are crowded with other anxious sons and daughters also dutifully wheeling their mothers and fathers, sometimes with their grown kids trailing along. We nod at each other, acknowledging our tribe of impending orphans. Are they thinking, as I often do, We’re next in line?
Mom is singing now, as she loves to do, loudly, with dramatic facial expressions and wild gestures. This draws attention, and I say to one rather startled family, “I just can’t take her anywhere.” Mom laughs, then continues to sing, now at a higher volume. The family smiles warily and hustles away.
Suddenly I have the urge to chase them down and tell them, Wait! This woman is not the demented person you see in this wheelchair. This woman who can no longer walk or read a book overcame the stigma of epilepsy in the 1940s and, later, a bad divorce to raise me as a single parent. I want to tell them that my mother never did a dishonest thing in her life. That she taught me to never give in to prejudice, hate or fear, to follow my dreams and be independent. That this woman, my mother forever, still has value and worth.
As I leave the nursing home, I remember one of her rare visits to eastern Washington state, where I once lived. At church on Sunday, her operatic singing of the hymns echoed through the sanctuary.
That morning I stood in front of the congregation and told them how thankful I was for the lessons Mom taught me and how grateful I was for everything she did on my behalf. My telling this was long overdue.
Mom does not remember it, but I will always recall the morning when I found the right words to honor her. And I will never forget how she sang so strong and true. Stephen J. Lyons is the author of “Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times.”