Hill Haven Skilled Nursing, 1999
My healthy sun-browned body lies in a hospital bed with railings. My pale mother lies facing me. I often feel like her mother now, holding and caressing her like a sick child. Mom and I became comfortable with physical intimacy after she was institutionalized with Alzheimer’s in 1996. For most of my life, she kept an emotional distance, but Alzheimer’s Disease, for all the suffering it inflicted, changed that.
In April, 1999, Mom passed out and collapsed on the floor at her Alzheimer’s residence. Her second husband overrode her DNR and ordered doctors to do anything to save her. She spent many weeks in intensive care and over a month in the hospital before being released to a skilled nursing facility in Rochester, NY a few days ago.
My mild-mannered mother doesn’t speak except when she screams, “No.” She can’t stand or walk. She refuses food and bites and scratches the nurse’s aides. She trusts me, even though she doesn’t seem to know who I am, and allows me to hold her hand.
“Lie next to me,” she says quietly, patting the bed with a slow hand. Surprised by her coherent request, I climb over the rails and settle in. There is room for both of us since she takes up so little space.
Lying next to her, I’m filled with odd anticipation. Our breath warms each other’s faces. My head shares her pillow and her limp arm drapes over my waist. Despite all reason, I feel protected by her, cradled by her arm, the raised metal bars, and the thin white curtain drawn around us. We float together in a watery space somewhere close to dream. As if from a great distance, she speaks.
“I’m glad you don’t have to spend more time with me than you do. You spend too much now. If I lie quietly, I feel all right.”
Her voice is unusually deep. She speaks in sentences, rather than her usual disconnected ramblings. Her voice comes again, like a distant oracle.
“What a nice girl you are, Lainie. I wish you could have heard what your dad said about you. You’re such a good girl. I think you’re going to be successful, and it will turn out well and be worth all the effort. I’m not young anymore, and I can’t live forever. I want you to have as much happiness as you can.”
She closes her eyes as I lightly stroke her bony hip. Her blessing softens my chest, and I breathe deeply.
“Now you’re just like a feather on me,” she murmurs. “It’s like a feather. I feel like a real mother to you and that’s because I am. I’ll always remember how lucky I am that everything worked out. It could have been the other way—that nothing worked out.”
She’s right. We are lucky. After forty years of attempts and failures to find the strong connection that was broken by my father’s death, we rest together in that mysterious union reserved for mothers and daughters, a place where the boundary between us is thin and passable.
“I love you very much, honey,” she says tenderly, her ancient voice resonating in her belly. “I would give you my arms if it would help you.” My tears soak both of us as I kiss her soft mouth.
“I don’t need your arms, Mom, I have my own.”
“I’m a lucky woman,” she says, smiling up at me. “It’s important to have someone you trust and love. We’ll talk about how much we love each other.” After a long pause, she whispers, “Please, I want to go to sleep now.”
I carefully climb over the bars, tuck the blankets around her, and turn out the light. Once again, I am her mother and she is my child.
“You sleep now, Mom. I’m glad you’re happy.”
“I am happy, Lainie,” she murmurs. “I love you so much, and I won’t ever forget this night.”
I shared an earlier version of this post in February 2013. I can’t think of a better tribute to my mother. Have you had healing or difficult interactions with an elderly parent? Has someone you love had Alzheimer’s Disease?
My mother lived eight more years. She never walked again and didn’t recognize me or my brother. I always felt that overriding her DNR was a cruel mistake. You can read about that experience in From Medicine to Mercy. But without those extra years, I would not have received her blessing. You might also enjoy My Mother’s Rules about my relationship with my mother after my father died.
On May 1, Leaning into Love won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY Award (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Aging/Death & Dying. My mother valued success and achievement in her pre-Alzheimer’s years. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to work hard and persevere.