Heartbreak can look like many things. An ice-cream cone upside down on a sidewalk, the plaintive wail of a mother in mourning, a goose standing on the side of the road next to their mate who will never fly again but they can’t bring themselves to leave. It also shows up as a wrinkled hand scratching the surface of a weathered face, trying to pull something from the depths, unable to reel in the thought, no matter how hard they try.
I’ve been helping my mother get settled in her new living quarters; a spare room in my brothers home. I help her put away her clothes, the ones she loves, knowing she will likely never wear them again, but not having the heart to put them in the “giveaway pile” because her face lights up when I show her these cherished items. She will not remember tomorrow that we went through her closet together, but I will know, and I will remember what she looked like when I held up her favorite t-shirt with the tiger on it. Her body doesn’t hold heat like it used, she is always cold. T-shirts are a thing of the past, unless they are a first layer, and then no one will see the tiger. I leave it in the pile of clothes easy for her to reach in case she has a moment when she recognizes it and wants to slip it onto her frail body. It brings me comfort to think that might happen, though I will not hold my breath.
Breath is precious. As I mourn along with the world the many black and brown bodies that have had their breath ripped away from them, I watch as my mother pants slowly trying to remember the mantra, “Smell the roses, blow out the candles”, a little reminder planted by her palliative care nurse so her blood oxygen levels will stay high. Mom looks at me and smiles, tells me I’m beautiful, and I reply, “smell the roses, blow out the candles”. Maybe if I say it often enough, she will remember the words. Maybe I should paint them in big bold beautiful colors on her wall.
We go out to the yard for fresh air. The summer sun actually causes her to have to take off one of her layers. Ahhhh, warmth that isn’t grasped at, but freely given in abundance. The grass, so green, hides tiny swells in the earth beneath it and makes it difficult for her to navigate. I have to hold her hand, much like I held my children’s hands as they took their first steps on uncertain terrain. If they fell down, they would stand up and try again. If she falls, it would be disastrous.
I try to give her as much autonomy as possible, knowing full well the value of choice regarding one’s own body, so I let her lead me where she wants to go. My mother always had beautiful gardens. Stunningly beautiful. After she retired, she spent her summers in the yard puttering and winters surrounded by piles of gardening books, making plans for what she would do come spring. So many choices! Color combinations, soil and light requirements, placement, growth patterns, annuals, perennials. My father was the love of her life, then her children; myself, my two brothers, and her flowers.
When she was younger and still working, she would spend her evenings watering and weekends weeding. I didn’t pay very close attention back then, but my memory places her more often outside than anywhere else, doing these chores I had no interest in. She could tell you the Latin names of every plant in her garden.
We walk through the yard, hand in hand so she will feel confident in her steps and I will feel like I have a smidgen of control over the uncontrollable. I cannot keep her mind from disappearing, but I’ll be damned if she will fall down on my watch.
Halfway through our tour of the yard she needs to sit. Smell the roses, blow out the candles. How long can she last like this? Three months? Three years? It is impossible to tell. I get angry but don’t show it on my face. Not at her, but at the world. I was able to put my cat out of his misery a month ago but I have to watch my mother fade away before my eyes, falling into an abyss of pain, fleeting thoughts and unfinished sentences. Stumbling through a world of pill boxes and protein shakes and not being able to remember breakfast. We resume the tour.
Mom bends over to dead head a day lily and I watch her out of the corner of my eye, ready to leap into action if needed, but not wanting her to feel like I’m hovering. She wants to see all of the plants so we slowly make our way around the yard. She points at one and says she knows it, but the words won’t come. I recognize ornaments that were in her garden that my brother transplanted to his yard when she sold the house after dad died. I ask her if she recognizes one of them and wince internally when she doesn’t, knowing it’s not good to ask Alzheimer's patients if they remember something. The stress of not remembering can make them feel bad, so I quickly move on.
I see it’s 4:30 and tell her we should get inside because her favorite show, Jeopardy, is starting, I find it fascinating that her favorite show is based on a bunch of information that she has no chance of retaining. She says she just likes to listen, even though she doesn't know the answers. Maybe the words just bring her comfort, a flood of information tumbling out of mouths, connected to brains functioning at the highest level, words falling like a waterfall, effortlessly flowing. She watches it religiously, at 11:30 and 4:30, a little Rainman-esquely. Halfway to the door I remember it’s Saturday and I got her excited for nothing. Fuck. Why didn’t I remember it was the weekend? Will I end up like her someday? Thankfully my nieces kittens are awake and thoroughly entertaining, so her favorite show is forgotten. Thanks, little beasties.
My brother gets home and I pour myself a glass of wine. Mom thinks it’s for her, so I pour a tiny one for her. I decide a couple sips of wine is worth it if she feels like she’s still her own person and “can have a god dammed glass of wine if she wants to”. I realize these are my words rumbling through my brain and not hers. She gladly accepts the wine and we all sit to watch the kittens, Gremlin and Goblin, tussle on the living room carpet. Mom can’t remember which is which and it doesn’t matter. She looks joyful as she watches them and I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing she is here, not wasting away by herself in this COVID19 world that doesn’t allow folks in senior living to be with their families. We made this choice so we could be with her, to hug her. It’s the right choice.
I’ve only been here for a few hours and I’m exhausted. I can see how tired she is and I’m concurrently depressed that she has to live like this and silently grateful that I can walk away when I need to. She doesn’t get to. She is locked into a reality that she doesn’t deserve and can’t escape. I sip my wine and recognize my privilege, once again smacking me upside the head as it does on a daily basis now. I look out the window and see the flowers in the garden. Flowers my mother can no longer name.