Updated: Dec 28, 2020
“Do you know where mom’s teeth are?” my brother asked from the other end of the phone line. “No,” I replied, “She had taken them out about a half hour after I gave them to her and I wasn’t able to find them.” We both laughed. “Well, they will turn up eventually,” he said as he got off the phone to go and figure out something squishy to give her for dinner that doesn’t require chewing. He found her teeth later that night in her jewelry box.
I had been with mom that after noon for a few hours. At one point I went into her room and found her sitting in her chair, her TV tray stand in front of her, with about two dozen small plastic plant identification markers spread out across it. This was new, I hadn’t ever seen these little treasures, left overs, I’m sure, from her gardening days. She kept these kinds of things for her records and for planning what she would do for the next season, each card having instructions for optimal planting and care of the plant. She was reading the cards out loud to herself. She does this kind of thing often, reading out loud the words she sees around her. She has a hard time finishing a sentence of her own, but she can read a full paragraph out loud without stopping. I think it gives her comfort, to be able to say words aloud without struggling for what comes next. “Rieger Begonia. Care: Requires a bright and cool position. Do not expose to direct sunlight. Fertilize once every two to three weeks. Keep soil moist. Can be placed outside during summer. Not winter hardy. For decoration only. Do not consume.”
She was agitated, moving the markers around. I sat next to her and asked her what she was doing. “I can’t figure…” was as much as she could get out. I tried a re-direct. “Which one is your favorite?” I asked. This pleased her. She searched the markers, picked one up and showed me a beautiful purple flower. “I remember those in your garden,” I said. “Yes, yes, I had those”, she said with a smile. She looked over at the box she had clearly gotten them out of and reached in. “But these, I don’t know…” She pulled from the box a small stack of playing cards. They were all spades, set in numerical order. The rest of the cards were nowhere to be seen, likely stashed away on one of her many hiding spots.
She can’t play card games anymore, which is sad because it was a huge part of her life. Throughout her adult life, she got together a few times a month to play bridge with her girlfriends. This group of women had become friends in Jr High School and stayed lifelong friends. She recently told me how, when they were in High School, they would walk up and down Lake Street in South Minneapolis for hours on the weekends. “We called ourselves the Happy Wanderers,” she told me, and I could picture them all in my minds eye, their younger selves back in the 1950’s, wearing their poodle skirts, button up blouses and cardigan sweaters. I wanted to imagine them in matching satin jackets like Laverne and Shirley, with "Happy Wanderers" embroidered on the back, but I knew that was a step too far for a bunch of girls who played bridge for fun. She has been talking a lot about Sharon lately, who was her very best friend from age 13 on. I considered Sharon my second mom. She passed away about 15 years ago, but in my mom’s mind she comes to visit her a lot these days. “Sharon was over yesterday,” she will say, and I will nod and smile.
Mom has two decks of playing cards and she has been manipulating them for months now, shuffling them, putting them in order, shuffling them again. She must like the feel of something in her hands that is familiar, and the shuffling of cards puts her in her happy place. This is something she can control in a world that makes no sense. She also likes to fold clothes and put them away, whether or not they are clean, which can make doing her laundry a challenge. But the manipulation of objects is where she finds her agency, so we let her, often following behind her correcting rights she wrongs. The decks of cards have become intermingled and they will stay that way. There is no need to separate them out anymore. She will never play a card game with them again so it is pointless to try and keep them in the proper boxes. They serve a different purpose now.
The stack of spades she was showing me were warped and rough around the edges. She will often clutch her cards with her weathered hands and worries them, so they have become more and more worn out. She fanned them out. “Those are the best ones you know”, I said, and her face lit up. “I do know that,” she replied, happy with herself for knowing it. “I think you can keep those right here in your special box.” I said, hoping to relieve her of the stress of finding where to put them. It seemed to work and she went back to the plant markers.
A couple days later I found her again playing with the cards, but this time it was hearts instead of spades. I could see stacks of cards on her desk across the room, arranged in suited piles. The hearts on her TV tray were spread out and she only had the lower value cards in front of her. There were doubles of everything because of the mingled decks, and she once again had them in numerical order. She counted them off for me, pointing to each card as she said the number. I didn’t bother asking why she had separated them from the other hearts, the royal cards of the deck. If she knew, she wouldn’t have been able to explain it to me, so I avoided trying to get her to bring me along on her internal monologue. These lower cards meant something to her and that was what mattered.
Four times a day we have to get her to take her medications. This is becoming more and more challenging, partly because it's becoming difficult for her to swallow. She is beginning to really dislike doing it. Not as much as taking a shower frustrates her, but it's moving in that direction. We bring her pills to her in a little orange bowl. When she first went to live with my brother a few months ago, all we had to do was set the bowl down next to her and she would take them. But now she has a hard time understanding what she is supposed to do with them, and what the glass of water is for, so we have to hand them to her, one by one, and make sure she takes them all or they will end up in her closet along with the food she doesn’t like to eat.
I was staying the night in the guest room which is right next to her room, and this is the room where the orange bowl lives, along with the daily check list of what to do for her and when. Her pill box hidden so she won’t get into it, but the little orange bowl is just sitting there. I went into the room at one point to get something and I looked over at the bowl. She had placed two cards in it, both of them the two of hearts, and it made me smile. I brought them back into her room and put them with the other cards on her desk and didn’t really think much about it again.
This morning, as I was slowly waking up, it dawned on me that it might have been her way of expressing her dislike for the pills, by putting the lowest card of her current favorite suit in the bowl, and not just one of them, but two. Then I thought about the spades in her box with the plant markers. Was she trying to make a connection there? You use spades for digging, maybe the spades and the gardening markers being in the same box was her trying to make a connection of two things she loves, with the added spade double entendre. I don’t know if this is actually her cryptic messaging, or just something she is doing randomly, but I’d like to think there is method to her madness. I’d like to think that these are ways she is finding to make some sense in her confused state. It may not be doing anything for her whatsoever, but it’s helping me to believe that somewhere in her brain there is still the ability to pull on two thought threads and tie them together in a bow. I think there is value in that, even if it’s just for me.