Thursday, May 14, 2009

In the nursing home

Nothing like sitting in a nursing home to feel depressed.  My mother, lying in a hospital bed, lowered until it's merely inches off the floor, waves her hands in front of her face, flicking away figments of the imagination, mumbling incoherently.  "Did she have a nice sleep?" she asks without opening her eyes. Seconds later, for the upteenth time today, she tries to swing her legs, broken hip and all, off the bed.  "You can't get up, Mom," I say, my voice as firm as hers ever was. Her head drops back onto the pillow, a defeated sigh (one I recognize from a lifetime as her daughter) billowing from lips. I know she'd like to tell me a thing or twenty, if only she could figure out how, but I'm implacable. Her squinty eyes close again, her sighs turn to snores and her arms lift in a symphony of reaching and grabbing.  I shut my eyes as well, willing myself away from the bleakness of this linoleum floor, ornately swagged wallpaper border, and faded rose valances--the very ones I could swear were here when I last sang Christmas Carols with my middle school youth group.

This is the last address she'll ever have, the planter box with dead, scraggly vines outside her window the last view she'll ever see, if she even recognizes it as a view at all.  Things move at a steady clip downhill for her.  Yesterday, when someone put a straw to her lips, she knew what to do, and obediently swallowed pills with water.  Today, she chewed her pills, then clamped her teeth against the straw, because she's forgotten how to suck.

I wish I could glimpse what the world looks like from behind her vacant eyes.  I wish I could understand what she keeps reaching for, whether she sees an invisible watch on the wrist she keeps staring at, whether time passes in slow motion, or drifts away without her notice. I think I'd like to know what it's like to face each day within that holey shell stretched out on the bed...but then again, maybe it'd scare me to death. Perhaps there's a mercy that those afflicted with this dreadful disease cannot really really tell us how dismal, how terrifying, how lonely such an existence is.  I think of how she used to be--even three years ago--and know that even her greatest fears don't come close to how strange and empty the landscape of Alzheimers.

A few years ago--probably long past when she should have been traveling--my mother flew to Boston to see my baby brother.  We were skeptical of this trip, imagining how lost she might get.  But the trip went swimmingly, she was well-cared for and she enjoyed it.  But the lostness revealed itself nonetheless.  In a picture with D after one of Boston's famous "Duck tours," she stands holding a buoy, which frames her face.  The first time I saw it, I blanched. Her face, old and wrinkled, looked childish, her eyes absent of intelligence. From then on, every succeeding picture chronicled the light of true presence fading from her eyes.

So I sit, dulled by the drabness of this place, and the drabness of her twitching, the dreariness of her increasingly vacant self.  I sit, waiting in this straight-backed chair, watching her like she's a tiny child who would be safer sleeping in a crib. I don't think anyone can really fathom the strange shadow world dementia brings...until one enters that land with a parent, a spouse, a friend.  And then one enters the land and discovers that the wiping out of a mind while the body still lives is the cruelest death.  There is more than one way to lose someone you love.

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