I visited my 80 year old mom yesterday.
Afterward, I came home and ran for 2 and a half hours (not my usual workout routine!) and slept for two hours last night. My mom is dying.
Let me back up.
My mom has grown weaker over the last few years. She lives alone so I check in on her frequently. About 6 weeks ago, I went for 2 days without being able to get my mother on the phone. When I finally got to her apartment I found her on the floor. She had fallen 2 days before and could not get up.
After a week in the hospital my mom returned home – further diminished. Her now diagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease, which had slowly been invading her, had now taken over fully. She was thin and often frightened and forgetful.
“Are you here to take my home?” My mom greeted me with those words during my first visit after her hospitalization.
“No mom. I am here to visit. I want to make sure you are ok.” She reluctantly let me in.
As the days passed, my mother became more paranoid so that she would not buzz me into her apartment building. Due to my mom’s “condition”, the building issued me a pass card to allow myself in to the building though I do not live there. So I enter her home whether she wants me to or not. I am an invasion.
Yesterday I took my mother to one of the myriad of medical appointments that now define her days. My mother’s fear was palpable in the doctor’s office.
“Don’t let her hurt me” my mother pleaded as she was now more afraid of the doctor than me.
I stayed for the history taking portion of the exam and was invited to leave by the doctor so that my mother could have privacy during the physical exam.
“Please don’t leave me.” Her fright took me by surprise and for the first time in my life, I saw my ultra-conservative, Roman Catholic mother unclothed. Her vulnerability was complete.
My mother has made the transition from the process of living to the process of dying. Each process is equally (sur)real but I have not traveled this road with anyone so closely before. My father was absent from my life so I absented myself from his death. My sister died suddenly so there was no process to go through – only grief which is also real but abstract somehow.
My mother is losing things. She forgets. Pots burn on the stove so that now I have removed the handles so she cannot cook and I have gotten her a microwave so she can reheat the food I have cooked for her. I am my mother’s mother just as I am the mother to my 2 sons. Yet my sons are growing more independent; they argue with me, challenge me and are in the process of detaching and moving on with what will be their own self-directed lives. My mother has grown more dependent on me whom she experiences as a stranger most of the time.
Where do you go to school?”my mother asked me last week. “You are a very pretty girl but you need to gain some weight or else you won’t get a boyfriend.”
My mom giggled at her advice to me and I giggled along with her. At that moment I was some neighbor kid who had come by to do some chores for her.
The doctor took me aside yesterday and kindly said “It is not about extending your mother’s life at this point. It is about improving the quality of what time is left.” I shook my head mechanically but the sentiment turned over in my head again and again, “improving the quality of what time is left.”
My mother was exhausted by the time I got her home from her doctor’s appointment. She had failed the mental status exam miserably. She had no recollection of my sister who had died so many years ago. It would be my job alone now to remember her. She knew I was her daughter at the beginning of the exam but at the end she asked me how long I had been working for the doctor.
My mother wanted to take a nap as soon as we got back to her apartment but I needed to see her take her medication before I left.
“Will these kill me if I take them?” she asked
“No mom, they will help you feel better.”
She swallowed them, then stared at me. She really can’t trust a stranger.
My mother’s home is filled with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. She wears a crucifix, a rosary and a scapula around her neck. I attended all girls Catholic schools for 12 years as a child and in adulthood I rebelled completely against the oppressive religion of my childhood.“Do you go to church?” my mother asked.
“Oh yes. Everyday.”
My mother smiled broadly. “I need to take a nap now.”
“I know mom. I’m leaving now. I will see you tomorrow.”
“You are a nice girl. Your mother must be very proud of you.”
“Some days she is and some days she isn’t” I answered. We both laughed.
My mom got into her bed at 5pm and I went home and ran (away) for 2 and a half hours..
Regina Walker is a psychotherapist, photographer and writer in NYC.