Monday, April 04, 2005

One Person's Poison

A couple of weeks ago, walking down the hall of the assisted living where she lives, my mother reached over and in a manner archaically genteel, touched my husband's arm and said, "I know I should know you, but I can't remember your name."

"I'm Bob, Maureen's husband," he said, unflustered. He believes it is because he had just shaved off his beard but I know that sometimes, when I get to Grande Village where she lives, she doesn't recognize me right away. She'll be 90 in July.

Chemo makes me feel old. Not in the usual ways we mean when we say something makes us feel old. Not emotionally tired. Really old. I can't catch my breath, I fatigue easily. My digestion goes to hell and I take my Senecot to insure regularity. I ache. I can't think of what word I want. It's undoubtedly different in important ways from aging, but I think about being old in a different way. The breathing thing is creepy. It's enough to make me think more seriously about exercise and eating right.

But my mother did that. She is the middle of five siblings, and only she and her brother are left. Her brother is ten years younger than she is. My mother exercised and maintained her weight. I grew up with freshly prepared food and fresh vegetables when all my friends were growing up on minute rice and canned peas. Kids would come to our house and be astonished at the taste of green beans. She did all the right things. She has never had high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar problems. But her she has dementia and her relentless good health means that at 89 she has no brain and a body that won't quit. She still knows me, even if it takes a minute, but she doesn't know my sister. Doesn't even remember that she has two daughters. She's not unhappy, although she does have a vague anxiety about things not being quite under control.

I've had a surprising number of conversations with people about suicide in the face of terminal illness or dementia. My sister and I joke about having a pact that neither of us will let the other get that way (a pact that favors her, I will point out, because I'm younger.) But the problem is twofold. One is timing. With dementia there will come a time when one is too...demented, too senile, to remember what the plans were. And the other is that thing about not poisoning the well. What do I owe my family? Certainly, when my mother was eighty and showing signs of dementia, she was still herself in ways that we could recognize and appreciate. We could still talk and be with her. Now there's no conversation.

I wrote a poem about it. Forgive me for putting it here, but I don't know another way to explain how she both is and is not my mother anymore.

Les Brown's Band of Renown

My mother is a pocket with a hole.
She loses nouns, whole decades, connections.
What is that? she says
and I say, truck? cloud? What do you need?
A quarter? Seven cents?

My mother is a ruined city.
My map of her, never complete, grows out of date.
That's Glenn Miller, I say.
Benny Goodman. Your favorite song is on.
Stardust. She smiles for me

but where the map says swing music
is an empty field. A few pale stones and grass
bending in the wind.
She danced with my father on the deck
of a paddle boat. Les Brown's Band of Renown.

A slim girl, motherless herself.
Auburn and white, she stood so straight.
I have a faded snapshot
of her memory. I could say, 'once you told me'
but who would I offer it to?

Even Troy, where no stone stands on stone,
is still a place. So you, my mother,
stranger to me.
Location and history and one breath
after another. Only air.

At some point does one go from being there for your family and being a burden? When are you poisoning the well? Terri Shaivo's case showed that one person's poison is another person's comfort. Who decides? My husband and I have both talked about how we don't want extraordinary measures. But when does ordinary become extraordinary?

Today the dogs and I went for a walk and we doubled the distance we've been going. It was 46 degrees F. and the sun was melting the four inches of snow we got this weekend. There was water everywhere but the miniature dachshund (who puts new meaning into the concept of hydrophobia) was so excited she padded through four inch puddles without a qualm. Since that's chest high on her, that's pretty astonishing. And even on the hill coming back to the house I didn't have any problem with breathlessness. That's good, since I plan to be in New Mexico in May. If I don't get some lung capacity before then I'm going to be at 10,000 feet sitting in a chair.

So I'll exercise and I'll eat my vegetables and see if I can lose ten pounds. I'll take deep breaths and be glad that my infirmity is temporary. I will revel in the ordinary, and deal with the extraordinary, as best I can, if and when it comes.


Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Thanks for that, Maureen.

I have a memory, powerful but faded around the edges, of going to visit my grandmother at the nursing home where she spent the last fifteen years of her life. Mostly my brother and I rolled around on the lawn and begged for dimes to buy Cokes from the antique machine in the lobby; but I remember watching my father talk to Grannie; she smiled and was happy to talk to him, but it would take him a long while to get her to remember who he was, and he was both gentle and tremulous about reminding her. I was maybe six years old at the time, and seeing my father, whom I thought was The Most Powerful Guy In the World, as a child with a childish parent, was...not frightening, but unsettling.

I wonder sometimes about the genetic legacy. I have no reason to suspect that I'm in any sort of DNA crosshairs, but still I wonder about it.

One of the unsettling things about being pregnant is that, once you set the process in motion, all you can do is eat properly, get some exercise, and hope everything will be okay. It's unsettling that, in the end, that's about all you can do about life.

April 05, 2005 2:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the haunting poem Maureen. My only remaining close relative, my Aunt, went into assisted care 2 years ago. She has been such a great actress it's hard to tell how much she remembers and how much of her smile and nod is playing her part. I think she remembers me after a couple of days -- but I know that in her walker basket she has all the letters I've written her over the last year. She showed each one to me - telling me they're from Judy and how great they are. It's so very sad. She, also, ate and did all the right things. Now here she sits, healthy and in a strange world of her own. Her eyesight isn't great - and she can barely hear anything and keeps losing her hearing aids. I'm sorry, I'm afraid I feel that's a kind of life that has no, or litle, quality. She, too, has signed her living will and her DNR. But those don't help me bring her life back to her. Fresh flowers are forgotten before the next day, labeled photographs hold no interest - so, I keep writing letters that she can put in her walker basket.

April 05, 2005 11:43 AM  
Blogger Greg van Eekhout said...

This blog post is so eloquent that I want to comment on it, even though I really have nothing to add.

April 06, 2005 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary Turzillo here.

I love that poem, Maureen, as I've told you several times before.

Is it in print? I forget.

I visited my own demented, but not as nice, mom yesterday. She has always loved jewelry, so when she went into Arden Courts, I bought an string of antique faux pearls for 18 bucks and gave them to her.

They lasted exactly three weeks.

So, I went to a party store and bought sixty strings of faux pearl Marci Gras beads. When she fussed over having lost the antique string -- she said she had seen another woman in the assisted living wearing them, which is probably true -- I produced one of the Mardi Gras sets.

They actually look pretty good from a distance, and she put them away lovingly, although they only lasted a week.

I brought her still another set this week, along with a dollar-store bracelet of which I have five iterations. I told her the pearls had been missing because I had to take them to be restrung.

She complained that they weren't the same ones, this string was shorter. So I told her the jeweler had had to knot them tighter, and therefore they were shorter.

Now if I could only find hearing aids that cost less than a dollar --

Thanks for posting that poem. It's wonderful.

April 07, 2005 11:53 AM  
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