Friday, January 06, 2006

Lunch With Mom

I took my mother to lunch the other day. I take her to lunch every Monday and Friday. We go to Bob Evans, not because I like the food but because she does, and because they all know that she is ninety and doesn’t really have the ability to understand much. When we get to Bob Evans she often gets a hug from Mary the Buser. They know us. After four years of most Mondays and Fridays, you learn a lot about a restaurant. I tip well. The staff, which is mostly working class women, is appreciative of the tips, but they seem more impressed by the fact that I conduct this ritual.

I’d just as soon not. Conversations with my mother are difficult. She says, “It’s something!” which I believe, based on last year when we could sort of have conversations, refers to the bustle of the restaurant. We’ve had to wait for a seat, which isn’t normal. The dining room is loud with conversation.

“They’re busy, aren’t they,” I say.

“Before it was regular,” she says, “and it was fine. But they changed it all. But they still like it!” She laughs.

While we wait for our meal she will carefully unwrap her silverware and then array it on the napkin. Cindy or Meredith or Mel or Chris brings her a pot of tea and a cup. I put the teabag in the teapot and give her a packet of sugar, because sometimes she salts her tea if I forget. She rearranges the mug, the spoon, her silverware, puts her napkin in her lap. Then she moves the knife and the fork to the other side, moves the teapot (one of those little metal restaurant pots) over by the knife.

“Is yours a combination of those, too?” she asks me and gestures towards my iced tea.

I don’t know what this is about so I just nod agreeably. If I ask her something like, “My what?” Or, “Combination of what?” she will gamely attempt to respond but neither she nor I will have a clue what she is talking about.

Recently we went to Applebee’s because she had a doctor’s appointment nearby. I bought her a beer, which she liked very much.

“Did you like your beer?” I asked.

“It’s not b-, it’s good, but not beer.”

“It’s beer,” I said.

“Is it?” she asked, clearly astonished. “I thought it was chicken!”

Nouns fail her. She mixes up colors and forgets the word for snow.

The wait staff thinks I am a great daughter because I bring her to Bob Evans. But there are issues I don’t face, like, all her clothes are wearing out. But she only wears blue, and she only likes polyester blouses of a certain type that were available in the 80’s. Rigorously tailored for office wear (she was a secretary.) I’ve looked in used clothing shops, but I suspect I would have to haunt them and I don’t like resale shops. If I buy her something, since she doesn’t recognize it, she thinks that it belongs to someone else and has been hung in her closet by mistake. So her cuffs are frayed and her clothes have stains. At the Assisted Living, the staff dotes on her, thank God. She stopped wearing anything but one pair of pants and one shirt, so now the attendants listen for her to take her shower somewhere between four am and six am and sneak in and steal her clothes to wash them.

This isn’t in their job description.

I thank them. I come when they call me and say she has a cold or needs to see a doctor and I thank them. They are not allowed to accept tips or gifts, except baked goods at Christmas, so I bring cookies.

I spend about three hours a week with my mother. She is ninety and in good health except for the dementia. She is always pathetically glad to see me and I should go see her more, but I dread sitting there, while she makes sprightly conversation that neither of us understands. The staff at the Assisted Living tells me that they hope when they are old that their children will be as good to them as I am to my mom, which only tells me how many people sit there and no one ever comes to see them.

More and more my mother talks about her mother died, and then her father came all the way up, and was up there, you know, but he's gone too. And her older brother and sister were right there and bam, down they went and she can't seem to explain or find out what happened. She returns to these stories again and again. Her mother has been dead for 77 years, her father for 50 or more. Her older brother died 32 years ago and her older sister died, I believe, six years ago. I used to explain this to her, but now I just ask, "Does it make you sad?"

She is ninety years old, she knows she will die before too long and she knows that she doesn't know what is going on. I think that's what these stories are about, these obsessive versions of how her siblings came to this place where she lives and died and she can't find anything out. What is there to say to that? I hug her and give her a kiss and take her to Bob Evans and then, because I can't wait to escape, I drop her off at the door and watch while she goes in. I wait though, until she gets to the door, and she turns around and waves. I wave back.


Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Just today I read a New Yorker essay by Oliver Sacks about aphasia. He notes that the first physician to describe aphasia (in the 1860s) believed that those who could not understand speech could not conceptualize, meaning that they could not really think, and he sometimes likened them to dogs. Later research has proven that aphasia can be expressive or receptive, and that even people with both can still think clearly, sometimes even (according to the testimony of those who have recovered) in words.

Your mother has dementia, not aphasia, but she clearly retains a self that can remember, perceive and respond, and do everything else constitutive of an intact ego. That she knows what she says sometimes makes no sense confirms her ongoing sense of self. Some elderly people are so lost in dementia that their relatives are not sure whether there is anything still "there," but you have no doubts.

It is very much to your credit that you go and visit your mother, despite being disconerted by her degree of imfirmity. It is difficult to overstate how strongly a mother feels toward her child, and "pathetically glad" probably describes how many quick-witted old people feel when one of their adult children comes to visit.

You are troubled that your mother finds new things sufficiently uncongenial that she sometimes won't recognize new clothes as hers, but this is merely the far end of a continuum that virtually everyone experiences as they age. Today I also looked at Howard Waldrop's "unblog," and noted (not for the first time) that Howard is interested in the popular culture of his childhood more than that of his adulthood, and has for at least the past twenty years. It's disconcerting that your mother actually rejects clothes designed after her retirements years, but I'm not sure how much more extreme this is than Howard's mental life.

Your mother still recognizes you, loves you, can communicate her feelings toward you (with some noise jamming the signal when it comes to fine detail), and lives a happier life for your being in it. You can probably have some blouses and slacks made for her to the designs she likes. (Take a bunch of digital photos if she no longer has spare garments to show a seamstress.) This is a very solveable problem.

The only other real problem is that you feel unable to spend more time with her than you do. It would be nice if you could manage this, but you do well to manage it as much as you do. Certainly it cannot have been easy during the months that chemo was smacking you around.

Your mother's dotage has been a happy one because of your companionship. The friendly support of the staff counts for much less than this.

January 06, 2006 10:20 PM  
Blogger Autumn said...

I'm very glad to hear she has a great staff. It's not an exceptionally common thing.

Good for you to keep going, and good for her to see you.

January 07, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Reading your post, I kept hearing my father's voice, from when I was very small. He was the seventh of eight kids; by the time I was born his mother, my Grannie Annie, was well into some sort of dementia (they were less precise about terminology and causes in those days) and before my memory of her starts she went to live in a nursing home. When we visited, my brother and I would usually play outside, rolling down the lawn that sloped away from the building, or buying 10 cent Cokes from an impossibly antiquated vending machine, while my father went in to see his mother. We prefered to stay outside: inside smelled musty and old, and there were hollow-looking people who didn't belong to us. But sometimes I went in with my father; when he talked with his mother it was with this enormous, quiet patience (which he rarely showed my brother or me) and a sentence that repeated over and over: "Mama, it's me." She'd nod happily and smile, reach for his hand and hold it. She couldn't make sense of who I was, but she knew him, and whatever it cost Dad, it was clearly a gift for her that he was there.

What I mean to say is, hard as those visits are for you, they are gifts to her.

January 09, 2006 2:33 AM  
Blogger Emma Bull said...

Thanks. I mean, it doesn't fix anything, or change anything, but it still helps. So thanks.

January 20, 2006 8:47 PM  
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March 24, 2009 1:53 AM  

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