The woman sitting on the bed in front of me said, “I can’t remember what happened last night. My friend said she saw me go in the other room, and he followed me in there, but I have no memory of that room. Or him.”
She paused, and fear shadowed her face. “I put my drink down for a few minutes when I went to the bathroom, just a little while before that.”
I don’t get to spend as much time as I used to caring for the survivors of rape, sexual assault, and abuse. So sitting with her in that room was important to me. She was important to me.
“Let’s get some testing done right off the bat. Then, if you want, I can take a look and see if you’re injured.”
She nodded, then paused, and tears welled up in her eyes.
“I just…..I just wish……”
I smiled sadly. “You wish you could remember, don’t you?”
She nodded, and she began to cry.
“I wish I could remember.”
The time I used to spend in that quiet back exam room in our ER is now spent puttering around my parents home.
I was cooking in their kitchen last night. My mother walked down from the upstairs, and paused next to me.
“Where’s the kitty cat?”
[They adopted a scratch-and-dent kitty from the Humane Society about a year ago. Bridie is seven years old, only has one eye, and really has very little idea How To Cat. My mother adores her.]
I said, stirring some soup, “She’s upstairs, sitting on your bed, being fat and lazy. You were just up there.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “I’ll go say hi.”
And she walked past me, out of the kitchen, wandering towards the living room, nowhere near the upstairs bedroom where her cat was.
She ping-ponged through the downstairs rooms, peeking through doorways, turning lights on and off, and by the time she got back to the kitchen, she’d forgotten she was looking for the cat. She saw me cooking at the stove, and decided to help me by tidying up some of the kitchen mess.
She picked up a clean dishtowel, paused, looked at it for a moment, and then opened the garbage and very carefully placed it inside.
When I married in my mid-twenties, my mother designed, drafted, and sewed my wedding dress. She made my father drive them to Wisconsin from Massachusetts for the wedding, with two sewing machines and the dress in the car, because (a) she didn’t trust the airlines not to lose her sewing machines and (b) she wanted to ensure she could make any needed last-minute alterations.
The marriage didn’t last very long, but the dress, beautiful and flowing and perfect, survives to this day, carefully packaged in an archival box in the house.
She knitted us endless complex cabled sweaters, many of which she designed herself, most of which she altered on the fly to fit us better. She sewed curtains, pillows, cushion covers, and decorative quilted wall-hangings. She sewed all of our clothing when we were little, because in the early 80s it was cheaper to sew clothing than to buy it, and they didn’t have a lot of money.
When I was in elementary school I was cast as a princess in school play, and forgot to tell my mother I needed a costume until the night before. Exasperated but undaunted, she stayed up that night sewing me a medieval lady-of-the-court costume, and it was ready to go the next morning.
We all had elaborate, specially-baked, highly-decorated cakes for our birthdays. We had dinosaurs and trains and quilts and monsters. She cooked all our meals, all from scratch, most without needing a recipe. On one memorable night in high school, all three of us invited at least TWO friends over for dinner, and only told her about an hour before dinner.
That night, nine teenagers and two adults crowded around our enormous colonial dining room table, extra chairs stolen from around the house, digging into great vats of spaghetti, laughing and joking.
Her superpower was creating magic from the sheer chaos of the universe.
My mother sat on the couch last night, holding my hand, physically shaking from fear.
“What if…..what if I don’t have enough clothes?” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“We have lots of extra clothes for you upstairs. We’ll make sure you always have clothes, ma.”
She nodded, not quite reassured.
“Are you anxious?” I asked.
She nodded again. “Yes. Very.”
“That’s your Alzheimer’s brain, ma. When you’re tired, your Alzheimer’s makes you scared. That’s ok, it’s just what it does,” I said.
“But you don’t need to be scared,” said my dad. “We’re always going to be here for you. We’re going to take care of you.”
She relaxed a little bit, and sat for a few minutes, thoughts drifting across her face, and then dissolving into nothing seconds later.
“….but what if I forget?” she said, quietly.
I smiled at her, carefully bandaging my shattered heart for the ten-thousandth time.
I squeezed her hand.
“Then I’ll help you remember.”
Oh, Martha, I’m so sorry you are going through this. I will have your family in my intentions. Thank you for sharing
Lost my Dad 7 weeks ago today. . He had Alzheimer’s too. I’m glad that he was at home and I that I got to see him and I’m glad you can see your Mom and hold her hand. As you know there are still special times to be had and memories to be made.
You are a magnificent wordsmith. Many of us know the sorrow, but your word picture portrays it so beautifully.
Dearest Matha. David and I were just reminiscing about your parents. He had to go pick up some sports gear this morning . I asked where, and then told him that was near where the Phillips moved to after Brookfield. My boys still talk about your Mom and what an amazing cook she was. As a matter of fact they told me, after college of course, that I should have asked Mrs Phillips how to make PB&J sandwiches when they were in elementary school. Apparently if you put PB on both pieces of bread before the jelly, the sandwiches won’t get soggy by lunch. Oh silly me! Your Mom is a treasure and it saddens me to hear of her Alzheimer’s. With you and your Dad by her side she will get the best care and memory boosts imaginable. And by the way, Martha, you are also a treasure and an Angel. Miss you all and please give my best to everyone in your family.
It would be difficult not to commiserate with a caretaker of a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s, and your challenges and sorrows bring back memories of hardship for those of us who have been through it in this role. However, your portrait of your mother is especially vivid, and personalizes your story in a way that brings back precious details of the individual people, the parents and grandparents so many of us have lost to this cruel and pernicious disease. It is a tough road ahead, but worth it to be with them on it, every precious moment of recognition, every gentle touch. I hope you remember to maintain the self care that you would recommend for your patients. Thank you Martha, for this gift to your readers.