Two weeks ago, my mother quietly slipped out the back door of our house and vanished.
I heard the door close. I did. But I was working away on something on my laptop and my brain was whirring and the sound of the back door closing registered only faintly, orbiting my consciousness on something resembling a 3-minute radio delay. But when it hit, it was like the comet that killed the dinosaurs.
I bolted up off the couch. “Where’s Mom?”
Dad had been working in the basement and had just come upstairs. “I don’t know. Where is she?”
I shot out the back door, circling the house and the yard. Not there. The garage? No. Back inside again. “Is she here?”
“Are you sure?” I checked all the rooms downstairs. We have the steep, dangerous stairs to the second floor gated off, but I checked up there anyhow. Nothing.
I grabbed my car keys. Dad was double checking the house. “I’m going to go drive around the block,” I said, and headed out the front door. I glanced up and down our sidewalk, looking for her. Nothing.
Our neighbor was out working on his porch. “You didn’t happen to see Mom go past, did you?”
He shook his head. “No. Do you need me to start walking around the block to look?”
We are beyond fortunate in the kindness, compassion, and understanding of all our neighbors. I shook my head. “I’m going to drive around a bit and look.”
I have always maintained that there are three circumstances under which we will place my mother into a memory care facility. First, if we are unable to keep her safe. Second, if we are unable to keep ourselves safe. (Alzheimer’s patients will sometimes become violent as their memory deteriorates.) Third, when my mother has finally forgotten myself, my brothers, and my father.
When we can no longer offer her the safety and comfort of familiarity, then it no longer matters where she lives.
But we weren’t there yet – –
Unless I completely failed, in this moment, to keep her safe.
I circled the two blocks closest to our home, and then made an unbelieveably lucky guess and went one block further. There, on the next block down, I saw the small figure of my mother, walking full-speed down the sidewalk.
I drove much too fast for our neighborhood and pulled up on the wrong side of the road next to her. She was carrying a bag of recycling and a pair of my father’s sneakers. It wasn’t terribly cold, but she’s very thin now, and she wasn’t wearing a jacket. I realized that she had crossed at least three different streets to get where she was, and felt nauseous with fear.
She stopped when I called to her. “Hi, Mom.” I got out of the car.
“Oh! Hi there!”
“Can I interest you in a ride home?”
She smiled. “Well, that would be great!”
She was completely unperturbed, unbothered by my interrupting her mission — whatever mission it is where one needs a bag of plastics and a pair of men’s sneakers. She got in the car and I buckled her in and we drove home.
She was very cheerful the whole way.
I immediately developed stress heartburn so severe that I only stopped taking Omeprazole yesterday.
My father and I changed the types of locks we have, and she is too confused these days to figure them out, so she’s safe again. We try to get her out and walking with us every day — she loves to walk — but as it gets colder, she’s more reluctant to go outside. Her aversion to the cold actually makes her less likely to wander in the winter than in the summer.
But when she can’t go out, she can do little more than pace back and forth in the house, “tidying” things, picking things up and putting them down somewhere else, talking in phrases that make no sense, caged in by neurons that are continuosly short-circuiting as they deteriorate.
I watch a lot more Teepa Snow on TikTok these days, trying to glean hints and tricks to keep her from becoming frustrated and angry at us. She’s stuck in a house that is increasingly unfamiliar, in a world that doesn’t make sense at all, with people who just boss her around all the time.
How very ironic that I managed to keep her safe, but I can’t keep her from being miserable.