Saturday, March 2, 2013


The film Amour recently won the Oscar for best foreign film.   It so credibly depicts an elderly lady's decline that it often beared reminding that Emannuelle Riva, the 85 year old actress who played the leading role, was acting. Despite the realness on screen, Amour is not a documentary.

I remember once visiting an aunt at a nursing home.  Aunt Louise was my mom's older half-sister, some twenty years her senior, who was my favorite Aunt.  She was a hoot.  She took me on my first trip out of North Carolina; to New York by train, when I was 11.  It was during that long ride that wanderlust took root in my spirit, anchored by a love for long train journeys.

That day in the nursing home, Aunt Louise was dressed in a hot pink shirtdress; the cloud of hair framing her head matched her sweater.  She was sitting in a wheelchair in the common area where others sat too, a tv was on that no one paid attention to.  Mama approached her, smiling; "Hey Luigi!" She kissed her cheek; Aunt Louise didn't respond.  Mama was unsettled, but undaunted.  She rubbed Aunt Louise's arm, she patted her hand.  "Louise?  Louise?  Do you know who I am?"   Eventually, Aunt Louise shrugged and harrumphed: "Don't YOU know who you are?!"  

It was hi flipping larious (to me).  It was classic Aunt Louise-- but it was a flash of lucidity, as quickly gone as it appeared.  Now, some twenty odd years later, my heart breaks many times a day, as Mama's conversation segues from the present day at the start of a sentence to 40 years ago by the end of it.  When she was talking to a niece the other night who'd been chatting with her for awhile,Mama suddenly interjected: "Who you?"

The most abusive thing is how quickly it happens. 

I live about 700 miles from home; and have for over 30 years.  I go home, typically two long weekends a year; usually around Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. Mama and I would  make a traditional run to Shoe Show, at least once per stay, to feed our shoe-shopping habit.  She's a trooper.  Even into her 80s, she was still going out with me, up til the last year or so.

She's in her mid eighties now, a 2 times cancer survivor -- (lymphoma in her 50s; colon cancer in her 70s ), and she completely recovered from a stroke she had about five years ago.  She's more than a  trooper, she's a warrior, but warriors decline too, as it turns out.

I was home for 5 days last October, the longest time home in about  4 years. I intended to assess Mama's condition for myself,  having deemed the alarming texts from my sister as hyperbolic,  maybe even indicative of  Munchausen by Proxy syndrome.   What I experienced those five days in October compelled me to go back again in November.

When I went in for Veteran's Day weekend, Mama continuously forgot that I had been there 4 weeks earlier, in October.  

In November, when I bent to kiss her goodbye after spending the last couple of hours together--just the two of us, going to a doctor's appointment and then lunch, she looked at me and said, with surprise in her voice and her face -- "When did you get here?!"  

That was the first heartbreak; the speed of her decline delivered a body-doubling punch to the gut.

The most gracious thing may be how quickly it happens.  

In recent years, Mama's awareness of her creeping forgetfulness frustrated and depressed her.  It's probably a blessing for her now that she is unaware that she is unaware.

For those of us who love her, it's saddening and humiliating, helplessness abounds.  It appears to be Alzheimer's; her sister, my Aunt Bert, had it.  I treasure each moment, even the fleeting ones, where there's still connection, when the grit and humor of  the Mama we knew flashes through.  Even this new Mama is charming and engaging, as long as you're patient and meet her where she is, whether worrying over children who aren't there or collecting and packing things to 'take home'.
She's slipping away.
My siblings and I, and our offspring and their offspring , about 30 in all, converged on the Ville and surprised Mama to celebrate her birthday in late December; her birthday is New Year's Day.  That's one gift so far, of this experience, it compels me to act, not waste one day.  When my heart broke that day in November, I was inspired to celebrate Mama and soon,  while we still recognized her, and while she had a chance of remembering it.   The birthday celebration was fantastic. With all those people around, especially the great-grands (she's got a sweet spot for the Pre-k set too) she was in her element:  the Mama we knew, joking and teasing; one could've been seduced to think that her decline was simply attributable to isolation; what she needed  was more social interaction.
Four hours later, as we read her cards and opened presents, every five minutes or so, she'd say something like: "WHERE all this stuff come from?!"  "What birthday party?"

I could go on and on; there are new griefs every day. Tributaries join the river of tears shed for my brother who died on January 31, 2013, aged 60 years, two weeks.  He was long suffering and little-complaining (only about food), and died after a long illness.   He was a sweetheart, yet the hardest core-- the stories about him are legendary, but he was just my big bruh. I'm the youngest of 8, and at a distance of 7 years from the next youngest, so alot of what I know of my siblings is based on stories I'm told--like this one:.
My brothers Tim and Steve were thick as thieves back in the day, and till the end. Before the wheelchair ramp was built, Tim, at 64, would hoist Steve on his back and carry him down the steep, treacherous steps from his house to the car to take him to dialysis three times a week.  

I went home in time in January to spend two good days with Steve while he was still alert and in good spirits; he was a warrior too.  The night before he passed, he jolted from some hovering unconsciousness, reached out and clutched the sides of the mattress, trying to raise his frail frame out of the bed: "I'm ready to go!" he exclaimed.  He'd had enough of that hospital bed!  The next morning, I helped dress him in his last few minutes with us, caressed his skin. I got to say goodbye; I hope he was comforted.  I'm so glad his suffering is over; still--this all hurts so much.

Mama's buried two of her children now.  Hours after coming from my brother's funeral, she started asking when it would be.  Not remembering my brother died could be a blessing--but only if it doesn't mean suffering news of his death anew time after time. 

I thought writing would be typically cathartic.
There are no words.   

1 comment:

Mocha Misfit said...

Sorry you are going through so much right now, but I'm sure those going through similar circumstances will find it helpful to know they are not alone. I have heard that support groups can help those with parents with Alzheimer's deal with the emotional burden. Thanks for sharing your story.


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