My mom will be 94 in August. Pauline was born in August, 1919, one of 13 children born to German, Catholic immigrants. Mom has shared many stories of growing up in a large family, with a dad who worked outside the home and made wine in the basement, and a mother who stood on her feet the majority of her life – cleaning, cooking, tending a garden in the summer, looking after 14 other people of varying ages. Mom calls her own mother a saint.
The picture above is mom in 1959, when I was in my terrible two’s, brother was almost four, and dad was manager of a grocery store in a small town. She was a stay-at-home mom for most of my childhood. Mom worked in her 20’s and 30’s, before she and dad married in 1954.
This is mom and I from Thanksgiving, 2011. My dad, brother and his girlfriend made up the rest of that picture. Mom was 92 at the time.
Since this picture was taken, dad passed away in May, at the priceless antique age of 95. His mind and humor were pretty sharp up until the last month of his life and with his passing, I came to realize how much mom had depended on him. Unlike my mom, dad had good hearing and it was he who would call me when they needed snacks or bathroom items or a bottle of brandy and vermouth. (Mom drinks a brandy manhattan almost daily. It calms her nerves. I say “Go mom!”)
Mom has macular degeneration (dad also had it) and her hearing has not been good for the last three years. When dad was alive, a typical phone conversation went like this:
Dad: “Hello, is that you? This is your dear old father.”
Mary: “Hi, what’s up?”
Mom in the background: “Who are you talking to?”
Dad: (a little louder) “Mary!”
Dad: (yelling) “It’s Mary!” (By this time, I am holding the receiver six inches from my right ear.)
Dad would start talking to me again, mom would ask another question, dad would answer, mom would not hear, dad would
yell answer again, Mary would continue to hold the phone six inches from her ear.
Now that dad is gone, it’s been a difficult year for mom. As much as I miss dad, she misses him a million times more. He handled the phone duties, he’d keep track of the calendar and doctor appointments, he kept a weekly list of the items they needed, and he’d give play-by-play of the Packer games since TV was like a cacophony of noise to mom and her hearing aid. Most of all, he kept her company, whether it was joining in the chorus of “the food sucks here” or just hanging out in one of the living areas of their assisted living facility. He was mom’s rock.
Soon after dad’s funeral, mom was confused and disoriented. She didn’t know who I was for awhile, asking me several times, “Who are your parents?” When I would respond with, “You are, mom,” she would have a puzzled look on her face. One day, mom was talking to me like I was her sister, Jeanne. Those two were close in age and were close as sisters. Aunt Jeanne was very vibrant and full of life until ovarian cancer took her life in 1974. I imagine the sisters found plenty of innocent trouble in their youth and young adult life. On the day I was mom’s sister, she had been reminiscing about her life growing up, her mom and her siblings. I found a way to gently let her know that I was her daughter and once again she asked, “Who are your parents?” *sigh*
Mom has never been diagnosed with dementia or alzheimers. She is borderline diabetic and has high blood pressure, which is being kept under control with medication (and perhaps with the brandy manhattans). I believe the lack of visual and auditory stimulus has made her world very small, that she has little to keep her mind engaged. Mom has few visitors during the week and tends to stay in her room with the door locked (to keep the flies out). She spends many hours with her own thoughts. The thoughts become mom’s world and regardless of what they are, she holds onto them for dear life – much like a hungry wolf holding onto a piece of meat. That’s okay when it comes to memories of her childhood, her husband and her adult life. It’s difficult when the thoughts become askew and repetitive.
Mom vacillates between my brother and I with her thoughts and questions. She wonders: 1) When is my brother going to get married? 2) When am I’m going to date a nice guy? 3) When is my brother going to sell his three-story condo (because he is 57 after all) and pretty soon he won’t be able to go up and down those stairs? 4) She doesn’t ask me about my second story apartment other than she wishes she could see it. 5) When is my brother going to quit working out so much (he bikes long distances, runs, works out, is very active) because he’s going to wear himself out? 6) Why do I go to the gym? I don’t need to lose weight!!!! 7) Why don’t I eat meat? (I do, but she sees me eat a lot of salads when I take her to lunch.) 8) When am I going to go to Catholic church again instead of going to a non-denominational church? (I try to avoid answering that one.)
Mom tells me that she lays awake many nights and thinks about her life and “stuff”. She was thinking too hard one day when she asked me to look up “heaven and hell” in the dictionary. It seems that she was questioning how the billions of people in heaven can all fit. If there’s a heaven, why can’t she see anyone who’s there? I have a feeling she was searching for dad and couldn’t see him. I also wonder if she had been praying to God, to take her to meet dad, and he didn’t answer.
Mom lives about 30 minutes away. I go to see her every Saturday and try to get her out for lunch. I pay her bills and bring her anything she needs. I listen to her complaints every week about the food at her place (that’s the #1 complaint among assisted living facilities and nursing homes – bad food) and anything else she wants to talk about (see topics 1-7 above). This past Saturday, we went for lunch to our regular place and I received my weekly reminder of how difficult everything is for mom. She doesn’t always know what’s on her plate unless I point it out. I have to cut her food for her, even fish. Many times, she doesn’t taste her food. Fork in hand, it takes time for her to stab anything and once in awhile, she comes up empty. For mom, it doesn’t matter because she gets to leave her “home” and the crappy food behind for a couple of hours. She gets to ride in my car, feel the sun on her face, eat something that isn’t in a casserole, and visit the cemetery. It makes her happy, I’m sure.
We visited the cemetery this past Saturday. I have to get a flag and flowers to keep dad company over the summer months. Mom can’t see the marker from the car, but we always have our little moment of silence and say a prayer for dad. As we were driving away, we talked about the Catholic cemetery where dad is buried and the public cemetery across the street, where my brother worked during high school. We drove another three miles through the city and suddenly mom pointed out the window.
Mom: “Is that the cemetery?”
Mary: “No mom, that’s just some buildings.”
Mary: “It’s not the cemetery.”
Mom, at 93.