At 93, my mother Vivien lives daily on the edge of the “long sleep” awaiting her after a dynamic life of work, dancing, sports, travel, golf, gardening and raising her children.
While her body continues its earthly journey, her mind leaves the planet before the rest of her. Dementia in my mother proves the hardest, most painful and anguishing experience of my life. I speak with her, but she doesn’t know who I am. I hug her, but she thinks of me as a stranger sitting in the room for a chat. I look upon her aged body with a sense of hopelessness that she outlived her mind. Her spirit remains, but dims beyond recognition.
While I sit hopelessly across from her, she speaks in desultory remarks about how she putted an eagle on the golf course. She remembers that her second son Rex still looks “James Bond” handsome. He visited her a week before I arrived. She speaks of learning the hula dance while we lived in Hawaii. She remarks how proud she is of her daughter earning her MBA. The death of her fourth son John saddens her.
My wife Sandi sits with us. I stood up to walk out for a chat with the supervisor about mom’s non-working television.
When I left, my mother asked Sandi, “Who is that young man with you?”
“That’s your oldest son, Frosty,” Sandi said. “He’s my husband and we live in Colorado.”
“My son?” she said. “Oh my gosh, I didn’t recognize him.”
When I returned to the room, my mom stood up to give me a big hug. Her embrace felt painfully weak, agonizingly one of the last and distressingly emotionally devastating.
My mother raised five good kids. Her love and care bequeathed in us a zest for life, self-confidence and a sense of self-security that allowed all of us to thrive in this world. Her greatest gift manifests in each of us as we negotiate the vagaries of life: she carried us through the early death, at 46, of our father from a heart attack. She attended our sports games. She cooked our dinners. She worked 40 hours a week to provide for us. She bought a house to keep us warm. She encouraged us to go to college. She sat in the audience when we received our high school diplomas.
At the moment I received my college degree, she beamed all over Michigan State University’s entire football stadium. She did the same for all of us kids. One of the greatest tragedies of my life stems from our father suddenly dying while we were still kids. Mother’s bravery, in the face of her own loss and loneliness, maintained our family. She never remarried, but chose to live a dynamic life filled with adventure and other activities. She played golf up until 91.
Today, she sits in her room at the “assisted living” home in Verona, Wisconsin—essentially waiting to die. She said, “All I do is eat, watch TV and sleep.” My brother Howard calls her three times a week. My sister sees her on Sundays. Because I live 1,000 miles away, I send letters filled with pictures from the past with a message each week and call once a week. Rex sends cards from 8,000 miles away.
But in the end, she lives among strangers and she will die among strangers.
That’s my greatest pain, my deepest hole of hurt and horrific agony daily. She’s too weak and too frail to live with any of us because she must be monitored 24/7 by nurses. It feels like an emotional purgatory. I am helpless. I am crying inside. When I leave the building, I will cry uncontrollably for ten minutes. I am crying as I write this story.
As the afternoon passed, my mother engaged me in conversation. Her feisty life attitude surfaced. She wanted to go back to our farm in Michigan. My sister Linda would take her to the farm to die if she could gage when she might pass away.
Finally, Sandi and I needed to leave.
“Well, mom,” I said. “We need to go.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” my mom said.
At the front entrance, she gave me a long hug.
I knew it would be our last. I knew that I would never see my mother alive again because she could die at any moment.
At least, she knew me one more time before the end of her life. I got to know her one more time as her oldest son. Nonetheless, I wept uncontrollably while I sat in the car after our visit. I am weeping uncontrollably as I write this story. I weep for my father who died 51 years ago.
This situation, this dementia, this growing old, and this loss of life—it continues for all of us during our time on this planet. It’s painful, it’s awful and we can’t do anything about it. In all my life, I have not come up against something like my mother’s dementia and the sheer agony of its grip on her life, my life and that of my siblings.
For everyone facing this final condition in life of a loved one, I send you love, compassion and understanding. May your journey and your parents’ journey be one of love.
Read more posts by Frosty Wooldridge here. Frosty is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.
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