Those who have read my book A Bird and the Dragon: Their Love Story: A Memoir have already met and seen pictures of my mother Jordan Elizabeth Sanderson. But in this blog I’d like to take you from the woman pictured in the book to the woman who passed away at ninety-eight years old. Some of this may sound sacrilegious and I hope I can present this without that happening. Many of you may have taken care of an aging parent or spouse and perhaps my stories will help you. My mother spent her last seven years in our home with my husband, Sy and me, along with our grandchildren, in the apartment above us or at our dinner table. Looking back, I have to admire her fortitude to move from the town she had known since she was a new bride at eighteen to our town where she was not free to explore because she had already given up her car.
Once she had moved in with us, one of my first vivid memories is of her standing beside me in my kitchen saying, “What can I do to help?” The question was simple but not so the answer. My mother had essential tremor in her later years and it was worse when she was stressed. (Yes, living in my house with me could create a bit of stress.) Mother was also a little stooped in posture at this point. Not thinking, I responded, “Well, Mom, you could help me by peeling and cutting up these vegetables for supper.” I set about putting a cutting board at the table, my style of peeler, which she had never used before, along with my best paring knife, a dish for the vegetables, and I pulled up a chair. She stood looking at the set-up and then she said, “I can’t do that,” and she walked away. I was livid. She asked to help. She knew how to fix vegetables. She’d done it all of my life. What was her problem?!! She went back to her room and I did the vegetables and fumed. I never asked her to cut vegetables again.
By the next day I had figured out that she was used to standing to work but because she was stooped I assumed it would be easier for her to sit. She’d never done it that way and didn’t have the language any longer to tell me that. She was also afraid that she would cut herself when she was not in her accustomed position for doing the task. But again, either she hadn’t figured out why she couldn’t cut vegetables and then told me, or she couldn’t find the words. Both things happen to a person as they age. And on my side I assumed rather than asking, because I remembered a vital woman who cooked every day!
This event took place much later in her time with us. Mother was resting in the
afternoon on her bed and my sister had been at the house helping me go through my mother’s clothes and weeding many of them out to be given to family members and Good Will. I knew this was painful for my mother to watch since she loved her clothes—one of her few indulgences. The next day I was doing the job alone. My mother was again resting on her bed and I took an armful of clothes out to the other room. As I hung them up I heard this horrible thud and rushed back to the bedroom. My mother was on the floor beside her bed. I asked if she was alright and she said that she thought she was fine. I asked if she could get back up onto the bed. She could and as she sat there I checked her for any bruising. I didn’t ask what happened because it was late in the afternoon and I knew she would not be as cognizant then as she would be next morning.
So, next morning when she had had her breakfast, was washed-up, dressed and had made her bed, I went into her room and knelt down in front of where she was sitting. “Mom, what happened yesterday when you fell off the bed?” She looked at me for half a minute trying to recall and then she said, “Well, I was out riding on this horse and I don’t know what happened but something must have spooked him. He rose up on his hind legs and threw me right off. I landed with a horrible thud but nothing seemed to be broken. So there you have it. That’s what happened!” It was all I could do not to giggle. I started to correct her and then I realized that maybe she had been dreaming when she fell and that’s where the story came from, or maybe she just made it up on the spot. It didn’t matter. It was her story!! And I expect it diverted her from the pain of seeing her beloved clothes leaving her closet.
The next incident happened much closer to the end of her stay with us. Mother had been with us for about five years and I don’t remember her ever mentioning my father during that time. Everyone in their community called him Fred but she called him Freddie; the name she knew when she was a girl of twelve visiting on his parent’s farm. In my house with Sy, her bedroom was right off the living room. Mother was sitting on the couch in the living room and it was beginning to get late. I said, “Mom, it’s time for you to be getting ready for bed.”
“Oh, it is? Can you point me to my room?”
I was taken aback since she’d been going from where she sat to her bedroom for years. “Your bedroom is right here, Mom.” I pointed her in the right direction.
She turned back to me and said, “Does Freddie know I’m staying here tonight?”
My wheels spun and I said, “Yes, he does. He knows you are here.” (He’d been dead for some twenty-five years.)
“And how does he know that?” she asked.
“I was just talking to him on the phone, Mom, a few days ago.”
“Okay. All right. I can go to bed now.” And off she trotted like a good child.
I think the thing we caretakers have to remember is that whatever story they are telling us or where they are in their memories it is their story and we need to follow along with them. Trying to explain reality becomes confusing for them and they are already confused.
The last incident was close to the end. We were having a conversation about something—I don’t remember now—and suddenly what came out of my mother’s mouth was all gobbledygook. She looked at me a bit bewildered and tried to say her thought again. This time it still came out so garbled there were no words. She looked frightened. “Mom, look at me. The wheels are coming off the wagon!”
For a moment her face was blank and then she broke into peals of laughter. “You’re right,” she said. “The wheels are coming off my wagon!”
May you also have sweet, if somewhat bizarre, memories of your aging loved ones; otherwise all the care we give to them is just drudgery.