The Measure of a Mother’s Time
I pause outside of "Ruth's" door. The sun is cutting through her window shades, engraving lines of lights across her already stern face.
"Ruth" sits in a wheelchair now. When I first met "Ruth" she had been walking, though with a wobble. Then, she transitioned to a walker. And now, a wheelchair, and not the comfortable kind.
The condition of the residents here is how I measure my mother’s time.
The ones that have left. Rosemary, who passed way. Peyton with her dog, whose family transitioned her elsewhere.
Those still here whom I wish the universe would offer a little more grace and take swiftly.
Families that come and go. The families that never come at all. The loved ones that hardly ever leave.
This is how I count days with my mother at her care come, over these past three years.
My time slows once inside her residence, as I easily adapt to a different stride. Between the gaps in activity, I observe how my mother’s hairline closely resembles mine. We share cowlicks and thinness. I count the ways in which we are similar, ways in which I never would have admitted to, as a young woman in my twenties. But my mother’s old age, and mine, has given me this gift to declare.
I grasp at her hands and note her slender her fingers, long nails she used to shape and polish before her night out on Saturdays with my father. Her extremities are unlike mine. I add up the ways in which we differ, and there were so many I used to bragged about in our past.
There have been days of endless wondering about my mother’s condition and countless taunts from her about my hair or shoes. There have been multitudes of moments we celebrated (fresh peace juice dripping down her chin). There have been a sequence of small stuff that I sweated, waiting, for her, or me, to change.
I have whispered incalculable confessions: Mom, you were right. Wearing a V-neck shirt makes you appear thinner and taller. Still water runs deep. The best way to pick a husband is to watch how he treats his mother. And battled with her on a few other fronts. Mom, spit that out, its chicken grease.Mom, running track was not going to make my thighs thicker, they were going to be thicker anyhow. See photos of your own mother for proof.
I have heard my mother tell another resident, who had been cursed with an endless blank stare, “Now don't you start that with me,” and have had to scurry Mom away in a another direction before the woman could pull at Mom’s finger. I have smiled at Mom’s simple acts of beauty, as she caresses the face of another resident with gray, tired eyes.
I have survived tornado and fire drills amidst 12 women plus caregivers, with obstacles such as wheelchairs and walkers squeezed in the laundry or shower rooms, explaining over and again why so many of us were crammed into a tiny space. “When you were younger in school, your school always had fire drills. This is like that.” “Oh,” they sigh, with slight reminiscence. Then they ask, “why are we here,” once more.
I count the caregivers that have come and stayed. They have been the dedicated majority. Each one adores Mom's smile. She will casually smooth her hand across their brown or tanned arms and repeat back whatever phrase they have uttered to her. “Jean, the Bean,” they say. “Jean, the Bean,” she says back. It’s a melodic call and response.
I tally up how babies can make her day, either prodigy of visitors or residents, but especially Prince George and Princess Charlotte, who grace the cover of every other People magazine I carry in for Mom to read. I tally up too, the other People magazine covers, as a way to measure time, Pope Francis, Leslie Gore, B.B. King, Omar Sharif.
I rely on the fact Mom still mentions the silver vent hood atop the roof, and stops to admire the pink and green beech tree. She is want to point out each garden stone with pebbled glass missing, assigning the stone a number, then counts ones that are not present.
We have moved on from listening to strictly Sinatra. With so many music apps on my iPhone, I can mix up the playlist to include Nina Simone or Dean Martin, Bette littler or Louie Prima, and keep track of the names that cause her to respond.
Mom wants to be held more. She grabs on to me longer when we hug. I count her hugs, and the number of seconds in which they last – all day if I let them. She nestles her face into the crook of my neck, appreciating the sense of closeness. A feeling that is three years gone for her. Sometimes, she still pats me on the back or backside, like she did when I was five.
Recently, the nurse noted Mom needed an annual check-up with a doctor. I decided to switch to the in-house doctor at that point, to reduce the challenge of moving Mom from point A to point B when seeing her original doctor, Dr. Graff.
The in-house doctor phoned one day to jot down Mom’s medical history. “About how long ago did she develop dementia,” he inquired.
Her timeline eludes me. I used to recite actual dates and times for when I noticed the occurrences. When did I know? When she balked at changing clothes, taking a bath or listening.
I gave him a generic answer. “About five years ago.”
But I have relinquished any formal answer to Mom’s calendar, the one where she dutifully kept religions holidays, birthdays and anniversaries of loved ones living and deceased, hair and dental appointments for five kids. She didn’t need Google Calendar, then or now. Her life is no longer measured in time slots or a stretch of days, but in human interactions.
I have spent more time with her these past three years, than in some entire decades of my younger years. And yet, it’s hard to imagine, I still have days where I depart from Mom’s care home in tears, usually because our day together was near-magical, or that she wanted to hold tight and not let go. She has been a near-perfect muse, and I have only gratitude for the immeasurable amount of words it has taken to capture her essence.
A week ago, I received a call from Mom’s care home. “Your mom had another seizure.”
“I’ll be right in.”
So, throughout the week, along with nurses and staff, I waited and counted and forced her to drink water or Gatorade or anything. She was also diagnosed with a UTI, and in the midst of X-rays due to complaints about her back, the radiologist discovered some arthritis in her back.
We managed to keep her out of the hospital, and she responded slowly, her gait unsteadied and present mind still obscured.
But her recent situation challenged me back into the space of unknowing. If death had slipped from the subtle grasp of life Mom held on to, I would have sent her off with my blessing. She was already filled with peace, nothing left to add.
Until today, when an arrow traveled through my heart as she pushed a strand of hair behind my ear while I hugged her. Count one more day I wanted her back.