I woke up yesterday morning with tears running across my cheeks. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, times are hard around here right now. But I was. I didn’t wake up crying even when my own Mumma was dying. I didn’t wake up crying when I thought my type of Dysautonomia would progress until I could barely function. I didn’t wake up crying any of the times in my life when it might have been warranted. But yesterday, I did. I stumbled out to the kitchen that is so full of memories of times with my in-laws. I popped the kettle on and thought about how integral having a cuppa was to my relationship with my mother in law, Mary.
We didn’t always agree on things, she and I. But we did agree on the necessity of a good cuppa.
Mary has Parkinson’s Disease. She was diagnosed not long after I joined the family and I remember well how it rocked everyone. Mary and John are stoic and proud Englishfolk. It was clear over the years that they would deal with it their way. Our wider family, the social workers and district nurses, the network of support around them, watched on with a kind of admiration for their determination. John doggedly problem solving his way through her caregiving, devising natty little devices for pill dispensing, modifying her walker, endlessly adjusting, adapting, and rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. And Mary herself, a consummate non complainer, tried hard to mitigate the ravages of Parkinson’s on her brain and in her body. Eventually, as seems to be the pattern for elderly couples where one is terribly sick, the caregiver gets increasingly rundown and their own health struggles set off a cascade of events. It has happened even to John and Mary, the indomitable two.
This week, I’ve been with Mary while John is in hospital down country. She’s in a nursing home in their little regional town. He’s having rehab after spine surgery. Mary’s nursing home is so beautiful. The views across Buffalo Beach take my breath away. But I’ve noticed that the high needs residents don’t appreciate the view. That the ravages of age steal distance vision.
These unfortunate few stare mostly into space, occasionally focusing on the person in front of them who is typically asking loudly and brightly a series of questions. A nurse enters Mary’s room:
“HELLO MARY! HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”
Mary jumps at the sound of the voice so close. Her rheumy eyes try to focus, her hand reaches towards the stimulus. The tremors are bad today and her body is almost bent double, contracting up and in on itself. Muscles tight and unwieldy.
She mumbles something but her words are indistinct.
“LET’S GO TO THE DINING ROOM SHALL WE? TIME FOR LUNCH!” the nurse shout-speaks chirpily. Lunch will be in half an hour, but it takes that long to wheel and cajole everyone into position. Mary’s eyes brighten momentarily, and very slowly, she licks her lips. She likes her food. I smile at my memory of this whippet thin woman, carefully portioning out her own meals to half the size of everyone else’s at family dinners. She has thrown caution to the wind. Food is good. I think of the bucket of liquorice allsorts I sent up last weekend, now half gone. I’m glad she can still find enjoyment in something.
“HOW’S THAT CAST? SORE? MARY, ARE YOU SORE?”
“I’m-alright-thankyou” she whispers, barely audible, but they are the first words I’ve heard today. I know it is habit, her responses to questions like this. Every time she moves, she winces. The cast is heavy and cumbersome against her constantly moving frame. Her frequent falls have resulted in a complication in her already broken shoulder. The bones beneath her socket joint hang loose and jut into her ribs under her arm.
“OK THEN! UP WE COME… ARE YOU READY TO STAND? I’LL JUST REACH AROUND AND HELP YOU UP …GOOD GIRL! HERE WE GO…” the nurse braces to lift our waif-like Mary. You’d be surprised how heavy a waif can be when you are lifting all their weight without assistance.
“OH DEAR, DOWN WE GO. MARY? ARE YOU WITH US? MARY! HELLO MARY? BIG DEEP BREATHS, MARY!”
Mary had momentarily fainted. It happens most times she has to stand. Her eyes roll back in her head and she is a ragdoll. Quite different from her usual rigid bodied self. Now ensconced in the wheelchair the nurse takes her down the hall to the dining room. It is next to the Lounge, the communal area lined with other octogenarians, glumly sitting and waiting to be taken in for their hot lunch.
Neil Diamond is on the telly. A gentleman fixes his tearful eyes in my direction. I have come to expect emotion in this place, I wonder if maybe Neil’s crooning is making him sad.
“Have you seen my wife?” he asks me, his voice trembles slightly as though he knows the answer will be bad. I remember being here when his wife passed away. I pat his hand. “No, I haven’t, I’m sorry. I am sure you will see her soon” I feel guilty as I say it. But to tell him the truth again and watch the grief anew. I just can’t do that (I’ve seen the nurses tell him many times and he is always so distraught. “Was I there for her?” “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” “Where did they take her?” “Oh no… no…” he’d keen, his hangs wringing in his lap and the confusion and distress furrowing his age spotted brow).
No. It’s too unfair.
Within minutes he has forgotten again. His face is blank. I’m glad I didn’t tell him.
Mary has nodded off. I let Neil’s music transport me back to happier situations. I am toe tapping and humming. I see the slippered foot of the man in the chair beside keeping the beat. He grips my hand. Meanwhile, Neil drawls and gyrates in his sequin jacket “I’M ALIIIIVE”! The irony is not lost on me.
“I would have been a jockey you know!” say the earnest man. His eyes are twinkling, one of his pupils is blown. I wonder if he did that falling off a horse. “I could do things with horses other people couldn’t do. But no. No… encouragement…” he sighs, suddenly dejected.
“Oh do shut up!” shouts the lady just past him. “I’ll kick you in the butt one of these days!”
“You shut up, you fat slob” says the woman beyond her. “Take no notice, Love” she says pointedly to the man beside me, rolling her eyes openly at the upstart. Many of the elderly could care less about politeness. They’ve run out of time for niceties. They just say it like they see it. This Lounge can be a brutal place.
A nurse aide moves Mary into position at her dining table, deftly swinging a giant bib across the front of her. As she does it up, she tells me that Mary helped her children learn to read at the school, some thirty odd years ago. She was a teacher aide at Mercury Bay Area School. Suddenly Mary is animated. She says the name of the nurse aide’s kids. “That’s right, Mary!” she smiles and then, turns to me, “-sharp as a tack! There’s a lot of people who love this lady”. She pats her gently on the shoulder. I nod. Kiss Mary on the forehead and say my goodbyes. I’m sad. We love this lady too. It stings a bit that she can remember those kids, but she has forgotten who her own grandchildren are. The synapses that connect that information to her conscious mind have been stolen by Parkinson’s Dementia. She’s had only one thing to say to our girl Bee this week. That she never did like the colour of Bee’s hair. She hasn’t been able to notice that Zed is even here. These kids who come with me every day to see their Nanna. These kids who have never complained about the grim realities of spending time here with her. They love her too. Regardless. Gosh I am proud of them. They hug her and kiss her goodbye and she clings to them. I think she knows at some level, some basic biological level, that they belong to her. I comfort them with the facts that her brain misfires sometimes. Tell them, for her, that she loves them.
I’ll be back tomorrow. She won’t know me then either. I’ll be just another friendly face among the many attending to her. My voice will be loud and bright like theirs; do we do it to dispel the despair of it all? She’ll look at me with confusion. She might shout at me like yesterday, or stretch her face into a semblance of her beautiful smile. She might hold my hand, or demand I help her go to the toilet. She might just be drifting, somewhere between Life and the After, talking indecipherably with her long passed sister, long red braids twisting around her youthful hands, skipping along a street somewhere back in England. I hope that she feels loved, wherever her mind has gone. That the warmth of my hand transmits all the humanity of my heart for this frail, vulnerable lady.
I guess the tears are okay. I guess they are just a part of the lifelong process of accepting mortality. Someday, someone might have tears about me. Mary once told me that she thinks of this mortal coil like a fixed sized plane. As babies get born, all our souls get kind of crowded here. Sometimes, other people have to get off, making way for new life. She said it made her feel better thinking of it that way.
Everybody has their time and then one day, they move over. That’s just the way of it. Take it away Neil:
There’s a brand new baby born
And every way
There’s enough to keep you warm
And it’s okay
And I’m glad to say
That I’m alive