How do you watch the woman you care most about in the world slowly slip away?
On Wednesday I drove my mother to a nursing home. My siblings and I knew she never wanted to go to a nursing home. She protested, but on the day she relented. Part of her seemed to know she needed rehab after losing a lot of strength during a recent illness. The rest of her was mad as hell, resentful, surprised, betrayed, defeated, placating, depressed, disbelieving, sad.
When my husband and I bought this house, we bought it with her (and our) later years in mind. Everything is on one level – just right for an old fart or even a young fart. Walking through the first time, she said, "This is my room," referring to the room that is now my daughter Kelsey's.
Over time, my mom has grown weaker, slower, sleepier. Her body and her breath are shorter. Her eyes don't work, her hands don't work, her legs don't work. She slurs her words. She eats poorly. She smells bad. But she maintains, even now, that she is well enough to live in her own home, even after telling us on Christmas Day that she would need to move in with one of us kids soon.
She can't even get in bed by herself. She shuffles and grunts and wheezes from her bed to her chair to the toilet with assistance, and a lot of it. She falls asleep mid-sentence. There were times last week, in the hospital, when she woke, she couldn't distinguish dreams from reality. Not all of her dreams are nice, little old lady, cookie-baking, sweet grandma dreams. Her paranoia and lack of logic frightened all of us. Fortunately, her mind seems to have cleared.
And now she lies in a hospital bed in a little corner room in an institution full of other women and men unable to care for themselves, with the hope that rehabilitation will make her strong enough to go home again. An activities chart hangs on the door: Bingo, cards, sing-alongs. They wear bibs at meal time, and scarcely a meal goes by without that drab, drippy, lifeless fruit cocktail. She will stay with the bingo, fruit cocktail and bibs until she stops making gains in rehab or until 20 days is up, when Medicare stops paying 100 percent, whichever comes first.
When the kids and I arrived last night for a visit, she was asleep in her bed, her food tray on her table over her lap, a mug of hot chocolate in her bent hands, resting on her chest. She didn't wake until I touched her head, running my hand through what is left of her coarse, white hair. She was happy to see us, but she didn't have much to say. She kept falling asleep. I imagine she was worn out after the activity of checking out of the VA hospital and into the nursing home. It's a lot of change, a lot of newness, none of it welcome.
Seeing her there, after driving her there, I feel like a traitor. I said she could live with me. I work a job that lets me choose to work or not so I could be more available. I bought this house, this plain rectangle, with her in mind. She expected to be welcome here, or with my sister or my late brother's family. She never wanted a nursing home.
"I'll never go to one of those places," she said. "My kids will take care of me. That's why you have kids."
I always believed it was my duty to care for her. She took care of me growing up. I owe her.
But it's more than obligation. It's also a privilege; an honor; a maddening, difficult, heartbreaking joy. I love her. I want to help her. And I failed her.
After she settled in, she lay in her bed and looked around at her little room. "So this is where I live now," she said. "Until I get better." We all hope she gets better.
She says she will not use her money to pay for her care. She wants us kids to have it, not a nursing home or at-home nurse. I think she will have to change her mind about that. She needs more assistance than we can give her ourselves. She should have put her house in trust or transferred ownership years ago. We talked with her about it years ago, but she just said she'd never go to a nursing home; they would drag her out of her house in a box, or her kids would take care of her. She should have taken better care of herself. She should have eaten right and kept her weight in control and gotten up off her ass and moved her body and stayed active and strong. But she didn't do any of these things. And now she is suffering for all of it. And so are we.
I imagine she will move in with my sister when she leaves the nursing home. My sister has no kids at home and she eats meat and she plays Scrabble and she talks more than I do and she seems less terrified than I am.
I hope my mom uses this time in the nursing home to get stronger. I am afraid she will just give up. I hope she forgives us for putting her there. I guess we'll see.
So, how do you watch the woman you care most about in the world slowly slip away? Sadly.