Trust me, being her sunshine is not easy.
The kitchen is in total disarray. A whispered groan escapes my lips as I take it in: pots and pans strewn across the counter top, the table obscured by dainty floral china. My father has cleared a small area for his cereal bowl and coffee mug. “I see Mom was at it again last night,” I murmur.
The old wooden chair creaks as he leans back, straightening his stooped shoulders. “She was asleep when I went upstairs at eleven but I could hear her rustling around down here later on. You know, I would come down and stop her, but that only upsets her.”
I offer him a weak smile and nod. I can’t imagine what his nights are like.
I observe the bizarre arrangement of the place settings as I stack the plates, bowls, glassware, and cutlery. It’s so sad; she always had such a flare for setting a lovely table. I shake off the image of my frail four-foot-nine, eighty-year-old mother repeatedly loading the tray on her walker and pushing it to the table . . . needlessly wearing herself out. It takes so little time for me to undo what she has done.
I stroll through the sitting room and quietly open the bedroom door. The scent of her favourite perfume wafts toward me. She lies motionless, her tiny silver-haired head cradled in a soft pillow. As I study her, I marvel at how much she has endured: macular degeneration, hepatitis, a liver transplant, osteoporosis, and a fractured lumbar to name a few. And now this. It’s little wonder her grandchildren have dubbed her the Energizer Bunny—she keeps going and going.
Is she breathing? I hold my breath. I have this fear—no, that’s not true—I have this prayer that one morning I’ll discover she’s taking her final sleep. I rationalize that, at this point, she has little quality of life, she’s in pain and living in confusion. But if I’m honest with myself, I admit I’m being selfish. I’m tired, tired of being her caregiver, tired of missing out on time I could be spending with my husband, children and grandchildren. The only end to this that I can foresee is for her to pass. Why won’t she simply fall asleep and gently slip away? But it won’t happen that way; her heart is strong.
I’ve done my research—I know how this disease progresses. Slowly, and ever so mercilessly, it will strip away her reasoning, her memory, and her bodily functions. So far it is only her reasoning and memory that are failing. In her mind, she no longer has a great-grandchild and her grandchildren’s names and faces are becoming vague. I’m the next generation to be forgotten. And yet, filled with remorse, I pray.
I glance around the bedroom absorbing the chaos. The closet doors hang open, the sleeves of her blouses and legs of her trousers tied around the head of the hangers. Shoes are scattered on the floor. Perfume, powders, and lipstick litter the bedside table. I imagine the damage that’s waiting for me inside the dresser drawers.
Her chest rises as she deeply inhales.
I exhale, pull the door closed and return to my father who has retired to his rocker. I settle in another, pleased to have a few moments with only him. “She’s sound asleep right now. But you should see the mess in . . . ”
I clamp my mouth shut. The words dangle, suspended in the air between us. Our eyes lock, his sympathetic grey eyes filled with regret. “I’m sorry, Dawn. You must get so tired of cleaning up after her.”
I divert my gaze; I can’t look him in the eye and lie. “Oh, it’s really not that bad.” I turn the tables on him. “Was she okay for you last evening?”
“Not too bad . . . nothing I couldn’t handle.” As if anyone should have to handle this. I’m in awe of his unwavering love for her, his wish to keep her close.
There are evenings, though, when he can’t handle the ‘sundowning,’ the evenings she cries and begs to go home, the evenings he calls me. We no longer try to convince her that she is in her home and not the nursing home she imagines it to be. It leaves me to wonder, Where is ‘home’? If it’s not here, is it her childhood home, her grandparents’ farm, which was her home as a young married woman, or is it the ‘forever home’ she believes is waiting for her?
At times her begging wears me down. “Okay, Mom. Let’s go home,” I concede. Her face lights up, my dear father breathes a sigh of relief. She’s ever so eager as I gently load her into my Volkswagen, back out the lane and drive down the gravel road. Who knows, maybe tonight she’ll enlighten me?
“Mom, do you mind if we stop in here for a few minutes?”
“Why? Who lives here?”
I turn my car into the lane. “I do.”
Her questioning eyes search the house and yard. “My, it’s nice that you live so close to your work. How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, it’s been a while now.” I massage my brow, silencing the screaming voice inside my head, “Thirty years. We bought this farm thirty years ago . . . to be down the road from you!”
She senses my frustration. Her hands lie in her lap, skeletal fingers picking at the skin around one thumb. She gazes at me, her deep-set brown eyes unsure. Her lips tremble. She is so far removed from her former self.
I feel my heart fracture as compassion for her floods over me. God, how can I help her maintain her dignity?
We move inside. Her eyes observe my home as if seeing it for the first time. “Oh, it’s so lovely . . . won’t you give me a tour?” Once again, she’s her gracious self.
Although surreal, I give her the tour, followed by a tea party in my best room, my parlour. An hour later, we’re in the car driving the quarter-mile back to Sprucelawn Farm, her home of four decades. I turn in the lane and pause for her reaction. She studies the big old farmhouse, her lips softly smile. Tonight this is home.
Despite my prayers, I’m relieved when I hear her calling me.
Through her distorted vision, she recognizes me and her face lights up. “Good morning, Sunshine,” she says, as she welcomes me into her illusory world.
“Good morning, Mom. Did you sleep well?”
She yawns and shakes her head.
She struggles to rise. “Didn’t your dad tell you? We had quite the dinner party here last night.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Humph, that’s funny.”
I prop a pillow behind her. “Who all was here?”
“Well, let me see. My Mom and Dad, Aunt Nina, Donna, and Jack . . .”
“Really?” The veil is thin . . . they’ve all passed. “You ready for breakfast?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“C’mon, now. Remember? You’re supposed to eat something with your pills.” The smile slides from her face and I reproach myself. Why can’t I remember to stop telling her to ‘remember’?
Back in the kitchen, I make her favourite, toast slathered in butter and strawberry jam, and a coffee laced with sugar and milk.
She daintily munches. “Mmm, this is so good. What d’ya call it?”
“It’s called toast, Mom,” I reply as I straighten her quilt.
“Hmm . . . toast. Anyway, back to the party. Last night I was telling Pauline about how wonderful this place is . . . how delicious the food is and how nice the help is.” She winks at me.
“Oh, Pauline was here too?” I move to her nightstand.
“Naturally, with Jack.”
I smile as I imagine the parties that will take place when she has joined them.
She gazes at me, her eyes serious. “Dawn, I want to ask you something.”
“Sure, what d’ya want to know?”
“I want to know if you’re happy with your new job. Have you finally found your niche in life?”
I snap the compact powder case closed. My internal voice screams, “My niche—are you freakin’ kidding me? I miss my old life, I miss my Mom, I miss YOU!” I take a deep breath and silence it. I will focus on her happiness.“Of course.”
“And, you chose to work here because I’m here, right?”
Her eyes are full of love. “Thank you for that.” She sets down her toast. “But you shouldn’t be spending all your time with me. How many patients do you have?
“Just one, Mom.”
Her brow furrows. “Just one?”
Oh, how I love this woman! I kiss her forehead and whisper, “Yes, Mom. Just one special little lady.”