Friday, February 19, 2010


My mother at our house visiting with Nicky ( my sister's puppy).

I cringe when I visit my mother at Palm Village where she lives in skilled nursing. I try not to cringe, but I do. And now I cringe again--online. No, it’s not my mother I recoil at—it’s her setting, and that she has to be in skilled nursing at all! I tell myself its okay that my mother’s in skilled nursing. After all, she needs more help than I can give her, doesn’t she? Isn’t that what everyone says?

At 93, my mother still has her mind, and I still have her. Thank God for both. In her later years, we have become friends! A couple of weeks ago she was not feeling well enough to come over to our house for her usual Sunday outing, so I visited her. I stopped at Starbucks for cappuccinos and biscotti on the way.

When I entered her room, my mother’s roommate waved to me and rolled her eyes, gesturing with her thumb toward the bathroom door, which was closed.

“She’s in the bathroom again!” she said. “I swear, sometimes I think she’s asleep in there! I don’t know whether to ring for the nurse or not.”

I cracked the bathroom door a bit and saw my mother vigorously brushing the four remaining teeth in her top gum--she has none on the bottom. I stood quietly and watched her, brushing away, hunched into her wheelchair, chin barely reaching the top of the sink. When I was a kid, my mother stood a proud five feet, six inches, but severe osteoporosis and scoliosis have taken over her spine, compressed it, and curved it into an “s.” Now, when she transfers herself out of her wheelchair into the car or into her recliner, she stands only slightly taller than my waist.

* * * * *

About four years ago, during an earlier stay in skilled nursing as she recovered from knee replacement surgery, she fell and broke her porous femur. She would have gone back to her room in assisted care, but that fall put her in a wheelchair permanently and secured her a permanent room in skilled nursing--to her horror at the time. Her left leg is now about four inches shorter than the right.

* * * * *

After she carefully cleaned her toothbrush and put it away, I watched her rinse her mouth. Her skinny arms extended upward, resting on the sink at the elbows. I watched a shaky finger, gnarled with arthritis, meticulously pick specks of food from between the teeth of her partial plate and lower denture before she replaced them in her mouth.

“Hi, Mama,” I said then.

Glancing up, she caught sight of me in the mirror and smiled sheepishly at having been observed in her ritual. When my mother smiles her toothy—or toothless—smile (as the case may be), her eyes crinkle into slits like my sister Mary’s.

“Oh, RuthAnne! I didn’t see you standing there!” she said.

After we hugged and kissed, she gripped the wheels of her wheelchair, turned, and gave herself a shove that propelled her out the bathroom door. Since I had entered the room, her impatient roommate had aimed her own wheelchair at the bathroom door, waiting. My mother sailed past her roommate not even glancing at her. The strength in those shriveled arms amazed me. Isn't she ill today?

She carefully navigated into the narrow space between the wall and her bed and parked in front of her tiny chest-of-drawers. "She just hates it whenever I use the bathroom!" she said. On her rolling bedside table, a pink plastic pitcher of freshly iced water and a plastic tumbler sat in a pool of water on a pink plastic tray. My mother picked up the tumbler and wiped around the rim with a Kleenex then used the Kleenex to sop up the puddle.

I sat down in her burgundy recliner on the other side of the bed and watched as she unscrewed the lid from an ancient Pond’s Cold Cream jar she keeps refilled with her current moisturizer from a larger, more difficult-to-manage jar. After massaging the cream into her surprisingly supple 93-year-old face and neck with her fingertips, she picked up a small brush and ran it through her white hair, bobbed short and glistening in the light that slanted through the blinds. I got up to sray her hair. She smelled of lavender.

My father used to smile worshipfully and say he was married to “the most bee-u-tiful woman in the world.” I was always surprised when I saw him thaw like that, but it made me happy, too.

When she had finished fixing herself up, she leaned her head on her hand and closed her eyes. It appeared she had gone to sleep. I let her rest. Soon she looked up at me, smile gone, eyes now clouded with pain and said, “Ohh, I have such a headache, and there’s always so much to do.” She will not! accept help from the staff, though.

“No one has EVER helped me dress or go to the bathroom!” she often says. “I don’t know how to let them, and they don’t know how to do it right anyway.”

“Tell me what to do,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes roamed the tiny, well-kept space until they fell on her sweater neatly folded at the foot of the bed. “So many things—that sweater needs to be put away for one.” I rolled up her sweater and put it in the drawer.

Now it was time for me to assume the recently acquired assertive pose I’ve had to learn. “Okay, Mama," I said, "let’s go. I’ve brought cappuccinos. I want to get out of here and go to the lobby to visit.”

“Oh, I just don’t know if I can today,” she moaned and covered her aching head with her hands. The excruciating migraines visit her daily now.
But I set the carrier with the cappuccinos and biscotti in her lap. Her eyes brightened a bit. “Oh, what’s the matter with me?” she said. “I just take so long to do everything. I forgot all about the cappuccinos and now they’ve probably gotten cold!”

I unlocked the wheels and whisked her out of the room and down cavernous hallways. We would end up in the main lobby on the assisted care side, where we could dunk our biscotti and watch Barbara’s CafĂ© open for the more “ambulatory” residents. Nurses and caregivers in the hallways all called “hello Doris!” as we hurried by. She waved and grinned back at them and called them by name, happily letting them know we were going to the lobby on the “other side” to have cappuccinos from Starbucks.

I love this lady, even if I do sometimes feel as inadequate as a braying donkey around her! I only dare hope she thinks of me as a puppy nipping at her heels and that I’m occasionally as effective as one.