Snapshots

March 7, 2020

I look at the picture I snapped of my mother yesterday and it just makes me sad.  I don’t know why I took it and now I wish I hadn’t.

When I arrived at her door, she greeted me with the Québécois two-cheek kiss. Then her eyes quickly went to the nylon lunch bag I carried. I bring lunch on my weekly visits and it’s always a treat – something she loves but is rarely served at her seniors’ residence.

Her eyes widened with glee when I took out pizza, hot and fragrant with the scent of pepperoni. It’s disconcerting to see child-like joy beaming from an aging parent’s cloudy, sunken eyes, but it made me smile. At 93, the things that bring her joy are few and far between. Pizza is a small price to pay.

After we ate, I took out a coloring book of cats. My mother loves cats. The Christmas after my father passed away, I bought her a tiny Himalayan kitten she named Frosty. That cat had a mean streak but she catered to its every whim. Frosty left this earth a few years ago and my mother cried for her as much as she did for any human she ever loved and lost.

“Do you want to colour with me?” I asked. “Sure!” she said with enough enthusiasm that I believed her. My mother is very good at hiding what’s going on in her head because it helps to cover the memory gaps. Gaps that used to be tiny, hairline fractures but are increasingly like faults left behind by an earthquake.

We colored and chatted until I stopped and moved to the couch behind her. That’s when I snapped the picture. In it, the thinning hair where her head touches her pillow lies flat against her scalp. One rebellious lock sticks up in the air. She is wearing charcoal gray jogging pants, a worn cardigan, white gym socks and slippers.  Except for her adult-size, she looks like a child hunched over, absorbed in a school project. 

JUNE 7, 2020

I saw my mother today for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown in March. So much has changed since then. There was no two-cheek kiss greeting when I arrived; instead, mask in place, I stepped back when she opened the door. Only when she went back into the apartment did I follow at a safe distance. She has trouble wearing a mask, so I made sure to stay distant during my whole visit.

Instead of food, I brought gifts: a blouse and a cashmere shawl in her favourite color – pink. I sat on the same couch as I had in February and asked her to brush her hair, put on some lipstick and change into the blouse and shawl.

“Why?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” I said.

When she came back, I took out my cell phone. “You look so pretty that we’re having a little photo shoot.”

The look of pleasure on her face at this sliver of flattery and attention pierced my heart.

“Wait, let me brush my hair again!” she said, laughing like a young girl.

Later, I deleted the photo I took in February. For three months, I feared this could be the last image I had of her. Then I printed the one I took today. In it, my mother is smiling as she clutches the shawl close to her. Her lips are shiny with a shade of lipstick that almost matches the shawl.  Her smile is self-conscious but pleased and reaches all the way to her eyes. She looks beautiful.

“Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares.”  – Author Unknown

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PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a pink and white striped blouse pulled from my mother’s closet.  It has seen better days. The collar is frayed, there is a light stain near a buttonhole and it is at least one size too small for her.

My mother is sitting on her bed watching me like a hawk as I rifle through her closet. She shakes her head and says firmly, “No. I might wear it again someday.” Discouraged but determined not to show it, I put the blouse back in the closet. It’s bulging with trousers, sweaters, blouses and skirts, many of which haven’t seen the light of day in years. Some can go to Goodwill and others should be thrown out, but she refuses to part with anything. I have to tread carefully, though.  I am still learning to navigate this chapter in our lives where I have become the parent and she the child.

While pretending to pick some lint off my sweater, I watch her from beneath my eyelids. The last few years have not been kind to her. (To be fair, she is 93 and did not look her age until recently.) Her face is heavily lined and dotted with age spots. Last year my brother and I insisted she get new dentures because a few of her teeth were broken and wire was poking at her gums. The elderly can be fiercely stubborn, though, when it comes to change. In the end, she caved only because we stayed strong.

She used to faithfully curl and set her hair every day; now it gets a perfunctory brushing in the morning. And the new clothing I buy her stays on hangers while she wears the old favourites I am now trying to weed out. “They’re too nice to wear just around the house,” she says. They’re not. They’re just new.

My brother, who is also active in her care, recently said to her, “What happened to my mother, the one who took pride in her appearance?”

“Ouch,” I said when he told me.

“I know, I shouldn’t have said it and I won’t do it again,” he quickly added.

It’s funny how her pride suddenly re-surfaces when other people are around. She is sitting on her bed now because her legs will no longer support her for very long. Yet when I coax her to leave the apartment to go to the common area of her residence, she refuses to take her walker. The first time, I accepted her decision. But it is a long walk to the area and it was soon clear it would be tough going without the walker. She clung to me and we took slow, small steps; yet to her, this was somehow better than being seen using a walker. I considered putting my foot down and going back for it, but I didn’t want to make her feel diminished.

I was ready for her the next time, though. When she again stated that she didn’t need her walker, I said, “Why don’t you use it? We can both put our purses on it and we won’t have to carry them.”  Because this was no reflection on her physical limitations, she agreed docilely. I learned it pays to be creative instead of insistent.

Now, I make one last attempt. I hold up a gray jacket that has decorative rhinestones and used to be part of a pantsuit. It’s not in terrible shape, but it too has seen better days. “This?” I ask hopefully. There’s a flash of uncertainty in my mother’s eyes. I hold my breath and then she says, “I still like it but if you want it for work, take it.”  I say that I would very much like to have it as I quickly fold it and put it in a bag destined for Goodwill. I get her to agree to part with a few more items in the same way, and we are both happy with the day’s work.

The Night Before

It has been more than three years since my mother moved into a seniors’ home. But time hasn’t made the memory of the eve of her move less heart-wrenching.

THE NIGHT BEFORE (May 2016):

 Tomorrow we are moving my 89-year-old mother to a seniors’ residence.  She has been in transition, living with us for the last 10 months when it became clear she could no longer live alone.  It has not been an unqualified success.  We live in the suburbs and it is lonely and isolated for her, especially since I work full-time.  So, tomorrow, she is moving into a residence closer to her old neighbourhood. The thought of this frightens her in the same way a child’s first day of kindergarten might. “But I won’t know anyone,” she tells me. I try to reassure her that there are activities she can join where she will meet people without even leaving the building. There is a music evening every Wednesday, a movie night, Bingo and much more. I can tell that right now, there is no comfort in this.

We spent the last two weeks shopping for everything she needs for this new chapter of her life:  sheets for a twin bed, a micro-wave oven, even many of the little things we use every day without thinking like scissors and a can opener.  My brother will be here early in the morning with a small truck to load up all her worldly possessions.  We’re all tired and as I head to bed on the last night my mother will spend under my roof, I push open the door to her room to say good night.

Her night table lamp is on but she is asleep in her recliner, jaw slack, breathing deeply. She has had a very sore back for the last two days and I suspect it is because this is the third night in a row she falls asleep in her chair.  “Mom,” I whisper. I say it again, more loudly this time, and her eyes fly open.  Her face is deeply lined and her once luminous hazel eyes are now almost hidden, like dried raisins, beneath drooping eyelids. But there are still traces of the local beauty pageant contestant she had once been. Beneath the aged skin is still a fine bone structure. Her rich auburn hair, now a faded blonde touched up by the hairdresser on a regular basis, is still surprisingly full.

 “We have a big day with an early start tomorrow. You should go to sleep in your bed,” I say. She looks at me and I can tell she’s disoriented, but whether it’s from coming out of a deep sleep or anxiety, I don’t know.  Finally she says, “Tell me again what’s happening tomorrow.”

This is more familiar territory. She knows she’s moving tomorrow and the stress is wreaking havoc on her brain.  The same thing happened a few years earlier when her last remaining sister passed away. It’s the details that keep escaping her:  the schedule, the who is doing what and how. So I patiently tell her again how we are heading to her new home. That my car is already packed with the little things.  That my brother and a friend will be here with a truck to move her dresser, recliner, sewing machine, and other bigger items she is taking.  That I will stay with her for two days in her new apartment and then my brother will stay for another two to help her get oriented.  

I see her processing this information yet again.  Then she looks at me and asks, “But am I coming back here tomorrow night?” And my heart breaks into a million pieces.