We have come to what was once called a “nursing home” in Mayfield, Kentucky, to visit Mom on a beautiful Easter morning. The knot that has been forming in my gut for the last thirty minutes twists tighter as we walk down the hall to her room.
She is sitting in her wheelchair, wearing a blue dress. Her hair is neatly combed and fastened up behind her head. She has cleaned her breakfast plate, unusual for her this last year or so. That lack of appetite is vividly reflected in the fact that she now weighs less than ninety pounds. If her spirit continues its current cohabitation for another few months, she will be ninety-nine years old.
Not much of the past few years could rightly be called living. She hasn’t recognized me in over two years. She shows not even the slightest bit of emotive response when Randa and I walk into her room. I tell her that it’s Easter morning and have to repeat the statement two more times. Mom gives up on understanding what that means and shakes her head a couple of times.
I take a seat on the bed, right beside her and Randa sits beside me. “Do you want to drink some of your juice?” I ask Mom, picking up the small glass on her tray. “What?”
I repeat the question and lift the glass toward her mouth. “What is that?” she asks and I tell her that it’s apple juice. “What?” I repeat, louder, “Apple juice.” She barely touches it to her lips and takes a tiny taste. I put the glass back on the tray and she comments, “That’s sweet,” but she has no interest in any more of it.
She keeps staring down at her feet, lifting them up over the bar of the rolling stand, studying them as if trying to figure out to whom they belong and why they are attached to her legs. Or maybe she’s puzzled about the shoes. Her legs are thin and bony and covered with bluish marks. I look up from her legs and look at her hands.
Swollen by arthritis, her knuckles seem huge, exaggerated by the loss of weight. Or maybe it’s not exaggeration, just harsh truth without the deception of surrounding flesh.
From time to time, in between the times of asking me if I have a big family and where we live, she repeats, “Things have changed.” After a few minutes of nearly shouting to try to help her understand what I’m saying, I give up. She isn’t able to answer in a coherent fashion anyway. In a little while, I tap Randa on the knee and nod my head toward the door. Just then, Mom reaches over and lays her hand on my left arm. I quickly put my right hand over hers. Her flesh is cold and soft and I rub my fingers lightly over hers.
We sit like that for several minutes. Mom continues to inspect her feet, shake her head slowly and say again, “Things change.”
Finally, I tell her that we’ve got to go. She seems startled and sad. “You’ve got to leave?” As I stand, she begins pushing herself up out of the wheelchair. Randa and I look at each other, surprised and unsure of what we should do. Mom walks carefully over to the door, gripping the edges of chairs, cabinets, doorframe. A couple of nurses come over to us. Mom reaches up to hug me and the twist in my gut rises up to my throat. I manage to keep the sounds stifled but I cannot stop the heaving of my sobs. I kiss her and turn away so she cannot see my face.
Somehow, even though she showed no recognition of me or Randa or of the names of the siblings when I asked if she’d seen them, there was some sense of connection. Something in her made her reach over and lay her hand on my arm, some deeply buried sense of emotional attachment pulled her up out of that chair. Not even the fierce silence of dementia has yet been able to erase all notion of affection, no matter how little else of cognition remains.
“Things change.” And one day, that change will set the spirit free from the body the mind has already left. And One Day, my mother and I will be together again, and she will know it.