Mom was falling asleep right in front of me, across the little table-for-two, with its little white table cloth, in the dining room at the assisted living facility, the kind of dining room in the advertisements that scream “nothing here ever goes wrong.” Everything was very nice. The servers were my favorites, kind, pleasant, respectful, and easy to interact with. They worked long and hard hours to build good lives and to raise their young families, to give them futures to look forward to. I had not been back to see Mom in a few months, because I lived so far away, and these servers were good to see again. It was personal. They also made my mom smile.
Despite that, right now my mom was not smiling. She was falling asleep. Every time you come back to see your elderly parent who has a diagnosis of dementia, it’s a new person you have to interact with. Each time you must get to know that person again. And sometimes the changes from one visit to the next are huge.
For months she had looked forward to seeing me. Now that I was here, was there anything I could say anything to get her to keep her head up and eyes open? You’re entirely alone, trying to find a way to do this.
I was really hoping the food would arrive to give mom some energy and the drinks would arrive to give her some hydration. But I had to be patient. I had traveled too far to just sit there in silence.
Food servers moved all around us. In silence I sat.
Soon they brought her her fresh cut fruit, egg salad with one slice of whole wheat toast, plus diet root beer. She ate.
“How’s the fruit, Mom?” as she gently plucked a grape or a piece of pineapple and nodded in approval.
I did not expect this question. Nope, I certainly did not expect this question. There’s no time to think. No time to make it sound nice.
”Dad died, Mom.”
Her eyes opened larger. So this is what it took to get her eyes to open.
She had another grape.
”About a year ago, Mom.”
“Of what?” I was stuck in the images of my dying father, with me standing next to his bed. We don’t see the cancer but we know what it does. I knew it had eaten away his internal organs.
”Some sort of intestinal cancer or something. They tried to operate… I heard they got the cancer out, but the surgery left him bleeding, which they couldn’t stop.”
The pineapple seemed to please her too. But I knew to just wait. She would let me know where this conversation was going. And there was more she wanted to know. She got extremely intent.
”Did I talk to him before he died?” That one hit me, because despite the fact that she could’t stay awake it indicated that she was quite aware that her memory was failing big time, and that she might well have spoken to him – the man she was married to most of her life, even if the last 50 years of which they spent estranged – one last time. My job here was to supply her memory.
”Yes, Mom, you did. I held the phone up to his ear, and you said something to him which I couldn’t hear but you said what you wanted to say.”
”Did he hear it?”
”Yes, Mom, he did.”
”Did he say anything?”
Now the details and sequences of my dad’s death, so many months earlier, were coming back. “Well, the day before he had spoken some, but on this particular day he was not talking. However, I did put the phone to his ear and he heard you.” All of that was true.
”And did he say anything?”
”Well in this day he was not talking anymore.” All of that was true.
“But I know he heard you and was pleased because he smiled.”
Even in those moments, people want to – need to – know that they mattered and have mattered to others, and have mattered to the people who mattered the most to them, that they made and have made a difference in someone’s life.
One should rest in peace, and one should live in peace.