This reflection is part of a series of essays about walking with my mother through the end of her life and the dementia that is slowly eroding her mind. Others in this series can be found here, here, here. and here.
The sun streams in through the French doors on the south side of the building, adding warmth and light to the carefully set dining tables. It’s a lovely space, recently redecorated, with linen napkins popping up out of the water glasses. My husband and I eat lunch here every Sunday, joining our moms for a nicely presented 3-course meal.
There are floral centerpieces on each table, assembled every Wednesday morning by the people who live here, under the gentle direction of two volunteer Garden Ladies. Today’s bouquet consists entirely of white rosebuds and looks lovely as we take our places around the table.
I must say that the dinner guests are an interesting assortment. All of them are over 75, most of them over 80. A few – like both of our mothers – are over 90, moving closer every day to the century mark. They move slowly, these diners. A variety of metal walkers are lined up along each wall and I always hold my breath until all the stragglers are safely seated at the table of their choice.
Last Sunday, we counted 12 residents out of a possible 15. One is out to eat with family, one chooses to remain in her room, and one – my mother-in-law – is too sleepy to sit up at the table. One of those missing is a singer. During past dinners, we’ve heard the battle hymn of every division of the US military, “Home, Home on the Range,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and a few we don’t recognize.
This Sunday, however, that voice is missing. At first, it feels like a relief. A quiet meal! But after a while, the silence becomes thick and cumbersome, like a too-heavy blanket on an overly warm day. We are the only guests at this particular Sunday lunch — the visiting spouse who talks gently to all at the table, the daughter who lives locally and her husband, their voices are not here today, either. It is just us, three of us at our table, and we run out of conversation early.
We’ve spent a lot of Sundays in this place over the last two years. A lot. And we’ve fielded the same questions from the same persons over and over, as we slurp the small cup of soup, cut the meat on our moms’ plates, and enjoy a small serving of dessert.
“So, where do you live?” (This is the standard question for at least three of the women residents, asked approximately every three minutes throughout the meal.)
“And, what do you do?” (This is more likely to come from one or more of the gentlemen, not with the same frequency as the geographic locator.)
Much harder to hear is this one: “Have you seen my mother? I’m sure she was just here.”
From my own mother, these are the most frequent conversational gambits:
“Have you heard from ________?” (Insert various family members, usually by clues offered, not names remembered.)
“How are all your kids?” (Again, not by name.)
“Did you go to a different church today?” (No, Mom, we went to the same church we’ve been going to for 17 years.)
By the end of this week’s meal, I am screaming inside, desperate to be done, forcing myself to stay in my chair. I cannot explain this overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, this slow panic that rises from my gut. I just recognize it when it happens. And I pray my way through. “Lord, have mercy. Give me your eyes to see these dear people. Keep me in this chair!”
I breathe deeply, smile at my mama and say, “Shall we go back to your room and visit a while?” She readily agrees, so off we go.
Stopping, always, to say thank you to the aides who have served us, offering a smile and a gentle touch. These are the days I thank God for the social niceties that have remained with my mother, the moments when I feel the knot in the pit of my stomach begin to unclench ever so slightly.
I will visit again, at midweek, taking my mother out of the unit for an hour or two. We’ll eat lunch outside, up by the pool, if the weather is nice. Or, I’ll take her to a nearby restaurant. And I’ll worry over each step she takes, about folding and stowing her walker, about making sure she’s warm enough.
Yet somehow, those mid-week visits are easier for me.
Maybe because I can pretend a little longer. Pretend that Mom is merely getting older and frailer, that she is not moving away mentally, that larger and larger pieces of herself are not lost, never again to be found, at least, not in this lifetime.
But Sunday dinner? With every bite, I am reminded of the truth. Pretending is not allowed.