April 24, 2014: Based on Mom’s condition the previous day, I come equipped for a deathwatch on Thursday. I have poetry books from the village library stuffed in my backpack. I intend to read children’s rhyming verse to her as she lies in her deep sleeping-beauty-like slumber.
When her princely angel comes to kiss her, she will awaken in a better place. In some ways she seems already dead to this world, but she will listen and hear me as I read because hearing is one of the last things to go. Besides the books, I’ve brought my laptop, so I can blog and just be with her if all else fails. But when I get there she is up (in a manner of speaking), sitting in a wheelchair at the table in the second-floor dining area. Her friend Gaby is beside her.
Gaby has come all the way from her room on the third floor to see her friend Patti whom she loves. Patti doesn’t always know Gaby, but she compensates for the failing by calling everyone by her friend’s name. Their real names may be Sally, Sarah or Cindy, but to Patti, everyone is her friend Gaby. I’m an exception to the rule. When she recognizes me, which she still sometimes does, she calls me Punkie, just as she always has.
Gaby and Patti share a table in the main floor dining room at lunch and dinner, but Patti hasn’t been there for several days because she’s been bedridden with a urinary tract infection. Gaby, who turned 98 in February, became worried and set out to find her friend. I arrive on the scene shortly after they’ve been re-united.
“I found her!” Gaby’s face is a fireworks display.
“I see that.” I smile at her.
I’m over the moon that Mom is upright and the two of them are together. I kneel into Mom’s field of view. Her head has become tilted at a forty-five-degree angle forward of late, and she stares fixedly at the floor. She almost never looks up or tracks with her eyes anymore, and when she does make eye contact something vital is missing in the “contact” part of the equation. It’s like her core self is retreating inwardly (or to another unknown destination), leaving an outer shell behind.
The drugs she’s being given exacerbate the process; their side effects freeze her face into an impassive mask and make it virtually impossible for her to walk. She’s imprisoned in her own skin. She’s here/there but she’s not. I hope she will soon abandon her body entirely, even though I will be heartbroken when she does. It takes every ounce of courage I can muster to see her like this, and not collapse in a heap of despair. I let those thoughts go. I am with her in this moment and she is partially here and Gaby is all here and that’s what counts right now. I fetch her some gloves because her hands feel cold. We decide to go up to Gaby’s room.
“I’ll do your nails,” I say.
My do-it-yourself manicures became a ritual the three of us regularly enjoyed shortly after Mom moved to The Home in November 2012. Mom often picks and peels her polish off within hours; Gaby’s stays perfect for a week or more. I paint their nails several times a week whether they need it or not. It brings the friends pleasure and passes the time. I push the wheelchair with Mom in it out of the dining area; Gaby follows.
“I love my Patti,” Gaby says as we get in the elevator.
Once the two of them are installed in Gaby’s green chairs, it’s like old times. Well, almost like old times. So many more parts of Mom are AWOL that it can never be the same, but we make the most of this reality while we’re in it. That’s all we can do. Mom sleeps as I do Gaby’s nails: remove old polish, file with a well-used emery board, apply bright pink polish, and finish with quick-drying topcoat. Gaby’s hands are gnarled and a bit shaky, but her nails are hard as rock, nicely shaped, and long.
“I have the homeliest hands in the world,” Gaby sighs. “All my sisters had beautiful hands, and mine are so homely.” I laugh.“You always say that Gaby. I think your hands are lovely, especially your nails. Are you fishing for compliments?” I tease.
“Yes! And it worked!” She grins; impish dimples appear in her cheeks.
Mom eventually opens one eye, her right. She sits still, silent, inscrutable, and expressionless – so unlike her former self it’s hard to believe she’s the same person. In many ways she’s not, in others she totally is. Gaby sits opposite and looks at her.
“You have a beautiful nose Patti,” she says. Patti doesn’t respond in any way.
“Shall we sing a song Mom?” I ask. “How about Down in the Valley?”
No response. Down in the Valley is Mom’s favourite song. We’ve sung it together at least a thousand times in the past three years. She used to know the words to literally hundreds of songs and took great joy in singing them here, here, here, here, and here. Gaby is the epitome of patience and grace: she rocks gently in her reclining green chair, gazes at Patti, and waits. I try again.
“Why don’t we sing a song Mom?” I repeat. Quick as a wink, Patti opens her mouth and starts to sing. My jaw drops. A smile lights up Gaby’s face like a summer sunrise. The song is short and sweet. Mom only remembers the chorus, which, considering she’s barely uttered five words in the last two hours is a miracle.
“Wow Mom! I’ve never heard you sing that song before. Let’s sing it again,” I say. I pick up my iPhone, select the camera icon, slide into video mode, and tap the red record button. We’re rolling.
“Are you ready Mom?”
“Ready for what Punkie?”
“Ready to sing Mom.”
And she does….
April 24, 2014