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That Tragic August Day Chapter Six
Mama and Me
Chapter Six - The Ever Rolling Fog
There are moments of lucidity in the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, and those moments are Hell. One moment, they are free to wander comfortably numb to reality, and they come to an inexplicable break in the fog. The numbing continuum is broken abruptly, and the eyes focus. “Where am I?” they ask. “Why am I here?” they puzzle. “Where are the people I love?” they ask with palpable loss in their voices. “I’ve got to get back there! I have to go home!” they say with alarm and heightened fear. These moments are frantic, looking for the door out of there. I’ve seen this face, this look, far too many times. I could always tell the new patients. “Can you help me find the door out of here,” one would frantically implore. “I’ve got to get home and cook dinner. Oh my, they are going to wonder what happened to me! I’ve got to get out of here!” These moments of lucidity leave them fearful of the strange place wherein they suddenly find themselves. It is a foreign place, it is not home, there are no loved ones to greet them, and they feel abandoned and all alone. That look can never be described, and it is understood entirely by those whose loved ones are there. It is the most difficult look to endure, because it is the beginning of many lies...the ones you tell to keep your own sanity. It is moments like these that I often feel that I have discovered the human “dumping grounds,” the place where people dispose of the difficulty of caring for their loved ones who can no longer fend for themselves and have become a great burden. And where are their families and loved ones, I ask myself in those moments? I am also sure that I am not the only one who has wrestled with that question. And as I would witness these moments, I found that, if I lovingly walked with them for a bit, got them into conversation until the fog came back, they soon forgot that they were even trying to go home...they were, very sadly, home.
Mama With Her Brothers & Sister
Mama wanted so much to go home. It wore on Resa severely that, every time she went in there, Mama had all of her things packed and was waiting to leave. And Resa would wait until Mama was elsewhere in the building and dutifully put it all back. Change was a four-letter word with Mama. Nothing in her house was rearranged. No chair could be moved, unless temporarily, and as soon as the temporary need for that chair was fulfilled, that chair had to go back in the exact spot where it had been. This place was change. It was a four-letter word. She wanted her life back, just like all the rest of those patients in that ward, and every time that fog parted, even if just for a few minutes, Mama started in to putting her life back to the way it was supposed to be. Not only did Mama pack up everything in that room that was hers, the pictures were taken down from the walls, and everything was waiting for Resa, whom Mama just knew would come to take her home. Mama even still carried her pocketbook everywhere she went in that ward. Mama’s pocketbook was her last grip on reality, on the life she loved and knew. When we children were not there, it was one thing that she could hold on to.
Resa visited more and stayed longer than anyone I know. She would take Mama over to see Daddy, arrange for them to have meals together in the dinning room, anything to give Mama some normalcy, to reclaim some of her life. None of us had any blueprints for how or what. We just lived day to day, trying to make some sense of the senseless, to hope for a better day, and to pray that everything was going to turn out much better than it currently was. Daddy was improving daily, and that gave us a false ray of hope that maybe there was something for Mama. When Alzheimer’s begins its robbery, you will live in denial forever. It only happens to other people, not us, this is something else, and we can find a cure. But Alzheimer’s is the Great Thief. The more you have, the more it takes.
Mama and Daddy had a set of friends who had been with them through nearly all their lives, Marcus and Beulah Johnson, or Brother and Sister Johnson as we always called them. Brother and Sister Johnson were Church of God pastor and wife, just like my parents. To us kids, Brother and Sister Johnson were like an extra set of parents. They were there when each of us kids were born, and Mama and Daddy were there when their kids were born. Brother and Sister Johnson were a perennial part of my parents’ lives...for decades. So it was very comforting whenever they would come to the institute to see Mama and Daddy. It was like a ray of sunshine in there, a temporary respite from the reality and a return to a dream that we wished would never end. For brief moments, we could forget where we where, what had happened. The world went from upside down to right-side up, even if it was short-lived. All four of them sitting there around the table like they were at the house. Any moment now, Mama would get up to make them some coffee. The conversation was still the same, but I could see that this new reality troubled Sister Johnson sorely. Every now and then, it registered on Sister Johnson’s face that she could not bear to see Mama in the condition she was in and in the surroundings that her condition had wrought. It troubled Sister Johnson visibly, and I could see the speechless helplessness in her face as she would look around the room wondering what she could do to help Mama come back to the world that had been. There was a hopelessness in Sister Johnson’s face, and I knew what she was thinking. Why wasn’t Mama back in her own home recuperating there? Why couldn’t prayer heal Mama? We could not accept this state of affairs either, but I often felt that our false calm composure while they were all sitting there chatting made her feel that we were not trying to get Mama out of there, to take her home to Mountain Hill Road where she would get better. And Sister Johnson prayed for Mama every day.
May quickly became June, and June as quickly became July. Resa spent every spare moment she had in that place trying to keep Mama in our world, trying to soften the impact of this bad change so that Mama could heal. And July became August. Daddy was able to walk further, and we thought that he would soon go back to the house. Once there, we would figure out how to work on Mama’s eventual return there. It was in the middle of August that Daddy seemed to take a turn for the worse. I remember coming into his room, and he was lying there asleep in his bed. His face was contorted in a way that told me he was in severe pain. Daddy had always been a stoic when it came to pain. His idea of manliness was drilled into him in the armed service, and it never left him. I only saw my father cry once in my entire life. It was when my baby brother, Phillip, died suddenly just a few weeks away from his thirty-first birthday. On the day of the funeral, we had come back to the house, and the church members had prepared food for us. My father was standing there in the kitchen fixing a plate of food, and I noticed that he was standing still, as if pondering what to select next...and he just kept standing there. “Odd,” I thought, so I glanced over, and there he silently stood, great big tears were streaming down Daddy’s cheeks. I put my head down and waited until he had gone on, so as to give him some privacy. Daddy never let us see him cry. And he never admitted to pain. So, seeing my father lying there in that hospital bed with that contorted look on his face, a look that told the truth about what he was feeling, I felt it best not to wake him. If he was in so much pain that his face looked like this, why not let him sleep as much as he could. Even though it was a very long drive for me to come down here to see him, my visit was unimportant, his rest was. More than once, I would encounter this situation, and sadly, I would turn around and go home. Two weeks later, Daddy came out of it, and I was visiting with him one day and remarked, “Daddy, you’re looking a lot better. For a while there, you were looking like death warmed over,” I said with a chuckle, my lame attempt to make light of the circumstances in which he found himself, and to insert some ray of hope. Any day that Daddy was looking better was a bit more promise that he would soon be going home, and I told him that I felt that they would be sending him home before he knew it. “Not long now, Daddy,” I said cheerfully.
One Sunday afternoon, about that same time period, Resa and I were with Mama, and I said, “Let’s go see Daddy.” The excitement in my voice was the reason Mama perked up, because saying Daddy’s name no longer seemed to have the same effect. Oh, she would ask where he was from time to time, but they would often be fleeting moments. The fog would close back in as quickly as the cloud had parted. Mama would instantly forget what she was talking about, and the ever present need for Daddy that she had had all those years was not as prevalent now.
But it was a way for us to entertain her. So off to the other side of the institute, to go through those locked doors that would never ever open just for her. What was puzzling was the experience of seeing Mama look down that long hallway as if it puzzled her. It was “change.” Her world had become this world, this locked ward, minute by minute, day by day, and the evolution was soaking into her very person. I stood there, momentarily springing her from her prison, to be able to take her beyond those doors that were forever locked to her, and she had a look of fear. “You go on,” she said. “I’ll wait here.” “Mama,” I protested, “We’re going to see Daddy. Come on.” I had to beg her to come with us, and it took a while for her to let go of that other world, the ward that was becoming her life. These were the very same doors that only months before, I had wheeled her through to begin this chapter, and ironically, these doors would witness her last visit with Daddy.
Once in Daddy’s room, she immediately lit up, her face aglow with joy at seeing Daddy who was lying there in his bed watching television and reading...just like home. He smiled, and Mama joyously exclaimed, “There you are!” as she quickly went around to the far side of his bed, kissed him on the cheek and began fussing over him. After about an hour, we felt it was time to let Daddy rest and take Mama back to her ward. I will never forget, as we prepared to leave the room, Mama said to Daddy, “Now, I want a kiss before I leave, and I don’t just want one of those light pecks. I want a ‘real’ kiss!” She put emphasis on the word “real,” and Daddy must have known exactly which one in their personal dictionary that one was, because she leaned over, and Daddy placed his one hand behind her neck, pulled her close, and they lip-locked. When they broke free, Mama walked around to the foot of his bed, turned to face him, her face all aglow, and with a very, very, satisfied smile, and without saying a word, raised her hand and gave him the “big okay” sign. Daddy smiled. That would be Mama’s last time to see her sailor.
Saturday morning, Resa called me in tears. Daddy had had a heart attack right after breakfast, the ambulance had been called, and they had taken him to the hospital. But Daddy was gone now. He was never coming back to the institute, he was never coming back to Mountain Hill Road. The dreams we had of Mama and Daddy living out their golden years at their wonderful home were broken that day, and nothing was ever going to put them back together now. Someone turned the page in the book before we were finished reading it, and we became even more aware of how little we are in charge of life.
We had to make plans for Daddy’s funeral, and one burning question was what about Mama? What do we tell her? Can we tell her anything? Should we take her to the funeral? After so much agonizing discussion, we opted to take her to the viewing and see how she did. We would not tell her anything until the moment she got there, since she would not remember it anyway, but we felt that she needed to at least be present one last time. We owed Mama and Daddy this much. Even if much of it would be forgotten, maybe the fog would lift long enough for her to participate, to understand, and to grieve as she deserved. The viewing was to be at the funeral home the night before the funeral service. When we got there, Mama still had no idea where we were going, but there was a certain joy in her step, as if somehow she knew that she was outside of that life-robbing institute. When we got to the big room where Daddy lay in his coffin, everybody sort of wondered who was going to take charge of the moment, and I think no one really wanted to, so I said, “Come on, Mama.” Taking her by the hand, I led her slowly and gently across the large, somber room, no noise coming from even our steps, as if the very carpet had conspired to keep the silence. As we approached Daddy, Mama could tell from a distance that someone was lying there, but she could not yet make out the face. “Oh, who’s there?” she asked softly, intrigued by the moment. No one said anything. I know that we were only seconds away from her knowing, or not knowing, who this man was in the coffin. We were only a few yards away now, and I could recognize Daddy. I wondered when Mama would. I looked, and everyone in the family was hanging back just enough to not be ahead of her, but close enough to watch her face. I think they all wanted to see her reaction, to see if she would still know the man she had loved for so many decades. And suddenly Mama knew. “Oh, my!” she exclaimed suddenly and softly. Struck to the heart, Mama’s head bent forward, and she started to cry, quietly and softly. The fog had parted, and she hurt. I held on to her, because for a moment, her legs gave way. I pulled her close to me and let her cry. She would quietly look up, stare at Daddy, then bow her head and cry some more. She was partly a child now, and she cried like one. She didn’t sob, but the tears fell just the same. I knew Mama hurt, because even in her state of mind, something had come back for this.
Mothers always have a way about nagging you to do something better that they think needs improving. For my brother, Gill, it was always, I mean always, about his beard. She didn’t like it, and there was not a day that Mama did not tell him how much more handsome he would be without “that beard.” For me, it was always asking me when I was going to go get a good physical. “You know,” she would insist, “You should get a good physical once a year.” And I would always roll my eyes and patronize her till she got off the subject. Mama stood there at Daddy’s coffin, crying a bit, then, she stopped, lifted her head, turned to me and said, “You know, you should get a physical sometime.” “Mama...” I smiled, shaking my head.
We all turned away from the coffin and took Mama over to a seat in the middle of the room where she would be able to be greeted by guests and not be sitting where she would have to constantly look at Daddy and see him in the coffin. Hundreds of family, old friends and church members came to pay their respects. So many faces, so many memories, and as each of those loving faces came to stand in front of Mama, amazingly, she knew them, remembered their names, and was so overjoyed to see them. At one point, Mama looked around the room, surrounded by so many faces she knew, all of them engaged in catching up with others they had not seen in years, like some huge family reunion, and seeing all of the joy, Mama exclaimed, “Hey, this is some party. Whose birthday is it?” She was serious, and she deserved the vacation from reality.
Several times that evening, someone would take Mama up to see Daddy again, and it was the same thing all over again. It was always a case of someone hearing Mama wonder why she was here, thinking that no one had taken her up to see Daddy, feeling that they should do their good deed, and here we went again. She would get there to the side of the coffin, discover Daddy, and cry all over again. It was the reason we decided not to take her to the funeral the next day. Enough was enough. Mama would never fully know that Daddy was gone, nor would she ever comprehend it. Daddy’s last chapter had been written. The birth and death date were there visibly on his tombstone at the family plot in the cemetery. It really smacks you in the face when you look at a tombstone, and the name of your parent is written there. You can be as stoic as you want to be, but your mind still races ahead of you, leaving you in the dust as you try to make sense of what you are doing at that very moment. Trust me, it never makes sense. How can they be gone? Wasn’t life to be forever? Couldn’t this have been postponed? Someone once said that the line, the short dash, between the two dates on the tombstone, was everything, and that “everything” had been a full and complete life for my father. The twenty-one gun salute by the veterans at his graveside made me proud of my father, as I was suddenly reminded of his time in the Korean War, of all that he had seen as a young sailor, later as an Army sergeant, and finally as a Pentecostal preacher who pastored faithfully for fifty years and started a number of churches that are still there today. Poignantly, Mama’s tombstone was right there next to Daddy’s, and even though there was a birthdate on it, there was no “dash.” Mama had another chapter to write yet.
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