My memoir about living with and caring for my mother is still not ready for publication. Unfortunately, this last year was not conducive to deadlines or serious revisions. It is hard to do that when you are living in the thick of what you are writing. I could see that it was coming to a close. There was no way to know when, though. The year remains blurry, cloudy, thick. It is hard to remember individual days because they are clumped together in my mind. We slogged through it as best we could, mother and me.
Now that it is over, I can admit that the last year was absolutely wretched. For me, as well as for Mother, it was a pale comparison to those that came before. Her body was failing though she was not sick. She slept a lot. Her meals were beautiful and presented with flair by her wonderful cook, Maria. But she had no appetite and her ability to eat things she used to shrank to a few dishes. She still enjoyed meatloaf, but no steak; it was too difficult to chew. She loved spaghetti with meatballs. But she was no longer able to eat spare ribs or lamb chops. Every meal was served on lovely china, and candles were lit at dinner. Napkins were linen, and placemats were different at each meal. They were colorful and seasonal. Spring brought out pastel colors, and the mats decorated with flowers. Summer was a time for brighter colors, and some times the placemats were the “hard” type often used in England. These had embedded photographs of lovely scenes in her garden. Maria had them on a rotation so that it was days before you saw the same one again. The silver and glassware and plates were all changed at each meal to stimulate mother and keep up her standards. The breakfast room where these meals generally took place is full of light and color and flowers and decorations on the table.
Amazingly she went to Newport for the month of July and much of August. It was a struggle for her, but she looked lovely all the time. People were attentive and she was well looked after by the wonderful caregivers who went with her. But by the time we left she was just about “out of gas”. She was sleeping 18 hours a day and sometimes more.
She just would NOT let go; therefore, she was always “rising to the occasion” to have dinner with someone about whom she really did not care. Her wardrobe was colorful and varied. Each piece of jewelry matched, but some of it was precious and some plastic. She did not discriminate as long as it went with the outfit. Her caregivers dressed her up like a Barbie Doll. They had fun doing it. They had learned her likes and dislikes earlier before she was lost in dementia. No Orange. No white or black or beige or grey, she liked bright cheerful colors.
Dressing up and looking beautiful with NOTHING to look forward to except death. None of the things she loved except her little dog still existed. No dancing, no flirting, no rushing around to parties with friends because there were no friends. She loved her family, but her friends were everything to her. She outlived almost every single one.
Another problem for me was the fact that only a few people would acknowledge what was happening. This denial was a form of “gaslighting.” It made me feel like I was going crazy. When you live with someone every day, and you know that they do not know what day it is or where they are or who YOU are, it is not helpful for someone to talk about how wonderful (and normal) things are. Sometimes people feel they are doing you a favor to do this. Others cannot bear to admit the truth. My mother was such a practical person. She had no patience with a pretense of that sort. She never denied the impending death of a husband or a lover. She faced the truth head-on and planned for it.
Mother had three children, me, divorced, my sister Dede, widowed and my brother Wiley whose wife Janis is also his caregiver because he is so ill. Dede has two sons, and I have five children. My brother has none. There are 17 Great-grandchildren, mostly all big ones, now.
A fantastic thing happened starting about a month before she died, mother’s relatives began visiting to say goodbye. No one quite said it at first, but there were a lot of them, and by the end, everyone knew she was not going to last long. In late October, my sister came to visit for a few days, and though she did not say much about it to me, I know she noticed how difficult it was to get mother to eat anything at all. She was basically refusing food. She was having great difficulty speaking or being understood. My nephew Todd came the next week, and my daughter Helen was there too. My daughter Lilla and her whole family, and all three of my sons: Charley Jr, Murdoch, and Robert, came and paid their respects. Gradually all the great-grandchildren came in ones and twos. My children, have given me 14 blood grandchildren plus three who married in. My sister has three grandchildren. Nearly everyone got there in time to spend a few minutes with their grandmother/great-grandmother. And Mother knew they were there. She was never sick. She was just old. One hundred and one years and nine months is a long time to live.
She enjoyed “action”: to have something going on, people nearby, conversation, cheerful music, the scent of delicious meals being cooked by Maria. Mother loved a party. Even if it was only two extra people, especially if one of them was a man, it was a party. My nephew Trevor gave my mother a gift which I will try to explain. He had flown into the USA from Austria where he is the American Ambassador. He came to see my mother in the last few days before she died. And he sat by her bed and chatted with her. She was too weak to sit up in a wheelchair, but she was wearing bright, pretty clothes and her hair was curled, her lipstick applied by a caregiver. Her jewelry matched her clothes. Trevor sat by her bed and chattered on about things he knew about her. Her paintings, her time in Austria, her love of her dogs, wonderful dishes, Maria cooking, and parties she had at Underoak, her beautiful home in Washington and the one in Newport called Beaulieu. I stuck my head inside the room a couple of times because I just could not believe that he was having such a long conversation with his grandmother. She could not find the words to speak, though she tried to be understood. But to stay in there and talk non-stop for over half an hour seemed impossible to me. For her, it was the most thoughtful present. She was happy to be talked to. She loved the attention, and being engaged even partially in ‘action’ made her happiest of all. Thank you, Trevor. I will never forget that gift.
It is all over now. She died on November 18th. Then the rush to have a funeral and almost on top of that we celebrated Thanksgiving and then Christmas and New Years Eve. Now there is time to reflect as we enter 2020.
Copyright 2020 Bonnie B. Matheson