I’m practicing listening to my mother’s complaints as the only way she knows to say she is afraid; that this getting old stuff is super scary. Usually I don’t do well. I hear only the endless dissatisfaction, and I am working so hard not to absorb it myself and to move her on to happier ground, that I don’t address the emotion behind the words. Sunday I came close.
“How is your day going?” I asked cheerily when I arrived before lunch.
“Not very well,” she said. I did not take a deep breath. I did not think here we go. I stepped out of my own head before I had a chance to go “there” myself and put myself in her head.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I can’t walk in the hall by myself anymore,” she said. “I can’t see at all and I am more confused and I miss the turns. I get up from my chair to go to the bathroom and end up at the bed instead.”
Rebecca and I are aware she is increasingly disoriented, and we are concerned. I called her Saturday, late afternoon. I called four times in succession before she got to the phone.
“Did you call a couple of times before I got to the phone?” she asked. “I was lying down. I got lost trying to find the table the phone is on.”
“You need to wait until you’re fully awake before you get up!” I admonished. “That’s how you fall!” I’ve seen her get up from her chair still half asleep, and it’s worrisome.
“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. She’s been insisting for five years she wasn’t asleep, when I’ve seen her drooping head and heard her snores. It’s weak to sleep during the day, so she “doesn’t.” But I don’t respond to that this time. Pointless.
“I’m not going to call you if I can’t trust you not to answer when you’re sleepy.”
“I don’t want you not to call for that reason!” Now she’s panicked.
“Then let the phone ring. I’ll call again.”
“It was time to get up for dinner anyway,” she said. Not the point.
But back to Sunday.
“How long has the difficulty walking in the hall been going on?” I asked. “For a while, or just today?”
“Just today,” she said. “I think I spent too long outside in the sun yesterday. It felt so good; but it was a mistake, it made me blind and more confused.”
“Well, it’s expect it’s temporary,” I said. I didn’t even roll my eyes.
“The sun was on my back and it felt so good, I turned around and let it shine on my front. But I had forgotten my sunglasses. And it must have made me blind. Even though my eyes were closed.”
“I don’t think that would have a long-term effect on your vision,” I said. “It could be the eye ointment you’re using for the infection and it will be better when you stop using it.” Silence.
“I don’t want to be completely blind,” she said. Was that a bit of a tremble in her voice? This conversation is not about what external forces may or may not be at work to explain old age decline; it’s about fear, plain and simple.
“Thinking about that happening some day must be really scary,” I said.
“It is,” she agreed.
“One of the things I most admire about you is the way you have taken on each challenge throughout your life and gotten through it every time. You do worry about things way too much, and long before they happen; but when you get there you do what you have to do and come out on top.”
I can see she isn’t buying it. It’s the best I’ve got, the rest is up to her.
“What is it they say?” I ask. “Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you? I think it’s in the bible: ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will worry about itself.’ Right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “I think I need to go back to the eye doctor tomorrow, to ask him if being in the sun could have made me more blind. He’s a Mormon and their sabbath is on Saturday so maybe he’s at the office today and will answer the phone, or maybe he’ll listen to a message if you leave one on the answering machine.”
I told her he wasn’t working on Sunday, I would call Monday. We went for a walk around the halls, then. She missed some of the turns. We went to the dining room for lunch and she expressed disdain at the menu. My very excellent patience was waning.
“Their ‘ham’ is bologna,” she said with disgust.
“No it isn’t,” I sighed.
She insists all their meat is bologna. Do they even still sell bologna? The aide waiting to take her order offered assurance that she had seen it, it was a big baked ham, and they would cut it up her piece for her. Mama decided to try it, because she sure didn’t want pulled pork. She was well on her way to finishing off her tender, flavorful serving when I left.
She is spiraling deeper into cognitive dysfunction. I am, I hope, spiraling too, in the opposite direction, toward better compassion and more understanding. I’ve long suspected it might be easier as the line between her old essence and her new reality becomes bolder. (I could be fooling myself there.)
P.S. The eye doctor, after she confessed with a self-loathing sigh, “I did a very foolish thing…,” assured her being in and out of the sun would not affect her vision for more than a few minutes. The ointment she is using for the infection might make her vision blurry, but it will go away when she stops using it. He has more patience than any ten people. She’s moved on to incontinence pants; we will deal with that today.