About Gretchen Staebler

I am a Pacific Northwest native transplanted to the southeast for 36 years. In 2012, I returned to my childhood home to live and care for my then 96-year-old mother. I am a writer, a hiker, and a back roads wanderer.

It’s About Time

Mama was so glad to see me yesterday when I returned from my visit to my family in North Carolina, I’m thinking I should go away for a week every week or so.

She told me not to get too close when I bent to kiss her because she thinks she might be getting a cold. She’s been thinking that for a full month now, but I don’t think it feels like old news to her. The presentation of her dementia, as I have written many times, is subtle. Much of the time she remembers what happened, but she thinks it all just happened.

The only thing she complained about yesterday, in honor of my homecoming, was that she’d had too many visitors, all since lunch, and that the minister from her church stayed too long. Since she probably had returned from lunch 30 minutes or less before I got there, I knew she was mis-remembering.

The mind is a crazy thing, especially when it begins to fail; and the passage of time is the hardest thing for my mother. She was telling the aide when I arrived at 1:15 that she thought it was night. Time passes slowly when there is nothing to do. Nothing to do because she can’t see. No time reference other than meals, the memory of which she can’t correctly place in time. Not being able to tell if it is light or dark outside through the window that is always covered by closed blinds because light hurts her eyes. Not being able to tell if it’s time to get up or time to go to bed because room lights are on all the time for comfort in her lonely life. Her talking clocks, one in her bed and one by her chair, are her best friends. Except she can’t always understand them, and I think she doesn’t always believe what they tell her.

It is desperately important to her to keep time straight. It is, she says, what keeps her in touch with the world. But in spite of her determination to keep it straight, she gets it all wrong. She can’t remember if someone visited last week, or yesterday, or an hour ago. She can’t keep straight if she just ate breakfast or is about to go to dinner. She thinks it’s time to go to bed for the night when it’s time to go to lunch.

A few months ago we put a note on Mama’s door asking visitors to write in the small notebook, letting us know they had been there. Not everyone uses it, but when they do it’s helpful for us to know the real story. Like the minister, who came right after breakfast, not right after lunch—according to the note the morning aide left, the minister never leaves a note. Mama said he stayed too long, and that when he arrived she had just been about to lie down, lending skepticism to her belief that he had just been there, since I don’t think she ever lies down after breakfast.

The hospice massage therapist had also “just left.” She didn’t mention the hospice bath aide had come, and according to the notebook she was the only one who had been there since lunch. She is probably the person she told she was about ready to lie down, but when I mentioned the bath aide after I finally looked at the notebook, she didn’t remember she had been there 15 minutes earlier.

We talked for a few minutes about my trip to see my grandboys in North Carolina, then, since she had “just been about to lie down” sometime or other, and I was also really tired after a long travel day and a short night, I asked how I could help her get to her nap.

“I would like to walk a couple of rounds first,” she said. (Really? After we had both told each other we were tired?) I told her okay, but she remained in her chair.

“You want to go now?” I asked, coaxing her up, as I was reading the notebook and learning the truth about her visitors. She got up then and walked a few steps toward the door.

“I guess I’m too tired to walk,” she admitted. That’s what I thought. It’s only the second time she has ever told me she was too tired to walk, which makes me wonder if she is letting go.

I heated her rice bags while she asked me if I had brought her winter hats.

“They are all here,” I said, definitely not for the first time.

“Well, why can’t anyone find them?” she said, exasperated. I got them down from the closet shelf, quite sure she hadn’t asked anyone to find them, and got out the blue plaid one she wanted.

As I took my leave, she told me again how glad she was I was back and that I had a good time with my boys. “I’ll look forward to hearing more,” she said. I told her all there was to tell, but I guess I can tell her again.

In North Carolina I got to visit my favorite grocery store—one of the handful of things I miss about my life in Raleigh. And the rumor I heard was true! The Fresh Market scone is back.

After years of picking up one to eat with my café coffee while first journal writing and then my early blogging about my garden, they quit selling them.  I was devastated. A year later they returned, only to disappear again. I was still struggling to find an alternate writing breakfast when I moved away.

I bought three 4-count boxes of them, knowing that some of them will get stale, even in the freezer. The first coffee-dunked bite as I write this post took me back to those early writing days, the journals I wrote in, the pen, my first laptop Mac. Panera Bread, where I write now, is not Raleigh’s Café Carolina; but there I was, back at my familiar corner table where I chatted with the other regulars and the staff greeted me like an old friend and knew my coffee order. I jump back and forth through time too.

Rebecca checked in on Mama last night, a few hours after my visit, and found her in bed at 7:15. She thought it was 11:00.

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