Besides the oft-maligned month of March, what else “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”?
And who, may I ask, comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion?
I think you can venture a guess.
Shortly after my Mom moved in, a neighborhood acquaintance named Joe was walking past the house as he often does with his adorable beagle, Charlie Brown. I told Joe about my Mom living with us, and he nodded his head knowingly. “My mother-in-law lived with us for twenty years,” he said, as my jaw fell. I shouldn’t have been that surprised, really. Joe is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. We shared a few lines of conversation and then Charlie began tugging, impatient to get to the tree down the block. Joe started to walk again, then held Charlie back for just a moment.
“Promise me something,” he said. “Promise me that when it gets to be too much for you, you’ll do what my wife and I did and get your mother into a good nursing home. And when you do, you can tell yourself that ‘Joe from down the street says it’s OK.’ Because it will be, really.”
“OK, Joe,” I agreed readily, partly to free Charlie from waiting. At the time, I knew that Joe had given me an incredible gift. And I had every confidence time that I would never feel compelled to open it.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans, don’t you?
Based on past history, I have nothing against nursing homes, AKA rehabilitation facilities. My Grandma Anna had entered one when her need for care exceeded what Mom was able to provide. My Mom’s siblings had stepped in and done what a devoted family does best – they worked to craft a better situation for their Mom and for their sister. The three of them did their research, and my Uncle Gabe discovered a beautiful facility in Andover, New Jersey. It was what my father would call a “hike” – over an hour from our home. But there was no denying that this place was worth the trip. Each time we visited we were treated to the sight of nurses and aides in their starched pink and white uniforms treating my Grandma like a queen. They greeted us warmly and treated Grandma with reverence. I recall my mother crying after we returned to the car following our first visit to Grandma in Andover. It took me a minute or two to realize, to my relief, that they were tears of gratitude.
Having had that experience, I certainly had no problem reassuring people who had either placed their parent in a nursing home or were thinking seriously about taking that step.
“Nursing homes exist for a reason,” I said. At the time I believed I was being sincere. But now, with my own situation beginning to unravel, I had to wonder. Mom and I were, as the saying goes, “getting on one another’s last nerve.” I was tired and short-tempered. Mom was somewhat demanding. We snapped at one another, and had moments of simmering silence. We’d had this sort of thing occur once before, when I had returned home after graduating from college. I’d had my sights set on the future, and Mom was doing her level best to keep me in the past. At that time, neither of us knew how to “fix” the problem. It was, as I recall, a miserable spot in time. Now we were back in that miserable place, both of us once again unwilling or unable to back down. I was, quite frankly, scared to death. I told myself that I could hold on until my daughter’s own college graduation weekend, when Mom would be in a nearby nursing facility for a few days of respite care.
“We just need a break from one another,” is what I told myself at the time.
Ever the good sport, Mom went willingly into respite care the day before we were to leave for my daughter’s graduation. She’d been to this nursing facility before, and each time we’d had a seamless transition: Mom goes into the “home”; Mom stays for a few days; we pick her up; we chat in the car on the way home, and are relieved to discover that once again she has enjoyed the food and the activities. But when asked, usually by John, Mom agrees readily that YES she is very happy to be coming home. She misses her cat. She misses her bed. She misses watching “Jepidy” with us.
But this time, during this visit, both Mom and I were in for a surprise.
On my end, I embarked on the three-day trip to Loyola University in Maryland feeling almost euphoric. I figured that most likely this was stemming from the fact that I had brushed aside recent suggestions from close friends that perhaps Mom’s care was “getting beyond me.” A few had even suggested that I leave Mom in the facility after respite care had ended, for a smoother transition. “Why bring her home, only to bring her back in again?” they said. That statement gave me pause, I will admit. I was worried about Mom falling again in my home — as she’d done a few weeks before, when I turned my back and she tumbled onto the floor while trying to take off one of her knee-high stockings. She was unhurt, but I was badly shaken. “Knee highs are BANNED from the kingdom!” I yelled at her, only half-joking. Yes, things were heading a bit downhill. But I was determined to see this through. “Nope, I’ve got this,” I told all of my well-meaning advisors. And I managed to convince myself that I believed it. If Mom was Daisy-Head Maisie’s egg, I reasoned, then I was Horton.
But here is what happened. As it turns out, my husband and I had booked ourselves into a pet-friendly hotel outside of Baltimore for the duration of graduation weekend. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I am allergic to dog hair. I will admit that, on most other occasions, a misstep of this magnitude would have caused me to have a meltdown. But this weekend was about my daughter and her achievements. I wasn’t going to let this “surprise” get me down. As it turned out, my positive attitude served me well.
Sure, my eyes looked a bit puffy in some of the photographs taken the first day of our stay. But that didn’t matter so much when I discovered a very pleasant surprise. As it turned out, a convention and exhibition for the owners of Borzois – also known as Russian Wolfhounds — was being held at our hotel.
I consider Borzois to be the most beautiful animal on the planet. They have very lush coats so I could never own one. But I just adore their sweet faces and regal bearing and gentle nature. We encountered these beautiful animals around every corner as we walked through the hotel. Borzois here. Borzois there. Borzois everywhere.
The “weekend of the Borzois” put me in a whimsical frame of mind. I relaxed more than I had in a long while, and felt ready for anything. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a revelation.
The revelation was this – that all of the people surrounding the Borzois, from owners to groomers to handlers to helpers, had smiles on their faces pretty much 24/7. Each of them had the glow of passion. They were completely absorbed in their animals and the care they required. I found myself admiring their apparently selfless devotion. And I had to face a sobering reality.
I had lost my passion for caring for Mom. I was no longer devoted to her. My will to persevere had been clouding the issue. But now my vision was clear, and this is what I saw.
Me sighing loudly each morning and surely making Mom feel badly as I entered her room, dreading the daily routine – which had once seemed like a nice “time out” from my former life, but which had now become an almost unbearable burden.
Mom getting upset with me because I refused to bring her downstairs on a day when I had a ton of work to do and a friend coming over for coffee.
Me getting incensed when Mom complained that the water was too hot or too cold during a bath, and me telling Mom that if she would “JUST STOP COMPLAINING, the whole blasted process would go a lot faster.”
Mom pitching forward and stumbling as I helped her through the hallway and up or down the stairs, and me feeling like she was going to end up giving me a heart attack – and, even worse, me telling her so.
Here is the bottom line.
There were increasingly more days when I wished Mom could be elsewhere. Even worse, I suspected that she was feeling the same way.
I told my husband John about my revelation the night before we were to head back to New Jersey.
“You’re not a health care professional, and this may be too much for you,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.”
I almost hugged him for his wisdom. On the ride home, I thought seriously about taking the “smooth transition” advice I had been given. I thought about not having to fetch Mom’s meals or supervise while she brushed her teeth. I thought about the freedom I would have, and how exhilarating it would feel.
But once I returned home and stepped into my house – soon to be a Mom-free zone – I got cold feet. There was Mom’s spot on the sofa, with the blanket I had crocheted for her folded carefully over it. There was “her” cat, snoozing on her bed and awaiting her arrival. There were her English muffins on the kitchen counter, just waiting to be toasted and buttered imperfectly by me and greatly appreciated by her. The relief I felt on the ride home turned to shame. I felt a strange sensation, and realized I was beginning to panic. I was scheduled to pick Mom up the following day!
I started grasping at straws, hoping that I would get some sort of sign to point me in the right direction. I made myself some extra-strong coffee and cried into the mug when I realized it said “World’s Greatest Grandma” on it. When I prayed for an answer, it ended up being this — I didn’t want to give up so easily. I didn’t want to rip off the bandage. I wasn’t ready. I needed to buy some time. I immediately arranged for Mom to stay in the nursing facility for a few more days so I could have more time to come to a decision. John agreed. “It’s the best plan,” he said. “It will let us really think hard about what we want to do.”
Of course I dreaded what I needed do the next morning, which was to head right over to the nursing home and tell Mom that she would be there a bit longer than expected.
I walked with trepidation into the common room where Mom sat in her wheelchair. She was dressed in her black skirt and emerald green blouse, her hair combed and her cheeks pink with makeup. I flushed with shame when I realized that for the past few months I had hidden Mom’s makeup bag in a back corner of her closet. I had become unwilling to apply her blush and powder and lipstick as she had every day of her life.
“Hi!” Mom said when I stood in front of her. She looked absolutely regal and radiant. I spotted her aide sitting at a nearby window, beaming her approval. “She looks beautiful,” I said, and the three of us smiled at one another. I was aware that I was trying to buy time. I finally sat down and prepared to justify my selfish decision to my beautiful mother.
Mom beat me to the punch. “Mary Ann, I need to stay here,” she said. I was stunned. Doubting my Mom’s ability to make this sort of decision on her own – once again, underestimating her due to her advanced age and dementia – I countered with this question.
“Who told you that?”
“No one told me anything,” Mom said. “You can’t take care of me anymore. It’s too much. It’s time. And I’m happy here.”
We sat there and faced one another like two soldiers who had done their best to win a battle and then had to concede defeat. Or was it defeat? Mom, with her infinite wisdom and strength and innate kindness, was making it feel like a victory. I was breathless with admiration. In her brown-grey eyes, I saw an acceptance that was almost profound in its purity.
And then, both resigned to and emboldened by Mom’s decision, I suddenly felt energized. I asked Mom a quick succession of questions, lowering my voice while trying to fight back tears.
“How’s the food?”
“Do you like the nurses?”
“Are you doing activities?”
“I think so! I can’t remember.”
“Are you sleeping well?”
“Yes … well off and on, just like at home.”
The word “home” stopped me in my tracks. How could Mom not want to come home? Of course she wanted to come home. The one question I wanted to ask Mom that day but didn’t dare was “Won’t you miss our home?” Because I both knew the answer and dreaded thinking about it. Of course she would miss us. She would miss her pretty room. She would miss looking out of her window at our garden. She would miss petting the cat. She would miss the comings-and-goings of the kids. She would miss her life as the woman who was so proud and grateful that her daughter and son-in-law wanted her under their roof.
But she knew what needed to happen, and she was being the bigger person by insisting on it. About a month before, my high school “besties” had gently questioned my belief that my mother would only end up in a nursing home after a fall in my home or a serious illness. I tried to hold my ground, as I had always visualized Mom and me staying together under the same roof for as long as we could – “Side by Side,” as in the song she used to sing so often during my childhood.
“This is how the world ends,” said my ever-wise friend Diane, quoting from the poet T.S. Eliot. “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
For weeks I wondered how the “world” would end for Mom and me. Now I had my answer. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But with a roar.
I walked out of the nursing home that day with my head held high, filled with gratitude. Because no matter what people said when I told them the “big news” – that Mom would be staying in a home – I could counter by saying “Mom wanted it this way.” I didn’t have the courage to open the gift Joe had given me so long ago. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. I had Mom to do it for me.
A week after Mom moved in to the nursing home, John and I arrived for one of our evening visits. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Mom was in the common room seated with two other ladies – I’ll call them Dotty and Pat — who offered us polite “hellos.” It is obvious to us that Mom is well-loved by everyone in her facility, just as my Grandma Anna had been in hers. I was so happy to see Mom. I miss her. I miss her like crazy. I never expected, although I should have, that when Mom moved out she would take the peaceful “Josephine Zone” with her. “Now I have to drive fifteen minutes each way to bask in the ‘Zone,’” I half-joked recently to a friend.
“How was your day, ladies?” John asked. Mom smirked as Dotty and Pat giggled. John is always a hit with the ladies, as Mom and I had often joked. She and I exchanged a conspiratorial glance. John loves an audience, and we could already tell that he was in rare form.
“Did you have your Memorial Day BBQ?” he continued.
“I don’t know, did we?” Dotty answered, looking at the others questioningly. Pat and my mom shrugged and smiled, which compelled John – who truly should have been a news anchor – to read the entire BBQ menu off of a nearby flyer.
“Well it says here that you had BBQ pork and creamed corn and salad and cake,” John announced. The ladies were silent, and I held my breath. John and I both enjoy bantering with my Mom and her sister Millie, but I worried that maybe with these Pat and Dotty – who were pretty much strangers to him – he may have crossed the line.
There was silence for a few seconds, and then Dotty spoke up.
“Well, if you say so!” she said, and we all laughed. As John and I left that evening, I glanced back at Mom. She looked relaxed and happy and well-cared for, and I noticed that Dotty was wheeling her chair closer to Mom. There they sat as we left them, side by side.