She Would Have Preferred Pink

March 29, 2011

Pink RoseMy mother died recently. after an at least 7-year battle with dementia. Actually, she bought master gardener Tom DiBaggio’s book, Losing My Mind : An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s, shortly after its 2003 publication, in which he chronicled his thoughts at the start of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. So I suspect that my mother knew before we did, that something was terribly, irretrievably amiss.
I was the last family member to see her alive. I’m good with it. She’s free of pain and in a better place (I hope). She hadn’t eaten for 12 days or had any water to drink for 2-1/2 days, when I arrived to see her one last time. It was “comfort care” only; no life-prolonging measures were taken because, honestly, there was no quality of life left. She lived, for the last 2-1/2 years of her life, in a gloriously expensive nursing home called Greenspring at Renaissance Garden. Mere mortals without deep pockets need not apply. Have you ever noticed how nursing homes have such grand names? Why aren’t they called something like “Dr. Rich-as-Croesus-LLC Nursing Home 1, 2, ” etc.? At any rate, the last time she was seen in public, in the nursing home cafeteria, she was sticking her fingers in a bowl of corn flakes.

She was in hospice for two months. During this time and shortly after my first visit to see her, she had lost the ability to use utensils such as knives and forks, and lost the ability to use a straw. Still, during the January visit, she retained her “edge.” To give you a hint, this is someone whose only friend described my mother as having “an abrasive personality.” While there, I bought her a cheerful, brightly colored bouquet of flowers at Giant Food, a metro D.C. supermarket chain. She had developed tunnel vision in one eye; I thought the large, brightly colored flowers would be easier for her to see and would appeal to the accomplished watercolorist in her. As I showed them to her, she said: “I would have preferred pink.“ Seething, I left the room. Once I was gone, she asked Wrinkled Randy: “How much did they cost?” “That’s not the point,” he truthfully declared. “But how much did they cost?” she pressed. Later, when we compared notes, we both agreed that the flowers would have gone in the trash had either of us heard the full conversation.

Mama, Age 4, with DollIn another sad conversation with Wrinkled Randy, my mother turned to him and asked: “Are you rich?” Bemused, he said: “No” and laughed. She said: “Well, I am.” “No Mom,” I thought when hearing this. “You’re a spiritually impoverished, frail and elderly anorexic with dementia, whose time is near.” She never understood the importance of family. Too late in life, she yearned for the small town in Ohio in which she’d grown up. But everyone had moved on, or died.

During her last lucid spell, Mom gave us plenty of hints that it was time for her to go. She spoke of needing a suitcase because she was going on a trip. She often saw our grandfather, sometimes beyond gates and sometimes his cheek was touching hers. She saw either a dark, gaping hole in front of her which was lined with razor wire, or Grandpa beyond some gates which had barbs, or something sharp and pointed on them which would hurt her as she passed through. Displaying her breathtakingly spectacular lack of a maternal instincts, she turned to one of my sisters and said: “You go first.”

At one point, I asked two social workers at the nursing home if it might have any effect on our mother if she was told that if she didn’t eat, she was going to die. They both looked horrified and, shaking their heads side to side, emphatically said “No.” After my mother ceased eating and her body began to shut down, one of them did mention to my mother that starvation would lead to certain death. My mother responded: “Everyone has to die sometime.” Clearly, this was a woman reconciled with death.

In the end, I was alone with her, on a cold and drizzly Monday evening. I knew she’d held on until her last child arrived. Even a nursing assistant, Mary, commented the day before, to the effect that our mother was “waiting for Cathy.” And so “the lady with the long, dark hair,” as she called me, or “the lady from Kentucky,” since she could no longer remember my name, told her that it was okay to let go. She was in a coma. I played Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” song, with its memorable “sail away” lyrics. I said: “Go run and jump and hop and skip and play in puddles. Go fishing with your brothers and sister and your Dad. Be a kid again.”

I played a Moody Blues album, “Days of Future Passed,” which seemed appropriate. The last things she ever heard were Enya and the songs “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” She seemed to visibly relax as I promised her I’d take care of my little sisters. And a couple of other things. And then I said: “Night, night, sweet dreams.” She was dead within the hour. I went back to Greenspring and placed a pink rose next to her. At the graveside, there were three pink roses, one for each of us to place on the tiny box containing her “cremains,” which is the politically correct way to describe what was left of her.

She leaves behind three somewhat puzzled daughters, an assortment of watercolors, a small collection of paperweights, and the detritus of an otherwise ordinary life, mostly spent climbing the social ladder. Sometimes, death can be a relief to all concerned. Was she a good mother? Heavens, no. She routinely put her children in harm’s way — the most basic, fundamental betrayal of all. Money was more important to her than anything. In the end, she paid a high price for her choices. She died alone, far from her hometown. But, as everyone from Pascal to Roger Daultry has noted: “The heart has its ways.” I cared. And thus ends my version of an obituary, although I also wrote the more conventional version which appeared in a newspaper.

Read a post about disappearing birthdays, another victim of Alzheimer’s.

Copyright © 2011