Time to Remember
"I need your help. Can you just take some time and take your Mom somewhere? I just need some help here. "
It blindsided me when my father said that he needed help. My mother had just recently been diagnosed with alzheimers but my father rarely acknowledged it aloud, or even remotely admitted how it might affect him. Dad wasn't one to make big pronouncements about his emotions (besides his misplaced outbursts of anger which I came to realize were a manifestation of his inability to cope with his precious wife's illness), but that day I read it clearly behind his glassy eyes.
He was overwhelmed.
"Of course! " I said quickly, mentally kicking myself for not thinking of it. Such an obvious thing, overlooked by wrapping myself up in my own fears and grieving process that I forgot the most important thing- spending time with my Mother while she was still with us.
Besides, we had a history of adventures together.
In my youth, I had always been happy to tag along with my mother no matter the destination. My father traveled a lot in my early years, leaving us to our own devices until returning on the weekends. I tagged along with her everywhere she went. I made a particularly good shopping companion, happy to traipse behind her as she would comb through the racks, touching and considering everything but rarely ever actually buying anything. She would make soft vocalizations and murmur her approval or disapproval.I would always be close on her heels, mimicking her touching and cooing, until inevitably I would step on the heel of her flip-flops and she would turn back and bark at me.
This is when I discovered the magic of hiding inside the clothes racks.
When I was smaller, I would amuse myself by hiding in the racks, but as I grew older I returned to wandering behind her, touching fabrics myself and commenting on things I thought she might like. In my teens, I would split off from her to look at my interests, setting a time for us to meet up. My interests were few (video stores, bookstores, toy stores) so it wouldn't be long before I returned to her side and watched her as she considered her purchases. Oh, she actually did buy things, but she touched everything.
Mostly I was just happy to be with her. I was not one of those youths that were embarrassed by being seen with their mother. That wasn't even a concept I was familiar with. Admittedly, I was a Mama's boy. I never saw any problem with that.
In my late teens and early twenties, we drifted apart a bit- I was finding my own way and asserting myself as an adult. Growing up in Birmingham had never been an easy fit for me and I longed for a change. My journey into adulthood took me to New Orleans and upon arrival, I knew I had found home. In the meantime, my parents moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida . It had been a dream of my Father's to "shuck his coat and tie" and leave the "corporate rat race" and open their own restaurant. My parents opened a deli (which they lived above) and the majority of their days were spent working. My father would work the counter and make sandwiches and my mom (after forgoing the home health care nursing she pursued their first year in Florida) happily did food prep in the back kitchen. She liked being in the background as my Father commanded the front. She also made beautiful gift baskets and took care of the visual merchandising in the store. Her years of browsing translated well into her flair for making charming displays.
I would visit yearly for holidays-Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial day-whichever I could manage that year.Their days were filled to the brim with day to day drudgery of running their own business, so I know they were grateful for the break company brought. At that time I was in a a serious long term relationship with Greg and my parents went out of their way to make him feel a welcome and included part of the family. This would , of course, entail him to be part of one of our wild goose chases.
I remember one Sunday my mother took Greg and I on a drive down Highway 30-A, searching for a place to eat. In those days (The early 90's) the scenic highway was very quiet and most businesses were closed on Sundays- "Gone Fishing" or "Gone Surfing" signs were a common sight. This particular day it seemed we drove and drove, each destination ending with disappointment. Greg would get frustrated by our lack of success (mostly due to the fact that the afternoon was slipping away and admittedly we were starving!)What he didn't know was that for mom , the journey was the thing. She enjoyed pointing out different places, telling us, "Oh, that's a new shop!I wonder when it will open?" as we made a trip through an empty parking lot, or "Oh, Mary lives here. She has eight cats" leaving us wondering who Mary was and why she had so many cats? She pointed out countless spots, naming people we didn't know or commenting on if she had been there before. Her eyes would light up and a smile rested on her face. This was her entertainment.
Our mission of finding a spot for lunch was fruitless and we ended up going back home and eating at the deli. Greg and I were a little exasperated at the experience in futility that was our search for an open restaurant, but Mom was perfectly happy. Going , whether you got there or not ,was the point.It was her adventure- she got out of the house.
That was enough.
Years later I had just moved to Florida from New Orleans- a post break up emotional mess- and Mom invited me to go with her to visit our dear family friends Dyan and Mark in Douglasville, GA. I leapt at the chance- Dyan and Mark were more family than friends. We'd known them 40 some odd years and it had been awhile since I had seen them both.It was about a six hour drive to their doorstep, not bad at all.
One of the reasons I characterized our treks as meandering was my Mother had no sense of direction. What-so-ever. Unfortunately it was a trait she passed on to me. We had a habit of getting lost.
Everything started off fine. Then we reached the loop around the city of Columbus, GA. It was rush hour and the cars were bumper to bumper as motorists hurried home. Mom had visited Dyan before but her sense of direction was never ...precise. I saw the turn coming up . "There's where we turn. It's coming up. Okay there it is. Turn now. Now. NOW! Okay, that was our turn. Let's go back. "
She smiled and murmered , "Uh oh."
I tried to guide her to a place to make a u-turn but the heavy traffic was intimidating so we just continued around the loop.
Once we successfully made our turn, the trip was uneventful. Mostly. Dyan, who is a whiz with directions and backroads, had given Mom new directions to reach her house. Unfortunately, Dyan's directions were not as concise as we needed- both Mom and I were very literal people and Dyan's idea of a marker was not a hwy or exit number but more in the line of "Go to the exit with a Stuckeys and get off there."
We were doomed.
I'm hazy on the details, but I do know at some point I called Dyan to let her know that we would be there soon. After taking the Stuckey's exit we drove and drove...and drove. We should have seen her subdivision by this point and I began to panic. We stopped at a gas station and I asked the clerk for directions. Unfortunately she had no clue where we were going- had never heard of it. So we ended up backtracking and getting back on the expressway.
An hour and a half later, we finally saw the real Stuckeys exit.
We finally reached Dyans who greeted us at the car, phone in hand, having just called the highway patrol to find "a tiny woman and her big gay son"( She didn't really call me that, but I think it would have worked on the A.P.B.) My nerves were shot, Dyan was in a state of panic but relieved, and mom was nonplussed at all the fuss. In her mind, we made it, everything was a-ok. So it took eight and a half hours for a six hour trip.
Once inside, I quickly downed the valium Dyan offered me.
Needless to say, when we returned home a few days later, I took the wheel.
Not all trips were stressful. (The Dyan trip was actually delightful besides the drive over and especially after I emerged from my 24 hour valium haze.)For her 60th birthday, I took her to Disney World where she was an absolute trooper. Her favorite park was Animal Kingdom (she always had a soft spot for nature and animals), but we hit all four parks and she rode everything. I mean, everything. Space Mountain, Aerosmith Rock and Rollercoaster, Tower of Terror, you name it. She never faltered, never said no, just smiled and sucked it up even if she was nervous about the ride.
My favorite response on a ride: On Tower of Terror, after it's first plunge down and we are catapulted back up, she turned to scream at me, "Why am I doing this? No, really. Why?" Then she let out a hearty laugh.
There were many things at the parks for us to to look at and to touch. We cooed our appreciation multitudes of times. I don't think a smile left her lips.
It was one of my favorite vacations.
Sometimes in life it's too easy to get into your own head, oblivious to your surroundings, lost in your own sense of self. I think that's where I was when my Father asked me too help him with Mom, to spend time with her. I had already decided not to move away because of her Alzheimers diagnosis despite my discontent with the area , but at that time I didn't make enough of an effort to actually do things with her. I was busy with work- a place that sucked up most of my energy and life- and drank way too much to numb my feelings. There wasn't much of me to give , or so I thought, so I had just continued on my self destructive cycle of work, drink, hangover, then starting all over again.
But this was an opportunity to do something- for her, for myself, for us, I decided we would start a new tradition: one day a week we would have an adventure. No matter how big or small, we would (or rather I would) make plans and spend the day together.
This was our new thing, kind of like our old thing, but better. Because this time, I would savor it. Relish the moments. There was no telling how many more we would have.
Mostly, we would go to lunch and a movie. She was always up for a movie. As her disease progressed she lost interest in reading ( which had always been her greatest escape and comfort until her memory retention became so bad she would stare at the same page for months, rereading it until she stopped bothering to try). Television didn't interest her in the slightest- nothing seemed to engage her on the idiot box. The fact my Dad generally kept it on news channels or sports probably factored into that initially and the fact she didn't know how to use the remote, but later I don't think it really mattered what was on the small screen. In her later days she spent many a time sitting quietly in her spot on the loveseat , waiting for someone or something to entertain her until she slipped away to sleep while sitting straight up ( a talent she had for as long as I remembered).
For some reason movies still caught her interest, and she would always ask, "What are we going to do now? Can we go to the movies?" Maybe it was the size of the screen or the loudness from the speakers, but those early days she really seemed to get into it. I took her to see everything- every genre, it didn't matter . She clapped at the end of Man of Steel, cried during 12 Years a Slave, grinned at The Hobbit- An Unexpected Journey. She seemed to delight in titles that had some earlier connection in her life- whether from a book or a film she had been familiar with. Those moments, coupled with the times I found someplace she liked to eat (her tastes had changed drastically and former favorite foods held no interest for her), I would consider those moments a grand success.
Not all of my movie choices were a fit and in those last months it was harder for us to get through a film without her continually turning to me to ask me if I was enjoying it. It was her not so subtle code for being ready to go. Those days we would leave the theatre, with her quickly forgetting the whole experience and I being frustrated at not seeing the ending and grumbling at her.
Not my proudest moments.
Our days weren't strictly filled with movies. We also went to the Zoo (Great time, but she worried despite my assurances of the contrary that we would get lost,), shopping, wherever as long as it was together. Sometimes we would just take walks around our yard to admire the many beautiful plants and flowers our kindhearted landscapers Tom and Roger had planted (They did an amazing job at planting and grooming our yard for a trade in food, but really I think we got the best side of the bargain. They did it out of love for my parents). This was the simple time, yet so meaningful to her. I know she missed her long walks with her dogs in the Cassine Gardens subdivision next to our house. That had always been her special place to gather her thoughts and commune with God. Her energy had flagged in her waning years and it was just not possible for her anymore. The disease not only was attacking her mind, it was wasting away her muscles as well. Each passing day she seemed smaller and more frail.
So the treks around our yard had to suffice.
Her last year on earth we continued our weekly adventures to varying degrees of success. Sometimes she just didn't feel like going anywhere.I convinced myself that she spent too much time sitting , and that all she needed was for me to drag her places and she would get exercise. I knew there was no cure, but it was my own form of denial that I could actually do something and help in some way. If we just walked more, went somewhere, did something, it could help her in some tiny way. Desperation peeked it's ugly head and I fretted to no end.
One day I took her to lunch at Longhorn (she would love a petite sirloin which I would cut up for her- her hands had forgotten how to cut meat.) and then to Target- I didn't really need anything but we had missed our window for the movie we were supposed to see and I was determined we were going to do something that day. Anything.. I prided myself on my patience with my Mother, but that day it was wearing thin. We had gotten to a late start because it took her a long time to get ready and then lunch seemed to take forever.
No sooner than we got through the doors , she said she was tired and wanted to go home.
I grumbled at her as we turned and made our way back to the car. Her gait was slow and awkward and I exageratedly slowed my pace to match her speed. all the while browbeating her. "Okay, you wanna go home now? Is that what you want? Will that make you happy?" I said brusquely, though in my mind I think I hear it more harsh than she did.
I opened her car door and helped her inside and stomped over to my side and slipped in. As I put on my seatbelt, I noticed a woman, somewhere in her thirties, walking with purpose directly towards my car. I turned away and helped Mom on with her seatbelt, only to be startled by a gentle rapping on my window.It was the lady from across the parking lot. My heart sank- I just knew she had heard me talking down to my Mother, that she was going to be critical of my behavior, and I felt about two feet tall. She motioned for me to roll down my window which I did so grudgingly, preparing to be dressed down.
"Yes?" I said, waiting for the blow.
She looked at me with kind eyes."God bless you."
My heart stopped. ""What?" I didn't think I heard her correctly.
"God bless you. "She gave a warm smile. " I saw you struggling with your mother- I know what you're going through. You're very good with her. "
I didn't know what to say. I felt so guilty for being irritated with my Mom, and that I had been caught being a dick to her, I was left in bewildered silence. She smiled , said "Have a nice day." , and turned away and was gone.
My Mother asked me what was wrong. I had begun to cry. I assured her everything was alright. That everything would be alright. But it never was again.
I know we had several trips after that, "adventure days", but that is the last one that truly sticks out in my mind. The weekend in December that she fell and went into the hospital I was sick. My father had left town to visit friends , leaving Mom in my sister's and my care. I had planned to take her to the movies that weekend but my sinus infection kept that from happening.
Her last trip was to pass away in the comfort of her home. I hung at the side of her bed and cooed and murmured, touching her face, touching her hand. After staying by her side for hours I went to my room and crashed for awhile. That's when she left.
It's hard writing this now, even to this day, because I will always regret not being there at that moment to see her off. But I look back with a full heart at the times we had together, the adventures we did have, and I know we lived. We experienced.
I have to believe that was enough.
Stephen LaDow is an Actor, Author, Singer, Dreamer, and Son living in Winston, GA. Follow his blog at unfiltered-ness.com
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