A world of contrasts: The old and the new

This short, much looked for, vacation connects me with my mother and my newest grandchild, a girl, Teya Kathleen. The baby I see first, tiny, pink, skin so soft I can’t stop touching her. I watch her sleep, totally relaxed, arms in the bracket shape of a weight lifter, legs still bowed from the womb. I laugh almost continuously at the faces she makes as she sleeps with total abandon, as if she knows how safe and protected she is. Her hands, even in sleep, grasp and hold gently with tiny pink fingers almost translucent, fitting around the tips of my fingers without touching my knuckle. I kiss her sweet, soft face, inhale her new baby sweetness; am soothed by the way she snuggles into my chest into deeper sleep. Wiggle. Snuggle. Wiggle. Snuggle. And I laugh as she frowns and purses her lips as if blowing kisses at a questionable image in her dreams. I smooth her wrinkled brow and whisper for her to dream happy dreams.

Those soft images I take with me when I visit my mother in a health care center after a year’s absence. I don’t think anyone can be prepared to see their mother, father, parent, loved one, shriveled up, quaking, blind to all but blurs, deaf to most spoken word, in a fetal position in a darkened room, staring at–nothing. No TV, or radio to distract her unwanted, fearful, thoughts—and I sure know she has them. No one to talk with when she can finally gather a complete thought. I can’t imagine how fearful she is nor how this once stop-the-conversation-when-I-enter-a-room stunning beauty experiences her lot in life.

Where Teya sleeps in total abandon, letting the world in, my mother is curled tight, keeping the world out. Where Teya sleeps with wrinkled brow from a world yet unknown, my mother sleeps the deep dreamless sleep of the over medicated. A sharp contrast of arms spread welcoming wide of the newborn to my mother’s pale 90+ year old arms are pulled tight against her, resisting health care people’s efforts to relax them to dress her, and even more pale fingers grasp the covers and reminds me that she has always been cold. I see her veins standing prominent like someone drew crude lines on her with a black marker.

Where does the term “rest home” come from, I wonder. This building is not a place of rest, rather a place of sadness, and shadows of people who have lost their hold on the world around them and have no one to pull them back to rein in those unchecked thoughts. No one to talk about “the good ol days,” with lives lived so long ago that most of the memories are gone. Memories faded from a lack of someone to pass them on to, or just no one caring to listen. Where age creeps around in floppy slippers, or on rubber wheels, and knowledge goes dormant. Histories of active lives are lost in days that can’t be distinguished from nights. Once professional, active, skilled, talented people with healthy faces now sit in silence with drawn, empty faces of the hopeless. Unknowingly they have slipped into a state where the only way to distinguish the passing days are clean clothes, baths, and the medicine hour. Where no one dances to sounds all can hear, where fingers too gnarled to snap to a tune lie twisted in soft laps that may have once held a squiggly child. A place where minutes are hours and the changes on the clock have no meaning. No meetings to go to, no children to visit, no family keeping track of how much they eat or sleep, or if their output is the correct color and consistency.

As I wheel my mother to the tiny patio, shared with multiple vehicles rhythmically poot-pooting their exhaust into the lungs of the more-able bodied, I am controlling her hands as they reach out to touch, to identify things moving too fast past her near-total blind eyes. Once a better-than-average seamstress who made my clothes and patchwork quilts, I remember how she touched material to judge whether it was worthy enough to make skirt, shirt, or dress, touch connected with images of final product. Then there is Teya who touches out of reflex, too tiny to relate touch with image, but grasping at the world nonetheless.

Rolling through the center, I see room after room of people with no one to share old stories with, nothing familiar to touch when they reach out to identify with their fingers what their eyes no longer can distinguish. No one to grieve that sensation of being stranded and no one caring, but maybe there is no longer a connection of stranded and caring. No one to “remember when…” with. Strangers surround you, with all their poking and prodding. There is no way to determine who is caretaker, who is friend.

Multiple caretakers speaking languages above their heads that fall unfamiliarly on the ears of the patients, who seem to have just given up on trying to relate or ask them to speak English so they would understand. Foreign languages whisking about from worker-to-worker ignoring the people they are dressing, washing, feeding as if they are dolls in a play pretend world. An environment in which there should be a diagnosis consistent with “failure to thrive” which has the same meaning it has for the newly born, but no one associates its definition to those in the latter stages of life who are imprisoned in their minds and/or bodies.

My mother’s repeated cries of “pee” are answered with responses more befitting a small child “It’s okay, dear, you have on Depends,” says the caregiver, giving permission to a once proud and majestic woman that wetting her pants is now acceptable. I see the angst on the face of this woman once fiercely proud of her personal hygiene and I know it would never be okay with her. I am helpless to move her because she is no longer ambulatory, so I can only watch her eyes glisten as she loses the fight to keep her body from relieving itself while the nurses fluff her bed and gently fuss about how she needs to get over that being okay, and know she will never understand being okay with wetting on herself, no matter how feeble her mind. I know that such early memories are so imprinted in her psyche they are never forgotten. It gives me an instant insight as to the purpose of dementia and Alzheimer’s; it’s a mental escape when the world is no longer safe.

As I step close to her bedside, she grasps my outstretched hands. Her 90+ year old hands with nails that belie the daily manicuring that once made them the envy of most women. I interpret the way she grasps my hand in both of hers and squeezes as hard as she can with silent pleadings for me to take her with me; not leave her here to pee her pants amid people too busy to set her on the nearby toilet.

Where Teya grasps from reflex, my mother grasps in desperation. “I love you,” I tell her; “I love you too,” she responds. “I’m sorry,” I tell her, “that I have to leave you here.” She squeezes my hand, pulling up off the bed and closer to my face, she peers hard into my face and says nothing. I believe she is grieving the life she could have made better, valued more. She has daily reminders that she has not followed Oprah’s advice to live your best life.

It hits me harder than I thought it would that I would have to leave her here with strangers to whom she is only a job, not family. She is now the patient she, herself, used to have (maybe just as impatiently as her caregivers are now) as a nurses’ aide; irony. An exercise in poking and prodding and measuring urine, blood, and food intake for endless record keeping, which began with her beginning–DOB, and ends when she ends, a final entry which will be TOD, time of death.

Fighting thoughts of her, which would render me a puddle of incapacitating weeping, I realize I am only one thought away from tears. I feel her hands pull at mine, not sure which is the palsy of Parkinson’s, and which is the silent pleading for me to stay with her. “Don’t leave me” is what I take away. She is reluctant to let go and I am reluctant to leave. My mind again shifting thoughts of how I could possibly take care of her, take her with me and, failing an instant solution, I wrestle with the guilt of abandonment. Does she truly understand why I, we, leave her here, I wonder?

Her paper-thin skin, is still silky smooth and soft as a baby’s from years of expensive lotions and oils. Skin quite similar to four-week-old Teya; Teya’s beginning to my mother’s ending; a lesson in opposites. I recall the texture of the baby’s skin, and remember how alike they are, a mere two generations apart. Trying hard, I cannot remember a time when my mother, this paper-thin woman, now fighting hard to live, was happy to be alive. When I wonder, did she suddenly begin to value the life she’s fighting so hard to leave?

Born on a farm at the turn of the last century to a farmer and a school teacher under laws of segregation, this could-easily-pass-for-white beauty was never comfortable with her ability to chose her own life, always untrusting of the intention of whites. For one who has never had an understanding of foreigners, here she is now in the care of both.

Once a Lena Horn look-alike with long, soft, wavy, flowing black hair Indian hair, they used to call it, she was a conversation piece of envious women and covetous men who all stopped when she entered a room; like the old “when E. F. Hutton speaks…” television commercials. That thought now a great contrast to this wheelchair-bound wisp of inherent beauty, grasping at everything moving close by her as if she is holding on to keep life from slipping away.

Perhaps in her search for that one man who would rescue her, and failing, she gave up on a quality of life, choosing instead to resent the happiness of others. I can almost touch her desperation, palpable, a sad desperation to hold on to something that has only now become life-giving and important. Yet her imperfections and major flaws seem minor, almost harsh even now to recall. As I look at her now, I see only her beauty, now faded, but you still know that she once was “a looker” as they used to say. And “was” needs no definition, only regal emphasis.

I take away a sense of imprisonment, helplessness, abandonment, which leads to death. Imagine living your last days trapped in time and space, no control over the smallest of things such as sitting in a garden with the sun on your face, or putting your own body in a different space by your own will. I take away a reaffirmation to my husband to not outlive me, to not let modern machines breathe for me and tubes feed me while I’m stuck in an earthbound purgatory where strangers tell visitors what I may be thinking or feeling; acting more cheerful than they feel, only to disappear and leave me in an unwelcome darkness when my visitors leave. Where I may call out “pee”, and no one cares that I wet myself; where strange women speak foreign languages to each other around me as if I were not there, and strange men become more intimate with my private parts than my husband, and I can’t rebuff their invasion.

On my plane ride home to the opposite coast, after spending the night crying at having to leave her, I try to deflect my melancholy by noticing everything around me. A deep, invasive sadness I feel, so deep that Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman, at their movie funniest, fail to pull me out of my funk. Preferring to best remember the soft, sweet smile of Teya Kathleen, what haunts me stronger are the similarities and contrasts; the papery texture of my mother’s skin, even at 90+ as soft as the baby’s; their unscented, but clean smelling hair; the beginnings and endings. Even the dark, steel gray of Teya’s eyes compared to the blind-colored eyes of my mother’s remain. Another generation of could-pass-for women, mulatto and quadroon.

Looking for anything to pull me from my reverie, I notice a nearby passenger proofing notes with one hand and bouncing a finger puppet on the other as he entertains his months-old baby girl. Multi-tasking most efficiently, remembering to give her more attention every now and then as he looks away from his paperwork. And the chips I just finished had an expiration date of 10/16..no year. I finally find humor that if the left over chips are stored until November, it will look like they’re good for another year. Aeronautic efficiency, I guess.

The further the plane flies, the lighter my sadness, but it never entirely leaves me. A thought overtakes and haunts me: if it hurts this much leaving her now and she’s still alive, I wonder if I may ever recover from her death.

September 30, 2005

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