Assisted Loving, An Essay by Amy Ferris, author of Marrying George Clooney
We find her on the floor.
She is sleeping.
I am scared. She is snoring.
I bend down, “Ma. Ma. Wake up.”
“You’re so tall,” she says as she looks up at me.
“Ma, you’re on the floor, “ I say.
“Oh, really? The floor?” “How’d I get here?” She asks.
I tell her I have no idea. I ask if she knows.
“I don’t remember,” She says, “I. Don’t. Remember.”
Her eyes are empty. Blank.
They have been empty, blank for some time now.
My mother had been diagnosed with moderate stage dementia months earlier. For those of you who know nothing about dementia let me tell you this: it strips you completely bare. It is a destroyer of hope, and faith and goodness. If you don’t believe much in God, dementia will certainly push you further away.
I tuck her in, and lay down next to her. She is old. Frail. She smells old and frail. I stay with her until she falls asleep. This is not the mom I remember who wore Pleasures by Estee Lauder, whose hair was perfectly coiffed, whose eyebrows were arched and tweezed. This mom has replaced her beloved perfume with three or four days of not bathing, her soft brown eyebrow pencil with a purple sharpie pen, and most of her starched white garments with the forever stain of L’Oreal beige #3 makeup on the collar.
There were many incidents that began piling up, one after another.
Driving straight into a fire hydrant.
Driving into the closed garage doors.
Burning the bagels and toast.
Not remembering lunch dates and dinner dates with friends.
Panic phone calls at three, four in the morning.
Once-fresh flowers left in a vase for so long the water had evaporated, replacing the scent of freesia with the smell of mildew.
She too, had once been a fresh flower.
It was a hot day in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she was now living in an assisted-living facility. She had a view of the mountains. She didn’t care much for mountains, but it was a much better view than a stucco wall. Both were choices. I went to visit her for a week. She had turned up the thermometer to well over 90 degrees in her apartment. I was irritated, and impatient and lacked any generosity what-so-ever in that particular moment. I was in the throws of menopause, and if I tell you that 90 degrees felt like a thousand degrees, I would not be exaggerating. I told her that it was so hot in her apartment that I was having a heat stroke just watching television. She yelled at me, saying angrily that she wasn’t hot. “I have a chill, I’m Goddamn freezing,” she screamed, and I proceeded to yell back at her, asking her how could she possibly have a Goddamn chill when it was almost 100 degrees in her apartment.
“I don’t feel hot. If you make it colder, I’ll hate you. I’ll hate you. I will never talk to you again,” her voice shrieking. “Fine, Ma, hate me,” I replied calmly.
This was not unchartered territory, the yelling, and the screaming and the chorus of “I’ll never talk to you again and I hate you.” This was not new, or unexpected.
Those incidents I can toss aside, fan away as if an annoying fly buzzing my head.
But not this one, this one I can’t toss aside.
My mother stood in the hallway between her bedroom and the living room, the pee dripping down her leg soaking into the wall-to-wall carpeting. She covered her mouth. Mortified. And then she said through a wave of unstoppable tears, “I have no control.”
Had she been much younger, and in therapy, this would be a moment of enlightenment. A revelation. But this was not that kind of moment. It was terrifying; and all and everything became crystal clear to me. My mother — my feisty, angry, emotional, strong-willed, gorgeous, sexy mother – was no longer.
She stood, drenched in her own urine, her fragile hands (hands that once sported perfectly manicured nails) covering her mouth, tears falling from her eyes (eyes that were once filled with passion), her body small and slight (a body that was once strong and stunning and oh so, sexy), and that all she had been, was completely gone.
I closed my eyes, and I silently prayed to any and all the Gods throughout the universe, any and all, that I could remember by first name.
Please don’t let her remember what happened, please don’t let her, because it will fill her with such great humiliation and embarrassment and disgrace, and oh God, such deep shame.
I prayed, asked, pleaded, bartered.
I didn’t want my mother to feel shame.
I didn’t want her to remember that moment.
I cleaned up the pee, and I washed her housecoat, and I dressed her, and I kept the heat where she was comfortable: 94 degrees. I sat with her on the couch, and was sweating profusely as we held hands and watched TV, cartoons.
She held my hand, and I looked down, stared down, at her chipped nails.
I was reminded of a previous visit, months earlier when she still lived in Florida. She wanted to desperately get her hair and nails done. She had a bit more spunk, enough spunk to tell me that having her hair and nails done would make her feel beautiful. I drove her to the local salon where we were greeted with so much enthusiasm you would have thought we owned the joint. My mom and I both got manicures, and my mom got her hair curled. The manicurist freshened my mom’s make-up; adding just a hint of blush, plus perfectly lined (and colored in) lips.
My mom stared at herself in the mirror.
She touched, and smoothed her hair with the palm of her hand, so not to smudge her perfectly manicured pink sparkly nails. And then she said for everyone to hear, “I feel brand new.” She turned to me, and said, “Thank you. I will never forget the sparkly nail color. I feel so beautiful. ”
I stared at her chipped nails. Her eyes are glued to the TV. I ask her if she’d like to go out, go to a salon … you know, ma, like old times.
She squeezed my hand as if she never wanted to let go, “I wanna feel brand new.”
I could barely swallow when she said those words, I wanna feel brand new.
She sat across from the manicurist: a young, sassy, vibrant woman whose extra poundage only made her more beautiful.
My mom leaned in, and in a whisper only meant for long held secrets, she said to the manicurist, “I don’t remember very much anymore.” And then the manicurist leaned in, and said to my mom with complete and utter authority: “Honey, not forgetting is so much better than not remembering.”
And just like that – my mom laid her hands on the table and said, “Sparkly, pink sparkly, please, I want to feel beautiful.”
A small, gorgeous, perfect miracle.
Amy Ferris is an author, film & television writer, editor, blogger, wife, friend, and champion of all and everything women-centric. she has contributed to numerous anthologies, and credits Victoria Zackheim for being her guardian anthology angel. Amy's fervent prayer & wish is for all women to awaken to their greatness. She is on the advisory board of the Women's Media Center, the executive board of Peters Valley Art and Craft School, and is on faculty at the San Miguel Literary Festival. Her blog, www.marryinggeorgeclooney.com was named by More magazine as one of the best blogs for women over 40 at more.com.