A First for Everything

She’s led a sheltered life, my mother. Eighty-two years in a small New England community where stoplights are as rare as Starbucks. She recently left this comfort zone to be closer to me, her only daughter.

She’s in a care home in Arizona five minutes from me now, in an environment that could not be more dissimilar from the small island farmhouse where she’s lived for the past fifty years.

And in the two short weeks since she’s moved, everything is a “first”:

  • Cacti and tumbleweeds
  • The blinking of a crosswalk sign
  • The delight in a Target Run
  • A homeless man on the corner
  • Assaulting a care home staffer at 2 a.m
  • A trip to the ER
  • Riding on an elevator
  • Talking to a doctor
  • Sleeping overnight in the hospital
  • Getting an MRI

The rapid progression of Alzheimer’s has been a dark sail through murky, rough waters. More continues to be revealed. A cancer diagnosis. Memory care replacing assisted living. Hospice.

I’m staying strong for my mom, crying silently in the sterile hallway of the hospital that employs more people than live on her island. And remembering the advice of a dear friend who’s been there:

“Grasp the good days and tuck them away to think about on the bad days.”

A MOMent, please?

Funny how the first part of the word “moment” is MOM.

I moved my mom across country a week ago to an assisted living community. And, as it’s been for the past four years, every moment of my life still revolves around her.

I say this out of love, resentment and dread. Moving her to Arizona seemed like the best choice I had. She’d get out of the harsh winter of Maine. She’d be cared for through the night, safe and sound. We’d spend quality time together. I’d get my life back.

But that has yet to happen. Uprooting someone who’s lived in the same place for a half century to a smaller apartment is difficult for anyone, let alone an 82-year-old woman in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Even if the rambling old farmhouse house has become as unfamiliar as the faces of old friends. Memories blend together, a muddled milkshake of her childhood home in Boston, the apartment in Galveston where she and my father lived as newlyweds, our Annapolis row home where I was born.

Was it the right choice?

Too soon to tell, we live moment to moment in the endless flux of dementia. The few random moments I snatch between hovering like a helicopter parent and turning her over to the qualified staff are fleeting, yet appreciated. I am only five minutes away. I can sleep at home with my family, although sleep, too, is a fleeting luxury, peppered by frantic phone calls at midnight, 2am, 4 am. Dreams are reality; she’s more anxious than ever. Last night, convinced she had stumbled upon the cellar where they keep hostages against their will, the calls came every hour. “It was a dark, horrible place filled with people of all nations,” she sobbed. “They kidnapped me.”

Letting go of worry is challenging. For both of us. Letting go of her, allowing the moments to pass and the 24/7 staff to take over, is the hardest thing I have done so far in this journey without end.

“To be in the moment is the miracle,” Osho, the controversial Indian guru, reminds us. Debatable or not, I’ll take it for now.  

Suitcase of Memories

We have two suitcases to fill. She said she wanted to travel lean, that she didn’t want to pack any mementos. Like the black-and-white photo of her father playing the banjo. The wooden buildings she carefully hand painted and sold in our village. The floral watercolors she painted over the years.

“None of that,” she said.

I packed them anyway.

Her house is a living museum, a tribute to a successful artist, writer, gourmet cook. And it’s a tribute to an eclectic woman: the teapot, hat and pig collections, the entire corner dedicated to all things King Henry VIII.

The house is winterized; the museum is frozen in time. She didn’t say it outright, but I know she thought this:

“These are just things. I keep them in my heart…even when I forget the words and memories.”

Her memories, my memories—our memories—live on in whatever space we inhabit.