My mother turned 93 last month. Last spring, after a lifetime of robust health, she became gravely ill. If someone had told my sister and me then that nine months later she would be in a nursing home, immobile, incontinent, and deeply into dementia, we would have mourned, and despaired, and prayed for a quick, merciful end.
Nine months later, she is indeed in a nursing home–immobile, incontinent and demented. She is also…happy. My once hyper-critical mother now loves everybody: her caregivers, the visitors with whom she cannot communicate unless they speak Spanish (English being a casualty of her decline), the teenage grandchildren who a year ago she thought would come to grief.
When she first became incapacitated, my sister and I most dreaded her loss of dignity. Would she beg to die when she needed help with…could no longer…? If, God forbid, she were somehow aware of her dementia, how would her pride, her sense of self tolerate the loss?
In the early days of her illness, my sister and I pored over her advance directive; speculated about what she would want if things came to \”the worst,\” as in fact they quickly did; hoped against hope that she would qualify for hospice so we could benefit from the advice of people knowledgeable about these issues.
But, against all her doctors\’ predictions, our mother never did qualify for hospice. To do that–in the absence of intolerable pain–you need to have lost a substantial amount of weight (instead she has gained ten pounds) or have stopped communicating (she talks constantly, to everybody, though never in English).
Strangest of all, she has a sense of humor about her dementia. On a recent visit, my sister decided to call me so my mother and I could speak. She handed the phone to my mother.
\”Say Hi to Lali,\” my sister prompted.
\”Who is this?\” I heard my mother ask her.
\”It\’s Lali. Tell her who you are,\” my sister said.
Then my mother said, \”Lali, this is your mother. And I\’m calling to wish you a Merry Christmas.\” Whereupon she burst into gales of laughter at her mistake.
These days, my mother loves to watch black-and-white Westerns on TV, loves greeting cards (which she has no trouble reading), adores food. Her religious ties have loosened considerably. On the whole, she has taken a turn towards frivolity. She is, for the first time in living memory, content.
My sister and I don\’t quite know what to make of this new mother. Perhaps we should just enjoy her?