Holiday

Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.

Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:

  • The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
  • The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
  • We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
  • We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
  • Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
  • We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.

My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.

“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.

The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”

My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”

She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.

“He’s dead, right?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“And he killed himself, right?”

“That’s right.”

The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.

If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.

(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)

When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.

If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?

The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.

My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.

Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.

And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.

And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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A New World

Last night I got the saddest, scariest email from my dad. My parents were dog-sitting a terrier named Oliver for some neighbors in their retirement community. Everything was going well. My mother took Oliver for a walk, and then she returned to the apartment…

Alone.

I asked her where Oliver was and she did not know what I was talking about. I pressed her, and she vaguely recalled taking him out but did not know where he was or what she had done with him.

When I read this, my heart fell into my stomach. More precisely, I had three simultaneous reactions:

  1. Terror: What the fuck did she do with the dog??? My parents frequently take care of my dog, who is often the only thing tethering me to this life. What is there to keep my mom from losing my dog too?
  2. Vindication: Every time I visit my parents, there is a fight about this very issue. I will not let my mother walk my dog until she proves that she has her cell phone on her and that it is turned on. I am terrified that my mom will get lost and not be able to find her way back. At least if she has the phone…well, let’s be honest, it just means that a kindly stranger who searches her person might be able to call us, because my mom often looks at her phone like it’s a moon rock. Anyway, every time–Every. Single. Time.–it is a struggle to find the phone. We have a locator device for this purpose, but sometimes I have to search the pockets of a dozen sweaters and jackets in the closet before the phone turns up. Meanwhile, my mother becomes enraged at the implication that she is not capable of walking a dog without intervention. She hurls accusations–you think I’m a blithering idiot, you don’t respect me, you don’t love me–but, every time, I stand firm. And every time, I end up feeling like an asshole. Not anymore.
  3. Sadness: Beyond sad. For my mom, for me, but mostly for my dad, who is losing his love of 50+ years one missing cell phone/purse/dog at a time. He sounds so defeated. When I asked him how he felt about her decline, he said, “Well, I guess it’s just part of the marriage deal.”

What happened? He thought she would be ok walking the dog by herself, and he just wanted 20 minutes alone to go to the dining room to fetch their dinner in peace.

I already cannot allow her to go to the dining room alone. She goes with a list that says buy A, B, and C but brings home X, Y, and Z. Or she becomes confused by the menu offerings or gets into an argument with the manager over whether or not corn is a vegetable. Her short-term memory loss seems to be escalating. Today she had no idea what to do with the trash or recycling. Her world is shrinking by the day.

And she knows it. That is the horror of Alzheimer’s Disease. Initially, at least, you know the totality of what you don’t know. It must be terrifying, like waking up stupid-hungover in a strange place with no idea how you got there–several times a day. Being around my mom is kind of like the movie “Groundhog Day,” except that her story doesn’t reset after 24 hours. It resets every couple of minutes, and when it does, she’s lost your dog.

I can’t tell which is the greater fear–that my mom will lose my dog or kill her altogether. My mom likes to sneak my dog people food as a form of rebellion against what she imagines to be my dictatorial rule. But we’re not talking about bits of cheese or meat, we’re talking about slabs of chocolate cake so large they would kill my 12-pound pup. Despite loving my dog immensely, my mom has also looked right at her and said, “Whose dog is that?” One time my mom tried to return my dog to a neighbor’s apartment, but thankfully my dad caught her in time. So, with good reason, I live in fear that I will lose my dog at my mother’s hand. And then I will lose my family, because I will never be able to forgive her for that.

It turns out that Oliver’s owners returned home while my mom was walking him, and they ran into each other outside. Oliver was surely glad to see his mommy and daddy, and my mom enthusiastically handed him over. Then she returned to her apartment–which is a goddam miracle in and of itself, because at some undetermined point in the future, she won’t be able to find it anymore. By the time she rode the elevator one floor and walked perhaps 60 paces to her front door, she forgot not only that she had returned Oliver, but that he had ever existed in the first place.

As far as my mom was concerned, the world was born the moment she walked in the door.