She’s been so strong through all of this: fifty-one years of caring for my severely disabled sister followed by her death, three and a half years of caring for my father through moderate and then late stage Alzheimer’s, a sudden revelation that she has advanced, considered incurable, metastasized cancer, and my father’s hospitalization followed by his move to a nursing home.
Sometimes my mother’s strength is my undoing.
Yesterday, the day the world was to end, the first day of winter with a snow storm blowing through the area, we moved Mom out of her home of 32-plus years of family memories and into a small assisted-living apartment under the same roof as my father.
As soon as we got Dad settled in his new home earlier this month, my siblings and I turned our efforts to packing Mom up and readying her to move as well. It wasn’t until the day before the move when my husband, sister, and her family, were on their way to Mom’s new home, in their cars filled with packed boxes of fragile items and original artwork from talented family members, that Mom put up any complaint. She sat on the sofa across the room from me, her shoulders hunched, the wall behind her bare in spots from removed artwork, and said, “I don’t want to go.”
“Transitions are hard,” I reminded her. “I know this must be so hard on you. And I feel very bad that you have to go through all of this change and confusion now when you are feeling so bad.”
“I don’t like anything about this,” she said.
“Do you think we’ve made bad decisions?” I asked her, knowing that after my mother’s virtual collapse at the beginning of the month she has done little more than move from the sofa to the bed and has not been able to participate very much in the the planning of this monumental transition. “Should we have done something different?” I asked her.
“Well, I would have waited until I had my doctor’s appointment and knew my test results,” she said, referring to the ultra-sound and biopsy that were done last week as an outpatient since she refused to stay at the hospital for the testing when we first took her to the ER and the cat scan revealed her cancer.
Through this whole nightmare I’ve been living, there have been a few funny moments, and there have been some all-time low moments. This was a bad moment for me.
“We thought you wanted to be where Dad was,” I said, remembering that was her only criteria for what nursing home we selected for Dad. She wanted to be in the same building and not have to travel there by car or golf cart. “Dad had to go somewhere. Dr. R. recommended this place. We were lucky they had appropriate rooms for both of you. They weren’t going to hold an empty apartment for you forever. We were afraid of losing it.”
Yesterday morning I woke up at 5:00 a.m., early again as I had done the previous two consecutive nights that I spent at my parents’ house. I slipped into Annie’s room down the hall where my mom was sleeping in her queen-sized bed we moved there when Dad started sleeping in his hospital bed and Mom in a twin bed beside him in their own room. I could see she was awake, even in the dim light that shone under the door from the bathroom. I sat down on the glider beside the bed and we talked for a while.
The five hours before we were scheduled to leave at 10:00 passed by relatively uneventfully, helping her dress, sewing patches on her blanket and afghan to label them for her, taping and labeling last-minute boxes.
Just before 10:00, I helped Mom put her coat on, walked her out through the garage and into my waiting and, courtesy of my husband, warmed up car. As I backed out of the driveway I saw her looking at the house and I struggled not to think about the fact that this might be the last time she saw her home. Little snow flakes were drifting around although the ground had only gotten a dusting and the streets were relatively clear. My bare hands were cold on the steering wheel. I looked at Mom’s face. She was calm and without tears.
“This reminds me of the story Dad told me about the day his family moved to Miami Street,” I said as I turned out of the drive, onto the road and away from the house. “He said it snowed the day they moved.”
“Oh yes,” Mom said as she laughed, “I remember that well. I got stuck at work downtown at Murphey’s Department Store.”
“Did you have to spend the night there?”
“No. Your dad came and got me,” she said as I stopped at a red light.
“It had snowed so hard my dad couldn’t get his car away from the curb to come and get me, so your father walked there from Miami Street to get me. I spent the night at his new house on a mattress with his two sisters. The three of us slept sideways across the mattress.”
“Was it a queen-sized mattress?” I asked as I turned onto the main road that led to the nursing and assisted-living facility.
“I think it was probably a double. When they saw how bad the weather was going to be they decided to get the mattresses moved over there first. All they had been able to move were the mattresses and an ironing board. Your grandmother had brought the ironing board over because they were putting up wallpaper. My parents were sick with worry about me spending the night at your father’s house.
“In the morning, your grandmother cooked eggs for breakfast. They must have either moved the stove as well, or maybe it was there when they bought the house. This was the first house they ever owned. They always rented before. Anyway, she served the breakfast on the ironing board. There weren’t any chairs to sit on.
“Then your dad walked me home from Miami to Manier. It was so cold, my eye-lashes froze. The snow was deep and I think I borrowed a pair of boots from one of his sisters. We walked down the middle of the street. No cars were out.
“Your dad and I used to talk about that from time to time,” she said, as we turned into the parking lot of her new home, accompanied by Angels We Have Heard on High playing on the car stereo.