In the hall of a very expensive nursing home in Middle Tennessee, an old woman sits slumped over in her chair. It is a portrait of utter hopelessness. Another woman walks up and down the hall carrying a baby doll, singing to it in a monotone as though it were a real baby. The floors are so shiny you can almost see your reflection in them, and there is a pervasive smell of disinfectant at all times here. As nursing homes go, this is a good one—but let’s face it, there are no good nursing homes, really.
I ask at the front desk how I might find my mother’s room, and they point to the disheveled woman in a ragged bathrobe. “She was trying to get out again,” the nurse tells me, shaking her head, as though my mother were a willful child who must be punished. I think it’s punishment enough to be in this place with its false cheer and signs that read “Today is Sunday. The season is WINTER.”
I am afraid of the progression of deterioration I might find in this sad person that my mother has become, and remember the competent, vivacious woman she had been and how she would go up and down the aisle of the grocery store piling her cart high with my favorite foods when I came to visit.
My mother’s decline began when we took the keys to her car and told her she couldn’t drive anymore. Though she agreed, after running into the ditch a couple of times, I could see the look of consternation and loss on her face as she handed over her car keys. It was the beginning of many losses.
Soon after, it was decided by the family that she should give up her home and the things in it and move to an assisted-living facility. My mother balked mightily at this, and though my sisters did everything they could to make her little apartment look like the home she had just reluctantly given up, my mother was angry, sad, and confused. What next? she might have been thinking.
To have one’s independence taken away is not a small thing. To be rendered powerless, whether by the diminishing state of one’s mental and physical capacity or because others have decided they know what’s better for you than you do, the result is the same. You are trapped and there is no way out.
My mother was just a little older than I am now, 64, when she started pretending to remember things that she, in fact, did not. I have noticed myself beginning to do the same thing. So many people come up to me and continue conversations we have allegedly begun before that I have no recollection of. Whether this is a result of too many drinks or a beginning dementia, the result is alarming.
Today I approach my mother slowly, to avoid startling her. “Mom,” I say softly. “Mom.” I touch her gently on the shoulder and bend down to kiss her soft white hair.
“Hello, Donna,” she says and looks at me with weak, blue eyes. Instead of her usual lilting, feminine voice, it’s so deep on this visit that it might be that of a man’s.
I roll my mother back into her room and put her in a chair, where she stares out the window. On the walls are photographs—many photographs. Photographs of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, children on ponies, children in birthday hats; photographs of people taking photographs. Then there are stuffed bears, vases of flowers, bottles of perfume, with a beautiful homemade quilt on the bed.
At the foot of my mother’s bed is a picture of her, along with her name, that looks so like me that I wonder for an instant if is me.
I take my mother’s hand but she soon drops mine and gazes into a place I cannot comprehend. Her expression is other-worldly, vacant, yet seeing something that causes her to turn to me suddenly with an urgency to get things said, have a record, perhaps, or just to hear her own voice and confirm to herself that she is still alive.
From the nurses’ station nearby I hear from the radio that an elderly woman’s body has been found floating against the rocks at the Sequoyah Hills lake. I imagine her lifeless body floating to and fro, to and fro, against the rocks in the gentle waves, drops of rain falling gently on her face. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, sister, cousin, friend. She is someone.
I stroke my mother’s hair and ask her, “What do you feel, Mom?
She folds her gnarled hands in her lap. “I don’t feel much of anything anymore,” she says listlessly.
“Are you afraid?” I ask. “Do you feel peaceful?”
“No,” she says, leaning forward and whispering to me. “I’ve been connecting with people we knew in the distant past.”
I am happy to see some animation on her face.
“Helen and Ross,” she says. These are family friends we had over 60 years ago. My mother goes on, making direct eye contact with me. “It is not by phone,” she says with an urgency to make me understand. “It’s not even exactly with words.
“That’s okay, Mom. The best things cannot be expressed in words.”
I totally believe that my mother is communicating with her old pals, who have passed on, in some telepathic way most people cannot comprehend.
She falls asleep soon after this and I tiptoe out, knowing the end is near.
My mother passed on shortly after this, and on the day of her burial, a brilliant red cardinal lit on her grave then flew rapidly away. The dark clouds of the morning suddenly parted as the preacher spoke his last words, and the rays of the sun made me feel my mother was telling me she was okay. With my father, with her God, with her sisters, with no need of a body but now could sail free as a pure, heavenly spirit that has joined with all the sentient beings of the universe. And I bowed my head in gratitude for all that was and is my mother.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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