By Elaine C. Pereira
On Christmas morning, I prompted my mom to join me in the kitchen so that we could begin dinner preparations. Company cauliflower was a long-standing holiday favorite. I got out the coveted recipe card and put it in the recipe holder that Mom had cross-stitched for me years before. I noticed that she was staring at the recipe.
Then it hit me: Mom couldn’t process what the recipe instructions were telling her to do. It was mind numbing! This woman had taught high school calculus and now couldn’t read a simple amount like “a half cup of milk” and know what to get out or how much to pour.
I envisioned the early stages of Mom’s dementia as a cunning, smoldering fire, its smoke whirling up and down, in and out, around and through her brain. Occasionally it would choke her orientation to time, sometimes cloud her vision or pretzel-twist her gray matter. It always lay in wait, concealed in the crevices of her short-term memory centers, fogging judgment, reasoning, and logic. For a while, it would remain dormant, having already ravaged parts of her mind permanently until, like wildfires, something sparked it to flare up, engulfing and consuming its insatiable appetite for brain cells.
Not long after New Year’s, from out of nowhere, Mom said, “I told God I was ready to go anytime.”
Her frank comment had me scrambling for an appropriate comeback. “And what did He say?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, He doesn’t really answer you.”
I released her with “I will miss you terribly, Mom, when you are gone, but I will be okay."
“I appreciate everything you do for me, Elaine,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have you.”
My eyes welled a little, and I replied, “And I am glad to be here for you, Mom.”
She continued in clear and coherent detail. “I know my memory is very bad. I get upset when I try to remember things …” She paused; I waited. “And I can’t. It’s very hard.” Then, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
One evening, Joe and I took her out to dinner. Overall the evening went well but I was totally blindsided when we got back to her room and she suddenly experienced unabridged emotional collapse. Without warning, she became hysterical, streaming frantically, “Where are we? Why am I here? What is this place?” Her body trembled, and she looked mystified by her surroundings. She grabbed at my hands as if seeking security from my grasp.
I wanted to wrap my arms around her tightly as she had done to me so many times, so long ago, calming me with her strength. I put my arm around her waist and pulled her toward me slowly.
“This is your room.” I paused.
“I don’t live here.” I stopped, not wanting to overwhelm her. Her breathing had slowed from the rapid, hyperventilating speed of earlier, but she was still trembling. We sat there for several minutes before I asked, “Are you okay?”
“It’s terrible to feel like this,” she answered, still staring into oblivion.
“I’m sure it is, Mom. I’m sorry you feel this way.”
Then, as if inspired, I knew what to say next. “Look up there, Mom. That is the angel you stitched.” She was following my hand as I pointed toward her striking artwork. “It’s my favorite.”
“Mine too,” she replied. We stared at it for a minute. Her breathing returned to normal, and a smile broke through. Then she said, “I want you to have it when I’m gone.”
“Thank you, Mom. I would be honored to have it.”
Then she sighed and said, “I’m so very tired.”
I glanced over at Mom’s angel and then back at her. Mom was my angel.
Joe and I went out to dinner Friday evening. My cell rang. It was Dr. Tashika. “It’s time," she said. "I support hospice, if that’s what you want.”
With those words—words I will never forget—it was done.
It was important to me to be there through to the very end of Mom’s final journey. But on the day that she would die I wasn't at the hospice. Just after noon, the hospice called and said I should return immediately. I jumped in the car. Silently I prayed for Mom to hang on just a little longer until I was at her side.
As the hospice nurse opened the door, she said, “I’m so sorry about your mom.”
My face must have said it all, although I think I also mumbled, “She’s gone?”
“I’m so sorry. I thought when they called, they told you.”
We opened the door to Mom's room. She looked exactly like she had earlier except her breathing was silenced.
“I just wanted to be here,” I managed to spew out as tears rapidly filled my eyes. My lip quivered as I gave Mom a kiss on the cheek and stroked her face with the back of my hand as I had done so many times before.
I took down the Angel that had watched over Mom in her final months. I would take it home for safekeeping. Mom’s battle was over. I would miss my mom terribly, but I would be okay because of her unconditional love. It had been a genuine honor for me to give back to her after she had given so much to me. Just as my mom had said “I have no regrets” about the care she selflessly provided to my dad, I was proud to say that I had no regrets either.
“The dead are not buried in the ground but in our hearts.They will be there for you when you need them.”
Paraphrased from "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alfred Dumas. Read at the memorial service on November 26th, 2011, in Rochester, Michigan.
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About the author
Excerpt adapted from: I Will Never Forget: A Daughter’s Story of her Mother’s Arduous and Humorous Journey through Dementia
Elaine Pereira worked as a school occupational therapist for more than 30 years before her retirement in June 2010. When she isn’t writing, Elaine enjoys golf, gardening, cooking, and exploring new restaurants with unique culinary options. She lives in New Boston, Michigan with her husband and family.