My mother sits in her grandfather's wing chair upholstered many times over, now covered in worn fabric with a creamy yellow background with small blue flowers. We have just moved all of her things, again. Her paintings fill the opposite wall, two and three deep, almost up to the ceiling. The high ceiling of the room, which we call an apartment, provides the space for my mother's precious drawings, prints, paintings, and found art that make up the framework of familiarity and memory of her 80-something-year-old life. We feel comforted by that and hope she is, too. Her children, my sister, the baby and now in her 40s, my brother who is retired, and myself, the oldest, have moved her choices of furniture and keepsakes into the "apartment" with one door leading out into the world and one door leading to the nurses' station and the cheerful atrium with dining tables and comfortable living room sofas.
I sense that Mother feels numb. I think she wants to laugh and smile and cry again. She wants to be interested again in life, love and adventure. She has always had such a strong inner life, protecting her most prized possession, her creativity. But now, her eyes have lost their gleam, their energy and willfulness, their life. Her life. She often complains of the intense pain in her lower back and has focused on her pain, the pain of going on and on and on, the pain of living beyond her routine, her fulfillments, her husband, her friends, the pain of having to learn everything, and every person, in a new place, all over again. She seems tired, worn with living. She often falls, sometimes head first, sometimes against the bed or the bureau, leading to more pain, more confusion. And fear.
Her muscles have contracted to nothing, her thin-skinned arms hang with flesh instead of flexing with taut muscles as they did in her gardening days, symbolic of all that has faded, evaporated, gone away. Her skin is paper-thin and so wrinkled, cream crepe with dark purple, light mauve and brown tie-dyed colorations, in strange patterns. her own patterns. She always covers her arms now with fabric, not with the lively colored stones of her many, many bracelets. She avoids deep v-neck shirts and blouses, for the same reason, and has lost interest in her vast collection of earrings and necklaces. She still takes some glory in her beautiful silver white hair. She hangs on to her weekly hair appointments like they're the last life raft available from the sinking ship of age. And she does perk up visibly after having her shampoo and coif; she clearly feels comfortable reminiscences of her former beauty and self.
I flew in from California to see her. We have had a heavy schedule of movies this week. My mother loves for me to take her to movies and restaurants when I am in town. We go in the early afternoon to avoid the crowds. Moving her body from car to wheelchair through the thick, slow-opening doors of the theaters is hard work. She always goes to the restroom afterwards, which is arduous for both of us.
"Mother, do you need anything or would you like anything?" I ask as my mother and I return from an art movie. We've had an early dinner at the French cafe next door to the film house, sitting on the terrace, enjoying the sun in our faces. My mother looks so small in her wheelchair. "Would you like some particular kind of food? Or books?"
She shakes her head and then suddenly brightens. "Classical music," she whispers.
"Great. So you've been using that CD player I got you?" She nods. "OK, what would you like? Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Vivaldi?"
"Yes, yes," she shakes her head up and down slowly, looking at me intensely. "I've missed music."
I hope so, I thought. This is a woman who has always had music in her life. I feel a pang. My sister and I sold her beautiful white enameled grand piano. She loved playing and owning that piano. She loved composing. She loved singing and playing for others. She loved to dance, too. Music brought joy to my mother's face, everyday as she played a few pieces alone for herself. As a child, I felt calmer and somehow more loved when I heard her magical soft touch on the piano. It meant Mother was having a happy, small spiritual energizing interlude. And I was included if I was in hearing distance.
Her short-term memory is shot. Her body is frail and broken. Her hand-eye coordination is pitiful. She's lost her sense of humor, her saucy edge, her flirtatious kick, and her multitude of interests. She has had many batches of TIA's, those nasty clusters of little strokes that put roadblocks on the brain's neural paths. We call them MIA's because the mother we knew is missing in action now.
I stop by the local music store and run in to buy an armload of classical CDs: Brahms, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov. "Art, music, reading, writing, travel, and appreciation of nature are all manifestations of the great spirit within us that needs to be heard, " my mother often told me as I was growing up.
"Can you help me dress for bed?" Mother says, even though it's just now 6 p.m. We've arrived at her apartment after our afternoon foray into movies, food, and CD-buying.
"Sure." I carefully pull her pink sweater over her newly coiffed hairdo. Multiple folds of flaccid skin hang from her upper arms but her shoulders look like those of a young girl. I pull her black synthetic trousers down her legs, careful to keep her diaper and her dignity in place. I pull her pink nylon nightie over her head and gently lie her down on her bed.
"Please tuck me in," she says sweetly, like a small child trying to do the right thing.
I pull the covers up under her chin and give her a big kiss on her cheek. "I love you, Mother. Is there anything else you'd like me to do?"
"Yes, I want to listen to Scheherazade forever. Can you make it keep playing?" She softly sighs, worried.
"Yes, Mother, I will." As the wistful and sweet strains of that paean to exotic adventure begins to play, big tears roll from the edge of my eyes. I am overcome with grief and sadness.