Four days in Portland for elderwhispering and elderwrangling with my mother: I knew it would be a difficult four days, but what I could never know is how difficult.
First, the good news: my mother's knee surgery was completely successful, and she is both mobile and as pain-free as an 87 year old is reasonably likely to be. That's a great comfort to me, as I saw her become more and more lost in both chronic pain and in the desperation of being shut in -- to her home, her body, and a collapsing world.
Next, the bad news: my mother has senile dementia. I hoped that the relief from chronic pain might also relieve some of the confusion that Mom increasingly displayed. For years, my mother repeated herself in conversation. I attributed it to not being engaged, and not engaging in, challenging intellectual activity. Crossword puzzles and Scrabble aside, I'm not aware of my mother having bought a new book in years, nor had she expressed an interest in politics and current events since 2003. "No blood for oil" was her mantra, and coming from a woman who was a lifelong Republican (though to her credit, she voted for Clinton both in '92 and '96, Gore in 2000, and Kerry in 2004) it was a testament to the cupidity of the Cheney-Bush Administration.
But after that the world changed: We occupied Iraq, we muddled on in Afghanistan, our economy and society floundered, and the losses in Mom's life kept piling up: the deaths of high school, college, graduate school, and professional friends were noted. The fellow residents of Mt. Angel Towers moved in, settled in, and died. Her sister, Monica Kuehner, died. My father, George Cory, her divorced second husband, died. Her closest friend, Edith Throckmorton, medical librarian extraordinary, compulsive hoarder, and fierce curmudgeon, died.
And I suspect that beyond the cumulative losses and failing joints, bits of my mother's body were betraying her. Perhaps it was the neurological changes that 50 years of hard living -- by which I mean smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish -- can cause in a body: Decreased bloodflow to the brain; loss of glial support cells; loss of neurons in the cerebral cortex; accumulation of toxins. Who knows for sure, but the cumulative effect is the same: my mother is losing her short and medium term memory and other elements of adult cognitive function.
To be clear -- this is not Alzheimer's disease. I haven't faced the horrors that other friends and acquaintances have with parents and spouses and friends who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My mother is still there, is still (mostly) content, and is still aware. But things I've taken for granted -- like setting up a daily schedule, or organizing a bill paying and filing regimen, or even having a conversation with Mom where there was information exchanged and integrated -- none of these can be assured at this point.
I realized this completely and irrevocably when on our last day together, my mother asked me not less than five times in 15 minutes if we needed to buy anything at the local grocery store. We had, two days earlier, purchased milk, cookies, cranberry juice, and toilet paper to add to mother's collection of all of the above. I threw out the existing milk, added the cranberry juice to the four bottles in the pantry, and wedged the toilet paper into the closet with the other 25-30 odd rolls. (We ate one of the two bags of cookies). So with each iteration of mom's question, I'd work through the list of items she'd likely be asking about, and assured her that she had many more of them stored in her house that she was likely to use. I was for the most part patient with her -- though our family is infamously inpatient with each other, and my patience is often suspect.
What I'm trying to come to terms with is how to accept is that at the end of my mother's life -- and for many people, at the end of their lives -- the person who we know and love is lost to us before they die.
And what I need at the store is the grace to understand just how to do this.