She does well for her age, which is almost 100. The body is useless: at the Extended Care facility where she now lives the staff lifts her out of bed twice a day with a body hoist.
In the morning she is taken to the dining room for breakfast, then to the chapel for Devotions. On very good days she is then wheeled into the “Playroom”. There she wins all the pennies for answering such questions as “Can you remember the name of your teacher in the first grade?”
By eleven o’clock she is tired of sitting in her wheel chair, so it’s back to her room where someone hoists her into bed for lunch and an afternoon nap. Swung into the air again several hours later, she is put back into the wheel chair and taken down the hall for supper in the dining room.
At eight o’clock she is tucked into bed for the night with a fresh hospital gown, false teeth in their denture mug, and her urine bag emptied. But then it starts, what the staff call “Sundowners”, not necessarily related to the full moon.
My telephone will ring anytime between 9 p.m. and midnight: a night aide will tell me that “your mother wants to talk to you”. These hallucinations at night are not pleasant.
During the daytime hours she often talks to the toy dog perched on her bedside table, or is visited by family members who step down from the photos pinned to her bulletin board. These seem to be pleasant experiences, good times revisited perhaps. The night hallucinations, however, are frightening for her.
The calls at night are usually about loss in some form. Once she wanted me to be sure that my dog, Bronco, was safe. A little dog had come into her room, crying, and hid under her bed. She thought it was Bronco. She often experiences people coming into her room to steal her wheel chair. And sometimes her children are lost: they are young, ages seven and nine. Are they with me? Am I taking care of them?
More often than not, she is concerned about my father. “I can’t reach him”, she tells me. “ I’ve been calling and calling and he doesn’t answer the phone. I don’t know where he is sleeping, what he is eating, and I am so worried about him.”
My father passed on more than fifteen years ago, two years after my own husband died. At the time she seemed stoic, accepting the loss. Her grief was so different than mine had been. I rationalized that my father had been in a care facility for four years before his death, that she was so much older than I was when she experienced her loss, perhaps this was why she seemed unaffected. But now she has become obsessed with my father.
One night last week she told me again that she couldn't find my father. Did I know where he was?
I tried a different tactic, saying, “Oh, he went to Texas to visit Ray.”
My brother lives in Texas; we last saw him four years ago, just before my mother went into a care facility. She seemed miffed at this bit of information.
“Well, good for him,” she huffed. “I hope he enjoys himself. You’d think he’d at least tell me he was planning to leave. I talked to Ray just yesterday – he called me – and he didn’t say anything about Daddy visiting him.”
“It was a surprise visit,” I told her. “I put him on a plane before he could think about it. I told him to go down and stay with Ray for a while.”
“I hope he enjoys himself,” she repeated. “I wonder how Ray’s wife feels about all this.”
She never remembers her sundowner calls the next day. I thought I had handled the whole thing quite well. But the following day when I called for our usual after-lunch chat, she asked if I had heard from my father. I told her something or other soothing and changed the subject.
That was last week. I visited her this afternoon and, after the usual exchange of “How is Bronco” and “What did you have for lunch today?”, she said, very quietly, “Kay, if I ask you a question will you tell me the truth?”
“Of course I will.”
“Kay, is Daddy dead?”
“Yes, he is, darling.”
A pause, and then she said, “I told them he wasn’t, but they kept saying that if he was alive why wasn’t he visiting me.”
“Who told you that?”
“The girls here, the girls who take care of me. They kept saying he was dead because they never see him. I told them that was because my daughter gave him some money and told him to go to Texas. But I wasn’t sure so I asked you. I knew you would tell me the truth.”
Silence. Then, “Kay, am I losing my mind?”
I explained that no, she was certainly not losing her mind, that I was the same way about my husband.
“Sometimes I dream about Jean-Alfred. I wake up and I forget that he is dead. Once I dreamt that he was going to move back to France without me. I worried about it all day until I remembered that he is dead. That’s perfectly normal; do you think I’m losing my mind?“
She laughed, just a small laugh but still a laugh. “You? No, you are not losing your mind.”
I continued, “Do you know what I think, honey? I think that when we need them, when you need Daddy or I need Jean-Alfred, then they come back to be with us. And then they are here, with us, and that is why we think they are alive. Does that make sense?”
“Yes”, she said. “Oh yes, I think you are right. And I’m so glad you explained it like that. I do miss Daddy. When is he coming back from Texas?”