Ruth is 86

Judy Moore Hug —

Ruth at Home

My mother is in the kitchen. She is trimming the stems off a dozen pink roses, a little past their prime. As she trims each stem, I notice the bruise on her wrist and a cut that’s beginning to heal. Her skin is a spotted beige curtain that moves back and forth as she places each pink rose in the white bowl. Her movements are slow and measured as she walks from the kitchen to place the bowl on the coffee table. I watch her and remember who she used to be: an intense, independent, and controlling force. I remember stories that as a child she was considered a wonderful gift by her mother and given control.

These days I’m looking for my mother in her eyes. She looks right but instead of seeing self-assurance, I find confusion, fear, and a growing paranoia. As she looks at the roses filling the bowl, she doesn’t smile and admire her work. She turns, and with a vacant look, walks slowly to her chair, sits down, staring straight ahead. Now we talk. I bring up things from childhood and sometimes she adds to the story and I think I see a glimpse of my mom but other memories are gone. I ask if I could “test” her on basic facts and she says okay. I ask, “Who is the president of the United States?” She names the governor of Colorado. I say, “No, he’s the governor of Colorado.”

She says, “Oh. well, it’s government.”

“Who is the president, mom, you know.”

“Well, is it Bush…or I don’t know.”

I say, “Bush is right.”

She says, “I hear people say we need to get rid of Bush.” And she smiles. After some big omissions in some later answers, she tries to explain away the errors and my heart breaks to see how she needs to maintain the illusion. I’m immediately sorry I initiated this exercise. I really don’t want to know this truth.

We’re moving her into an assisted living facility. Going through her precious things—once more paring down her belongings just as her faculties are being pared down. Her behavior seems to vacillate between being a victim and that spoiled little girl wanting her way. She goes over things six or eight times during the day: “I need to find my medicine.”

“It’s right here, mom.” She opens the bag, goes through the bottles of pills, looking at the labels, opening the bottles to assess the number of pills left. Then she puts the bag on the floor beside her chair. An hour or so later she says, “Where are my pills? Have they taken them away again?”

“No, mom, they’re right here beside your chair.” She puts the bag in her lap and opens it up to inspect them all again. I tell her she’s gone through her medicine four or five times already today. She looks at me to try to see if this is true . . . a question on her face. I reassure her that I’m here and no one will take her medicine away. I smile and redirect her attention. Today it is her medicine, yesterday it was her bank balance. She worries and frets over things or just stares ahead, vacant.

I’m in a bad place. I want her to be herself, and she can for a moment or even 15 or 20 minutes, but then she’s gone. It must be difficult and tiring to maintain that illusion of “old mom” for me. . . but she does it. Then the dark side appears. She acts out and throws fits in public areas; she gives orders and treats me like hired help. When I told her that was how she made me feel, she said she was paying for my help and she guessed I was a hired girl. “I am not a hired girl. I am your daughter.” “I know, I’m sorry.” She’s contrite now.

Growing old seems to strip away such important tools for living. I guess aging is a “letting go” process. Letting go of control over your body, your mind, your purpose, your dignity, where you live, and even what you eat. Like the tide, you’ve been to the shore, spent your time at the beach, and now you recede back into the ocean of raw material, relinquishing your hold on life. Or maybe around 70 or 80, the bill for your life comes due . . . and your hearing, sight, flexibility, and so forth, are your payments until there is nothing left of you . . . and that’s what makes it easier to let go.

Death sort of matches up with the experience of birth in this life . . . both ugly, transformative, lonely, and painful for those closest to you.

Written May 8, 2007 in remembrance of my mom.

One thought on “Ruth is 86

  1. I’ll venture to speak for many readers who have had personal experiences with someone close to them who has/had dementia. Your poignant piece penetrates to the core of what it is like to all involved. To be primary caregiver, especially for one’s parent, is one of the most important & challengingly bittersweet roles one can take on, crucial to the fragmented, fading dignity & identity of that cherished mother or father. It is difficult to find appropriate words of comfort & appreciation, but consider this as an embrace for your dedicated selflessness.


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