The Nursing Home
It took a week - seven days. The worst was
the third day, the day we actually took her
When I had visited there with my daughter
Brooke in April, we had stayed in my old
bedroom. Mom had always kept everything just
as it was when I graduated from high school.
Until my previous visit in February, Mom
had always respected my privacy. Although
my door didn't have a lock, she had always
knocked. But by February she had forgotten
that, along with so many other things. She
burst into the room in the middle of the
night and wandered around, poking at me,
asking who was there. That night in April
I slept in my bed and Brooke slept on cushions
on the floor. In the middle of the night
I had a dream. My mother was under the bed.
She reached around the headboard and started
strangling me. I called out to Brooke in
my sleep. I dream-shouted her name over and
over until she came and woke me up.
In the morning, I told Ray that I thought
the move would have to be soon. He resisted
at first, saying they had some good time
yet, and maybe a trip or two with the camper.
But a few weeks later, he was counting the
days. She had been beating on him with her
fists, trying to get out of the house. He
would find her in the yard screaming for
help. One night, he said, she opened the
front door at about 3 a.m. and set off the
alarm. He had to sleep on the floor in front
of the door to keep her inside, suffering
her shouting and kicking rage until morning.
She hardly ever slept any more, and spent
day and night wandering through the house,
moving things around and hiding them. She
had taken to whacking the dog, her little
darling dachsund, at unpredictable moments.
She had thoroughly spoiled him throughout
most of his life, and you could see the deep,
sad puzzlement in his eyes as he looked at
her, trying to understand her erratic behavior.
In May, I came back to Indiana again and
toured homes for the aged for two days. At
first you feel conspicuous and a little guilty,
walking among all the old folks. They look
at you because you are a novelty. After a
while you get accustomed to the blank stares
and equally bizarre excited greetings. I
reserved the nicest "assisted living"
apartment I could find for her, an Alzheimer's
unit inside of a larger retirement community
that could offer "continuity of care."
By the time June rolled around, Ray had been
telling her for a few weeks that he wasn't
going to be able to take care of her any
more, and that she was going to have to go
and live at American Village. He took her
there for her admission interview and they
showed her the room I had chosen. He took
her to the attorney to receive notice that
I would be applying to the court for guardianship
of her person. He took her to the doctor
for her admission physical.
Through all of this, she did not object.
No threats or rages. Not once did she say
she'd rather die than go to a nursing home.
In fact, that was the most alarming thing,
as if she had forgotten how to sing an old
The day before the move, I had to go to the
home and fill out papers, and Ray had to
take care of some business of his own, so
Rob stayed with Mom. He had a plan to engage
her in making oatmeal cookies. She couldn't
grasp what was going on. She kept putting
ingredients away in odd places while he cooked.
She wandered out of the kitchen and Rob found
her in the living room, trying to attach
the dog's leash to an old pair of pants.
I began the day of the move with a trip to
probate court, where the guardianship was
granted. The court was in the City-County
Building where my daddy worked as a city
planner, back when it was the tallest building
in town, and I was in high school. Rob went
with me to the court, then he and I went
to the house.
I told Mom, "We're going to help you
move to American Village today." I told
her that Ray couldn't take care of her any
more and that she would have a new doctor
who would help take care of her. She seemed
non-committal, but who knew? - she hadn't
uttered a coherent sentence for days. Rob
and Mom's neighbor Lee - a mountain man with
a great heart - moved her bedroom furniture
and a chair and couch to the residential
care facility while Ray and I took her out
to lunch and shopping for a new nightie.
During the move Rob and I stayed in touch
via cell phone. I wanted to be sure that
her furniture was in place, looking familiar,
before we brought her to the room. Throughout
it all I was terrified that something would
go wrong. She would throw a fit or they would
say she was too crazy to live there. And
then - then, I didn't know what would happen.
It took Rob and Lee two trips in the Lee's
truck to move all the furniture. Mom and
Ray and I had a long lunch and a shopping
trip measured in her tiny steps and incoherent
complaints. Rob called and said he wasn't
finished yet and that we should stall. I
took them to the Dairy Queen. I ordered Mom
a Dilly, because we always used to get them
as a treat when I was a kid, but she didn't
recognize it as food. When I finally got
her to take a bite, she spit the chocolate
out. Then she peeled the rest of the chocolate
off and dropped it on the floor. We drove
around the block a few times until Rob said
it was okay to come to the home.
When we arrived at American Village, they
were ready for us. Kind, professional women
swept down on Mom and paid her lots of attention.
A tiny, white-haired resident named Eleanor
took Mom's hand and said she'd be her friend.
We stayed for a while and explained things
to her again, then we said goodbye until
When it was over, a sense of profound relief
surged over me. The rest of the week, I spent
going through her stuff, labeling her clothes,
buying her supplies, managing finances, visiting
her and taking her things she needed, and
feeling relieved. I realized that the relief
had to do with more than just getting her
into care. It also had to do with her not
controlling me any more. I couldn't even
work up a good sense of guilt over it.
The disease sucks; it's tragic and horrible,
more horrible than cancer, and anyone in
their right mind would rather die. But of
course that's the trick; you're not in your
right mind and you can't choose death by
the time you need to.
I thnk that maybe Alzheimer's peels you back
to some essential self. I imagine that Ronald
Reagan is a happy fellow even now. The disease
has stripped him of his memory and much of
his self. But I fancy he still smiles a lot.
My mother wears a permanent frown and has
developed a fearful, angry hunch. Although
her words seldom make sense, her voice is
often mocking and derisive. She does not
seem to notice the care she gets, but demands
and yells whenever she wants something. These
moments bring up deep, shuddering terrors
in me, half-memories that make me want to
curl up and hide.
Since I left for college over thirty years
ago, whenever I would come back to visit
her, she would not say, "I'm so glad
you're here," but rather, "Why
don't you live here?" And I would say,
as in a litany, "I'm here now, Momma."
If a baby cried in some random public place
she wouldn't say, "oh, I wonder why
that baby's crying," but "somebody's
hurting that child." When an ambiguous
shape appeared in her view, she wouldn't
say, "I wonder what that is," but
"that's somebody coming to get us."
I wonder what drove her to see the world
as if it were pointed at her like a gun.
Her treatment of me as a child and a teen
was like the inverse of a Tootsie-Roll pop
- fawning praise wrapped around a center
of bitter criticism. When she and my father
fought, as they most often did, he played
the dominator and she played the victim.
She triumphed through her martyrdom. Her
stories of her own childhood featured either
tales of how her parents favored her brother,
or statements that betrayed a kind of empty
vanity. There was very little in her that
was happy to be who she was. Whatever damaged
her had happened when she was very young,
and the spirit that grew up inside of her
Yesterday was her third day in residential
care. When Ray and I went to visit her, it
seemed that she had finally figured out that
she was going to stay there. She grabbed
my arm and gestured to her chest. "It
hurts, in here. It's like - have to move.
All alone." I told her there were lots
of people for her there, gesturing to the
ever-present Eleanor and the nurse in the
doorway, and said that I would come back
to see her often. She began to stroke my
arm and say how much she loved me, glancing
up like a sly child at a powerful stranger.
Elaborately, with dramatic tenderness, she
I thought, I know what comes next, if the
patterns of a lifetime hold true. Next there
will be rage. As she was distracted by her
supper, I took my leave.
At fifty, I finally let myself have a choice
about my mother. I chose not to go again
to see her today. I spent the day setting
her affairs in order, and then I got on the