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The Nursing Home
June 2000

It took a week - seven days. The worst was the third day, the day we actually took her there.

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 tune.

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 tomorrow.

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 was dwarfed.

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 kissed me.

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 plane.