Dateline: A care home in Ajijic
So what can I say about my mother? It’s a sad situation for all concerned. As many of you know, in mid-January she suffered a fractured vertebra. Fortunately, that’s pretty much healed now and not giving her any pain. Thank God! You’ll also recall that she was simultaneously diagnosed with stomach ulcers and an inoperable stomach hernia. That was doubly concerning as she was eating very little due to stomach pain. For the first time in my life, I began to worry that she might get too thin. The doctors put her on an industrial-grade antacid, some other stomach medicines, and an appetite stimulant. Fortunately, that all seems to be working, and she’s now eating normally, more or less. Yeah, they have to feed her. She’s no longer able to get food into her own mouth at anything faster than a snail’s pace. Left to her own devices, lunch would take several, very frustrating hours. So someone spoon-feeds her. Still, it’s progress over where she was earlier in the year. At least she’s getting nutrition again. So there are some positives.
The big negative is that she had a minor stroke toward the end of February. This has resulted in weakness in her left side and some mental deterioration. Despite 5 days a week of physical therapy for months now, it’s pretty clear at this point that she’s never going to walk again. The physical therapists haven’t given up trying to get her to walk, but I think she has. And it’s pretty obvious to me, a non-professional, that she’ll never walk again. Even leaning forward in her wheelchair so I can take off (or put on) her sweater causes her to shake with weakness. She can barely stand, even after you’ve hoisted her up, and that only for a few seconds. And 40+ years of my wheedling never got her off the couch and walking or doing any other exercise. So she’s pretty much wheelchair-bound for the foreseeable future.
Mentally she also seems to have taken a step down. She still recognizes me. Even when I just showed up out of the blue on Friday, she knew who I was. But it took a moment. She’ll answer questions, but is completely incapable of carrying on any kind of conversation. At least the answers make sense. But she seems incapable of initiating any kind of sentence. She tried a couple times, but forgot mid-sentence what she wanted to say, and I couldn’t figure it out.
I worry she’s in physical pain. She often looks distressed, with a furrowed brow. But I’ve now spent a week asking her how she feels, and she always says “fine” or “OK.” Even when I get specific, she claims to be fine. “How does your back feel?”
“It doesn’t hurt?”
“How does the rest of you feel?”
“I feel fine.”
“Your joints feel OK? Stomach? Head?”
“Yeah, they’re fine.”
And I go on, asking about various body parts. She says it’s all fine or OK. Though the answer is somewhat hard to believe, at this point I’ve asked her every day for a week and the answers are the same.
Still, it’s hard to believe. Apart from her furrowed brow, when she was in extreme pain from the vertebral fracture, she developed the habit of moaning on every exhalation. And she still does it. It’s become habitual and she doesn’t even realize it. It’s unnerving, and it’s why I kept asking and asking and asking if she’s in pain. Because if you just met her, you’d think she was very uncomfortable. And when I wheel her across the patio of the facility where she lives, she groans a little louder when we hit bumps or go downhill. “Did that hurt?” I always ask.
“No,” she always replies.
“You’re sure?” I ask. But the answer is always in the negative. She says she’s fine.
But she’s also unquiet. She fidgets, pulls up her blouse to look at it. Frets over the buttons. Adjusts the brake on her wheelchair: on and off and on and off. She hands me the sleeve of the sweater she is still sitting on with an expectant look like she wants me to take it away. I take it and then put it back on the arm of the wheelchair. She constantly wipes her lips. She dabs her forehead with the sweater sleeve, and I ask if she’s hot. “No,” she replies with an expression somewhat puzzled. “Why would I ask that?” her expression seems to say.
Two days ago I bought her a sort of stretchy, rubbery doll filled with sand. The doll, some kind of alien warrior queen, is pale blue and has an interesting texture. It felt weird buying my 92 year old mother a toy, but it seems like something perfect to fidget with. It’s stretchy and can be molded into different shapes. I also bought a jar of Play-Doh, figuring that it might be entertaining to squeeze it into shapes, or simply to knead it. My mother looked at these things with some very mild curiosity, but then put them back on the table with no further interest. While we hung out yesterday, I played with the Play-Doh myself, but she wasn’t interested. Instead she kept doing her regular fidgeting. I tried to redirect her fidgeting back to the doll or the Play-Doh, but she wasn’t interested.
So today I saw her for the last time on this trip. The fidget toys were no place to be seen, and presumably long forgotten. We sat on the patio with her two friends. These three women, all in their late 80s or older, just sit together on the patio, seldom saying anything. They are all “out of it,” to one degree or other. One can’t remember where she’s from or how many kids she has. The other one, who’s 89, tried to persuade me that her mother was still alive and still working as a nurse in Georgia.
I tried very hard to make conversation with my mother. I asked about pain. Still none, she replied. I asked what she was thinking, whether she remembered living in California, many other questions. I told her about my remodeling process in Mexico City. She answered very little. As we talked, she edged her wheelchair away from me. I couldn’t tell if it was anything more than leg fidgeting or if she just wanted me to stop. So I asked her if she’d mind if I listened to a radio program. She said no. So I listened to a podcast for a while. The other two women were silent, and my mother moaned softly in the background.
I had planned to spend the afternoon. But after 40 minutes, I just couldn’t do any more. There was nothing to talk about. There was nothing I could do to make her situation any better. I’ve literally done every single thing I can think of to make the last years of her life less tedious. But despite it all, she’s now just sitting in a wheelchair, staring off into space and moaning. She’s literally beyond help and yet still very much alive.
I just kind of reached my limit. So I told her I was going back to Mexico City early tomorrow, gave her a hug and said good bye. Somehow it feels close to the last time. A big part of who my mother was is already gone.