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She is sitting on the bed when I get there, lost in her thoughts. They are thoughts that take her back to a happier time, a time when she meant something; when she had a purpose; when she was somebody; when she mattered.
She goes over her childhood spent in a small house on Cape Breton Island during the Depression, the third of 14 children. Of summers spent blueberry-picking and swimming in the ocean with her brothers and sisters. Her father was away most of her childhood, coming back just long enough to leave her mother with another mouth to feed on the way.
She remembers working in a lobster factory as a young girl. She made her way there every morning before the sun was up, and spent her day with her small hands in saltwater cold from the ocean, breaking up the lobster pieces, cutting her fingers and feeling the sting. She remembers the pride she felt handing her pay packet to her mother.
She remembers her journey to Toronto at 16 to do war work with her sisters. In particular, she thinks of the kind lady on the train who offered her a sandwich because she was so obviously frightened and overwhelmed by all she was taking in. She smiles when she remembers the relief of finding her older sisters waiting for her on the platform. These are stories that I have heard occasionally over the years, but as her world has became smaller, they have become part of her daily conversations.
My presence takes her away from those memories and back to the present. When she notices I am there, she lights up; to see me is to see freedom, if only for a moment. I gather her shoes from the floor, sit on the bed with her, lift her now-tiny legs and put the shoes on one at a time. My husband tells me how he enjoys this interaction: It reminds him of a mother and child, only in reverse.
And that is our current relationship; I have become a caregiver, a protector, an advocate and a mother to my mother. She is 90 and her reward for living this long is a nursing home. The decision wasn’t made lightly. My brother and I put it off as long as we could, met with her doctors and toured many facilities before making our choice. It was with heavy hearts that we agreed this was the only option. I lost many nights of sleep and I saw in his weariness that he did too. So I can tell myself we had no choice, she is safe, she is cared for, she is with people who know how to manage her on a day-to-day basis, but that doesn’t ease the guilt I feel for what her life has become.
I take her out shopping or to a restaurant twice a week, and people will comment, “Isn’t that nice you take her out.” I don’t want to be applauded or congratulated for spending time with the women who raised me, and I never want my children to be thanked for spending time with me.
When we eat in restaurants, the wait staff defer to me to order. I cut her food, put butter on her vegetables and make sure she has milk for her tea. I think of the dinner table when I was growing up and the time she spent trying to satisfy the hunger of seven growing children. There was never enough food or room at the table. When she goes into a store, the sales people ask me what size she wears and what colours she likes. When she is at the doctor’s office, the questions are directed to and answered by me. When she is walking, I guide the walker and watch every step much as I did when my children were young and needed watching. She is grateful for the help, but also resentful that she needs it.
My mother was not a tender nor affectionate woman, and in many ways she found it hard to show love, which is why our interactions are such a surprise to me now. She holds my hand; I don’t remember holding her hand as a child. She tells me she loves me, words I yearned for growing up. She reaches for a hug when I leave – something I never felt.
I hear from other people how lucky I am that she has lived to 90 and that she still has her faculties. I listen to them and I do understand their point, I don’t envy those who have to deal with Alzheimer’s or severe dementia, but I also think the hardest part of this journey is that my mother does have her mind.
She knows what and whom she has lost; her husband; her brothers and, most cruelly of all, her son. When my brother died last year, he was a 64-year-old grandfather. His death returned him in her mind to a little blond-headed boy who loved flowers, which is where he will remain until she dies.
She calls the home she lives in, a nice facility with wonderful people, “the jail.” When we are out, she’ll say, “return me to my cell.” She also knows she has children and grandchildren that don’t bother making an effort to see her.
I wonder if for her not knowing would be easier. I know it would be for me. But this journey isn’t about me. It is about her and her losses. The loss of freedom, loss of independence and loss of privacy are the hardest she has had to bear.
When I return her to her safe little room, she says “Thank you, thank you for taking me out, I enjoyed it so much.” I kiss her on the top of her head, I take her shoes off and place them back under the bed and quietly close her door. As I am walking down the hall, I think that is one tough little lady I leave behind.
Catherine McGravey lives in Toronto.