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The great escape: I helped mum find humanity away from the senior’s home

facts & arguments

The great escape

She's been a Mom-to-me for decades; of course I couldn't say no, Lionel Llewellyn writes

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I like to help my "mum" escape the rut of living in the seniors' residence, where she has been since her husband of 58 years passed. For the past few years, we've been going to the local big-box store.

She has been my "mum" 30 years longer than my own mum; a diamond of a woman who has treated me like one of her own sons since 1968, and I love her dearly, like my own.

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There is a predictableness living in a senior's apartment that never changes. The routine is stifling: errands on Mondays, gentle fit class Tuesdays, bingo on Wednesday afternoons and Wii bowling on Saturday mornings. Meals have a sameness, too: bland, soft and tepid. So when Mum (90 and counting) requests a drive (right at lunchtime), how can you not say yes?

Nothing is as easy as it seems. The walker must be folded and stowed in the car. Mum must be gently eased into the seat to prevent slips or head bumps; the seatbelt must be secured. It streams back memories of when I was a young father taking my daughters out for a drive in the car. But the gleam in her eyes tells me it is worth it. I am her safe haven and she trusts me to get her to the store in one piece.

However, at the store, Mum makes the decision not to use her walker. Could it be vanity? It doesn't matter; she has 35 years on me and outranks me in all categories, including hair on the head. But her three adult children rely on me to safely return her to the retirement residence.

Her history of falls warns me that this is a crucial decision. I insist she use her walker, that no one will care that she has one. She is just as stubborn in not wanting to.

It's a stalemate. We watch the entrance for a moment.

Like Jonah and the whale, people exit the store satisfied-pushing their mega-carts filled to overflowing with excess boxes and bottles and 50-pound bags that eventually will become the detritus of our society. Children, skipping or running, hands tightly gripping the quick snacks they wheedled out of their parents. Stores know how best to maximize profits.

A light bulb turns on. And I suggest a slight switch: What about using a shopping cart instead of the walker? Like a human chameleon, she will blend right in. She likes the plan.

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I activate my car's hazard blinkers, help her out of my vehicle and let her latch on to an abandoned cart. I explain the cart will stabilize her walking. Even at 90, we have our pride. I am there as silent backup, a role I was born to play.

Walking toward the yawning, glass doors, it seems as if a Sunday preacher plied the pipes urging all of us to make the pilgrimage. We arrive: young, old, men, women, children – a gigantic melting pot of humanity seeking the magical commercial elixir.

The cacophony of noise reaches my ears long before I step into the cavernous grotto of economy. Nothing distinct: just sound, signifying nothing really. But hustle and bustle drones incessantly.

The concrete jungle teems with humanity; carts follow single file, like the snake of traffic heading to cottage country on Friday nights, up and down the aisles, occasionally bumping into others. Mum is not perturbed. She stands with a hand on the wire rim of the cart, looking around, absorbing the scene, happy to be out, if only for a short time.

She tastes the hot meat sample skewered by a toothpick and chats to the woman who is serving. Mum's smile is broad and wide. We are in no rush. Her taste is also freedom.

We enter a canyon of laundry boxes, stacked on pallets high to the ceiling. It's not a big drawing card on this day, and we have the aisle to ourselves. Mum shuffles slowly, cradling a handful of snacks and reading labels.

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At the end of the laundry aisle is another food freebie, this time hot pizza. Another conversation ensues with the elderly clerk who hands mum her tiny square of pie.

"Do you want some, hon?" Mum asks me.

I decline, and Mum gives me a grimace.

At the next corner, Swedish meatballs are being offered. It's a feeding frenzy, but Mum takes advantage of the choices, probably never offered at her residence. She puts a meatball tantalizingly close to my lips.

"Here hon, try it," she murmurs.

Surprisingly good, I ask her for another. Mum beams.

Our cart has very little in it: a bottle of hair shampoo and some serviettes. Mum tries to buy me something, anything. I gently rebuff her, telling her I don't need anything. We stand in line at the cash register; she steadies herself with the cart. The saleslady gives her a genuine smile. Mum slowly writes a cheque, her trembling handwriting revealing the signs of her age.

Mum asks questions of the saleslady, and never is there a hint of exasperation. The line behind us grows; no one complains. Mum has trouble tearing the cheque out of her chequebook. The saleslady waits and Mum turns around and thanks everyone in line for being so patient. People laugh and thank her back.

Mum walks to my car, hanging onto my arm, head resting on my shoulder. She can't stop blessing me for taking her out.

Silently, I thank her for showing me the way.

Lionel Llewellyn lives in Hamilton, Ont.

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