“There’s no time like the present.”
That’s what my Scottish-born mother always said, along with other tried and true gems from days past like, “waste not, want not,” and “a stitch in time saves nine.”
My mother came to stay with us when my father died of a sudden stroke at the age of 78. They had lived on the other side of the country for ten years, since my father’s retirement, and keeping in touch had been relegated to weekly phone calls and biannual trips out west with the family to visit. So, I was ill-prepared for the person who shuffled across our threshold and bore a resemblance to my mother.
This person, while still unfailingly polite, caring, funny and wanting to help, couldn’t figure out how to use the microwave or TV remote (despite repeated instruction on both). She walked with her arms held stiffly at her sides instead of swinging freely. She spoke slowly, with the words slurred together. She was incapable of making herself a sandwich. Who was this person who at one time could put on a full Christmas dinner for ten people without batting an eye, and who could golf 18 holes three times a week without a cart?
After a cognitive assessment, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia related to her lifelong smoking habit. Perhaps my father had thought he was protecting me by not divulging my mother’s issues. Well, no one could protect me now.
The loss was immeasurable. Almost every day I discovered another diminishment in her abilities, and I admit that I struggled to accept this new reality. Perhaps the symptoms of dementia would go away if I ignored them. Perhaps she’d learn if I gave her the same instruction over and over. Neither worked and sometimes I raised my voice in frustration, fear and sadness, and I felt terrible afterward. A therapist once told me I was grieving the loss of the mother who raised me, which made sense and allowed me to give myself a break when it came to my lack of coping skills.
While I was busy (not) coming to terms with my mother’s illness, I was also trying to raise two teenage children. It seems like the universe’s colossal joke to not only be sandwiched between a frail parent and rebellious teens, but also suffering the vagaries of menopause. My brain was so addled, I didn’t know whether to run a lukewarm Epsom salts bath for my 16-year-old son or ground my 82-year-old mother in her room for smoking weed.
Thankfully, my full-time employer was flexible, and I could work from home a few days each week. On the days I went to the office, I had to make my mother’s lunch and put it in the fridge. To ensure she ate it, I also had to stick a bright yellow Post-it note on the fridge door: MUM’S LUNCH with an arrow pointing to the handle, and another Post-it had to go on the plastic wrapped sandwich plate. If she couldn’t locate her lunch, she didn’t eat.
The frailer my mother got, the more I worried when I wasn’t at home. She might fall down the stairs or try to light the gas stove and set the house on fire. I was grateful every night when I returned home to a house that wasn’t burned to the ground.
After seven years, her care became more than I could manage in my home, and we began to search for an alternative care situation. Looking back, I’m sure I should have made the move long before, but I wasn’t ready. I might not have been the most nurturing caregiver, but she was my mother and I didn’t want to fail her. I took a leave of absence from work to focus on my mother’s current and future needs.
There’s no time like the present, I thought, as we pulled up to a care home that had been recommended by one of my mother’s support workers. The place was small but homey. There were only 16 residents, each living in a private bedroom with a washroom on a single floor. They were also all women and suffering from various levels of dementia. The criteria for entry included non-violence and some level of independent mobility. Despite needing a walker to get around, my mother met these criteria.
The day we moved her in my stomach was in knots. How do you know you’re doing the right thing in the moment? The answer is: you don’t.
Well, she thrived in the care home. My rail-thin mother put on a little weight and got some color back in her cheeks. Who knew that living in a house with two moody teenagers and their anxious parents could be stressful?
She made some friends and enjoyed the daily activities, like word games (her bailiwick), chair exercises, and bingo. I visited her once a week, and we did jigsaw puzzles together over a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies. I brought her home for all our celebrations: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. Over time, she became quieter, less able to initiate conversation, and her shuffling gait became more pronounced. But her smile could still light up a room. She continued to love chocolate and seeing her grandchildren, who, by this time, had reached their early 20s. If golf came on the TV, she cheered at every well played chip shot. She didn’t know who the players were or what had happened before the commercial break, but she lived in the moment, hole by hole.
In mid-December of 2019, her health took a turn, and she ended up in hospital. The dementia was disrupting her ability to swallow properly and the food, bit by bit, was filling her lungs. Nothing could be done.
Because it was Christmastime, I was off work and drove to the hospital every day, sometimes twice a day. We spent Christmas morning with her as a family, and she opened her gifts: a pair of warm socks; a box of chocolates; and a jigsaw puzzle.
On the second last day of the year, with a snowstorm forecast, I leaned over her hospital bed before I left for home, kissed her cheek, and said, “I love you, Mum. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
My beloved mother died later that evening at 86 years old. We never got a chance to do the new puzzle together with a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies.
But I always remember her old saying: There’s no time like the present. Tell your loved ones what they mean to you as often as you can. Don’t wait until tomorrow.