Mother Once Smiled.
Miriam wants to die. I want her to die, too. Her doctors say she’s had a series of strokes. “Transitory ischemic attacks” is their medical term. They don’t call people “senile” anymore; instead, they call her “demented.” I call her “Mother.”
She lives in a nursing home with 75 others. They have roommates, take their meals in a central dining hall if they are ambulatory, sit in front of a large screen television set in the day room, and participate, more or less, in various therapeutic activities. But hardly anyone talks, and nobody touches. They occupy the same time and space; yet, they’re essentially alone. They’re alone, and some of them, like Mother, want to die. Only thing is, we won’t let them.
I visit her two or three times a week. We sit in the day room where a toothless woman sings a shrill version of “God Bless America,” ending with a gummy smile and bowing to nobody in particular when she’s done. A gentleman sporting an incongruous smoking jacket and an ill matching ascot commands his dog Buddy, invisible to the rest of us, to fetch. A third repeats “Ah Ooh Ga,” as if she were a horn on an antique car. Heads bob and weave to unheard rhythms, marking the beat back to childhood, I suppose.
Some moan and some giggle; in either case, without apparent reason. Others wave their arms in futile attempts to repel whatever it is that frightens them. Most sit quietly in their wheel chairs, rocking the hours away, somewhere between consciousness and oblivion. And always, there is the smell—a commingling of feces, industrial strength detergent, urine, and air freshener that lingers in my nose long after I leave. I hate these visits, but if I miss one, my guilt lingers, too.
Mother once smiled when she saw me, but now she sits, eyes vacant and expressionless. She has no recollection of significant events, even the death of her beloved husband. Not long ago, after looking at each other in silence for a while, I asked her to tell me what she was thinking. She asked why “Daddy” didn’t come to see her anymore, and if he had found another woman. I explained, as I had many times before, that Daddy had died 18 years ago. She had forgotten that he went to sleep one night and died with dignity and without pain. It was at the precise moment of my father’s death that she began to die herself.
After her time of mourning, her memory began to slip. She forgot to pay her bills; she forgot to take her medication, and she forgot to bathe. A beautiful and meticulous woman became slovenly. Soon, she couldn’t drive her car, manage her money, prepare her meals, or do her laundry. Her loss of independence terrified her. “Help me,” she wailed, over and over again. Sadly, her tears did nothing to wash away the accumulation of plaque that was strangling the connections between her neurons.
Mother had another stroke that left her with slurred speech and little use of the right side of her body. She was incontinent and confined to a wheel chair. She knew she would have to leave her home, and it was the first time she said she wanted to die. When she told me she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself, I thought about helping her. But, I wasn’t brave enough either.
On a dank day in October, we took Mother to a nursing home. We met her roommate. We talked with a social worker and occupational therapist. We hung family pictures on the walls of her room. We set a picture of Daddy on her nightstand. We wept. Indeed, for the next seven years, Miriam slowly deteriorated in front of our eyes, and we wept.
Mother’s new home was clean, and the caretakers were kind. On more than a few occasions, I wondered why anyone would choose to do this kind of work, given that their charges were often removed from reality, sometimes angry and irascible, and frequently soiled themselves. Yet, they showed up for their shifts, day after day, when, in fact, they could have worked at any number of jobs for the same minimum wage.
At home one evening, I watched a television series about crime and punishment. One episode described a 37 year old serial rapist and pedophile who had been living on death row for more than a decade. The great state of Texas was required to provide lawyers to appeal his death sentence. Indeed, they asked jurists in the state supreme court for a reduction to life in prison without parole. Finally, the appeals process ended, and his execution was at hand. While his last meal grew cold, he told a minister he was ready. “I have no joy, I have no life: I would rather be dead,” he said.
Execution is by lethal injection in Texas. The host of the series was a witness, and he described the event:
He was strapped to a gurney to immobilize his limbs. A doctor
and priest ministered to him as he was wheeled into the chamber.
A needle was inserted into his arm, and he said nothing when
asked if he had any last words. The intravenous was turned on,
and the poison flowed to his brain. After one audible gasp and
a massive twitch, he stopped breathing. In seconds, he was dead.
It looked as if he had drifted off, unafraid and comfortable, much
like a young child taking his afternoon nap. Someone drew the
blinds, and I went home.
A serial rapist and pedophile told us he would rather be dead, and we helped him die. Of course, we could have forced him to live out the rest of his wretched life, without joy, looking at pictures on the walls of his room, and growing progressively demented. I wonder why we can’t act with similar humanity toward our sweet mothers?