Connect … disconnect
When my daughters, Skye and Hillery, and I went to New Jersey last week, my mother was glad to see us and knew who we were, but her condition had seriously diminished since Hillery and I were there in May. The good news is that she’s in her own house, isn’t in any pain and loves her Jamaican caretakers. Mainly what she is is tired. Her mind and body are just worn out. She’s not on any kind of sedation, but she sleeps 22 to 23 hours a day, and her life is a mix of unconsciousness and a fog of dreams, interspersed with surprising moments of clarity. She can’t do anything. Can’t read, can’t focus on books on tape, can’t even lift or hold her mug of Ensure or juice. On Nov. 7 she will be 99.She no longer opens her eyes in alarm, thinking that someone has moved all the furniture, or that she is back in Alabama where she grew up, and that we are all part of a conspiracy to make her think she’s home in New Jersey, which is to say she’s no longer fighting the loss of her intellect. She is not raging against the dying light; she is going gently. And who’s to say which is better?”I had a bad night last night,” she told me the day we got there. “I was so thirsty I thought I’d die of thirst, so I went outside to look for water and then I couldn’t get back in.” This said conversationally, my ear to her mouth to hear her. I try to think of an appropriate response when … disconnect: She falls asleep.Hillery has long-standing mortality issues, and I am wrestling with the death question in the opposite way: How am I going to gracefully get off this planet before this happens to me? None of us wants each other to be sad.Skye is the best at communicating with my mother. She files her fingernails, accompanied by a running narrative of all the things these old hands have seen and done: the victory garden turned to flowers, the pottery, the quilts. She tells her that she has planted everything from my mother’s garden that will grow in Colorado in her honor.Connect: On the third day, we show my mother the ancestral photo album she and Skye worked on three years ago. My mother recognizes every face, going back to her great-grandmother, a memory span covering 150 years.She remembered her mother making the bathing costumes that she and her sister wore on an island in Georgia. The photos are tiny, maybe two inches square. Of the beach, she said, “I thought that place was paradise on earth.”I retell a funny story about my great-grandmother Mama, thinking at once that it’s too complicated and I never should have begun, but am rewarded by a genuine horse laugh from my mother at the punch line. Then, disconnect: back to sleep.She sleeps the whole next day, responding only barely to, “Drink this, Mae.”The next morning, as we prepare for departure, my mother is awake and has finished her morning Ensure. The soup she’d been enjoying had caused a bout of vomiting, so soup is now off the menu, another loss.I tell her we have to leave, and she does not tear up as she used to – now you see them, now you don’t goes the slow, dreamy shell game.”They came for me again last night,” she said, trying to (I think) describe their vehicle. “Was it a dream?” I asked. “Oh no, it happens all the time. It was quite sinister,” she said cheerfully.Su Lum is a longtime local whose column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.
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