By Nancy Townsley
We had pancakes at the diner down the street from dad’s house two Sundays before we put mom in the nursing home. That’s what mom had, anyway. I had oatmeal with raisins and walnuts. My sisters probably had waffles or yogurt parfaits, I can’t remember. Our dad had two eggs sunny side up, crisp bacon, wheat toast with margarine, and coffee.
Dad cut mom’s pancakes for her because she had forgotten how to do it. She used a fork to stir three packets of sugar into her first cup of decaf. Dad shook them in there himself. It was way too many, but no one said anything.
We didn’t say anything to the waitress, either, when she asked us how our morning was going and wished all the women at the table a Happy Mother’s Day. Her voice was cheery and she wore a fake pink carnation behind the pinned-on plastic badge that said Stacey. We pretended everything was OK, but I wondered whether our guilty faces gave us away. We smiled and ordered our breakfasts. When Stacey circled back around to refill our coffees, we smiled again and watched mom dump more sugar into the hot black liquid.
That’s the way my heart felt on that day. Hot. Black. Liquid.
We all had it written down on our calendars, the day we’d take mom to the home. Twelve days from now. Every time dad wondered out loud whether he could keep on taking care of mom by himself, we’d insist she was not going to get better. It’s not practical, my sisters and I would say. Remember how it’s hurting your back to get her in and out of the shower? How you have to wrestle her into her clothes every few days when you finally cajole her into getting out of her bathrobe? How crazy it makes you that she keeps you up half the night either laughing or crying, and you never know which it will be? How you wonder if you’ll ever get any rest ever again?
You’re almost 80, dad. This is not working. We know the two of you have lived together for more than five decades, since you were married in the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Algona, Iowa, the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1954. We know it’s hard for you to imagine yourself here in your cozy, familiar house, and her there in a sterile, silent room without you by her side. We’re so sorry it’s breaking your heart. But you really have to let go.
It was the only time I can remember, in all the years we’ve been dad’s daughters, that we were so adamant and unrelenting. All our lives we had lined up, like little tin soldiers, whenever dad exhorted us. Our family was not a democracy—we marched unflinchingly to dad’s drummer—so it surprised me when he acquiesced. But there was a sinister secret in the deal. We agreed not to tell mom we were planning to move her out of their house because her needs were too big for dad to manage. She would not have wanted to discuss it even if she could understand, dad said, which she most definitely could not. It seemed deceitful and Machiavellian and downright wrong, but still we did not tell mom she was going. Or when. Or to where. Instead, we plotted behind her back and convinced ourselves it was all right to keep her in the dark because our decision, cloaked in whispered conversations, was what was best for her.
And also for us, though we couldn’t bear to think about that.
The day before mom was supposed to go to the dementia care facility—a clean, well-appointed place we’d all toured and approved of—she had a heart attack. Not a serious one, the emergency room doctor said, though she’d have to stay overnight for observation. It felt like synchronicity to me, as if her body had ginned up a cardiac event in order to foil our plans. Lying there in her hospital bed, the crisp white sheets tucked up to her neck making her look so small and frail, mom blinked and her wide eyes leaked—a sure sign, I thought, that she knew something was up. That everything was going to change, and she couldn’t do anything about it. Drip, drip, drip went her IV. Beep, beep, beep went her heart monitor. Dab, dab, dab went the handkerchief I used to catch her tears.
It was a mistake not to bring mom to the care home in an ambulance. That would have been much more official and tidy. She went in a car sent by Cedar Crest Alzheimer’s Special Care Center. Emerging from the hospital in a wheelchair, mom complied when the orderlies started to fold her rag-doll body into the front seat of the sedan, taking care to place her fuzzy sock-covered feet just so and guide her shaking hands into her lap, one over the other. My younger sister and I scrambled into the back and told the driver to follow our dad, up ahead in the navy blue Volvo. It was funny because of course the man in the sedan knew exactly where to go, but dad was going to lead the whole sad caravan 10 miles up the road to our destination nonetheless. With dad ceremony was important, even when the mission felt impossible.
Two other cars, my older sister’s and my husband’s, followed behind.
It took us much longer than it should have to get there. Felt like it, anyway. We passed a McDonald’s, a Taco Bell and a Long John Silver’s on the way. Also a 7-Eleven, Jo-Ann Fabrics and a Shell gas station. When we finally arrived, dad looked somber, stoic, fearful and ashen, all at the same time. My sister and I popped out of the back seat just as our driver, whose name was Travis, came to a stop under the covered area leading to the care center’s foyer. Mom stayed put. She stared straight ahead. This was a bad sign.
Like an earnest hotel valet, Travis sprinted around the rear of the car and opened the passenger-side door for my mom. He smiled a nervous smile and disappeared into the building, leaving us to our private moment of transition. Like a battlefield blueprint, we had our next move figured out. We’d walk mom to the reception desk, sign her in, memorize the week’s keypad code to gain entrance to the locked common area, then find a nice alcove for the family to hunker down in. We’d get mom a cup of coffee, maybe, and reassure her everything was fine. That she’d like it here, and we’d visit as often as we could. Dad would promise to come every morning and every afternoon, which I knew he would do, because his word was his bond.
All of this was running through my mind as mom just sat there, eyes fixed on the windshield or the car’s hood or god knows what, maybe a robin in one of the maple trees lining the walkway, and she didn’t budge. Not an inch, not a twitch. We noticed she was crying. With mom we could always tell when the waterworks were under way because her heart-shaped face would scrunch up and get all red, just like it was right then, and she’d make low, soft, guttural noises, the kind a wounded animal might make if it were all alone and suffering. And I thought: she knows. She knows what’s happening and that she can’t control it. She knows that if she gets out of the car and walks through that door, she’s not coming out. She knows we’re betraying her.
I’d never felt more helpless. Dad took mom’s hands in his and tried to lift her from the bucket seat. “Here we go, Lucile,” he coaxed, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” He’d take a break, rub his aching back and try again. She cried harder and stared at him with pleading eyes. He broke down. He walked to his car, got in and drove off, “to pick up her prescriptions,” he called out the window. It was our turn to convince mom everything was all right, to convince ourselves it was. How do you do that when it isn’t? She wept hot, bitter tears. They rolled down her cheeks and dripped from her chin onto her pale blue cotton blouse, the one with two miniature Schnauzers embroidered on the pocket, just like the dog she had at home, her home, the one she was leaving for good. Her nose ran, and mucus mingled with the tears, making a mess we tried to clean up with tissues and platitudes and frantic murmured prayer. Things were that dire and intractable and confusing and dreadful—until Ann, the center administrator, came to our rescue.
She was wearing a long, white cardigan over a tailored red dress, and her hair was done up in a breezy French knot. As she approached our mother I thought she resembled Florence Nightingale, or even Joan of Arc. It was that important for someone, anyone, to do something to fix this. Ann crouched down beside the car door. She cupped mom’s forehead in the palm of one hand and swept a soft cloth across her soggy face with the other, chatting her up with stories about the people she’d meet inside. There was Marilyn, her roommate, who was very quiet but friendly, too. Judy, who loved to wear colorful bracelets and had taken a fancy to Marty, who clapped his hands a lot. And Joyce, who could be crotchety and sometimes swore in German, but danced gracefully around the dining hall with imaginary partners whenever they played Frank Sinatra.
Mom sniffed and stopped crying. She looked at Ann through the swollen slits of her eyes and saw the same thing we did: salvation. Ann put her arm around mom’s shoulders and mom leaned into her, enough that her body slowly rose from the car, and together they shuffled over the threshold into Cedar Crest, mom’s new and forever home. In almost a single deft motion, Ann had bound up our hearts and our spirits, not with gauze or liniment but with confidence and empathy and kindness, doses measured in magic and love. We were floored and amazed and thankful. We slumped down on a sofa in the TV room with mom until dad reappeared, a white paper bag carrying a half dozen vials of pills tucked under his arm. “You all right, ‘Cile?” he asked, brushing her sticky bangs aside. “I love you,” he soothed. “I’m here.”
And he was, morning and afternoon, for exactly three years and nine days, until mom stopped eating and drinking and the hospice nurse said she was “actively dying,” so we all gathered around her bed to kiss her cooling brow, sing to her, read to her from her bible and tell her it was all right to go.
Later, when we returned to dad’s house, 50 years of memories hung in the air as conspicuously as the walnut-framed wedding picture on their bedroom wall—she in her beaded tulle gown, he in his handsome white suit—and I noticed a new addition. A large calendar, with artwork by Renoir and oversize spaces for recording significant dates and appointments, sat on the kitchen table, open to the month of May.
Two squares were outlined in magenta marker.
“Lucile to Cedar Crest, 2010,” read a notation on May 21, accompanied by a sad face drawn by dad.
Under May 30, the day mom went to the peace, he’d scrawled a tribute to the span of their marriage—”58 years, 190 days”—and added a bright pink heart.
Author’s Note: Since my mother died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, my heart has lurched every time I’m unable to conjure up a word in conversation. I wonder if succumbing to the ravages of plaques and tangles is my destiny, too. But mostly, I reflect on the meaning of her life, its serendipitous connections with mine—and I smile at the memories.
Nancy Townsley grew up as a Navy “junior” and rode horses bareback in the Puerto Rican sun. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1973, she has forged a career in community journalism. Her fiction, nonfiction and essays have appeared in Brave On The Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), NAILED Magazine, Role Reboot, runnersworld.com and BLEED, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives, writes and runs in St. Helens, Oregon.