The Last Time I Saw My Mom

January 2012

My mother died today. It wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t a dramatic exit. She ate lunch, lay down and died.

My Dad called to tell me the news, his voice broken and at times high pitched with emotion. I could feel his tears through the phone. His words were simple. “Your mother has passed.” It seemed all he could muster up the strength to say before the emotion swept over him again. She had passed just moments earlier.

I don’t recall what I said to him in my feeble attempt to offer comfort (what is comforting to someone who just lost a companion of sixty years?) but I know I tried to find words. The call was brief and I hung up so he could contact the rest of my siblings. I sat alone pondering this news. Mom was gone. Or was she home after being gone for an extended absence? Yes, I think that was it. She hadn’t left…she had finally arrived.

For several years the clever and stealthy thief named Alzheimer’s had begun ruthlessly stealing small pieces of her. At first the petty robberies of memory and method went unnoticed, but with each year more of her vanished. In the end, the disease stole cruelly stole her own home from her chasing her to a nursing facility where busy health care providers would assist my dad in caring for her.

It was in that nursing home that I visited my mom for the final time, just two weeks earlier. I parked the car in the small circular lot and made my way to the main entrance with some fear and dread. The automatic doors parted; filling my head with a rush of stale, warm air. I recognized that smell. A nauseous blend of air freshener, bland food, and scented cleaning solutions all trying in vain to overpower the ever-present odor of urine and saliva. “Mom? Is this your home? Are you here?” I cringed at the thought of mom living in this…facility. I certainly was not going to dignify it by calling it “home.” Mom’s home would never smell like this. The house I grew up in smelled of home cooked meals, yellowing books and polished hardwood floors.

The nursing home had those ugly twelve by twelve tiles on the floor that were so common in the hospitals and medical buildings of the 1980s. What color was the floor anyway? Was it gray? Was it taupe? Was it once a bright color that had long ago faded to this cold, nondescript, neutral, nothingness? The walls matched the floor. Covered in bland wallpaper that screamed for attention like an overlooked middle child. It appeared that someone had recently attempted to pay attention to the walls. One section had been stripped of its wallpaper revealing a blotched surface that looked water damaged and moldy. For a moment I felt alarmed by the mold but tried to assure myself that it was just the original adhesive. Walking past the dry fountain now filled with plants, I nodded politely to the man hunched over in his wheel chair as I brushed by him… he didn’t notice.

I entered the large circular common area brightly lit with too many cold, florescent light bulbs. There were elderly people scattered around the room in various states of inactivity. Some were eating while others were being fed. Some were playing games while others simply sat and watched. Several were slumped over in their chairs asleep. I greeted one or two as I passed and they smiled in return. Others looked at me with wide eyes as if I frightened them. One looked at me, yet right through me. These were mom’s housemates. I wondered if she knew any of them. Mom loved people. She had often gone to visit residents in this very place. It was not uncommon for her to fill her house with people for a meal or even offer strangers a bed for the night. I wondered if any of these people knew my mom.

Following my dad down Mom’s hallway I was overwhelmed by the cacophonous chorus of alarms, buzzers, loud talking and a television blaring in a small common area just outside Mom’s room. Beep. Beep. Beep. The nurse’s station a few steps away from Mom’s room was a hubbub of activity. Beep. Beep. Beep. The staff seemed to shout down the halls at one another, talking much louder than necessary. Beep. Beep. Beep. What was that incessant beeping? Why does everyone seem to ignore it?

“I hurt!” a crazed looking woman cried out loudly in a chair next to the nurse’s station. “I hurt!” she repeated more loudly. This time a nurse responded dismissively with “I know Honey. I know.” “I hurt!” she cried. After the eighth or ninth time of hearing her outcry, I too began responding in my head with “I know Honey. I know.”

Mom’s house was never noisy. With no television in the home, religious music or a radio preacher were about the only sounds to be heard. I recalled mom’s gentle singing as she cooked a meal or cleaned. I wondered how she could tolerate such an endless stream of loud noises in her new home. But maybe she wasn’t even aware of them.

Before I crossed the threshold into Mom’s room, I mentally braced myself for what I was about to see. The room was dimly lit and as dull as the rest of the nursing home. No color anywhere in the room. No décor on the walls. No remnants of home anywhere. A few photographs and cards sat on a bedside table next to some odd little stuffed animals. Mom never liked stuffed animals unless they were remarkably life-life. These were not. Whoever gave them to Mom obviously did not know her well. I wanted to sweep them into the trash can next to her bed.

I turned to the huddled form on the bed covered in blankets. It was mom. She lay asleep facing the pale, institutional gray wall. Her silver hair still retained hints of brown but seemed wiry and thin. Dad shook her gently and said in a sweet, loving voice, “Jannie, wake up. Joel’s here.” Her frail body stirred. I felt a knot in my stomach as I looked at her skeletal form of only eighty pounds. She pulled the covers around her shoulders and opened her eyes staring blankly at the gray wall as if it weren’t there at all. I had the impulse to find a colorful photograph of trees and flowers and tack it to the wall right where she was staring. But then I wondered if she would even see it or just look right through it. Her eyes were blank and void of recognition. I brushed her hair aside with my hand and leaned down to place a kiss on her cheek. Her skin was surprisingly warm and soft. She responded to my touch and turned her head in my direction.

This was the moment. In an instant I was flooded with memories of mom flashing through my mind. I wanted to say “Mom? Are you home Mom?” but I knew she wasn’t home. She was somewhere far, far away. She struggled to position herself to see my face. Our eyes met. I smiled and said “Hi mom. It’s me, your son, Joel.” Suddenly her face lit up in recognition. Her eyes focused on mine. She smiled warmly at me and in a feeble, quiet, voice said, “I love you.” She was home. For a moment she was home. "I love you too Mom." And then as suddenly as she came, she left again never to return.

It was then that I realized that there was indeed truth in the worn-out statement found on cross-stitched pillows and painted on country plates in Cracker Barrel. “Home is where the heart is.” And in that moment Mom was home.

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Joel Speaks Out

Kansas City, MO