My mother turned 99 in January. She resides in a nursing home that feels like a prison. I must always wait in a glassed-in foyer to be buzzed into the hallway that leads to my mother’s room. And, I must always wait for a go-ahead signal in order to exit the building.
One of the nurses affectionately calls Mom, “99.” Mom laughs at her nickname. She recognizes the love behind it, and she appreciates the humor and attention. My mother is blind, cannot walk, eats only pureed food, sleeps most of the day, and will not—at 5 o’clock in the late afternoon—remember that one of her children visited at lunchtime. My siblings and I keep a calendar taped on the side of the wardrobe in her room, so we can sign our names on the days when we visit.
“See here where Ella came yesterday,” I say in order to make conversation.
“No,” Mom emphatically responses. “Ella has not been to visit for a long time.” My siblings and I never correct Mom. Why try to set her straight?
Once Mom asked me to go upstairs and get a blanket for her. There is no upstairs. In Mom’s mind, we are back in my childhood home. “There’s one right here,” I say as I walk over and open the wardrobe. Mom is satisfied, and the fact that there is no upstairs—that we are not in my childhood home—never becomes an issue.
Then, on another occasion, Mom invited me to eat with her. We were sitting together in the nursing home dining hall. Mom thought we were in a restaurant. “No,” I replied. “I’ll wait to eat with Joe when I go home.” She accepted my reason for not eating in the “restaurant.”
But, after the meal as I was pushing her wheel chair out of the room, she turned her head back to me and said, “Did you pay?”
“It’s taken care of,” I replied.
Lately, my mother wants to sleep through lunch. She is too exhausted to raise the spoon to her mouth. And when she tries to feed herself, the result is a mess. “Want me to feed you?” I now ask.
And, my mother replies, “Yes, please.”
I feed her like I used to feed my children when they were babies in the highchair. The task of feeding her brings fond memories to mind of my urchins with their beautiful, happy faces, playing “pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man; roll ’em up, roll ’em up; pitch ’em in a pan.”
My mother’s plate of food looks like the contents of baby food jars were deposited on it. I am forced to read her menu in order to learn that the light tan mush is chicken and gravy, and that the mossy green blob is seasoned green beans. I feed her like I used to feed my toddlers, even scraping food off her chin and from the corners of her mouth.
It is sad to see all this decline, but there is something very special about these times together. We are a very quiet twosome. Except for an occasional softly-spoken comment or question from me, we sit in silence. The moment is ours, and I do not want to share it with any of the other residents or nurses’ aides as they scurry about from table to table. “You’re doing a great job,” I say. “The plate is almost empty,” I inform. “Does it taste good?” I ask. “Do you want to eat more, or are you full?” I inquire.
Mother and child sit together in the “restaurant,” located in the “downstairs of my childhood home.” We share the quiet, reverent moment. But, who is the mother? Who is the child? Our roles have become as blurred as the space around us. I can’t imagine anyone around us, who is as happy as we are because our imaginations—rooted in faith—have knocked down the prison walls and have built a staircase to a better place and time.