By Margaret Toman
97 years old
Later I learn that she watched “Ben Hur” at adult daycare but today I don’t know that.
I respond carefully, focusing on her lifelong appetite for grilled salmon. “I’m so glad you got away,” I say, “because I’m treating you to grilled salmon for supper. Would you like that”? “Oh yes,” she says, “I’ve never had it before!”
As I help her out of the car I marvel at her resilience and her enduring beauty. She is 96.
Together we have navigated the treacherous labyrinth of Alzheimer’s Disease since her diagnosis 11 years ago. Tonight we are navigating the risk of an evening out.
Applebee’s has been our favorite spot since we moved to Garner 5 years ago. We dine there often and our bill has been paid on occasion by patrons both identified and mysterious.
Beautiful, gregarious and kind, my mother has charmed and been charmed by, nearly all of Applebee’s waiters and waitresses. But we haven’t been there for awhile and BJ, our favorite waiter, is not working today.
Yesterday’s heat wave has been replaced by today’s cold front and the air in Applebee’s is chilly. I don’t recognize our waiter, who smiles broadly then dashes off for menus we don’t need.
I order our usual: grilled orange salmon, no potatoes, double order of vegetables (no butter), strawberry lemonade for her, unsweetened ice tea for me and a piece of caramel apple pie to split for dessert, with coffee.
Our waiter hesitates for a moment before divulging that grilled salmon and caramel apple pie are no longer on Applebee’s menu. “How could they?” I protest. While the waiter and I commiserate over the uninformed decisions of distant management, my mother draws into herself as if being dragged by a malevolent force. The strange, growing absence in her eyes unnerves me.
Grudgingly she chooses Crunchy Asian Salad, but her confusion and her litany of complaints notches up. She is cold, the seat is hard, the salad tastes funny, the fork is too heavy, there aren’t enough napkins, she doesn’t like this place.
She’s licking hot fudge from a spoon when suddenly her face contorts with horror and she cries out, looking over my shoulder, “Those men are killing each other!” I turn around in my seat and see that a television at the bar is previewing a violent crime drama. I chastise myself: Why didn’t I think about the televisions at the bar? Why didn’t I insist on our usual window seat? I reach across the table and grasp her hand. “It’s alright, Sweetie,” I say soothingly. “It’s just a television program. You know I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Eat your dessert and we’ll go home. Everything is alright.”
“I don’t want to sit here and be killed!”, she snaps.
Other patrons stare. I am stunned, embarrassed, sad, and angry -- with the disease, with myself, with her. I have sacrificed everything – financial security, social freedom, community involvement, a sense of future. But I chose this road and I would do it again.
My mother will die someday but my unruly heart goes right on loving her fiercely wanting, despite all logic, to keep her forever. Love holds us to high standards, the most transcendentally difficult of which is simply letting go. But today I am tired of plumbing new depths and heights of myself. Frustrated and fed up, I help my mother to the car, reflecting on the cruel, diabolical force that is Alzheimer’s Disease. Like 5 million plus other people in this country, she is trapped in a strange world she can neither describe nor escape. I don’t know what to do.
We drive across the shopping center and park outside of Pet Smart. Dogs and their owners come and go and I point out this poodle, that lab, those cocker spaniels. My mother brightens just a little with each wagging tail, then sinks inward again. I am about to give up when a woman cradling a dachshund puppy emerges from a truck close by.
I have learned to rely on the kindness of strangers and I get out of my car.
“Ma’am”, I say, testing the waters with my warmest smile, “that is the cutest thing I have ever seen!” She beams and introduces me to Belvedere, who wriggles with delight and licks my hands. I explain how things are and we walk to my car and place Belvedere gently on my mother’s lap. She absorbs the puppy into herself, pressing its soft warmth to her breast.
Closing her eyes, holding her head down close, she murmurs softly. Belvedere squirms contentedly and relaxes. I think they have both gone to sleep when my mother suddenly raises her head and looks squarely into my eyes. She releases a dazzling smile, her eyes sparkling like emeralds. “I love you,” I say. “I love you more than Orville Redenbacher, Johnny Walker, Russell Stover or any of those guys.” Sometimes I add a long string of names to this mantra but in this moment I can recall only 3.
“I love you too!” she says heartily. Belvedere wriggles and licks her cheek. His owner smiles, our eyes meet and for a moment the four of us are embraced in grace, redemption, healing and love.
As we drive home, my mother chatters happily and non-stop about everything. Nothing she says makes any sense but when we are almost to our turn, she announces, “I want some dessert! I haven’t had any dessert.” I don’t remind her of the dessert shooter she just devoured. I check my vanishing funds.
Well alright, let’s do it!” I say. We laugh all the way to McDonald’s.
Margaret Toman is an Alzheimer's caregiver, and cares for her 97 year old mother, Lou Longest, who is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease. They live together in Garner, North Carolina.
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Original content Margaret Toman, the Alzheimer's Reading Room