Opinion: Priscilla Dann-Courtney: The Last House on the Block

·4 min read

May 8—I helped give my mother her shower; her wrinkled skin had a soft sweetness to it — like the wrinkled folds in my baby's thighs. I brushed her fine silvery hair and was soothed by a tender knowing that she had done the same for me in times past. She didn't know our plans for her as she ate tiny pieces of sweet potato, her lunch laid out by Lovelace, the kind aide from Sierra Leone. Soon we would move her to a home. We won't say where we are going, only "Mom lets get ready to go outside." We will direct her to the car and strap her in to keep her safe.

I took her to dinner at the little hotel a block away from her apartment. It had been my home when I would fly in for a visit — a retreat from the battleground of old age. I would touch the other side and then return to my room in the evening where I became a civilian again. I told myself bedtime stories of happy memories growing up to sooth my sorrow. And sometimes I'd hand these memories to my mother to make her smile until they quickly flew away. I described family vacations to Martha's Vineyard when all was right in the world. We mastered poker in the comfy dusty living room; stacks of pennies were our chips. We drove to the end of the island where there was a Native American outpost and bought pumpkin pies. We played family tennis on a red clay court with cracked white lines and a hole in the sagging net. The "Vineyard" was where my mother wanted her ashes scattered. "High in the sky, I want to be able to look down on all of you!" That was six months earlier when she confessed, " I think I have about six months of memory left, but then I will no longer remember that I can't remember, so promise you won't worry."

And then her new "home" became a small sunny room at Symphony Manor. On Thanksgiving, her memory of my sister's visit only lasted as long as the sweet taste of pumpkin on her tongue — gone with a swallow. When I visited for the first time, she shrieked with a quiet joy, "Oh Deary, you're here!" I too shrieked inside, weeping with both relief and sadness. We found a corner to sit together. She smiled, holding my hand. "Sweety, your hands are so cold." Her devotion as a mother was buried deep, even dementia couldn't rob us of that. We filled two hours together traveling from her bedroom, to the lobby, to a chilly excursion outside walking two minutes to where the sidewalk ended and back again. I escorted her to lunch where her grilled cheese sandwich was cut in small bite size pieces. I couldn't stay not because I didn't have the time but because I couldn't. When we hugged goodbye, it was clumsy as she let go of her walker. I watched as an aide guided her away. She was a foreigner lost in her own home.

When I called to wish her a Happy New Year, Cherise at the front desk told me, "Oh, she is at the New Year's Happy Hour." My mother was never a "happy hour" kind of gal. But perhaps in the last chapter of our lives, we maintain a graceful farewell by continuing to experience what we have never done.

When I did reach her by phone I turned our conversation in to a walking meditation. I spoke very slowly and loudly, taking small methodical steps around our living room as she strained to hear me. Each step matched the slow expression of my words stretching out the spaces in between like a rubber band — hoping that I wouldn't snap with impatience, covering my sorrow below.

My final visit with my mother was right before the pandemic. I fed her sweet potatoes that were now pureed. Sometimes we would sing soothing nursery rhymes together, tunes she could still recall. When we said goodbye, I turned back to see her sitting with the other lost souls. I belted out a rendition of "Row Row Row Your Boat." Her glee expressed acceptance with no worry. Worries must be held to be remembered. Her mind only allowed for the present. Sing your heart out in the beauty of the moment, was my mother's final teaching.


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