by LuEllen Huntley
“It is a weird kind of grieving process, losing somebody over a period of time.” In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s – Joseph Jebelli
In late December 2013, my father begins to show signs of end-of-life Parkinson’s disease syndrome. Our family decides to pursue skilled nursing as the option before the complex becomes more acute. I recall one of the professionals saying, “A transition from home to skilled nursing goes one of two ways; a resident either adjusts or declines.” In my father’s case, it becomes the latter. My mother – quite present during the final weeks of my father’s life – remains devoted as ever. From January 29, 2014, the date my father passes away, until August 2017, Mother enjoys independent living in a welcoming continuing care community. Then this changes. She falls, breaks her left hip, and a descent into dementia presents.
As of late, I never know what to expect when my mother and I venture out these days because Alzheimer’s dementia continues to manifest in emotional upsets, delusions, fear and a spectrum of unpredictability. Recently my mother and I share the European Brunch at Thyme and Place Café in Southern Pines. Deviled eggs, assorted meat and cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, fruit and a biscuit with butter and jam remind me of an English ploughman’s lunch. The café, cozy and uncrowded, meets criteria for a satisfying outing. Mother settles in with a glass of fresh lemonade.
On this day my mother notices rings I am wearing. At times I place on my left hand my father’s gold wedding band and mother’s emerald and diamond ring on top of the wedding band. My mother notices rings. She does not, however, recognize her emerald and diamond ring or Daddy’s wedding band. A loved one whose mind erases itself offers a peculiar knot that cannot well be untangled. She thinks I bought new gems; our conversation shifts to jewelry for a few minutes before talk changes to the topic of selecting homemade delicacies from the dessert case. Mother loves to look and choose several to take home for later. Thyme and Place owner Leslie Philip and servers LaDonna Koontz and Missy Chapman grace us with their time and attention; the atmosphere here never fails. Sharing healthy fare in a relaxing place marks our time together.
After lunch I think it a good idea to chance another venture as mother can use a new pair of house slippers with substantial back and sole. I think – Opulence of Southern Pines, downtown on NW Broad Street, as I know this specialty boutique carries pajamas, robes, and all things bedding and bath. Belk seems much too far at this point in the afternoon; Bed, Bath, and Beyond, too big and frantic. Parking on NW Broad Street – a cinch this day – seems a good omen, but for some reason my mother becomes upset because she thinks my intention is to shop for myself. Nothing I say makes sense at this moment once she fixates on this thought. I realize it best to abort looking for house shoes and take mother back to the assisted living facility where she lives.
Once there, I prepare for mother a bit of Thyme and Place chocolate icing cheesecake and serve with a Coca-Cola over ice. The treat agrees, but as soon as mother’s attention transitions from the afternoon dessert, she says, “I want to go shopping; I need new house slippers.” I think, all right. Off we go on the house slipper mission for a second time. I trust intuition and go back to Opulence. This time we secure even better parking and go in the small store without upset or questions about what we are doing. Fortunately, Opulence carries Patricia Green bedroom shoes in mother’s size – soft pale blue. Perfect fit. I make the purchase, unrushed to savor the experience of buying a gift for my mother in real time together.
The best part of the afternoon happens when we return to her “forever” home at the continuing care community. “I love my new slippers,” she says. And she does not give them back to me which sometimes these days she wants to do. These slippers she accepts as hers.
Several days later when I am visiting mother she says, “I better put on my slippers.” Good idea. I ask, “Where did you get these?” She says, “I got them just the other day.” What details she may remember I have little clue. Every other day or so my mother asks about her rings and other jewelry. I say I am keeping all her valuables safe with me. This answer appeases.
My parents were high school sweethearts and married during their senior year at UNC Chapel Hill in 1951. They have a son, and I am one of their three daughters. My mother often asks me, “What does Daddy look like now?” I say, “He is as handsome as ever,” and leave it at that.
LuEllen Huntley, a native North Carolinian from Anson County, currently lives in Southern Pines and teaches at Sandhills Community College. An Associate English Professor Emerita, Dr. Huntley taught at UNC-Wilmington in the English Department for 26 years.