We moved my mom this week. The large assisted-living facility where she's spent the last few years was no longer a good fit. After a lot of searching, my brother, Jean-Paul, his wife, Tracy, and I found what seems to be a good board-and-care. A board-and-care, for those of you blessedly ignorant of the world of elder-care, is a private home that has four to six residents (I want to say "inmates" but I'll refrain). There are more care-givers per person; the care tends to be more personal and, hopefully, better. The one we found, and here it should be said that it was Tracy doing ninety percent of the research, is clean, friendly and somehow even smells good.
It is very difficult to move an Alzheimers patient. Not physically, generally speaking, but emotionally. My mother's world has shrunk. The only truly familiar element of her life is the room where she was living. We took her out of that room and brought her to a new one. She was understandably jarred.
We moved her on Tuesday. I met my brother at the new place, where he was sitting on the new bed with my mom. She was conveying as respectfully as she could - she still worships my brother, even if she's not always clear that he's her son - that she would like to go back to her room now. My brother, as gently as possible, and he is a gentle man, was telling her that this was now her room. She wasn't having it.
Eventually one of the Filipino care-givers brought in a cup of tea and some Chips Ahoy. My mother brightened. Soon she was chomping happily on cookies as I showed her some of the family photos Tracy had brought over from the old place.
It wasn't a surprise that a sweet treat could lift her mood. She, like me, has a great love of dessert. I read, while we were preparing to adopt Mihiretu, that if a person entering a new situation consumes sugar (particularly a child and what is my mother now if not a child?), they are more likely to have positive feelings associated with that new place or set of people. Yay, Chips Ahoy.
As she ate, Jean-Paul and I told her stories about the people in the pictures. She looked closely at an old snapshot of herself, a four-year-old Margaret, long legs and uncertain smile. "That's you, Mom," I said, carefully holding the frame close to her face. "When you were a child."
"I was a child?" she asked earnestly. It did seem unlikely, even to me, that the girl in the sepia print could be the faded, collapsed woman before me.
Still munching, she launched into her happy talk, telling us what wonderful children we were, what wonderful people we have become.
She gritted her teeth and declared, "Altogether, altogether, altogether!" She clapped her hands with each word.
She leaned over her cookies towards me and said, eyes wide and fervent, "You were the best one I ever had!"
I glanced sideways at my brother. "No offense," I said.
"Oh," he said, laughing, "She said I was the best one before you got here."
The joy of the cookies could only last so long. Soon we were making our way to the living-room where the other three inmates/residents, were propped in their wheelchairs, staring vacantly at the Tina Turner concert on the giant TV. I sat with my mother on the couch. She looked warily at her compatriots.
"These aren't the old peoples," she said, suspicious. "These are new peoples."
"Well, yeah, Mom," I said, gesturing to an elderly woman in a blue sweat-suit trying to scoot across the floor by shuffling her slippered feet in front of her wheelchair. "That's Lola, your new friend."
"That blue thing?" my mother said, her lip curling in distaste. "Shitty."
Over the last year, my formally reserved and polite mother has become obsessed with poop. The care in the last place was light on hygiene, which might have a lot to do with it. She has always been meticulous and lately she has been frequently soiled and unable to help herself. And so, when the pendulum has swung negative, everything for her is "shitty" and "crappy". This from the woman whom, until the last few years, only once uttered "shit" in my presence, when she had stalled her old Mercury Zephyr on the hill below our house when we were late to school.
Now my mother had shifted her focus to Tina Turner.
"What is that?" she asked, pointing a wobbly finger at the sequined, seventy-year-old Tina, and her younger but equally sequined dancers. "It's shit," she said, answering her own question.
Sensing that the living-room wasn't her happy place, I got her up and we took a walk into the kitchen. There we met Elvie, the woman who runs the place, also Filipino, tiny and kind. Jean-Paul came in from taking a work call on his cellphone and after my mom introduced him to Elvie as her husband, we explained (not for the first time) that this was Elvie's house, that she did all the cooking, that she worked very hard.
"That must hurt her bottom," my mother observed cheerfully. My brother and I hid our smiles behind our hands as Elvie explained how she loved working with elders, how the Filipino culture reveres older generations. She said that she couldn't care for her own parents, that they were still in the Philippines, but she could give all the love she had to the people that lived in her house. My mother remarked that she was very kind. It did feel gratifying that maybe my mother has landed with a person who is as kind and giving as she once was herself. Karma's got to pay off sometime, right? And time is running out for Margaret.
As I left that day, as I've left every day since, the first gulp of air as I shut the front door behind me was so sweet. Not because it smells bad inside, quite the opposite. It's akin to how I felt when I was sixteen, leaving my parents' house on a fragrant June evening, the keys to the Zephyr in my hand and my newly minted drivers' license in my pocket, knowing that I was free - of them, yes, but also free to go out into the world, to explore, to live my own life separate from them, if only for a few hours. I walk out of Elvie's house and with that first breath, I know that I am not an inmate, of that house, of my own mind. I, at least until my body comes to claim me, am deliciously free.