There was a cake with my mother's name spelled out in buttercream, small gifts and a song. The guests included 20 men and women suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia who lived in the secure wing of my mother's new home — a nicely appointed assisted living facility with art on the walls, gentle hands, crafts and music.
After my mother started a fire in her hilltop wood-and-glass house, locked her caregiver out of the bathroom and began pushing dollar bills through the paper shredder, my brother and I surrendered to the concept of assisted living. My mother's advanced degree in economics from Columbia University could not prevent the dizzying loss of memory she experienced in her 90s.
My mother once loved politics, intellectual argument and poetry. She founded a literary magazine in 1980 that survived for 13 years. The centerpiece of our Midcentury Modern family room was not the fireplace or the television but a massive dictionary perched on a library-style pedestal.
At first glance, assisted living is eerily similar to dorm life, but with adult diapers, cans of Ensure and inappropriate outbursts. Apartment doors display sepia photos of past lives as professors, socialites and military leaders.
Because my mother was so disoriented, her transition to assisted living was oddly easy. Our once-contrarian mother happily joined in on singalongs and field trips to the sculpture garden. But her encyclopedic vocabulary withered, and after 10 months, her small body slumped in a big padded wheelchair.
When my mother's weight dropped to 88 pounds, my brother and I made yet another harrowing decision: hospice. We met with social workers and nurses whose sole function was to provide comfort and dignity. There would be no more scary trips to the ER, no more ambivalence about the wisdom and morality of Medicare keeping an entirely helpless, bewildered human being alive.
As we began to make peace with the idea that death was imminent, a funny thing happened — my mother started to eat. Always a purist, she had shunned artificial flavorings and preservatives since the advent of food labeling. She once wrote a furious letter to Manischewitz after suspecting they had changed their gefilte fish recipe and polluted the only Passover tradition she honored, leading to a paper trail that involved the Food and Drug Administration as well as 12 free jars of inedible fish.
But while on hospice, my mother forgot entirely who she was and ate hot dogs and French fries for the first time in 40 years. I slowly accepted that the mother I knew was gone. After six months of salt, nitrates and saturated fat, she no longer weighed 88 pounds and therefore no longer qualified for hospice care.
Gathered around her wheelchair in celebration of her 95th birthday, I carefully wiped traces of lavender frosting from my mother's face while my brother held her hand. Someone in the room asked what she wanted for her birthday. "Just exactly this," she whispered.
Apparently she's not completely gone after all.
Peggy Stacy is a writing tutor in Pacific Palisades and volunteers as an essay coach at a public high school.
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