The last time I was on the island, my mother wasn’t dead yet. She was living in a facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and as far as I could tell, for three long years, everyone who worked there tried their best to tend to her multiplying physical and emotional needs.
At first mom was able to walk, haltingly, down the wide hallways, holding onto a chair rail to keep her balance. One time she let go and fell — scraping her knees and bruising her hip — and after that she was confined to a wheelchair and finally a Geri Chair, a version of a wheelchair in which the person lays down rather than sitting up. The last year of her life mom lost her ability to speak and control her bodily functions. She slept most hours of every day. We did not know what, if anything, was going on inside her head, because dementia’s plaques and tangles had ravaged her brain and rendered her mostly unable to communicate. But once in a while her eyes would flutter open, light on one of our faces, and she would smile — and that was enough. She ate less and less as the spring of 2013 grew older, and one night she could no longer swallow. The hospice folks, who have lots of experience witnessing these mysterious things, told us she was “actively dying.” Our family gathered around to hug her, whisper loving things in her ear and let her go. As I touched the cooling skin on her forehead and smoothed the shock of silky white hair above her eyes a final time, I felt peaceful, as if she would somehow always be with me. Continue reading