She’s jumping in all the puddles, my mother-in-law.
It’s an odd sight. This straight and steadfast woman I’ve known for 30 years, ambling along the road, spying a puddle and doggedly heading straight for it.
‘Watch out!’ I yell.
But too late, she’s jumped in with both feet. Now she’s falling, falling through to some black hole beyond. I imagine she feels like she’s drowning. Sometimes I feel I am too.
‘Come on back,’ I say, reaching down to rescue her with calm words about the familiar. Right now, it doesn’t take much, a simple re-direction that reminds me of toddler taming and child raising.
She’s 80 years old (one of the many things that confuses her.
‘Am I?’ she asks, when I comment on the milestone. ‘How long am I 80 for?’
‘One year, until January, your next birthday,’ I reply.
‘But when was my last birthday?’
‘The January just gone,’ I say, and on it goes. (This puddle is a deep one).
The first red flag was not an ailing memory.
Oh sure, grandchildren’s names were mixed up, her three sons and their wives’ names didn’t fare better. Hastily-scrawled notes decorated the kitchen bench, the when, the who, the what of tomorrow’s day laid out. Still, who doesn’t like to be organised?
Confusion, despite her organisation, was our first real heads up.
The car, a familiar staple in her independence following Dad’s death from cancer 10 years prior, became her Rubik’s cube: How do I get the windows up? I’ve got the indicators on but they’re not clearing the rain from the front screen. Which gear is reverse? Then the car key wouldn’t unlock the front door to her house, much to her frustration.
Family had long stopped driving with her, something we laughed about at the time. Now it gives me chills. How close was an accident before we made the enormous decision to make her stop?
It happened like this. One Saturday morning, her long-time friend phoned me and said, ‘We need to meet and talk about Mum.’
I turned to my husband. Few words were needed.
‘It’s happening,’ I said.
‘This is it,’ he said.
And so it started, this meandering road of muddy puddles, each hole beckoning Mum, swallowing her whole then – for now – spitting her back out. Do I imagine a slither less of her returning each time?
We knew dementia was there. Of course we did. But who’s going to be the first, the brave one, to say that word out loud to a still lucid woman whose defences were already on high alert because – she also suspected. Of course she did.
Diagnosis was a tricky beast. My husband and I went for openness and an honesty I define as ‘blurred’ (who needs the stark truth, when the sharp edges of it hurt?) White lies, little lies, omission of the entirety. Sometimes kindness is in what we don’t say if we don’t have to.
‘I went to the doctor for a general check up and he took my driver’s licence off me for no good reason.’ Mum was distraught and wailed about this for weeks. ‘He had no right!’
‘Mum,’ we’d reply with a calmness we didn’t always feel, ‘He suggested you don’t drive because your memory is getting worse and driving has become dangerous.’
This particular puddle involved lots of huffing and puffing and a level of distress bordering on existential. ‘Why am I even here?’ ‘My life is ruined!’ ‘I have nothing left in my life!’
Then suddenly that puddle dried up – it isn’t one she falls down anymore.
Once we had a diagnosis, we were able to look back without fear and see all the tiny stuff we, and she, chose to ignore.
The times she got lost driving the car, and how she used all lanes on the road to get there. The creeping difficulty she had keeping up with the rules of her weekly card games, and the simple exercises of her twice-weekly aerobics classes, groups she’d been attending for 20 years. Trouble figuring out what goes where in the recycling bins, wearing her watch upside down, insisting it was broken, and the Roman numerals on the old wall clock becoming indecipherable. Hand washing dishes because the dishwasher got tricky, and the same with the oven and cook top and washing machine.
Mum, once a superbly talented crafter, had given up an embroidery group several months before, following a ‘falling out’. With a start, I saw that for what it probably was. Her friends had seen this, and confronted it, well before us.
Diagnosis was a relief. We had a reason for the odd behaviour and subtle changes in personality.
A toothbrush wrapped in a paper bag, inexplicably dampened with water, sits next to expired yoghurt and curdled milk in the fridge. A small foot stool is being used as a fruit bowl. Turned upside down it serves that function better than I’d expect.
She doesn’t sleep well. She flutters around the house, a moth drawn to any light. The street lamp peeking through the front window curtains, a slither of moon and bright stars out a side window. The stark LED lights on kitchen appliances draw her attention, as do stray headlights from cars passing by.
Her ability to ride out inconveniences – the cold, hunger, pain – has gone. The resilience we admire in her generation is slipping as neediness sets in.
Here’s what’s good for now. Mum, a traditional and wonderful wife, mother and housekeeper, a woman guided by her Christian faith and servant’s heart, has a compliant nature and is happy – more so now – for others to make choices for her. This makes her easy company. She loves to eat out and has forgotten her list of dislikes. Everything is now on the menu. Indian curry, Asian stir-fry, Mexican tacos, Italian pasta, her own kitchen has never been this adventurous!
She’s forgetting to eat and also forgetting how much she loves to eat and it’s led to the weight loss she’s dreamed of her entire adult life. No more diets!
Also, I’m learning that my patience, which I have an abundance of, is not endless. I’m learning that boundaries aren’t cruel, especially when they’re necessary. We’re all learning the power of family and value of personality strengths; everyone can play a part if others let them.
There’s a constant thrum of low-grade panic in her voice these days. It’s becoming harder to distract her from obsessing over menial worries.
‘Stop’ I want to yell, ‘mind the puddle!’
She jumps anyway.