Mom, now 86, is still physically robust. Granted, she’s unsteady on stairs and can’t lift anything heavier than a magazine or cup of tea, but her appetite is great. She even enjoys a glass or two of wine with dinner. Mom had always been cheerful and optimistic, too. And she still is. But her mind is slowly, but surely, fading away – lost in the encroaching fog of dementia.
When her short-term memory first started to fail, she would become agitated because she knew she had once remembered the name of that green stuff on her plate, and was frustrated at finding herself unable to identify it as broccoli. But as she slid deeper into decline, she found peace because the fact of how much she actually used to know was itself a lost memory.
We first noticed Mom’s dementia when she moved in with us a few years after Dad died. She insisted on cooking dinner, but routinely boiled vegetables until they were liquefied, and added so much butter to mashed potatoes that they were the color of daffodils. Once or twice every week, she would completely boil away all the water in the pot, and leave the vegetables cooking until they burnt onto the bottom of the pan.
Once it became clear she couldn’t handle cooking dinner anymore, we started telling her it was “cook’s day off,” and that we would prepare dinner for her – or buy takeout. Whatever. Just so she wasn’t tempted to put food in pots and fire up the burners.
But although we told her she couldn’t cook dinner, we figured it was O.K. for her to make her own tea. I would make sure the kettle was full of water before I left in the morning to ensure she wouldn’t put the flame under an empty pot. This worked reasonably well for a while, but then one Saturday I discovered her at the table drinking a glass of cold, whitish water.
“What are you doing, Ma?”
“Having a cup of tea, what do you think?”
“There’s no teabag. And it’s not hot.”
“Oh. Must’ve forgot,” she shrugged, and drank the milky water anyway.
Then one afternoon my son came downstairs, and the house reeked of gas. He discovered a full kettle on the stove with the burner turned on full blast, but no flame. He shut off the gas, opened all the windows, and found Nana in her room off the kitchen, fast asleep.
The next level: We taped a handwritten sign at eye level over the stove that read, “STOVE BROKEN, DO NOT USE.” We would reinstall the knobs in the evening so we could use the burners to make dinner, but leave the sign up for the next day to avoid having to re-tape it over and over. The combination of the missing knobs and the explicit sign convinced Mom that the stove was off limits.
After a few days, however, she grew impatient – and she wasn’t stupid.
“The sign says the stove’s broken,” Mom said as she watched me sauteing onions for
“Yeah, Mom – it is. I just managed to get this burner working for now.”
“It’s been busted a while now.”
I silently stirred, hoping the conversation would end there.
“Public Service’ll fix that, you know. Give em a call.”
“I did call – they haven’t come yet,” I lied.
“Goddamn PSE&G. They make you pay enough. They can’t come when you call?”
“Damn those utility companies. Hey, how about a glass of wine?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she laughed.
Mom is now living with my sister where she can be supervised all day, and her decline continues. Because of her good nature, she’s going cheerful into that good night. But like the Cheshire Cat, she’s fading out, and soon all that’s left will be her smile.