“What would you think if we invited mom here for a visit?” Emma asks.
“How would she get here?” I say.
“I’d ask my sister, Lily to fly up with her.”
“How long would she stay?”
“Maybe two weeks. Then I’d fly back to Virginia with her, while you drove down. We’d spend a couple of days with my family and then drive home.”
“This hasn’t been a happy time for her,” I say.
“She’s alone most of the day, every day. With her memory problems and her confusion, life’s been difficult.”
“We have the time. Let’s do it,” I say, nodding.
Emma’ puts the plan into motion. We turn our bedroom into my mother-in-law’s by renting a hospital bed and installing grab bars in the bathroom. Next to the bed, we place a bookcase with the ten books she’s authored.
Besides dealing with vascular dementia, a year ago, Nancy, as I call her, fell and broke her hip and is confined to a wheelchair. Emma takes her to the bedroom and Nancy rolls right up to the bookcase and stares at the titles. “I know what they are,” she says with a smile; “I wrote them didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. They’re all here: your histories of the Shenandoah Valley, the collection of your newspaper columns, and your children’s books.”
“They’re pretty, but I’m not good at reading anymore. Funny what life does to you.” A week later, Nancy asks Emma. “Darling, you’re taking such good care of me. I love you so much,”
“Can I stay?” she asks.
Emma relates her mom’s requests and asks what I think. I reply, “I say yes. I never had a chance to give back to my parents, so this feels like this is my opportunity.”
“I love you. Thank you,” Emma says weeping.
“I love you, too. You’re a good daughter.”
You can’t have breakfast with someone five hundred mornings in a row, without getting to know them. So it was with Nancy and me. Since Emma provided the bulk of caring, I volunteered to get up early and make my mother-in-law breakfast. Because consistency provides an aura of safety for dementia sufferers, I prepared the same spread every day—a bowl of cereal, a porcelain creamer filled with 2% milk, prunes and banana slices, ice water, a cup of coffee, and her pills. “How are you?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” I reply.
She sings to herself as she pours the milk into the cereal bowl. Sometimes it’s “Whenever I Feel Afraid,” other times it’s “Small Fry.” She talks, often repetitively, about her dad, who, during World War II, gave up a thriving medical practice to enlist in the Navy, serving gallantly as the fleet physician in the Pacific theater, or her children and how much they’ve accomplished, or her grandkids and how wonderful they were.
As a music lover, I don’t mind the repetition. After all I’ve listened to some of my favorite songs hundreds of time. Less often, but more poignantly, she shares about the difficult burden she had to endure when she was widowed at fifty, with children yet to raise and the full weight of the financial obligations on her shoulders. Across that table and over that time, I grow to admire and love her.
What’s for Lunch?
“Are we having that food, the one I like?” Nancy asks.
“Which one?” I ask
She thinks for a minute. “It’s got that funny name. It’s like paper and it’s like a triangle.”
“Pizza!” Emma says; “We can heat up a slice of pizza for you.”
“I’d like that. What a funny name.”
“Do you love her?” Nancy asks me while looking at Emma.
“Yes, I do.”
“I thought so.”
Turning to Emma, Nancy asks, “Do you love him?”
“I do, he’s a really good man.”
“I thought so.” She says, as a wide smile creeps across her face.
On January 27, 2014, my journal entry reads: “The biggest news is that Nancy will likely be returning to Virginia. After living with us for fourteen months, she told Emma that she really wants to go home. Lily told her about an assisted living facility in town, where the director of activities was her former high school student.”
Four times at dinner Nancy says, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I miss Virginia.”
Eleven years ago, in a memoir class, Mark Berger found his voice as a writer—knowing what stories to tell and how to tell them. SUNY Press published his first book Something’s Happening Here: A Sixties Odyssey from Brooklyn to Woodstock. Mark starts his days working on new pieces.