We had no clue my mother-in-law, Barbara, was far along into vascular dementia until the death of her husband, the first submariner to win the Medal of Honor and live to tell the tale. He downplayed her symptoms, while we attributed them to her bottomless glass of gin.
The day after his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, we noticed half of her face sagged and she slurred her words at breakfast time. We rushed her to Naval Medical Center, where she already had a file eight inches thick. “She had an infarct, not her first, and you can expect more,” they told us. A week later, the hospital sent Barbara home with facial symmetry restored. “Just give it time” became our mantra. Over time, our mantra assumed a dual meaning.
We were committed to keeping Barbara in her own home. We got her an emergency call button for her to wear on a lanyard around her neck. She’d grown up in a military family, and was readily compliant with wearing the button. However, when she fell in the bathroom, she dragged herself to the phone instead of pressing it. Slowly, we had to rein her in. When wandering yard workers bilked her for $700 for two hours of unneeded work, we took away her checkbook. Soon after, we took away the car keys because she couldn’t find her way around the neighborhood.
At least weekly, she called at around 3 a.m. saying she felt pressure in her chest and couldn’t get back to sleep. Twice my wife Ginger drove over. At least twice Barbara called an ambulance. Quickly, we settled into a pattern: I took her calls and talked her through brewing tea, taking sips, strolling around the house, practicing her breathing exercises. By the end, soothed, she was ready to get back into bed.
By day, Barbara still hid out in her sunroom tending her plants and painting in oils or acrylics. In high school, she’d adopted painting as a form of creative solitude. It served her well during long periods when her father or, later, her husband was away at sea for weeks and months on end. She liked painting children, seascapes, and still lifes of random objects, like a pewter mug, a clump of lilies, and a photo of a ballerina. She developed particular facility in painting clouds and waves, but my favorite is of a tiger whose stripes serve as camouflage in the surrounding brush.
After a year, we brought in a succession of health aides to stay by day, still leaving her to her own devices at night. That did nothing to deter the increasing frequency of 3 a.m. phone calls. After another year, we added a night shift responsible for managing her 3 a.m. anxiety attacks. We received fewer calls after that, but they didn’t stop.
After five years, it was overwhelmingly evident to me and Ginger that Barbara needed to be moved to an assisted living facility. Her painting showed it too because she’d lost all sense of perspective. Ginger’s three siblings claimed this amounted to “putting Mom away.” All three lived elsewhere so they didn’t see what we saw. The tide turned after an out-of-town family reunion, where Barbara shared a hotel room with the most diligent of her daytime caregivers. One night, she snuck out of her hotel room and the hotel staff caught her in the lobby in the act: measuring curtains for a dress she planned to make, reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara. Frantic calls to every guest sharing her last name broadcast her adventures far and wide. After that, we had no trouble reaching consensus that Barbara had to be moved.
The assisted living tried to demonstrate to the families of prospective residents that people there lead full lives and continue to pursue their interests. After Barbara moved in, they liked to display her paintings—ones she painted long before moving there—in the hallways and in exhibit cases. Regularly, they coaxed Barbara to put on her blue smock and walk to the arts and crafts room to “do some painting.” In her first year, Barbara managed to complete one painting, which she gifted to one of the nurses. A seascape, it looked like a stripped-down Grandma Moses in its flagrant disregard for perspective. That was her last, but they continued to coax her to paint, or at least to wear her smock, and her paintings stayed on display as, “paintings by resident Barbara.”
Her decline in memory was slow, but inexorable. She stayed in assisted living for over six years, doubling the facility’s record. By year two, she had no clue who I was, but could still recognize and name her four children. In year four, I asked her one day where her husband was. She answered, “Up in heaven.” So, I asked, “Have you heard from him lately?” She fired back, “The mail service isn’t that good here.” Undeterred, I asked who she was voting for in an upcoming election. She answered, “I’ve forgotten lots of things but one thing I remember, I am not a Democrat.” In year five, she called my wife “the daughter,” but didn’t remember her name. In year six, she told my wife she looked “familiar,” but no longer knew their relationship. Shown a picture of her husband, half the time she said it was her father, though given enough guesses, she usually got it right.
Early in year seven, she suffered a massive heart attack, was hospitalized, and became non-responsive. We moved her to a nursing home. While it’s unclear whether she became “rehabilitated” in terms of the Medicare-supported goals for treatment, something magical happened. Expecting she was about to die, we called our son home from college for a long goodbye. Instead, he got the last picture show.
Silent until now, Barbara relished the homegrown tomatoes with fresh basil we brought her. Working her way around it, she was obviously reaching to remember “tomato.” Finally, in a moment of uncontrolled glee, she said, “If somebody tasted tomatoes for the first time and had never eaten them before, they would be so excited, they’d probably never want to eat anything else for the rest of their lives.” She drank a peach drink and admired one of the peaches we brought. She greatly preferred the darker one, with a deep rusty red color on almost its entire surface. “I love peaches,” she declared.
The next day, we brought another peach, similar in color. She said, “I don’t know how that tennis ball got on this ship,” adding moments later, “my husband’s somewhere on this ship, but I don’t know where he is, and I haven’t seen him for a long time. I’d sure like to see him for a change.” Over eleven years had elapsed since his death.
Soon Barbara burst out with, “I’m so glad to see you. You are the very best of friends. The two of you brought me back to life.” Ginger said, “We enjoy seeing you too.” I was determined she’d call the peach, “peach.” I placed it in her hand. She inspected all parts of it, moved it to the other hand, called it a tennis ball again, and returned it to me.
I asked, “Is this a watermelon?” Barbara answered, “I’ve never walked into a watermelon.” I asked, “Is this a banana?” She answered, “It looks like one, but it sure doesn’t bounce like one.” I asked, “Can you tell me what this is?” She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against her head. Finally, she opened her eyes and said, “Why, it’s a rose!” I said, “It’s not a rose, those are roses,” pointing to a bouquet of drooping yellow roses on the bookcase. Following my pointing finger to the bouquet, she said, “And they came back to say hello to you.”
Outside in the hall, two dogs barked. Barbara said, “I’ve been trying to find someone who can tell me what’s going on.” I gave her back the peach. She held it endearingly in both hands, her fingers exploring its entire surface many times. “This is the most very special tennis ball because of the way you can hold it and it feels so comfortable.” Caressing the tennis ball, she continued, “It reminds me of when I was on a ship and all the officers were giving me the hardest time and told me I was a little girl.”
Ginger left the room. Barbara asked me, “Did she go to have her feet done?” I told her that, yes, she had. Throughout the visit, Barbara had been sipping a strawberry drink we brought her. Suddenly, she handed it back and said, “I’m tired. Let me lie down.” As we were saying goodbye, she said, “Sometimes in the shyest place you find what you always wanted and it was there all along.” We said “Goodbye, see you tomorrow,” to which she said, “Do what you want. Always do what you really want.”
That was Barbara’s final rally. She lasted for three and a half months more before giving up the ship. The last time I heard her speak was the week before she died, nearly out of steam. Several times “Heavy” resounded deeply in her throat. She said, “I can’t get.” She was very clear about that. When I repeated it, she nodded emphatically, and again said, “I can’t get.” At one point, Ginger and our daughter each held one of her hands. She squeezed them and said, “Hugs.” Somehow, she found, “I love you.” Asked if she’d like some gin, which she hadn’t touched in seven years, she said, “I could use some of that.”
Days later, in hospice care, she rested in her bed at the nursing home. Ginger held one of her hands; older sister Joan held the other. A nurse whispered Hawaiian lullabies, transporting Barbara back to her birthplace. Ginger claims that, as Barbara took one final breath, with a smile on her face, her chest filled, she squeezed both hands tight, and her spirit almost visibly rose.
When I think of the 27 years I knew Barbara, what jumps to mind isn’t her last hurrah, but her first: the day Ginger took me home to “meet the parents.” When the night was done, Barbara escorted us out to Ginger’s car. Walking, she recited a ditty that ended, “Shake me, and wake me, and make me, God damn it.”
Cover image courtesy of Patrick MacDonald via Flickr
Previously published in ‘Meat For Tea’