Apple, table, penny. My mother’s lips move silently as she tries to implant in her brain these words her doctor asked her to remember for 60 seconds. When asked, Millie is clearly proud to recite the words in rapid succession, remembering all three.
She does less well at knowing the year, guessing 1999 (it’s 2003). I am impressed when Millie, asked to tell which season we’re in, says “late summer.” But then she has trouble with the date, guessing May 27 when it’s Aug. 13.
It goes on and on like this. She knows she lives in Salt Lake City but she can’t name the state. The first doctor comes in and Millie says she's been feeling fine. When the next doctor arrives minutes later, Millie says, “I'm better now that I’m over that bout of . . . what did I have?”
This question is directed at me, her only child, her memory. Knowing that she has not been ill, I say back to her, “I don’t know, what did you have?" She replies, “The flu, I guess.”
The smiling nurse asks if Millie would like some apple or orange juice. She doesn’t like orange juice, but like a child crashing her bike into a tree when told, "Don't run into that tree!,” Millie says, “Orange, please.” I say nothing. The nurse brings the juice and steps out of the exam room. Millie sips and makes a face. “What kind of juice is this?” she asks. “Orange,” I reply.
“Well she didn’t tell me she was going to bring me orange,” Millie says.
I have exhausted my repertoire of Things to Say to Millie While Waiting in the Doctor's Office. In reality, it’s a very small repertoire, due to the decline in Millie’s cognitive ability since she began having strokes. As we never did in real life and as we often do now, we fall silent.
“Pretty,” Millie says after a while, smoothing what she must think is a lovely bedspread on the small twin bed in the doctor’s office. In reality, it’s a sheet of heavy paper to keep the blanket underneath clean. On the paper, the design that my mother likes so much is a pattern of big baby blue spots and smart, black lines. It doesn’t register that the pattern is made up of big blue pills emblazoned Pfizer and the black lines are made up of letters spelling out Viagra.
Millie’s snow-white hair reminds me of Albert Einstein’s. If the people who bathe her would just wash her hair and let it dry into little permed curls, it would look fine. But the aides from Mexico and Ethiopia probably have different ideas of how an old woman’s hair should look to begin with, and anyway, they weren’t hired for their styling ability. So these recent immigrants who bathe her, often men at that, part her hair and comb it into a flattish array, frizzing out all the curl, making her look wild.
I try to take these things in stride.
My mother was a very talented, smart-dressing, fun woman. I mourn her passing even though she hasn’t died. Long an accomplished artist across many disciplines, the real Millie designed silver jewelry inset with colorful polished stones, made beautiful quilts, created luminous stained-glass pieces, sewed expertly tailored clothing, sought out and refinished antique furniture, produced outstanding oil paintings, decorated dried gourds with her own designs, and crafted wonderful, one-of-a-kind dolls with handmade faces and impossibly intricate clothes.
Any one of these talents could sustain a person creatively and financially for a lifetime, but Millie needed to always learn something new, and then master it.
My real mother also loved dancing, horseback riding, playing piano, and seeing new places. Seven years ago, my husband Chris and I took Millie for a horseback ride to celebrate her 75th birthday. She was still able to function pretty well in her life then. She was still my mother then. Not long after the three of us set out on the trail on our horses, she delighted Chris and me by insisting we return to the stable for a new horse because hers wasn’t peppy enough.
Now my mom, the smart dresser, the always-totally-put-together woman, is wearing clothes that don’t match. She has no socks on and there’s a huge dent in her ankle where her alarm transmitter always sits. They removed it this morning so that she would not beep when going out the door of the nursing home to the doctor's office. Her shirt isn’t even hers -- it must be her roommate’s -- and it’s covered with coffee stains and gradually drying orange juice.
The doctors find that Millie has a buildup of wax in her right ear that is so severe it is beginning to affect her hearing. I cringe, knowing that what came next last time was a long, mean-looking metal pick that goes way into Millie’s ear and pulls out the clog.
I move to a chair near the pretty blue Viagra bedspread. I hold Millie’s hands, look deep into her cloudy eyes and tell her stories of my childhood that she can’t possibly remember, just trying to fill the time until this is finally over.
Barb Guy is the public relations director for a non-profit organization and is a community volunteer. She lives in Salt Lake City.