Sundowning

Mom at party(Mom in her green polka dot dress)

“Who did your hair?” she said.

“My hair stylist,” I said.

“I don’t like it. The girls are wearing it long these days.”

I removed my headband, as if that would make a difference.

“You’ve gained so much weight,” she said, scrunching up her face.

“I’m sorry my appearance offends you,” I said.

“Oh, everything’s all wrong. Where are my clothes? The clothes in the closet don’t belong to me!” she said, hyperventilating. “What happened to Grandpa’s house?”

“What do you mean? Grandpa in Wisconsin?”

“No, when he lived with Rony.”

“Mom, Grandpa’s been dead for years,” I said.

“But what about my sister? Can’t I go there?”

“Mom, Rony is dead.”

“What?” she said, her face terrified in disbelief.

“She died several years ago. She had a heart condition.”

“I know she had a heart condition, but I didn’t know she died,” she said.

“Yes, she died.”

“Where have you been? You’ve been gone for so long!”

“Mom, I was here two weeks ago.”

“No, you weren’t!”

“Yes, I was. I brought you the bras you asked for.” I pulled them out of a tote bag.

“No, these are all wrong—they’re too big.”

“I got them too big because you said the other ones shrunk in the wash.”

“Oh, they’re all wrong.”

“Okay, Mom, I think I’ll go now. I don’t need this.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try to be quiet,” she said.

“You don’t have to be quiet. Just don’t yell at me.”

“But why were you gone so long?”

“I was here two weeks ago. My office moved—I get home at 7:30 at night. I can only see you on weekends.”

She made a face.

“Where have you been? I’m being poisoned here. The air, the fumes,” she said.

“Is it hot in here?” I said.

“Yes, I think so.”

I asked James the nurse if he could turn on the air conditioning in her room.

“I’m so confused. I didn’t think I’d be here forever. Where did I used to live? They’re killing me here.”

“At Schuyler House, in the Bronx.”

“Schuyler House?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t remember that place. I didn’t think I’d be here forever.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What will become of me? Where will I go?”

“I don’t know, Mom. Rick has the house in Elmira. You’ve seen it.”

“I know that. Stop humoring me,” she said, ramming her wheelchair into the side of her bed frame.

“Dan still lives in the house, and he lives near Greg.”

Dan is my Aunt Rony’s husband; Greg is my cousin.

“Oh, that’s good. He always took care of himself,” Mom said.

“He just turned 90, I think. He goes swimming at the YMCA every day.”

“Yes, he always took care of himself. I’m happy to hear this.”

“Make sure you tell him about my performances at the Actors Home. I want them to know where I am.”

“Which performances?”

“I’m doing Anastasia,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll tell him.”

“Do you want to go for a spin?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, hyperventilating.

“Do you want something to calm you down?”

“Yes, I have some valium somewhere.”

“In the medicine cabinet?” I said.

“Yes, I think so.”

“You can take some after dinner,” I said.

“Okay.”

I told the nurse James* that Mom was having a hard time.

“Can Mom get a sedative?” I asked.

“It’s sundowning,” James said. “It happens around this time.”

It was about 4:30 p.m.

“Let’s go into the garden,” James said. “Come on, Katherine.”

Mom laughed.

I wheeled her out into the garden, James opening the door to the outside world.

“Mom, do you want your coffee?” I said.

“Yes, please.”

“I’ll bring it,” James said.

“And can you bring me a glass of water?” I said.

“Sure,” he said.

“It was about time I had a nervous breakdown,” Mom said, laughing. “Why don’t they show Lust for Life? They keep having it up on the bill.”

“I don’t know, Mom.”

“Would you lay out some clothes for me for tomorrow? I can’t find the polka dot dress I love so much.”

“What color was it?” I said.

“Green polka dots and white background.”

“I’ll try to find it or I’ll get you another,” I said.

I’m watching Terms of Endearment. I never liked it when I was younger, but I do now. I never appreciated the relationship between the mother (Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (Debra Winger), the closeness between them.

I guess I didn’t have that type of relationship with my mom, but it was still a relationship. So much of the time I felt like I was her mother, her nurse, her therapist. Sometimes I think she resented me for it. But it’s who I was schooled to be—the caretaker.

I know I can’t fix Mom. I can’t make her not have Alzheimer’s. I can’t make her remember her sister died or she no longer has a house to live in. I do what I can.

*Note: pseudonym used.

Are You in the House?

me-and-mom-outside-building

(Mom and me on East 27th Street, New York City)

Are you in the house?

That’s what Mom asked me yesterday when we spoke on the phone. I haven’t seen her since Easter Saturday, and was calling to let her know I wouldn’t be visiting this weekend. I’m feeling under the weather.

“Are you in the house?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m in the house,” I said.

“How are you feeling, Mom?”

“I’m alright.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking care of things in the house,” she said.

I was wondering which house she meant. Did she think we were living in the same house now? Was it the house where she grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin?  Was it the fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City where I was born, or the apartment building on Junction Boulevard that was converted into a Jack in the Box and made the Lunney family, with their 10 kids, homeless? Was it the house we rented in Jackson Heights–the last house we lived together as a family? Was it the apartment she lived in in the Bronx before Lorin and I packed up her things and moved her into the nursing home?

What is a house, after all, but a place to lay one’s head. Or was it home Mom was speaking of? A place where family gathers, and hopefully, love makes its presence known.

It’s often hard to know what she means. That’s part of the Alzheimer’s. I interpret what she’s saying much of the time or try not to question at all, to let it be.

“How are the tulips?” I asked.

“They died, dear,” she said.

Why did I even ask? Of course they were dead after two weeks.

“What about the lilacs?” she said.

“They’re not out yet. They come out in May. I’ll bring you some then.”

“Okay. (pause) Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” she said.

“I’m at home. I’m not feeling well and didn’t want to get you sick,” I said.

“Oh.”

“I’ll see you next week, Mom.”

“Oh, okay.”

She sounded deflated. I felt I had let her down. But I can’t be there all the time.

“I’ll see you soon,” I said.

“Okay. See you soon.”

What does house / home mean to you?