Thanksgiving with Mom and The Tijuana Brass

11:50 a.m. Thursday, November 26. It would be a quiet holiday. Just me and Mom at the Actors Home for their annual Thanksgiving Day lunch.

I was nervous about seeing her. A little over four weeks had elapsed since her TIAs or mini strokes. I was afraid to see her further altered, especially after the dreams I’ve been having: dreams of Mom dying. I’d wake up thinking, “It would be a blessing if she went in her sleep,” just as she used to say. After the momentary relief and positive self-talk, the anxiety and sadness would creep in. My heart skipped a few beats.

When I arrived, her aide “L” said she wasn’t ready yet. I waited and spoke with a couple of the nurses and aides; we wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. They thanked me for coming.

I saw one of the family members I know with her Mom. She was wearing a royal blue sweater and a silver brooch, her snowy hair swirled in a meringue-y bun.

“You look beautiful!” she said to her mother. She thanked the aide for dressing her so nicely, and she and her family walked toward the elevator.

L wheeled Mom out and said with his usual beaming smile, “Here she is!”

“Hi, Mom, you look so pretty in pink.” She was wearing her pink and beige print dress with a pale pink sweater.

“Thank you, L,” I said. “Why don’t you come with us to lunch?”

“I wish I could,” he said.

I was afraid Mom might freak out as she sometimes does in crowds, and away from her comfort zone. I made a mental note not to reserve a spot for us at the Christmas party this year. Last year she behaved very badly, so we ended up leaving early. I was hurt and disappointed.

Don’t be negative, don’t be negative, Erica. Take a deep breath.

We arrived on the first floor and I wheeled her into the lunch room. Tables were decorated with a trio of autumn-colored balloons tied to a paperweight of some kind. A paper “HAPPY THANKSGIVING’ sign and several paper cornucopias decorated the walls. Rod Stewart singing “The Nearness of You” piped through the speakers.

A friendly bespectacled man in a polo shirt with a clipboard asked our names and escorted us to a table near the window—sun streaming in, you could feel the heat.

“It’s warm today, Mom, about 62 degrees,” I said.

“Really?” she said, smiling.

“Should we get our own drinks?” I asked one of the women holding a pitcher of cider.

“No, someone will take your order,” she said.

“Okay, thank you.”

“Mom, do you recognize this song?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling even more brightly.

“It’s Rod Stewart.”

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a rock singer, but he sings standards too.”

“Mmm,” she said.

“Would you like some apple cider?” a young woman asked us.

“No, thank you,” said Mom.

“What do you want?”

“Oh, anything.”

“Ginger ale?”

“Okay.”

“Ginger ale for her, and coke for me and some water,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I can feel the heat,” she said, closing her eyes.

“Yes, like a spring day.”

The next song that came on was “Tijuana Taxi” by Herb Alpert. Wow, that brought back memories of Jackson Heights. Mom and Dad had that album when my brother and I were kids.

“Mom, Tijuana Taxi!” I said.

“Oh.”

“Remember, Herb Alpert? We had the album.”

“Oh, we did?”

“Yes.”

I don’t think she remembered, but she smiled anyway. If only I had the album cover.

The nice man with the clipboard was going table to table with a camera.

“May I take your picture?” he said.

“Sure, but first would you take one on my phone first? It’s been ages since we’ve taken a picture together.”

I handed him my iPhone and showed him how. He already knew.

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“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome.” He took a photo of us with his camera. I wonder where the photos would be displayed.

I need the memories.

Mom stared at her plate.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I said.

“Yes, I have plenty.”

She scooped up some turkey and stuffing with a soup spoon.

“Would you like me to help you?” I said, bringing a forkful of food to her lips.

“No, this is easier.” She preferred the spoon.

I wasn’t that hungry either.

At about 1:30 I asked Mom if she wanted to go back to her room.

“No, I like it here. I like the sun.”

“Okay, we’ll stay awhile longer.”

And I was so afraid she’d make a scene or be unhappy. It seems I was the anxious one.

Rod Stewart started singing “S’Marvelous” over the loud speakers.

“Mom, you know that one.”

I started to sing along.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

The Help

hospital staff

Otis Historical Archives

“Do you know where Dorothy is?” she asked me. The Woman was a petite brunette, about 5’3”, tanned, gold jewelry bedecking her neck and wrists.

“I think she’s with one of the residents,” I said. Mom and I were taking our usual “spins” (Mom’s term) around the floor.

“My mom needs her medicine, and I need to find her,” she said.

“I’ll let you know if I see her. Did you speak with the doctor?” I said, pointing to the doctor who periodically does paperwork at the nurse’s station.

“No, forget him, he’s no help,” she said.

Lucy shuffled up to the Woman. “Do you know how to get to the downstairs elevator?” she said.

“I’m not one of the staff,” she said, seemingly mortified. Then she stomped off to her mother’s room.

Lucy is a resident at the Actors Home. She is rail-thin with salt and pepper kinky hair cinched into a tight pony tail. She asks everyone, repeatedly throughout the day, where the downstairs elevator is.

I tell her, “I don’t know where it is. I only take the upstairs elevator.”

I don’t believe there even is a downstairs one, and Lucy’s not allowed to take the elevator unless escorted by a nurse or an aide. The elevator can only be accessed with a key fob.

Dorothy appeared.

“Hi, Erica, good to see you. Hi, Katherine,” she said.

“Good to see you too. A woman was looking for you. She said her mom needs her medicine.”

The Woman came out of her mother’s room.

“There you are. I can never find any of you people. Mom needs her medicine,” she said.

“Okay, give me a minute,” Dorothy said and went to attend to another resident. It was 4 o’clock, and she had just started her shift.

The Woman said to me, “I can’t believe it, how rude and disrespectful she is,” and huffed off.

I heard The Woman in her mother’s room continuing, “They disrespect me. Nobody listens in this place—nurses, aides, all the same. How dare she speak to me like that!”

Her voice was rising in pitch and agitation. I can’t imagine it’s good for her mother to listen to her rantings, especially since she has dementia. I doubt she understands what her daughter is saying.

“She seems upset,” I said to Mom, and we continued our spin.

Dorothy returned to the nurse’s station. “What’s wrong with her?” I said.

“I don’t know. I think she needs the meds, not her mom.” We exchanged a smile.

Dorothy walked into the room, and The Woman said,” You say ‘okay’ and just walk away from me? I’m tired of being disrespected. Every time I come here, I get treated like this. It is unacceptable.”

I heard Dorothy trying to calm her down.

“Somebody’s upset,” my mom said.

“It seems so.”

By the way, the nursing home where my mother resides is one of the best, if not the best in the country. I have found the nurses and aides to be uniformly exceptional—caring, hard-working, and attentive to the residents.

So what was The Woman’s problem? She acted as if Dorothy was part of her personal “staff.” Perhaps she fancies herself a Kardashian or a person of great import who feels entitled to dump on “the help.” I would have liked to see Dorothy put her in her place, but I guess that wouldn’t be following protocol. What BS.

I have used pseudonyms for the staff and residents.

The Bow

As I wheeled Mom towards the day room, Raymond swept his arm across his waist and bent his head slightly in a bowing gesture. Then he started to whistle.

“I can’t do it,” he said, only whistling for a moment.

“It’s not so easy to do,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

He smiled brightly at me as Mom and I moved towards the day room / dining room.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“In there,” I said, and he followed us.

I sat next to Mom at her designated dining table.

Raymond looked at us, smiling, “It’s lovely – this,” and he continued on towards other tables.

Raymond was a professional dancer. The daughter of another resident witnessed the bow and said, “He’s a real gentleman.”

“Yes, he is,” I said.

I can’t remember the last time a man bowed to me. It’s not something that happens every day, especially not in the 21st century.

One of the nurses told me Raymond used to dance with Fred Astaire.

He also likes to go from room to room. When he enters Mom’s room sometimes, he asks, “Is this okay?”

I tell him yes.

I wish I knew what he was trying to say. It’s the same way I feel about Mom.

“Mom, I was in the doctor’s office the other day and you know what he had?” I said.

“No,” she said.

“Pussy willows. Remember them?”

“No.”

As a kid, I marveled at the furry texture of the bud;, they seemed half-animal / half-plant to me.  Where did Mom find such a miraculous creation? 

“They have a long thick stem and little oval blossoms that are silky like kittens. You used to bring them home and put them in a vase,” I said.

“I don’t remember,” she said.

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photo by Liz West

Sometimes I wish she would.

 

*Pseudonyms are used for all residents and staff at the Actors Home.

Death Is Not Sexy

The Super Bowl is sexy. Well, at least the Victoria’s Secret commercials and some of the halftime entertainment are, from what I’ve heard. I don’t watch it (sorry), so I don’t know. Death is not sexy.

I haven’t seen my mom in a couple weeks due to the death of my father-in-law and being sick myself, but I spoke to her last night at around 8 p.m. She was in a state.

I don’t like it when she’s in “a state.” Most of the time she seems fairly serene, even content and happy. On other occasions, she is lucid and questions her life and how she’s living.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not well,” she said, a faint moan in her voice.

“What’s wrong?”

“Everything. I can’t get anything done. What will become of me?”

“What happened, Mom?”

“I can’t get ready for bed. What kind of life is this? I’d rather be dead.”

“I’m sorry you’re upset, Mom.”

“What’s going to happen to me? I can’t do anything, can’t go anywhere.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

I had no words of wisdom to impart. I agreed with everything she said. What kind of life was this?

“What about the grahams?” she said.

“I’m bringing you the cookies this weekend.”

“Are you sure? Are you really coming?”

“Yes, I’ll be there.”

“It’s been such a long time.”

“Lorin’s father died, then I was very sick last weekend. I didn’t want to get you sick.”

“Oh, right. But you will come this weekend?” Pain in her voice.

“Yes, I promise. I’m sorry you feel so bad. Is there anything good on 13?”

“No, nothing but junk—ads.”

“Oh. There’s still snow on the ground. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, I always like that.”

“It’s going to snow tonight into tomorrow morning, they said.”

“Oh, that’ll be good.”

She loved shoveling snow when we lived in Jackson Heights. I have a photo of her shoveling on the stoop, cheeks flushed and smiling.

“Okay, Mom. Try to get some sleep. I’ll see you in a couple days.”

“Okay, good night, dear.”

She still sounded awful. I didn’t provide any comfort and felt utterly helpless and sad.

She lives at The Actors Home in the Enhanced (Alzheimer’s) Unit, with fellow performing artists. It’s the best place she could possibly be. But I don’t like bearing witness to her pain and suffering.

Jeffory Morshead wrote a bestselling book called Alzheimer’s: The Long Goodbye (The Emotional Aspects of Caregiving). That is what it is: a long death, not a speedy, graceful one. There are different qualities of “good nights” and goodbyes. Last night was not a good one.

Momma glamour shot
Mom as a young actress (photo by Joe Ratke)

Besame Mucho

tap dancer

photo: tapdance.org

(pseudonyms are used for the Actors Home residents and staff in this post)

On Saturday afternoons, Fran visits the Actors Home. She plays piano for the residents in the dining room of the Enhanced Unit. The Enhanced Unit is for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; it’s where my mom lives. Fran’s husband was a resident here until he passed away several years ago, but she keeps coming back to entertain. Raymond takes the floor and dances when Fran plays “Besame Mucho.”

Gertie says, “Sexy!”

After “Besame,” Raymond walks out of the dining room briefly and returns to strut his stuff for “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Tea for Two.” When Fran starts playing “Willkommen” from Cabaret he says to her, “Come on, let’s go.”

Mom was very animated during Fran’s concert. She told me that “two terrible things” had happened: (1) Mouse (her stuffed animal cat, also the name of her real cat years ago) had gone missing during the pouring rain and had a gash in her side, and (2) the pink pillow her sister gave her disappeared.

“I’ll look for Mouse,” I said, “and I might have your pillow at home; I’ll look for it.”

That seemed to calm her down a bit.

I went to her room and found Mouse and gave her to Mom. She said, “That’s not Mouse, that’s Fizzledeewig.”

“Okay, well what does Mouse look like?”

“She’s small and all gray.”

“Okay, we’ll find her.”

Raymond was dancing again. Mom laughed and said, “He never gives up, no matter if he’s down. He keeps me going.”

I was jotting something down in my notepad, and he said to me, “Is everything alright?” He looked concerned.

“Yes, I’m just writing a note,” I said.

“Okay,” he said and went back to dancing near the piano.

After the concert, Mom and I returned to her room. Raymond walked in and said, pointing to a chair, “May I sit here?”

“Sure.”

Mom wanted to go for another spin in her wheelchair, and I told him he could join us.

As we passed the nurse’s station where chairs are set up for the residents, he said, “Don’t go too far. Stay here.”

He seemed to want everyone in one central location, like a shepherd herding his flock, keeping them safe.

“Okay,” I said.

Another resident who shares a room with her husband was crying and reaching out her hand. Raymond gave her a knowing look.

“What’s wrong?” he said to her.

She continued crying and her husband held her hand; he smiled at me. I could tell Raymond wanted to console her.

Mom wanted to keep wheeling forward, so we did. One of the nurses directed Raymond toward a chair.

“He’s very sweet,” Mom said.

“Yes, he is.”

I said to James, one of the nurses, “Raymond’s quite a dancer. Was he a professional?”

“Yes, he was a tap dancer,” he said, smiling, “He danced with Fred Astaire.”

I would have liked to see him dance back in the day.

Gertie was being wheeled around by an aide and bawling inconsolably, saying, “Where is my daughter? Where is my daughter?”

Raymond looked puzzled and said, “I don’t understand why she’s so upset.”

He never seems to lose his cool, and he’s always on the move. He’s an entertainer, a comforter and a peacemaker. I’m happy to have met him, happy he is there to share his light with others, including me.

P.S. I found a small stuffed cat, all gray, at AC Moore. Hopefully Mom will recognize her as Mouse at our next visit. If not, that’s okay.