My mom and I had a good summer. I spent the long days after work meeting friends for dinner, visiting museums, going to outdoor concerts. My mom gradually, but increasingly, shed the worries that had burdened her all of her life. She used the summer to get happier.
These days, every time I arrive to visit, my mom is talking with Kenneth, stroking the arm of another resident, or laughing with a staff member. She is often smiling, sometimes beaming, or sitting with a contented look on her face. When I take her off the unit, she marvels at the beauty of the facility and the grounds.
Even when she’s on the unit, she has no idea where she is (she thinks she’s at work or at school). She often wonders aloud whether or when she’s going home to Niagara Falls (is it tomorrow or the next day?), or even where she’s going to sleep that night. Still, she’s remarkably present and comfortable. She’s not like some other patients, who don’t make sense when they speak, who are living in a world only they can see. She engages and jokes and notices everything.
“Your mom is an anomaly,” says Jessi, one of the facilitators of the Alzheimer’s caregiver support group I attend.
“Yes, she’s actually gotten better at the Hebrew Home,” says Nancy, the other facilitator.
And it’s true. Although I know my mom is never really going to get better from this disease, she’s thriving in the company of so many people around her, which she didn’t have at home or even in the assisted living facility where she lived before. In assisted living, people gathered for meals and then retreated to their respective apartments. My mom’s roommate slept 18 hours a day, leaving my mom alone and bored. When the roommate was awake, she apparently bullied my mom. In the nursing home, my mom is so much better off.
Which is ironic because I always thought going to a nursing home would be the worst thing that could ever happen to my mom. It would mean that she had nothing left, that she had lost everything.
I can’t deny my mom has lost a lot. She’s been alive for almost 87 years, and yet I could probably fit everything she owns into a single car trunk, which wouldn’t be the case if she still owned a home. Her short-term memory is gone. Any consistent sense of herself as a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an American — a person with a stable identity and a unique set of experiences — is gone. Her ability to reflect on her life, to assess its value, to look ahead and plan for the future — gone, too.
And yet, so is her low self-esteem. Her chronic worries about money and about my sister. Her resentment toward my father. Her intense self-consciousness that stifled so much of her personality, her humor, her ability to enjoy life. Gone, all gone.
Loss is a horrible part of life. Except when it isn’t horrible. There are times, I’m learning, when loss isn’t the worst thing in the world, when loss isn’t always a reason to grieve.