My mom pooped in her pants yesterday. It was pretty gross. Thank god for Harriet, one of the aides on her unit, who cleaned her up.
Last week and the week before, my mom threw up. She was at the dinner table eating the three or four bites that usually constitute her entire meal — mom was never much of an eater, even before Alzheimer’s — when suddenly she burped and started to puke. We grabbed for napkins and her bib, and she lost it all, those few bites and whatever she’d eaten or drunk an hour or two before. The first week it happened, I took her back to her room, and the nurse took her vital signs. She was fine.
The second time that she threw up, two minutes after it happened, she said, “I’m hungry.” I gave her some ice cream; it was in a little styrofoam container sitting next to her plate. She took a few spoonfuls and washed it down with coffee. If I’d told her she’d just thrown up, she would have called me a liar.
I know things happen to people as they move into very old age. Their bodies become unwieldy in a certain kind of way. Even without Alzheimer’s, very old people can have trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Body parts hurt, and they don’t move like they used to. Climbing into a pair of pants becomes difficult. And even people who don’t have dementia can lose control of their bodily functions. So much breaks down in very old age.
It’s not hard to see very old age as a time when dignity is lost. I thought that for a moment as Harriet, with a mask over her face and latex gloves on her hands, went to work to clean up my mom. Or as I held napkins in front of her face while she vomited, and the others at her table continued to eat their meals, either trying not to look or not even noticing, caught up in their own very old age. There is no dignity, it seems.
And yet, my mom never remembers these uncomfortable experiences after she has them, even a minute or two after. They don’t leave any trace of embarrassment or trauma in her memory, no remnants of pain.
On Mother’s Day last year, I posted an old photo on Facebook of my mom in her 20s. She’s sitting next to a rocky brook, the sunlight in her dark brown hair, a look of anticipation in her eyes. My father was the photographer, and it was taken before they were married. It’s the most beautiful picture I have of my mom, maybe because she is young, maybe because she is in love, maybe because my father is in love with her. Or maybe because she believes it’s all ahead of her, the marriage, the children, all the gifts that life has to give. She’s ready to receive them.
What she never expected, I would bet, is old age, the disintegration of her body and her mind. Just as I imagine she never expected a difficult marriage, or a divorce, or financial problems, or children who disappointed her or broke her heart. She never expected Alzheimer’s, either.
In some way, though, when I look at my mom today, it seems that 20-something woman isn’t all that far away. Her hair is no longer brown, and her body is no longer straight and strong. But she still has a sparkle in her eye, and when she sees me, whether she can name me or not, she still has that look of anticipation, as if she knows there is love. She has this, still. At least for now.