"Hi, Honey!" Mom said as she saw me walking toward her. My breath caught in my throat as a rim of tears encircled my eyes. Blinking hard, I struggled to swallow and put on a broad smile as I said, "Well, hi there, Mom! You are looking great!" A few minutes into our conversation, she used my name, and I fought to remain composed as I nearly dissolved into a pool of emotion. Until that moment, I had been filled with a dreadful fear that she might have forgotten my name.
Today is Mom's birthday, and every day is precious. Every Mother's Day. Every time I see her. Every pedicure date. Every day that she is not in the hospital. Every day that my siblings and I are not called upon to make medical decisions. Every day she knows who she is and who we are.
For you see, our Mom has Alzheimer's dementia. For years, I have been comforted by the fact that Mom knows who she is and who we are, though there were other signs. Troubling signs. Increasing numbers of signs. Personality changes. Anger. Confusion. Delusions. Fear. Strange elation. Disjointed mumblings. Chatter. Long spans of silence. Labeling objects with their names. Inattentiveness. Hyper focus. Attaching names from her past to people in her present. Assigning a family connection to nearly everyone she meets. That last one really confuses her. "I know he's my Uncle Bascomb, but he won't admit it. Maybe he forgot," she might say about the man down the hall.
After taking care of my Dad's Dad and then Dad, both in semi-invalid condition for years before they died, Mom had precious little time before she started having serious health issues herself. Crohn's disease has plagued her and resulted in several hospitalizations. In between all of that, she had to have a hysterectomy. An ill-fated attempt by the 4-foot, 11-inch lady to change a lightbulb over the sink in her bathroom resulted in a fall that broke bones in her face and put her back in the hospital's surgical suite. The thought of her face and head hitting first the sink, then the commode, and then the bathtub and the floor still sickens us.
Following one of her bowel resection surgeries, she fell and broke a hip within minutes of being dismissed from the hospital. Right back to the hospital for yet another surgery she went.
She contracted MRSA during one of her first hospital stays, and that has been a recurring problem for years. She now tests positive for more than one strain of MRSA, having contracted strains in two different hospitals. She's had life-threatening pneumonia three times.
Last year, she spent three weeks in ICU, eventually needing both a respirator and a feeding peg, as she battled a beast known as organizing pneumonia. Doctors gave us no hope that she would live and told me to "call the family." The horrible initials DNR, faced years ago during Dad's last days, came back into our lives. But the doctors were wrong this time. On the day we were making arrangements to transfer her from the hospital ICU to an LTAC (long term acute care hospital), Mom managed to wean from the respirator.
During some of Mom's worst illness, my sister Linda has been in a frightening, long battle with breast cancer. Linda is winning her fight with the Big C. She is, after all, related to Mom!
Two aunts passed away this year, Mom's last sibling and one of Dad's sisters. When I told Mom about her sister's death, her response was framed by her own deep faith, "She's in Heaven now." When Mom was so near death herself last year, hours before she was put on the respirator, she told me, "Jesus lifts you up. He never lets you down. You know, it's really not hard to understand, if you just listen to the words in red." The words in red. The words of Jesus.
Through it all, Mom has surprised doctors and nurses around her. Through it all, she loves and is loved by her family. And she knows it. And she knows us. Dementia has taken much, but much remains. Maybe my name is not Honey, just yet. This year and this birthday, she knows us and she knows the words in red...
UPDATE April 16, 2015...It's now almost three years since I wrote this blog, and my sister Linda is doing well. She has many issues that are radiation and chemotherapy related, but she is still cancer free. I don't even remember how many surgeries she ended up having. Recovery from a double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction is tough, really tough. Linda ended up having to go on disability, but she continued to visit almost daily the nursing home where she had worked and where Mom lived...until Mom died on March 31, 2015. In addition to scripture passages Mom had copied in a note we found in her photo box, the pastor also used this blog entry in her funeral message. We had two more birthdays with Mom and two more Mother's Days. We almost made it to three. The last time I saw Mom, 12 days before her spirit was ushered away to Heaven, she used my name. I never did become "Honey."