Hi, there, Dear Reader. It’s past noon here in New Hometown, Florida. Currently, the temperature is 82˚F (28˚C) under mostly sunny skies. With the wind blowing from the northeast at 16 MPH (26 KM/H) and humidity at 70%, the heat index is 86˚F (30˚C). Today’s daytime forecast calls for partly sunny skies and a high temperature of 87˚F (30˚C).
Today would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday, and it’s the sixth recurrence of the date since her death on July 19, 2015 of complications from dementia and a lot of health issues that marked her last five years of life. I often try to console myself with thoughts along the lines of “Well, at least she is not suffering anymore and isn’t around to see how bad things are in the world now,” but that is only a small comfort. All I know now is that my mother is gone, living on only in the memories of those who knew and loved her.
I’m trying hard to conjure up only happy memories that center around my mom, but it’s not easy. Clearly, none of her last four birthdays since her fateful surgery to repair her (literally) shattered spine left any lasting happy memories; every “celebration” we held on October 17 from 2010 to 2014 was either muted by the fact that Mom wasn’t really enjoying the parties or spoiled by my half-sister’s need to be overly extravagant in her displays of “generosity” as far as presents and birthday party décor were concerned. (After our mother died in 2015, I ended up spending hundreds of dollars boxing and sending most of those gifts – stuffed animals and other sentimental knick-knacks – to Vicky’s apartment during my failed attempt to repair and renovate the townhouse in Miami.)
The only semi-happy memory that I have of my mom during her last years involves one of the last conversations we exchanged at night a few months before she died. It must have been in April or May of 2015, because after those months during Mom’s final spring I usually tried not to spend too much time with her at night because she had “Sundown Syndrome” and was, to put it succinctly, a “difficult patient.”
We were, uncharacteristically, alone in her small, claustrophobic bedroom on the ground floor of the two-story townhouse that we’d shared for 37 years; the home health aide – a young Cuban woman with blonde hair, a somewhat placid disposition, and no English-language skills whatsoever – was in the kitchen fixing a home-cooked meal that my mom, predictably, was not going to eat.
I think we were watching either Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune – even at a time when Mom’s mental decline was going from bad to worse, I still attempted to stick to our routine of watching the 7-8 PM game show slate on Miami’s ABC affiliate WPLG Channel 10 on weeknights. It was more than likely Jeopardy, which in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market airs at 7:30 PM.
Whichever show was on at the time doesn’t really matter. What matters is this brief exchange that says everything you need to know about the relationship between my mom and me.
There were, at the time, two beds in what had once been our home’s guest room. One bed had always been there and was situated next to the wall closest to the bedroom door. The other bed was the hospital-type one provided by the State of Florida as part of Mom’s Medicaid benefits. That one was on the other side of the small bedroom and had been placed close to the walk-in closet that was the only feature Mom liked about the room. There was about a five foot gap between the beds, and part of It was occupied by a table on which Mom had her cold water bottle, her box of Kleenex, a Princess phone that by now she had forgotten to use properly, and a couple of other items.
The bed on which I lay faced west, as did Mom’s. Mine was right in front of the window, which had beige vertical blinds made from fabric. Mom’s bed faced her desk-dresser, which was dominated by a plethora of framed family photos, two TVs – including one set that Vicky insisted on bringing from her apartment because I always unplugged Mom’s small 16-inch HDTV during thunderstorms, much to my half-sister’s displeasure – and a vase full of flowers.
By the spring of 2015, I usually dreaded being in Mom’s room in the evenings; one of the nastier effects of dementia on its sufferers is that in many cases, the transition from daytime to night often is unpleasant for both the patient and the caregiver as a result from what health care professionals call “sundowning” or Sundown Syndrome.
Per Dr. Jonathan Graff-Radford of the Mayo Clinic:
The term “sundowning” refers to a state of confusion occurring in the late afternoon and spanning into the night. Sundowning can cause a variety of behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions.
I had already had more than my fair share of “sundowning” incidents, including several instances when I had to call my half-sister late at night to come by the house because Mom refused to take her last nightly dose of medications. As a result, I was constantly on edge whenever I was alone in Mom’s room with her while the HHA cooked Mom’s dinner or did some light housekeeping chores in the kitchen.
So when Mom turned in my direction and said, “Alex, I want to tell you something,” I felt a sudden pang of dread.
Not wanting to trigger my mom’s sundowning, I turned to face her and spoke in a calm, soothing tone. “Yes, Mom?”
Mom looked at me with a most serious expression on her pale, thinning face. She looked so frail that I wanted to cry, but I didn’t.
“Alex,” she repeated in a serious tone of voice. “Listen to me.”
“I am listening, Mom,” I replied.
“Alex,” she said, trying to summon up a smile, “I don’t love you…I adore you.”
“Oh, Mom,” I said, trying not to get too misty-eyed.
She gave me another smile, even though it required a lot of effort on her part. Then she turned her attention to Jeopardy.
I wish I could have written a happier anecdote about my mother on her 92nd birthday, Dear Reader. This is the best that I could come up with, though.