Home again, this time caring for my mother

purple leaves flying like birds off a black tree

By Amie McGraham

You’re there because she’s your mother. You’re there because you’re the only child and there’s no one else. You’re there because four years ago, you quit your job and taking care of your mother is your new career. You’re there because she’s getting worse and the need for a memory care home is now a question of “when,” not “if.”

You’re there because she needs the comfort and routine of her house, the one where she’s lived for almost a half century, the one that creaks on the seventh stair, the one with the kitchen that’s tinier than the galley in your father’s sailboat, and the one that gets dark in the living room at two o’clock every afternoon in December, the one you ran away from forty years ago, the one that’s big and old and terrifying to stay in alone.

You’re there because she’s lost in time and space. You’re there because she’s convinced the digital clock—the one she calls the “atomic” clock—is telling time in German. You’re there because she’s reverted to the days when she was a newlywed and boiling water was the only recipe she could follow and because she’s now forgotten how to boil water and the burner was on so long it burnt a hole in the antique kettle. You’re there because when the message light flashes on the answering machine, she lives in panic that the phone will blow up like a bomb. You’re there because “they” don’t let her drive anymore and she gets bored sitting in the overstuffed chair in the living room, the one that smells a little like piss, the one with the coffee stains and spots from last summer’s blueberry pie you made together, the one that is both her throne and her prison.

You’re there because no one else will sing the old familiar hymns or recite her childhood prayers when she’s confused about where she lives and who you are. You’re there because she needs to get out and walk every day and is overwhelmed trying to put her shoes on the right feet. You’re there because she’s forgotten to wash her hair and it’s greasy and flat and smells like potatoes until you point out the Clairol in her rust-stained shower stall. You’re there because keeping up appearances at church, which she has done for the past eighty years, is a vital yet exhausting performance. You’re there because no one from church will visit her or help because they only see her an hour a week and think she’s as sharp as she was twenty years ago.

You’re there because the calendars that clutter the walls and desks and tables, the ones she insists upon “mastering” may as well have been written in Sanskrit. You’re there because you find whatever it is she’s lost, rearranged or “they” have stolen from her. You’re there because some nights she gets lost in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. You’re there because she has lost herself. You’re there because going out to lunch every day was part of her life for so many years and no one else will take her. You’re there because you hate Fox News but force yourself to pretend you’re watching it because it calms her even when she can’t recall the “horrible thing” that they’ve televised all day, every minute, every hour.

You’re there because after the holidays, when you tried to bring the familiar holiday traditions back to life even though they seemed as completely foreign as her reflection in the hallway mirror, you finally realized she needs more care than you can give. You’re there to close up the house, to pack her clothes, the watercolors she painted, the teacup she bought in London, her photo albums. You’re there to say goodbye to the cove across the street where you swam with your family dog every summer, to look at the beach where you used to picnic together, to say farewell to the neighbors who’ve remained a little distant lately. You’re there to move her across the country to the dementia care home five minutes from your house.

You’re there because she’s your mother.

Amie McGraham grew up on a small island off the coast of Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A writer, family caregiver and occasional petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University and is currently writing a trilogy book series. Her blog, “Taking Care” was recently featured by AlzAuthors and is read in more than a dozen countries.

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