By Mame Ekblom Cudd
“Your father and I have picked out the guts of our coffins,” my mother’s first words after I push open their kitchen door. “Isn’t that great?” she adds, walking over and standing close. She touches my shoulder and smiles.
I hold the door ajar, wanting to rush back outside—and breathe, to not answer. A year and a half ago her dark humor would have been amusing. Now, with her dementia symptoms worsening, I’m filled with dread before I can remove my coat. The cool September air—a relief, drifts into the room, but to my aging parents, easily chilled, it’s an enemy. My mother moves behind me and firmly shuts the door.
My mother will no longer allow anyone other than family into the house. Every month for the last ten months I have flown from Arizona to Boston to clean and run errands. My father pays for the flights and the long, two hour cab ride to their home on Cape Cod. We are exhausted by my mother’s fits of anger and stubbornness. But really, more than anything else, we are deeply sad. We miss her cleverness and artistry, her funny stories, her quips. It consumes us, searching for it, in every conversation, in anything we do. Alzheimer’s is too cruel, the in and out of it. One day she seems better; the next, much worse. Any good, sensible idea she utters thrills us. We ride a wave of happiness, if only for a few minutes.
My mother kisses me — then struggles to zip a fuzzy green bathrobe over her clothes. Their adored little dog, Mr. Wu, leaps around us.
“Aren’t you hot, Mom?” I say gently as I reach down to help. I notice her mismatched slippers.
We fumble. She pulls away, finally zipping it to her chin.
“It’s hot in the kitchen,” I whisper.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
I kneel and caress the dog.
My father, in contrast, looks trim in a dress shirt and pressed kakis. His walker makes its familiar click as he moves in close to greet me.
I’ll have to stay for at least a week or more, taking care of them and the house. I love the tidal river nearby, the salty, outdoorsy ambiance of Cape Cod. But I hate the arguing and the unpredictable emotional outbursts.
I hurry past into the dining room and stand in front of the liquor cabinet. My mother pads back and sits at our family kitchen set of fifty years. The table is round and blond and the bright red wooden chairs are small and uncomfortable. She found them when we lived in England, had them painted and shipped. My parents—spare, compact and shrinking, love them. When visiting, my husband Jim and our children, tall and long limbed, prefer to sit in the dining room. During our last family visit, she protested and dragged two of these larger chairs to the basement landing, insisting that my father carry them down. They need to be hidden, she shouted while he disagreed. She paced the driveway, unable to contain her anger.
I choose a large glass from the cabinet and cut a lime in half; a vacation scent, reminding me of the light hearted times when our children were small. All of us on the hot sand — and the water too cold, my husband and I wrapping shivering little bodies in towels. Certainly no deaths and no discussions about coffin equipment.
After first moving some books, needing to clear a spot for my precious vodka tonic, I sit at the table. The cushions feel thin. My father shuffles over and spins slowly, pushing his walker to the side, sitting opposite my mother. He reaches for his glass filled with ice and wine.
My mother, unkempt, her hairstyle now a shoulder length, frizzy gray blond, works two little clips into her bangs. “I’m just saying,” she says. “We’ve picked out the guts of the coffins. You know the fluffy stuff we’ll sleep on? Mine’s bright white, and the little pillow’s great. But our plots face the bushes, not the road.” Her eyebrows arch, delicate and expressive. She turns to my father, “But I want to face the road to see the Fourth of July parade. You never know.”
I jump in. “That’s true, you never know.” I no longer question her. There aren’t any parades on that cemetery road that I know of, and never mind the beautiful absurdity of the coffins doubling as lounge chairs. The vodka burns. There isn’t enough tonic water.
All my life I worked hard not to contradict her. Glamorous and beautiful, an oil and watercolor artist of great skill, a homemaker, a great storyteller, a wonderful grandmother, her only downfall—she was almost never wrong. Now with her dementia, she is absolutely never wrong.
Dad says, “She tried to climb into the coffin today.” He smiles. “She’s funny, your mother.”
“Aren’t I?” she chirps. Nothing works better than a compliment.
“She asked Mr. Finn to take the coffin off the stand and leave it on the floor so she could lie in it.” He runs a shaky hand over his thick, white hair. Almost all his conversations are constructed to placate her. He’s tired, yet he doesn’t sleep well.
“Perfect, Mom, it’s good to see how it feels.” I look up. It’s still light out. I could sit on their dock and watch the tide recede—the setting sun illuminating the jellyfish in the clear shallows, a great movement of sea life draining into Nantucket Sound.
“Well, Mr. Finn wouldn’t do it. It was shitty of him,” she says. She swears often, “Holy Mary, Mother of God” and “Jesus H. Christ,” when I drive too fast.
“Listen,” my father likes to start with a command. “The Shrivers are buried in the plot nearby, Sergeant and Eunice. I never voted for the Kennedys.” He takes a sip. I take a sip.
Packed around the table, we discuss the end game. My father, a lawyer and a banker, organized and responsible wants to plan, and pay for, the particulars of their respective funerals. My mother asks about whom to invite. She wonders about parking. She suggests one big coffin for the two of them and that dying together is really the better option.
“They can open our casket later and stuff the dog inside when he goes,” Dad offers.
“Great!” my mother says.
“Mom, you really think we can do that with the dog?” It’s my addiction, wanting to hear a hint of normalcy.
“Of course, it’ll be perfect,” she says.
“Okay,” I whisper. It’s all I can manage. I sip my drink.
Along with being hot, the kitchen is cluttered: books, mail, coats and shoes and crusty dark toast on the white counters; a beautiful house in so many ways, filled with antiques. My mother will soon wander about to switch on the lights over her paintings. But to my left there are too many dog beds for one little dog, and all of them shoved up against the French doors. And every lamp lit, the overheads, their floor lamps curl over the table, all of it a flood for them to see clearly. And I do — the soft sag to their cheeks and their little watery blue eyes.
“Your father’s guts are creamier,” she says.
“My guts, right, Betty? More masculine. I chose a creamy white. My pillow’s bigger. I’ll be comfortable.” He knows when to follow her and when to back out. He looks at me after another sip of wine. “We’ll show you the plot tomorrow.”
“Oh, good,” I say.
As the vodka buzz recedes, I clean the kitchen, the bathroom on the first floor, and the family room. After easing my parents into bed, I throw in a load of wash and take Mr. Wu for a little walk in the familiar pitch – dark of the Cape. We end up down at the dock. He sits on my lap. I feel his little heart beating. It’s a calm, smooth evening by the water.
The next day, while she naps, my father and I talk. Even though we sit on the other side of the house, in the brightly lit family room, we’re afraid she’ll overhear. My father’s congestive heart failure is worsening. He’s asked my brothers to help, but they work full time. I’m the obvious choice. Could I find a place for her close by, perhaps? My father pleads. He talks of her aggression, throwing things at anyone she doesn’t like. It’s the intensity: she’s physical, pulling on his arm as he tries to slip on his coat, and he’s fallen. In the middle of the night, she accuses him of stealing, of having affairs. Things, I know he would never do. She will yell and pace for hours.
“The housekeeper quit,” he says. “She didn’t appreciate Mom pouring ginger ale down her back while she vacuumed.”
“I was there, Dad, remember?” I had immediately chastised my mother and pulled her into the bedroom. She shoved me, insisting that I was the most annoying child. The next day, at breakfast, there was a bruise on her wrist. Her complete innocence and mystification as to its origin unnerved me. She held it under the light—such a narrow, dry little arm. My father said nothing. The guilt and sadness of what I’d done took my breath away. After they were in bed for the night, I drank myself to sleep.
Now we feed her antipsychotic medication that a family physician prescribes. We explain that it’s for her heart, because she believes all her behaviors are excellent and justified. This causes her to nap more, thank God.
My father and I end these conversations with questions: when would we take her away from the home she loves? What day would that be and how?
“I’ll visit some places,” I assure him. We are unable to say the word “institution.”
“I love her, you know,” he says. “You do know that. I want people to live in, to help. She won’t hear of it. She’ll attack them.”
I’ve been sitting too still and my left leg is asleep. Finally, we sip coffee, lost in thought. We’ve conspired against her and I feel guilty.
She wakes from her nap after having slept in her clothes from the day before. I suggest a change of outfit. Her reply, “No, I’m fine. I just put on these clothes.” She doesn’t budge; manhandling her is out of the question. I comb her hair and wash her face while the dog sits on her lap. She wears a stained, creamy angora turtleneck, light blue corduroy trousers, and red clogs, without socks, a poor choice of footwear.
After fussing about overcoats and hats, we slowly head into the garage. We need to shop at the Star Market for milk and at least one million other things—but first, the plot. It’s on the way.
We acknowledge the Shriver plot. I hold my mother’s hand as we walk over the uneven ground towards ours. It’s a late afternoon of bright sunshine and hard, dark shadows; the sharp scent of the low tide is a kind distraction.
My mother has stuffed her wild hair into a soft red beret. She totters; I’ll have to hide the clogs. Dad remains in the car nearby. The walker, folded, rests on his knees. He keeps the window down.
My mother chats as we walk. “We must say ‘hi’ to our friend, Ron. He’s here too, sleeping. There, up the hill a bit.” She points. “He spoke to me on the phone, stood up, then collapsed on the bed. I was the last one to speak to him before he went to heaven. Isn’t that amazing?”
I agree. She laughs. I’ve always loved her laugh.
She turns and shouts at my father, instructing.
He nods and yells out, “Hi, Ron.” His little hand, out the window, waves.
Copyright Cudd 2014