By Karen Brode
The nursing home door was just across the parking lot from where I stood. There were no hills to go up or steps to climb. Even so, I felt as if I trudged through waist deep molasses to get there.
Mother had been in the nursing home seven years. Each year that passed, I wondered how much more I could take. I wanted her to die and be out of this misery. But then I felt terrible for having wished my own mother dead. Seeing her like she was, surely death was better?
I’ll admit there were times when I thought she might outlive me, when it seemed death was a disappointing friend—never there to relieve the suffering of my poor mother, never there to take me from the dread of seeing her suffer like that. It always hovered, always lingered somewhere in the shadows, but it never came. Maybe it was a blessing that at least one of us didn’t know what she had lost.
There were times when I arrived to find Mother in the dining room and she knew who I was. Little glimmers of the past, of the woman who had raised me, given me everything. Other times, she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Every single time it hurt just like the first time it had happened.
Then there were the times when she saw me walking up to her and she would start crying.
“Where is Albert?” she’d ask, clutching and unclutching the arms of her chair with despair. “Why doesn’t he come visit me?”
The questions of my long-dead father always broke my heart almost as much as her not remembering who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t even try to tell her the truth that he had died when I was seven. It seemed cruel to tell her the truth. I would cry later, but not in front of her. In these times, I tended to tell her that he was out in west Texas, but he would be home at the end of the week and he would see her first thing. This is all she needed to hear. She settled down after she knew where he was.
Other times, she asked me about her mom and dad. Somehow, even when she didn’t know who I was, she knew I represented her family.
“How are Momma and Daddy?” she’d ask. “Are they okay?”
I tried to allay her worries and fears with little lies.
“They’re doing just fine,” I’d say, knowing they had long since passed on. “Why, just yesterday I ran into Granny at the grocery store and she was buying ingredients to buy a cake.”
This almost always made my mother’s face light up, as if she could see it clearly.
“They were planning to play dominoes that evening with some neighbors,” I’d continue to encourage her happiness.
I know you’re not supposed to lie, but it gave my mother peace of mind when that’s the one thing she hardly ever had. I discovered that my vivid imagination was an asset after all.
It surprised me that she never asked about my brother, John. I would like to have told her the truth about him if she ever mentioned him. He fled to Las Vegas to escape the nightmare she and I lived in. He left me to handle it all alone. I couldn’t tell if I was more angry or hurt that he had found a way not to be involved. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be left holding the bag (again), but I was surprised. I think I expected him to rise to the occasion. What a foolish expectation.
The one thing I felt good about was that we could put her in the nice nursing home, the one with cheerful wallpaper and high end decorating. I took comfort in the fact that we put her in the best place possible. There wasn’t much else we could do for her. That was the most frustrating part.
I attended Christmas parties every year with my mother at the nursing home. Personally, I hoped to forget about the holiday. Seeing how she deteriorated, I never felt as if there was anything to celebrate. The Christmas Carols sounded like funeral dirges. So many people sat in their wheelchairs asleep even as we clapped and sang around them. Mother was lost wherever the mind goes when it is deep with Alzheimer’s. She didn’t seem to realize it was Christmas.
Still, the nursing home tried to give all the folks something to enjoy. One year, someone dressed as Santa and went around the room ho-ho-hoing. When he stopped at our table with some goodies, he asked Mother what she wanted for Christmas. She just stared out somewhere in the distant past.
I glared at him and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “What do you think she wants, Santa? A little piece of her mind back, maybe?”
It wasn’t his fault, of course, that we were in this place. It’s just that every Christmas since she had gone to the nursing home had been a reminder of what she had lost—what I had lost—and it got to be too much.
The first Christmas she was in there, it seemed that every store I entered immediately began playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on their intercom system. I often had to leave my half-filled grocery cart in the aisle and walk out of the store crying.
After one particular Christmas party, I started to wheel Mother back toward her room, but felt a gentle grasp of someone’s hand on my arm. It was Harriett Mercer, a woman I had known in passing at church before her health had failed and she had to go to the nursing home. I didn’t know her well, but I could see her mind was still sharp, even if she was wheelchair bound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she knew the score. She knew she was in a nursing home. She knew she would never get out. She knew she would never go home again. Mother also would never go home again, but at least she didn’t know it.
When the nurse came by to push her down another hall, I waved goodbye and vowed to visit her next time.
True to my word, during my next visit I stood by her bed and held her hand while she told me about the life she had lived. Her husband, Floyd, had taught woodshop classes at the high school most their married life. He was killed in a car accident on a Sunday afternoon on the way home from a football game. She no longer cried as she spoke of that horrible day, but I could see the toll it had taken in the heaviness of her voice.
“He and his buddies had gone to see the Cowboys play,” she said, staring out into the difficult past. “Floyd drove. The others walked away with scratches. Floyd….” Her words drifted off with the pain that, even years later, came to the surface. “At least it had been a good day,” she said with more courage than I could imagine. “His friends, Merle and Bill, told me they’d had the time of their lives.”
I remembered then the accident that had killed her husband. He had been impaled by the steering column. I shuddered thinking about it and didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to think about it more than I had to.
Their only child, Floyd, Jr. had died of cancer when he was 45. No amount of time passing could keep the tears from leaking from her eyes as she told her son’s story of chemo and radiation and prayers that didn’t work.
“They gave him a 21 gun salute at the funeral,” she said. “But I hated it. My nerves were already gone. Hearing the guns go off finished me.”
I squeezed her hand a little harder as I listened. She stared at the ceiling for a while. I had the impression she was thinking back to more normal times, days when her family was intact. “I never imagined things would end up the way they did,” she finally said. “I had a regular life once. And then I lost everything.”
I gasped at her words. Like Harriett, I had a husband and a son. And, although I have not known the pain of losing my husband, I came way too close to losing my son during his senior year of high school. He survived, but he lost his dream of being on the varsity track team and he nearly missed half of his school year. When he finally went back to school, it was with a walker and neck brace.
All this while my mother withered away under the influence of Alzheimer’s. The weight of it broke me down. I cringed when the phone rang. Was it the nursing home? Was my son in yet another wreck? Or maybe it was my husband who had met with disaster. I no longer expected things to go well. Just getting through a day at work or a day at home seemed all I could do. I lost any hope of my life ever being normal again.
I looked at Harriett and felt a kinship with her. It seemed cruel that she still had her mind to remember all of that. It seemed oddly a blessing that my mother couldn’t remember the hard times she had experienced. Maybe she was better off not knowing where she was or what had happened to her.
Harriett’s eyes were magnified behind the thick glasses she wore. I asked her if I could get her something to read.
She shook her head. “I can’t see to read,” she said. Her voice broke over the words as if she mourned yet another loss. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”
She made a heavy wave with her curled up hand in the direction of the woman who shared her room. “She keeps that infernal television on night and day. Half the time I can’t even sleep.” She sighed and let her head drop back onto her pillow and closed her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in hell.”
I wanted to do something for Harriett. I tried to think of something, some measure of peace I could leave with her, but there wasn’t any. I looked to her bedside table, thinking I might read her a chapter from the Bible, anything to comfort her.
She saw me looking and guessed my thoughts. “I threw away my Bible years ago. I don’t have any use for a God who takes everyone I loved and everything I had and leaves me to languish in this place of complete misery.”
At first, I thought maybe I should defend God to her, remind her that He is good and has our lives in His hands, even when it feels that He doesn’t. But, to be honest, I could see her point. I sort of felt like she did and I wasn’t really happy with God either. I was becoming increasingly clear just how much she and I had in common and I was afraid of ending up just like her. It was a sobering thought.
Even so, my upbringing always brought me back to the Bible, searching for understanding and comfort. I thought of Job, the ultimate sufferer. I tried to remind myself what he said to his wife when he lost everything.
“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (I didn’t dare bring this up to Harriett.)
In the midst of his fiery pain Job was able to remember the many wonderful things from God before asking, “Should I expect to never have anything bad happen to me?”
I think Job was in better shape than I was. He seemed to take a lot of comfort in that pit he sat in with ashes on his head. I had no such pit, no ashes to give me peace. I had to keep going and try to make the most of what was left of my life. Somehow I envied him getting to give up and grieve. I didn’t have time to grieve!
Almost overnight, I felt as if everything in my life as I had known it was over. And it was. I was broken and I didn’t know how to put myself back together. And yet, standing there, holding Harriett’s hand, I realized something else. I could walk out of the nursing home anytime. I could go to my home and cook supper and take the trash out and mop the floor. These were activities that she would never do again.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.
2 thoughts on “No Pit of Ashes for Me”
Job is my favorite book in the Bible because it addresses directly the issue of suffering without the useless and violent glossing over we so often do in the name of God. Congratulations to this writer who reveals Job in the lives of all of us.
One of the many things I love about Karen’s writing is her ability to paint real life so vividly. She is unafraid to face the hard subjects, such as death, suffering, growing old, mourning loss, and caring for a loved one with a terminal disease. Thank you for being unafraid to go there with her.