By Elizabeth Shean
With the room illuminated only by the glow of the television, I sat on the edge of Mom's bed as she struggled to say what was bothering her. She has experienced problems finding words in the past—a symptom of the dementia—but this time she wrestled with conveying even the basic concept of what she wanted me to do for her. It didn't help that she had awoken abruptly from a sound sleep, even though it was only 8:00 p.m., and likely felt groggy from this sudden arousal.
And so I sat patiently, gazing out the window at the stars beginning to twinkle against the darkening late-summer sky. As Mom's brain betrayed her with its inability to conjure up the right words, her body writhed as if in pain. She clenched her hands into fists, which she raised near her head while she rocked side-to-side to dissipate the tension in her muscles. "It's, uh, just, I want..." her voice drifted off.
"It's all right, Mom," I said in a soothing tone. "We'll get through this. I can't imagine how frustrating this is for you, to not be able to say what it is you're thinking. Let's just sit here for a moment and allow your brain to loosen up."
I took her left hand and brought it to my lap. Slowly I unrolled the fingertips from the palm. I stroked the back of her hand and her forearm until at last her whole body shuddered and relaxed. Tears welled in her eyes.
"I'm sorry I can't tell you what it is I need," she said, the words coming better now. "It is so frustrating. And now I can't even remember why I called you. I've lost it." She began to chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
Still perched on the edge of the bed, I leaned toward her and gathered her into a hug, holding her cheek against my breast like one would comfort a small child. She remained still, all struggle now ceased.
I released Mom from the embrace, and she relaxed against a pile of pillows. "Let's begin with the fundamentals," I said in quiet tones as I ran through a mental checklist. "Would you like some water? Some coffee? Do you want me to change the channel for you? Do you need help to the bathroom?"
At each question, Mom shook her head. She pinched her face into a scowl of concentration. "Oh! I remember," she said, her eyes opening widely. "Somehow the TV got turned on while I was sleeping, and it's too loud. I don't know how that happens."
"Isn't that odd?" I replied, not bothering to point out that Mom is the one who turns the TV on at night. She must enjoy falling asleep to its low cacophony because not a night goes by that she doesn't sleep to the sounds of sit-com re-runs or some other late-night TV. But she does not remember this. She believes the TV turns on of its own accord, as if possessed. There is no need to scold her or point out the flaws in her logic.
"I guess we'll never figure out how this happens," I continued, keeping my voice at a murmur in hopes it would lull Mom back into restfulness. "Would you like this turned down, or off altogether?"
Mom thought for a moment. "Leave it on, but turn it down," she said. "I want to watch for a while."
I picked up the remote control from Mom's nightstand and lowered the TV's volume. "Ah, perfect," she said. I could see her sag against the pillows and start to drift off again. "I love you," she added sleepily. "Thank you for rescuing me."
In that moment she looked so small and vulnerable, this strong woman who raised me. I again glanced out the window at the now pitch-colored sky. I felt no urgency to rise and return to the baseball game I'd abandoned in the other room when Mom called out. Instead I reached out my hand to stroke the hair above her forehead, smoothing it with a gentle touch. I will protect you until the day you die, I thought to myself. I love you so much.
So often as a caregiver I feel like an utter failure. I have raised my voice at my mom in anger more times than I'm comfortable admitting. Sometimes when she has expressed concerns about her health I have scoffed at them and dismissed them as hypochondria. Taking care of my mom frequently leaves me feeling like a horrible daughter.
But tonight I came through. Tonight I proved what a loving caregiver I can be. These are the memories I want to cherish. Tonight was not failure. It was the opposite of failure.