Tag Archives: nursing home

Sands Through an Hourglass


“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

She closed her eye that no longer functions and considered me through her good eye.  Then she shook her head from side to side.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and smiled brightly, kissing her on the forehead.  “I’m Estelene, Mom.”

She grinned, slowly nodded, and kissed me on the cheek.

I pulled a chair up to her good side and took her hand in mine.  She sat contentedly in silence, offering none of her usual stream of mostly unintelligible chatter.

The television blared—a children’s show that someone on the nursing home staff must have thought would keep her attention.

Annoyed that someone viewed her as a child with a brain that no longer functioned, I searched for the remote.  But when I found it and hit the channel button, nothing happened.  I finally found the buttons on the side of the television and flipped through channels until I came across an old black-and-white romantic comedy.

I sat down beside her and stroked the top of her hand, the skin soft and supple in spite of a lifetime of housework.  She stared at the screen and drifted off to sleep.

I allowed myself a few tears before brushing them away and waiting for her to awaken.  Reaching into my bag, I pulled out the devotional anthology that held my first work as a published author—only eight pages in book with 51 other writers—but I wanted to show it to my mom.  I knew that if she had any awareness at all, she would be proud of me, as she always was at any of her children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments.

When her eyes drifted sleepily open again, I waited for her to start chattering, but she simply listened while I talked about my family.  At one point when I talked about my daughter, she pointed to the picture of her on the top of her clothing cabinet.

“Mom, I finally got published,” I said, holding the book open and pointing to my name.

She reached out and took the book in her hands.  Again, she closed her bad eye and looked through her good eye.

I wondered briefly where her glasses were, but I wasn’t sure she could read the print now, even with her glasses.

Mom had once been a reader, and even when our family was at its poorest, she subscribed to Reader’s Digest, both the magazine and the condensed books.  After a corneal transplant when she was in her 50s, she changed the subscription to large text.  But after seven failed transplants in the other eye, she had given up reading in favor of afternoon soap operas.

Now, she stared at the page, awake the longest she had been since I got there.  At first I thought she was reading, but then I wasn’t sure.  She continued to hold the book in her hands, but she never turned from the page that bore my name.  Only after I took the book from her did she drift off to sleep again.

When it appeared she wouldn’t awaken again, I kissed her on the forehead and left to visit my sister, who faithfully spends time with our mother several days a week.  My sister lives five minutes from the nursing home, and before the stroke, she was my mother’s closest friend.

As always, I told my sister how much I love her and appreciate her for the way she takes care of our mom.  My sister listened to my account of my visit empathetically.  She had warned me beforehand that Mom was sleeping much more, but it was only at that moment that I allowed what she had said to creep into my consciousness.

I left them both for a week at the beach, feeling guilty that I couldn’t persuade my sister to join my husband and me for a few days.

Today, as I sat with my toes in the sand for our final day of vacation, I thought of my mom’s favorite soap opera, Days of Our Lives, which introduced every show with the mantra, “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

She simply referred to the show as Days, and when I’d call her, she talked about the characters as though they were people who lived in her small hometown.  I remember a time when I’d get off the phone with her and ask myself why I’d paid for a long distance call to have her catch me up on the plot that I’d missed.  Now I miss those phone calls.

And as I look across the beach at innumerable grains of sand, I give thanks for the days of my mother’s life, flowing back to me in waves, unconstricted by glass or time.

What’s In a Smile?

Mom in Pink Hat

I never saw my mom wear a hat.  An accordion-pleated rain bonnet that she unfurled and tied beneath her chin to protect her latest perm, yes.  Ear muffs and headbands that she carefully arranged to cover the hairline that divided her bangs from the hair she brushed back, yes.  And a winter hood that she pulled over her curls and tied loosely to avoid crushing her sprayed and teased salon hair, yes.  She was vain about her hair but too practical to wear a hat that merely ornamented her head.

When my sixth grade teacher told our math class to use our heads for something other than hat racks, I assumed she was talking about other people—those who perched their thoughts over themselves as ornaments for others to see.  And that was not my mother.  She was nothing if not practical.

Now she sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home, forced to trust others to get her dressed.  Her hair is longer and brushed straight back, sprayed into place to keep it from falling into her face.  I creep quietly into her room, looking to see her head tilted slightly toward her chest, trying to judge whether she is awake.  Silent, I put my purse gently on the floor next to a table, unwilling to wake her.

As I straighten back up, my eyes fall on a picture of my mother, sporting a jaunty fuchsia hat.  She looks directly into the camera, and her lips are so reddish blue that she seems to be wearing my trademark berry lipstick.  But despite the uncharacteristic hat, I know that my mom has never in her life worn make-up or lipstick, and I recognize that the color is a symptom of the condition that forces her to wear the oxygen tube stretching across her face, feeding air into her nostrils.  The fingers of a gnarled hand rest on her left shoulder, and I know that the picture was taken before Hospice brought the wheelchair that allows Mom to recline slightly so that she doesn’t fall forward.

I pick up the picture and note from the date imprint that it was taken on Halloween.  But it is my mother’s expression that captures my attention.  Her lips are pursed tightly together, and at first I think she looks angry.  But I’ve seen a similar expression when she labors to breathe in more oxygen from the tube in her nose.  I put the picture down and lift a chair to avoid waking my mother, but when I lower the chair down next to hers, she opens her eyes in surprise and says, “Well!” and the corners of her mouth turn up slightly in a smile.

I lean down to kiss her cheek before sitting and taking her hand in mine.  I rub the top of her hand, always surprised at the silkiness of her skin in spite of years of physical labor.

She chatters, but I understand little of what she says until she points to the television, and the sound that has been background noise enters my consciousness for the first time.  Ellen DeGeneres dances down the stairs, giving away Christmas gifts to an audience that claps and squeals in delight.  I wonder if the staff member who turned on the program knows that my mom has always liked Ellen.  My mom smiles at the television before her gaze returns to me, and I watch her eyes travel to my neckline.  She reaches out and touches the crystal with the tiny silver tree inside.  I had bought the charm the week before, thinking ahead to this visit and remembering how much Mom loves snow globes.

My sister, who is far more than our mother’s primary caregiver, laughs that I am “the shopping daughter” and “the jewelry daughter.”  I am the only one of my mother’s five children who is a practicing Christian, and I am the one who consistently buys our mother jewelry—an act of defiance against her childhood church that forbade make-up and pants and trinkets of any kind.  And as Mom has been able to communicate less, I’ve chosen the jewelry I wear more carefully, knowing that she will be able to get out the word, “Pretty,” which she does just as I am mentally congratulating myself that she has noticed the snow globe.

As her hand returns slowly to her lap, I take it between both my own and tell her I love her.

She smiles again and speaks a sentence that is surprisingly clear.  “I [unintelligible] kids to church.”

I have heard this many times before, and I know that she’s telling me again, “I should have taken you kids to church.”

But, as I’ve done every time we’ve had this conversation, I remind her again that she actually did us a favor by not taking us to hear the sermons of a flaming hell that has terrified her for most of her life.  I ask, “Mom, you do know that God has you wrapped in a hug, don’t you?”

She nods and smiles in a way that reminds me of the picture.  As her attention returns to Ellen, I text my sister:  Who took this pic of Mom in a pink hat?

Almost immediately, I hear two pings.  The first is lol and the second, They took it there at Halloween.

I text back.  Can I take it home and scan it? I like it. She looks like, Don’t be messin with me!

You can have it. 

I put the picture in my purse, and I know that this will be my Mona Lisa picture of my mother.  I will never know what she was thinking when the nursing home staff snapped her picture in a hat she would never have worn.  But it gives me joy to see that expression and know that nothing can ever take away the Spirit of this woman who has given me life.