Updated: Nov 4, 2022
My mother woke me with a phone call at 5:23 this morning, dialed from her room 700 miles away in Massachusetts. “Dawn, you’ve got to help me,” she begged, panting with anxiety. “I have no money. No food. No friends. I need some money.”
“You need to pay off your gambling debts?”
She hesitated, then gave a tentative laugh. “That’s foolishness.”
Because an offer of foolishness is the best way to soothe my 90-year-old mother when she’s in one of her panicked states.
There’s an element of truth to her claim of no money—she hasn’t had a credit card, a checkbook or a dollar in her wallet since we moved her to assisted living six months ago. So she couldn’t have paid the young man who called claiming to be her injured grandson needing money, or “the IRS” needing her bank account number in order to deposit her refund.
“Think about it, Mum,” I said. “You haven’t carried any cash since April, right? But you have a nice, warm room to live in. People are there to take care of you around the clock. You eat three meals a day and get special treats.”
“But I need money. A dear friend gave me a ten-dollar bill, but that’s all I have.”
I was tempted to say, “I thought you said you had no friends?”, but such a tease would be unkind. Most of her friends, in fact, are dead. One man whom she’s known for decades came to visit her, but she didn’t recognize him. He hasn’t come again. Her only remaining woman friend comes every couple of weeks, but Mum doesn’t like the visits because “She talks so fast I can’t make sense of what she’s saying.”
“That ten-dollar bill will be plenty,” I told her.
“But I have no food. They haven’t fed us in weeks, and I can’t get to the store.”
We’d moved her to assisted living after she complained her clocks were broken. The clock hands weren’t moving, she’d said, and they didn’t show AM or PM. How was she supposed to know whether to make breakfast or supper? Those comments moved my brothers and me from concern to alarm, and we quickly made arrangements for the move.
It was a relief to us that she loved her room at the facility, with its soft gray walls and a precious view of her beloved Cape Cod cranberry bogs. No longer burdened with the responsibility to pay bills, buy groceries, or manage medications, she willingly let go her grip of independence and welcomed the tender care of Junia and Yaris and Isamar. She engaged in watercolor painting, trivia games and jigsaw puzzles.
Or at least she tried to. Within weeks, she’d fallen and been sent to the hospital twice, returning with no broken bones but the diagnosis of simply “Advanced Dementia.” After the second time, she was moved to the Memory Care wing. “They’re tricking me,” she’d reported at the time. “They’ve made this place look like my own room with all my things in it, but it isn’t. I’m just having a sleepover.”
“How about those new pants I sent you? Did they fit okay?” I asked her in response to her “no food” complaint this morning. Just five days ago I’d shipped her some new, larger-size clothes at the request of the head nurse. Despite being starved by the facility, my mother had regained more than the thirteen pounds she’d lost in the last few months of trying to live on her own.
“Yes, the pants fit much better. And that sweater is so soft! I’ve worn it dozens of times.”
“I knew you’d like it.” The nurse had requested only pants, but I knew Mum always felt cold in her 78-degree room, and that she’d love the velvety, pale-gray cardigan I’d found.
“Wait a minute,” she said suddenly, and I heard her put the phone down.
Then for a long time, I heard her moving around in the room. “Mum?” I called through the phone. But she had forgotten she was on a phone call. This had happened before.
After a couple of minutes, I heard her pick up the phone and fumble with it.
“Mum? Are we still talking?” But beeps from the phone told me she was trying to dial it. And then she hung up.
I picture her in the pale gray cardigan, not with tomato sauce dribbled on it or pockets bulging with the sugar packets she’s snitched from the dining room. Not with her bent over a walker trying to figure out how to get back to her room. I picture her wearing the sweater to work the bake sale at the Garden Club Bazaar, where she offers her homemade banana bread and blueberry pie. I picture her wearing it as she explores the cool June woods to see whether the lady slippers have bloomed.