97: The Extra Mile

97: The Extra Mile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

The Extra Mile

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

~Rumi

Self-doubt knotted my stomach as I approached the Alzheimer’s assisted-living facility. I signed in at the desk and pinned the Evergreen Place guest badge onto my jacket. Then I entered the residential area and started to search.

The main room appeared empty. On second glance, however, I spotted the salt-and-pepper hair of one woman sitting by herself, head down, dozing on the couch.

“Mom? Mom, it’s time to eat lunch.” I lowered myself beside her and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. “Wake up, Mom. It’s me.”

Her eyes fluttered open. “Who?”

“Beth. Your daughter.” The one you haven’t known for years, I thought. The one who doesn’t come around as often as she ought to.

I stood to face her, embraced her in a bear hug, and attempted to hoist her up. Two times I tried and failed. I wondered if she had forgotten how to stand. Finally, on the third attempt, she rose. But when I let go with one arm to sling my purse over my shoulder, she collapsed onto the couch, eyes wide with terror. Not knowing what to do, I paused until Halley, one of the young activity leaders, arrived.

“Hey five-foot-two eyes of blue.” Flashing a warm smile, Halley bent down to look into Mom’s eyes. “I came looking for you.”

Mom lifted her neck enough to see who was speaking to her while Halley expertly boosted Mom to her feet.

“It’s good to see you,” said Halley as she winked at me.

I wrapped one hand around Mom’s waist. Together we took slow steps down the short hall. We passed tiny alcoves painted with color. The pretend post office. The library. The beauty shop. The law office. With her head bent down, Mom saw none of it.

When we reached the dining room, I maneuvered Mom to her place. Her sweet tea, a bowl of grapes, and some minestrone soup were waiting. The nurses had even remembered her straw.

“Mom, you need to sit down.” I wheeled a chair up behind her, helped her plop down into it, and scooted her up to the table. From behind the kitchen’s serving counter, Mom’s favorite nurse nodded and sent me a reassuring grin. Then I started to feed Mom.

Dad had warned me. “She can’t feed herself anymore. You’ll have to touch the spoon to her lips and hope she opens. She’ll chew each bite twenty times, close her eyes, and fall asleep. Or, she’ll push herself up from the table and leave.”

Eighteen residents sat and fed themselves, unable to talk with one another. Except for the nurses, Mom and I were the only ones who attempted conversation even though Mom could no longer put together a coherent sentence.

“Someone else has come to lunch. Blanche is waving at you, Mom.”

Sitting diagonally across from us, the resident stared. “What’s wrong with her?” she blurted out as she pointed to my mom. I chose to ignore her question, not wanting to attempt to explain that early-onset Alzheimer’s had begun to ravage Mom’s mind twelve years ago. Now, at age seventy-one, there wasn’t much of it left. The first-grade teacher who had lovingly instructed others could no longer be taught.

Two nurses approached with Mom’s main course. “Ms. Ellen, you’re sliding down again. Do you need help?” The nurses positioned themselves on either side of Mom and lifted her to a better sitting position. “There you go, Ms. Ellen. Good job.”

I was probably doing everything wrong. By gently stepping in to assist when necessary, however, the nurses encouraged me without words. They even slipped a glass of tea, a cup of chicken noodle soup, and a salad in front of me, saying, “This is for you.” I wasn’t sure they were supposed to do that but, hungry, I accepted.

Two hours later, Mom finally finished her lunch. Knowing what she probably needed, I walked her over to a couple of nurses and timidly said, “I think my mom has to use the restroom.”

“Let us help you.” Relief washed over me, because Dad had told me it could get ugly. And, it did.

Not understanding what was happening when the nurses tried to assist her, Mom pushed them away. She kicked them. She swore. Despite Mom’s outburst, the nurses skillfully cleaned her, changed her, and somehow continued to speak kind words to her. The moment they finished, the strangest thing happened. Mom grabbed the hands of one nurse, started to sing, “Doo, de doo, de doo,” and swiveled her hips. The nurse danced along with her.

Afterwards, because she couldn’t sit still and seldom napped, I decided to walk with Mom. We meandered through the hallways of the other buildings’ wings. Sometimes Mom’s face contorted. She pointed to things that weren’t there. Unable to express what she was feeling, she uttered four-letter words she never used to speak.

“Everything is okay, Mom.” Entering into her world, I tried to reassure her. Most of the time it worked, but I was exhausted. I wondered how Dad did this for ten hours every day and how the nurses covered for him during the time he wasn’t with her.

When we walked through the blue nursing wing, however, I finally understood. Patients lay on hospital beds around the nurse’s station or in their tiny rooms. I heard no laughter, saw no movement, observed little life. This was what Dad was trying to keep Mom from.

The Evergreen Place nurses had told Dad this was where Mom technically needed to be now. She was past the assisted-living care they normally provided. They shouldn’t have to feed her breakfast. Or endure her fear-induced fight to help her use the bathroom, bathe, dress, or get ready for bed. They’d chosen to go the extra mile, though. For my mom’s sake. And for my dad’s.

After two hours of walking, Mom and I wandered back to Evergreen Place. Back to the nurses who engaged the residents in conversation, who painted their patients’ nails, who honored them with respect they’d never remember. Back to another two-hour feeding. Back to Mom’s small room where nurses had thoughtfully laid out her nightgown, placed pads on her bed, and turned down her bedcovers.

Needing to return home to my husband and two young children, I escorted Mom toward Catherine, a nursing assistant with beautiful black braids.

“Catherine, I need to go now. Could you help my mom?” I didn’t want to ask. Dad had told me about Mom’s fear of getting ready for bed. About the flailing, the hitting, the cursing.

“Of course.”

Of course? When she knew the battle she’d soon be facing?

Yes, of course, because even though the lady the nurses cared for was only a fragment of who she used to be, they knew none of this was her fault. They honored and loved her anyway.

Catherine took Mom’s hands. “Ms. Ellen, we’ll be just fine, won’t we?” In response, once again Mom swung her hips and started to dance.

My heart, filled with gratitude for those who cared for Mom, danced along with them.

~Beth Saadati

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