34: An Unexpected Bond

34: An Unexpected Bond

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

An Unexpected Bond

Our grandchildren accept us for ourselves, without rebuke or effort to change us, as no one in our entire lives has ever done...

~Ruth Goode

“Not as fine as frogs’ tails, my pickle-nosed sweet,” said my elderly father when I called to ask how he was. At least he still had his sense of humor. But I could hear deep weariness in his voice, and I knew it was time for a change. Dad had been doing his best to take care of Mom for the past decade, ever since she first showed signs of Alzheimer’s.

When I discussed the situation with my husband that evening, he said, “I think your mother should move in with us.”

“I agree. It’s the right thing to do. Dad needs a break,” I said, but not without some apprehension.

That night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about Mom and the changes ahead for our family. I was especially concerned about our 18-month-old son, Kegan. How would he respond to her? Would he be jealous of the time and attention I would need to give her? Would he be uneasy around her or afraid of her? How sad that he had never known his fun-loving grandmother the way she used to be. She would have read to him and played with him and made him feel special. I wished the two of them could have had a chance to bond. If only her mind hadn’t been destroyed by this awful disease.

My mother arrived with only two suitcases, so it was easy to find room for her belongings. But afterward, things got more difficult. Feeding her took a great deal of time and patience. I had to stroke her lips to try to get her to open her mouth so I could give her a spoonful of food. Once the food was in her mouth, she chewed, but seemed to forget that she needed to swallow. After I brushed her teeth at night, she would hold the toothpaste in her mouth and not understand that she needed to spit it out. One morning, I found that she had used her bedroom wastebasket for a toilet. Since I didn’t want to put her in diapers, I began a regimen of getting up every two hours during the night to take her to the bathroom.

Mom, who had raised five children of her own, seemed to think she needed to watch over my children. Kegan was a blue-eyed, towheaded boy, as my older brother had been, and maybe Mom thought Kegan was her son. Kegan didn’t mind—he was used to being supervised—but our 13-year-old daughter found Mom’s constant shadowing annoying. Mom would follow her and poke at her with her finger. I suspected that Mom was trying to understand who my daughter was. When Mom wasn’t trailing one of the children, she followed me everywhere, particularly hovering over me when I worked in the kitchen.

I realized that my formerly hardworking mother needed things to do. Soon, she and Kegan became a team. I gave them unbreakable plates and cups so they could set the table together, which kept them occupied arranging and rearranging items in random ways. When I did laundry, they sat at the kitchen table together folding the clothes. I had to refold everything later, but that was okay. Mom also kept herself busy tucking Kegan’s toys in odd little places here and there. I don’t know what was going on in her brain, but perhaps she thought she was cleaning up the house.

“Look!” Kegan might say, wiggling with excitement and pointing. And there would be his missing rubber ducky hidden amongst the leaves of a houseplant or his set of plastic keys dangling from a lampshade. To him, this was a fun game he and Grandma were playing.

One day, the two of them disappeared into the living room and were unusually quiet. I peeked in to see Kegan cuddled up next to her on the couch. She was reading a book out loud to him. Most of her words were unintelligible, but that didn’t seem to bother my son. He sat with his thumb in his mouth, looking radiantly happy and content. Never mind that my mother was holding the book upside down.

In her pre-Alzheimer’s days, Mom had been an elementary school teacher and had always loved children. Even with her disease, she retained that interest in children. Mom spent hours playing happily with Kegan. Once, I heard her call one of his toys “cheese.”

“No, Grandma,” he said patiently, but with animation, “it’s not cheese. It’s a school bus.”

She didn’t understand, but that seemed to be all right with him. He truly accepted her just the way she was.

One night after I had gotten Kegan and Mom ready for bed, I said to him, “Can you help Grandma find her way to her bedroom?”

Kegan took Grandma by the hand and led her down the hall, she in her long nightgown and slippers, and he in his diapers and plastic pants. On Kegan’s face glowed such an expression of joy. He was helping Grandma. He was doing an important job.

At that moment, I had the sweetest realization: Mom was doing all the things with my son she would have done had she not been struck by this terrible disease, but in a completely different way. In her own unique way, she read to him and played with him, and here she was, making him feel very special.

Though I hadn’t expected it, my son and my mother had bonded after all.

~Ann McArthur

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