80: Words to the Wise

80: Words to the Wise

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Words to the Wise

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

~Karl Popper, Unended Quest

Mom is in bed when I visit one afternoon, her eyes open, her hands twisting the blanket like a kid who’s had enough of her nap. She smiles when I walk in.

“Hi, Mom, how are you?” I say and think about my friend who decries such pleasantries, thinking they are inane and not designed to inspire a meaningful dialogue. I certainly expect no direct response from Mom, but the greeting makes me feel normal.

“Do you have any…?” Mom says, raising her head.

She looks at me expectantly, and I say, “No, I don’t have any today.”

“How are,” she says, and I feel a little thrill at this social nicety.

“I’m fine, Mom. How are you?”

“I know what you mean,” she says, looking out toward the hallway.

I am excited by Mom’s little monologue. Alzheimer’s has erased most of Mom’s considerable vocabulary, and this spill of words is a treat. As I stroke her arm and smile at her, I realize I am literally listening to my mother’s last words.

In the movies, the last words are profound gems of wisdom, uttered upon a deathbed. Those words are a raft to hang onto so you don’t drown with grief. Though my mother is lying in bed, she is definitely not dying. In fact, given her vast years and advanced Alzheimer’s, she’s relatively physically healthy.

“Well we item,” Mom says. “All right.”

She no longer needs a listener’s approval. She no longer checks for understanding. The words tumble out, like the random winnings from a nickel slot machine.

“So, but that’s,” Mom says, as I touch her leg.

“Well, we,” Mom laughs.

“Why.”

“Oh.”

“That’s right.”

Each word is an independent contractor, a one-act play. Mom’s words require interpretation, involvement, imagination, and curiosity. Unlike last words in a deathbed scene, Mom’s words do not neatly sum up her life or philosophy. Still, these words are gifts. Many visits go by with the barest scraps of language. I get out my pen and paper and write down every one of my mother’s last words.

“Okay.”

“I don’t know.”

“I paid.”

“But her,” Mom points to the blank wall.

“There you are,” Mom says, and she may be referring to me.

“Uhuh.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll try.”

As I write, I imagine she is giving me a secret code, sending me a message from the last cognitive bastion of her brain. “I don’t know. I paid. I’ll try.” What depth, what meaning, what spiritual significance these simple phrases might have.

“Since I set up a peg,” Mom blurts out. I know she is only partially revealing her intriguing hidden agenda.

Across the hall, a television set blares out the Jeopardy! theme. The receptionist pages the head nurse. The cleaning cart bumps down the hallway. Two nurse’s aides walk past, talking about vacation time.

“No,” Mom says. She looks right at me and smiles.

“No what, Mom?” I ask.

“But she didn’t,” Mom says.

As I memorialize my mom, I listen to the Jeopardy! contestants. Their brains are bursting with all kinds of fascinating data. Full, well-formed sentences flow seductively from their mouths. They are wealthy in concept and language. Mom used to be rich in language, rich from reading, from painting, from going to movies and concerts, from listening to others. She was eager to get into conversations.

I think of times when Mom visited me, and we’d stay up late, drinking coffee, eating cookies, and talking. It was ordinary conversation, unadorned cotton cloth. But now, those casual talks seem like intricate embroidery on plush velvet.

“Where did I get,” Mom says.

“You can.”

Jan, the activities director, drops in. “Hi, Frances,” she croons to Mom.

Mom smiles and says, “There just.”

“Mom’s really talking a lot today,” I say.

“She’s doing so well,” Jan says. I feel a small sense of pride. I have seen my mother praised for many things—her cooking, her friendship, her gardening, and her oil painting. Today she is being praised for smiling and saying a few words. She is being praised just for being who she is.

Jan looks lovingly at Mom as Mom says, “They don’t. Oh, really.”

“I’m gonna,” Mom says after Jan leaves.

“I’m going to leave soon, Mom. I love you, Mom,” I say, leaning down to kiss her cheek.

“Yeah, I know that.”

I leave quickly, wanting to hang onto that last quartet of words, wanting to believe those words are true, and they are just for me.

~Deborah Shouse

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