When we were kids, it was that magical time after dinner when the fireflies were just beginning to dance and the street lamps were starting to buzz as they came to life. Time for most of the neighborhood kids to hear their moms call them in for the night. But sometimes, we were granted bonus time, and those few minutes were the best, for telling scary stories or playing one more game of hide and seek.
When we were a little older, bonus time meant a few extra minutes to add the perfect ending to an essay question on the test or to look over your work to be sure nothing was misspelled and that you’d remembered to put your name on your paper.
Then, bonus time meant a little longer to say goodnight to your boyfriend on the front porch and sneak a kiss between the blinking of the Christmas lights, all the time willing your fingertips to please stay warm inside your coat pockets.
Now, bonus time has taken on a whole new meaning as my sisters and I struggle with our 90-year-old Mom’s dementia diagnosis. A little more time to share an impossibly purple sunset and hear her exclaim how beautiful it is and how happy she is that we were able to see something so magnificent together. I revel in her enthusiasm with tears in my eyes, grateful for another memory, snapping a picture of the sky with my phone because she has misplaced her non-existent camera. I know full well that she won’t remember this even a few minutes from now when I show her the picture on my phone, because that’s how it happens with this dementia thing as it insidiously steals our mother away. But for this precious, outstandingly bittersweet moment, she is with me.
More than once, each of us sisters has wondered about the why of it, the unfairness of it, the uncertainty of our moments together with our mother. No one would wish this existence for her, especially her. There are the agonizing times she tries to make sense of things and can’t, when she tries to rectify years gone and facts in her mind that seem a reality but can’t be. She worries about her little dog, Laddie, and how he is being fed if she isn’t home to take care of him . . . the dog that was hers 80-some years ago.
And it’s in those moments I thank heaven I’m not God, having to make the decision that this existence is no longer worthwhile, that our bonus time has come to an end. Because through all of the tough times, we have been blessed to keep the best of our mom. She remembers all of our names, our husbands, our kids and grandkids. She remembers that my favorite holiday is Halloween, that my youngest sister is the only one who drinks coffee because our babysitter allowed her to sip from her coffee cup, that our middle sister slipped from the top of the swingset and had to get stitches because she was the tomboy of the group. And she’s still creative and funny and social, to the point that she’s often in the hallway organizing all the wheelchairs so folks can share stories and be together.
When Mom can’t remember something, she wings it, weaving delightfully creative stories that the nurses often ask us about. “Did your Mom really grow up on a farm? She told us how wonderful warm milk straight from the cow tastes.” Nope. “Sounds like she was quite a teacher; she’s shared some of her classroom memories with us” Nope again.
One of the nurses aides told me shortly after mom arrived that she thinks the residents of the memory assistance ward have better “realities” than those of us in the real world could ever imagine.
But the futility of it all is frustrating, and sad, and so very uncertain. Mom doesn’t want to be there, wherever “there” is to her. Some days she believes she is due at work, or is supposed to be home to cook dinner for our deceased stepdad who is going to be mad that she isn’t there, or is staying at a nice hotel that she can’t possibly afford. She can’t find her purse and she isn’t staying and this isn’t her room and she won’t eat because they will charge her for everyone at the table and they’re all complete strangers, and she never imagined her daughters would leave her alone in an unfamiliar place instead of caring for her in their homes.
But to be honest, I have to admit that those long remembered bonus times weren’t perfect, either. Some of those late evening forays as kids ended up with skinned knees or painful chigger bites. Once, in an extra-innings baseball game, my sister was accidentally hit in the mouth with a bat because it was too dark to see.
And how many times did those few extra bonus minutes at the end of a test mean that I second-guessed a perfectly correct answer and changed it? Or that I added superfluous drivel to an essay answer that detracted from the point I was trying to make?
My dad obviously caught on to the blinking Christmas lights and stolen bonus moments with my boyfriend when he removed the bulb that caused the strand to blink and we were standing on the front porch freezing under a brightly lit overhang.
Bonus time is fickle. Some days, my mom is lucid and looks lovingly at her 70 year old wedding album, remembers guests and the wedding party and shares wonderful stories of our grandparents dancing at the reception.
Other days, she is tired and can’t be roused and we worry this may be the day Mom will simply slip away from us. There will be no more starring moments in the memory challenge games when she remembers old song lyrics and movie stars and phrases that no else in the room does, no more giggles over inside family jokes, no more trips to check out other residents’ door decorations, when she tells me I must be tired of walking and asks if I don’t want to sit in her wheelchair and have her push me for awhile.
There is beautiful artwork in the dining room and hallways of the nursing home. As we walk, one piece always catches Mom’s eye more than the others. It’s a large mural depicting a small cottage by the sea, sittting in the shelter of a snow-capped mountain, and surrounded by colorful flowers. Close up, we marvel at the dabs of paint that make up each petal, each corner of a cloud. From a distance, we see the depth of the distant city and the shadow of a sidewalk that leads to the cottage door.
Mom doesn’t know what day it is, how many years have passed since the orchard she believes we can still pick apples from was bulldozed for a new homesite, how long the neighbors she speaks to each day have been gone. But she never fails to wheel herself to that seaside painting and comment that she swears she could walk right onto that sidewalk and knock on the cottage door.
I like to imagine that will be how it happens for her when our bonus time is over. And how delighted everyone on the other side of the door will be to welcome her home.