Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I didn't think this day would come

This past July and August my mom was in the hospital (actually in 3 hospitals). She had been over-medicated and mis-medicated and was suffering deep dementia-related symptoms. She was agitated, raving, hallucinating, confused, angry, delusional, violent. She was so weak she couldn't stand unassisted and had to be helped with the most basic tasks of living. Her diagnosis was multi-infarct dementia and the doctors assured us that the condition was permanent. She would need life-long confinement and constant care.

I'd like to tell all those doctors that BULLSHIT YOU JERKS, it was the medication after all. Today my mom moved into a brand new assisted living facility. She has a very minor level of care, 3 meals daily, medication oversight and complete freedom of movement. There are a lot of things she can't do, but so many more that she can. She can't live alone again but she doesn't need to be locked away for her own protection or watched constantly.

A tough part of this move was my mom's having to acknowledge that the large part of her independence is gone. She's been her own support system for most of her adult life and to have to depend upon others, to have to ask for help for basics, is foreign to her. She'll never again drive a car, never balance a checkbook (or even write a check), never set her own daily schedule. She won't be planning her own meals, won't be cooking or shopping alone. All her financial decisions are out of her hands.

But the hardest part was having to downsize her possessions. For almost three quarters of a century my mom has been a collector. When I was a little girl she started collecting antiques. She scoured old barns and out-of-way shops and had her own personal antique store owner who would call her first when something good came in. Lovely, heavy dark woods; fancy intricately designed upholstery fabrics; antique pewter mugs; old red glass. Then she started traveling around the world and collecting more things. First there were the fine art objects, then the folk art.

Two years ago she moved from La Jolla to a smaller home up here. She needed to be closer to me, closer to my brother, closer to a support network. She went from about 2000 crowded square feet to about 1500 square feet. She didn't pare down her possessions, didn't sort anything, didn't discard anything. Everything squeeeeezed into the smaller home. But now the space she moved to today only has 750 square feet. Lots of things needed to go.

As the main packer it was my job to talk my mom into sorting her possessions. We started with big furniture, went through books and then sorted objects. We packed what she absolutely wanted. We stuck books to donate to the library in a far corner. I set aside a large table for questionable items. About the only thing that convinced my mom to not take everything was the idea that her choices weren't irrevocable. We covered that table, then surrounded that table, and went through rolls and rolls of bubble wrap. Boxes were marked as "books" or "fragile" or "very fragile" or "the most fragile."

Everything we moved - packed or piled - had a story. "I found that in an old store in the U.P." Or, "Noreen called me when this came in and I rushed to get it. " And, "I bought that in Alaska" "Russia" "China" "Mexico" "Egypt" "China" (she liked it there, went a few times to different places) "Cuba" "Mexico" (went there a lot too; I went with her a few times) "Thailand" "Detroit" "Jupiter" (I made that up to see if you're paying attention) (but she would have gone if there were interesting things to see).

There is memory loss, with some things there's lots of memory loss, but my mom remembers where her beloved belongings are from. She remembers who she was with if she wasn't traveling alone, she remembers how she bargained and often how little she paid. She doesn't remember when she went to many of these places. I thought that putting aside her stuff was remarkably brave and it broke my heart to see her have to go through this.

It only got worse when we got to her clothes. My mom has always lived with plenty of closet space so she has never had to get rid of things. Before arthritis crippled her fingers she made most of her clothes; she was a fabulous seamstress and had a great eye for colors and great touch for fabrics. She made timeless classics and, apparently, kept them all.

She went through her first closet by herself and almost everything was in the keep pile. I took her into the next closet and told her that everything had to fit onto one hanging rod; everything else would go on her bed. When it was all "keep" "keep" "keep" I made the same bargain about the clothes that I had about the other items: nothing is irrevocable. Once the movers took the clothes she definitely wanted, I'd re-hang the rest of them and she'd have plenty of time to change her mind. That got things moving.

I'd ask when she had last worn something. Point out any spots or worn bits or tears. Ask if it fit. Cajoled her. Jollied her. Laughed. Rolled my eyes. Admired dresses while telling her she had no use for them. Asked her if she planned to move back to Detroit to wear some of her warmest clothes. Took things away while she was undecided.

But I knew exactly how hard it was to put aside a couple of articles. One was a gorgeous red lace (backless) party dress that she wore when I was a little girl. Yup, that was in the 1960's! She has kept this dress, moved it about 8 times and probably hasn't worn it for 40+ years. It's still in perfect shape, still stylish. She will never wear it again, I could never wear it (although I'd love to); it will just hang. She finally gave it to me to put on the bed and it looked like she was going to cry. I felt like the meanest meany who every meaned.

We never even touched the folded shirts and sweaters, that will be another job for another time. We didn't go through any of her paperwork, didn't touch the garage (oy. The garage). I met the movers this morning and in the pouring storm they spent a couple of hours loading our carefully packed boxes, the bed, the sofa, the desk, the chairs, the end tables, the lamps, the mirrors, and more more more. When they left the house still looked full.

They brought everything to her new apartment in her new home. The movers carted in the goods and I unpacked some things while my bro and sister-in-law took my mom down to the dining room for her first meal there. I emptied the wardrobes, filled the mini-fridge, set up the bathroom. I placed things in drawers and in the closet and on the shelves. I didn't touch the boxes of "stuff" but made sure my mom had the things she needed for her first night.

When my family came back from lunch, raving about how good the food was, I had a surprise for my mom. I directed her to the closet, stuffed full of her clothes. And there, hanging front and center, was her beloved red dress.

I'm such a pushover.

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