My Mom had had a stroke three months before.
After six weeks in the hospital and six weeks in a rehabilitation hospital/nursing home, she had come to live with us.
My husband joked that he got his mother-in-law for Valentine’s Day.
Yet, he was the one who had noticed, when we were looking for a new house the year before, that the one we ultimately chose had a mother-in-law suite.
“We have three parents in their eighties,” he told me. “It is likely one of them will come to live with us.”
As it happened, both my in-laws stayed in their own home until the end.
My Mom’s stroke was less than six months after we bought the house with the mother-in-law suite.
She never lived in it. She stayed in a bedroom across from ours on the main floor.
She couldn’t manage stairs when she came to live with us.
By the time she could, more than six months later, I realized she could not be left alone for more than an hour or so, so living by herself in a separate apartment in the basement was out of the question. The suite became home offices for my husband and me.
Mom could entertain herself. Though she had little language left, either speaking or understanding, after the massive stroke, she enjoyed leafing through magazines.
She enjoyed some television shows, as long as they didn’t talk too fast. The History Channel and Discovery Channel were favorites, as well as broadcast news.
She never tried to start a fire in the kitchen or cook, so I didn’t worry that she would turn on the stove and walk away.
She didn’t wander or have emotional outbursts, like Alzheimer’s patients.
She tried to keep busy and useful, like stacking logs in the backyard and folding clothes.
She cut down enough weeds around a fence that she wore out the spring on my grass clippers.
She swept the grass clippings off the driveway.
She got up, took a shower, brushed her teeth, got herself dressed and made her bed every day.
She washed, dried and put away her own clothes. She made her own bed every morning.
But, she also sometimes forgot what things were for and had to be retrained in their use.
“Mom, that’s a fork. If you want a glass of water, the glasses are here in the cupboard.”
And, what she might have recognized as a return to infantile behavior didn’t seem to embarrass her.
“Mom, don’t eat with your fingers. Your silverware is right next to your plate.”
So, she couldn’t be left alone for long.
But, occasionally, she tried to exert her will and her independence.
It happened first in the rehab/nursing home.
In order to get her to get on the plane with him without a fight, my brother had simply told her he was taking her to my house, from Oklahoma to Virginia. Then he gave her a heavy dose of anti-anxiety medicine.
He had left off the part about staying in full-time rehabilitation until she had relearned daily skills of living, as they call it, the toothbrushing, showering, dressing that would make my life much easier if she could handle them herself and preserve as much of her independence as possible.
So, when he dropped her off at the rehab hospital, she thought it was a hotel.
At 9 the next morning, I got a call.
“Your mother is packed and says she is ready to go to your house.”
I had actually meant to be there by nine, but, perhaps understanding the journey I was about to start, had procrastinated.
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
When I got there, I sat her down and explained the facts of life.
Although the side of the building she was staying in was a nursing home, it was simply where she could have a bed while she was getting full-time, five days a week occupational, physical and speech therapy.
Our intent was to bring her home to live with me as soon as she had gone as far as she could in rehab. I didn’t know how long that would be, but her job was to take advantage of every session she could get with therapists.
We were not leaving her in a nursing home. She was staying in a nursing home only because it was co-located with the rehab facility.
She accepted the explanation and was diligent about cooperating with the therapists.
The next time was when we brought her home.
Although I believed the therapists had brought her to the point that we could safely have her at home without nursing care, I thought she might still be unsteady on her feet.
Knowing that bathtubs can be slippery, we took advantage of a local offer from Prince William County’s Area Agency on Aging to send us a handyman to install grab bars next to the tub.
This was before the time we started using a sitter, also listed with the Area Agency on Aging, so Mom went with us everywhere.
That meant she was with us at Home Depot as we tried to pick out grab bars for the tub.
It’s hard to explain how someone with no language can communicate so clearly.
But, Mom threw a temper tantrum in the aisle at Home Depot as soon as she realized that the grab bars we were looking at were for her.
If I could have translated her efforts to get our attention, it probably would have gone something like this:
“I don’t need grab bars! Why are you getting these? I’m perfectly capable of getting in and out of a tub without falling. I’m not a baby and I’m not too old to climb into a tub. Don’t you dare put grab bars on my tub!”
In the middle of this disturbance, a gentleman about my age walked by and spoke to me quietly, out of Mom’s hearing.
“She is so lucky to have you helping her. Don’t mind this. It’s more important that you do exactly what you’re doing. It’s all going to be OK.”
We finally just lied to her and told her they were for guests, who would be using the same bathroom she did, not for her.
Mollified, she stopped her objections.
I didn’t know my mother would be with us for two years.
I didn’t know her presence would bring me closer to my brothers than we’d been since childhood.
I didn’t know she and my husband would finally reconcile over my husband’s good cooking.
I didn’t know my sister-in-law would ultimately step in, grateful for the opportunity because she hadn’t been able to with her own mother, and ease my mother’s last six months, after my nephew gave up his bed for his Grandma and slept under the dining room table.
He was right. It was all OK.
And, I will be eternally grateful that a stranger, who must have traveled the same path before me, was there that day to tell me so.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru