I find her sitting in her chair, as usual, with her eyes closed. I kiss her and say, “Happy Mother’s Day” and hand her her gift: a pink nightdress. She wanly smiles. She likes it and I’m glad. It’s so difficult to give her presents nowadays. Most things will be useless; they won’t even interest her.
I now push her chair for a few metres, from her room to the small living room where she used to take her meals. Not anymore. She stays in her room, shunning other people. She won’t have them see the state she’s been reduced to. She only goes there when I come over and quite unwillingly. I stop the chair and carefully adjust her position so that she is as close to the table as possible.
I take out the plastic covering the plates and put small pieces of bread in her soup. I adjust her napkin and she calls for another one, she doesn’t want to dirty herself. Then I give her the soup, slowly, as if she were a child. Only she’s not, she is my mother, not yet eighty but looking twenty years older, and just to look at her and see what she has become makes me want to cry. But I don’t, I keep taking each mouthful to her lips, carefully, and she looks at me in her absentminded way.
After the soup she used to eat the rest of the food by herself, with a spoon. I’d smash it so that she might do it, but today she is shaking so violently (her Parkinson’s getting worse by the day) that I ask her if she wants me to go on, and surprisingly – or not – she nods, so I give her the mashed potatoes with minced meat and afterwards the little pieces of pear for dessert.
She is impatient to go back to her room, so I obligingly push her chair back. She looks relieved to be back. I sit down and she reminds me it’s “manicure day” so I do her nails. She thanks me – in fact she thanks me and the ladies attending her all the time for every little thing we do for her. She, who used to be so independent, must find it distressing to be completely dependent on other people for the smallest of things in her life. Her skeletal hands shake so much whenever she moves them that she finally rests them on her lap, but still she shakes all over. She leans back on her chair, eyes closed as if she were dozing, but then she starts telling me about something, only she can’t remember the words and she insists “you know, that is the noise of…er…er…oh my God I’m so forgetful these days…” – and I can read it in her face that she knows what is happening to her; slowly but inexorably – and lately it hasn’t been that slowly, as she is rapidly decaying – she is losing her faculties. She speaks with difficulty, is no longer able to walk by herself with the walker as she used to; she has to wear nappies – something she loathes – she forgets words, what she has said only minutes ago; questions she has already asked; and all the time the worst of it all is to see that desperate look on her face, the look of someone who feels utterly defeated, who has lost all hope of being autonomous again, the look of someone who has almost ceased living and now barely exists, day after day after day.
Ah Mother, to see you like this – you, a vibrant, brilliant, independent woman if ever there was one! You loved to read, but lately could not hold a book because of your shaking hands. I bought you a special reading table, and today I fetch that most loved of all books, Collected poems by W.B. Yeats, your beloved poet. I put in in front of you and open it on the page of your favourite poem “When you are old and grey”. How many times you have read it to me with a passionate voice and tears in your eyes! Today you don’t look at it, not even once, you are simply not interested, and I sadly put it away. Maybe, I think, it wasn’t a good choice of a poem, after all you are old and grey and nodding on a chair, but unlike Maud Gonne to whom Yeats dedicated it there is no one to love you with that immense, eternal love. Maybe there was, once, but you let him go and even if you hadn’t it wouldn’t matter now – he would have been long gone.
Today, there is nothing to fill your days except this emptiness, this wait for a moment where there will no longer be pain or suffering – but still a moment you dread and will not think of.
You are dozing now, as you do most of the time. The despised book is back on its place on the shelf of the bookcase filled with books you will never read again. Nothing really interests you but to talk of ailments and diseases. As I come out of your room, desperately sad, I see another daughter pushing her mother’s chair along the corridor. We have come across each other often, of course, and we exchange a greeting. On her hand also a bag with a gift for her mother; on her face the same anguished look of powerlessness and a sad, tired smile.
Just another Mother’s Day at the senior residence, I think as I head for the door.