Our adventure began with the best of intentions — mine, I suppose.
Because of my mother’s creeping dementia and medical hiccups, I’d begun looking for a place to rent where the two of us might spend some quality time while I figured out which memory-care residence would be her next home.
That was December. In early January, 91-year-old Geri fell and fractured her right femur.
Apartment 503. Sounds like the title of a horror flick. The time Geri and I shared that apartment after hip-replacement surgery at times approached the harrowing. Ask the neighbor in 403. She expressed concern to the leasing agent about the thumps and tirades, the coaxing and pleading, the cussing and the fussing.
I liked to tell people that had mom only broken her hip, our time in Apartment 503 would have gone well. Alternatively, had she only had dementia, that too would have been manageable: As long as she felt safe, we’d be fine. But she did break her hip, and she did have dementia. I hadn’t even thought to imagine that I might be the one who didn’t feel safe. Remind me to tell you about the pizza box incident, a go-to anecdote about the psycho-comedic aspects of dementia. Currently, it’s relegated to the “too-soon” to recount category.
Note to surgeons: May I suggest you read or re-read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which may reorder your thinking about medical interventions and the aged. So that when the adult child of a 91-year-old parent with dementia is weighing decisions about the value of major surgery, feel free to remind her that hip precautions are hard enough to adhere to (no bending, no leg crossing, no, no, no…) when you’re of sound mind. In the two weeks following her hip replacement, a deeply confused Geri broke her wrist in a fall and dislocated her new hip twice because she just couldn’t play by the rules.
A litany of hospital visits and care-taking missteps isn’t why I’m writing this. Though over the last month, I’ve lost sight of why I am. Perhaps because I’m avoiding finishing Geraldine Cecelia Kennedy’s obit?
If there is a moral to the Apartment 503 saga, so far it is of the “best laid schemes” variety. The things we hope to achieve are often replaced with slower-to-reveal-themselves lessons. And so, on a gray afternoon in late May, I walked Gus the standard poodle and Jax the terrier of unknown provenance to Apartment 503. Two months earlier Geri and I had moved into the one bedroom on the fifth floor of a recently opened apartment complex. Now, I was slowly clearing out what hadn’t gone with her to memory care. Removing pasta and chips from the cabinet. Packing books that were pertinent (Dying Well and The Spectrum of Hope: An Optimistic Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias), or escapist (No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories and Carl Weber’s Kingpins Philadelphia ) or work-related (White Houses by Amy Bloom). Emptying the bathroom drawers of their abundant supply of wet wipes, latex gloves and barrier creams. Cleaning out the fridge of ice cream -- Mom’s -- and sandwich makings. Emptying a half-consumed bottle of prosecco, a move-in gift from the leasing company. That there was still a half bottle — a fork hanging in its mouth to keep the bubbles — after two months was testament to how different life had become for Geri.
Before the Great Relocation to Apartment 503 — of mom from rehab and me from the home I share with B. and our dogs — B. and I had optimistically discussed what this time could be like. I’d throw weekly happy hours where Geri would be the centerpiece. I loved showing her off. She could charm. She could toss back mimosas better than any brunch aficionado. She deserved to be celebrated and we had friends glad to do just that.
The problem with this fantasy was that gentle, beauty-loving Geri was often moody -- hostile even. Having watched my supremely kind Grandmother roughened by dementia, you’d think I would have seen this coming. Geri's tough-loving caregiver N. took to calling her “Sybil” when the abrupt changes in affect came. And if my cultured, kind mother said “ain’t“ and took on hints of a Southern accent, it would be wise to take a step back. She’d a smack you. Yes, she was in pain from surgery, but that wasn’t it. Although I’d pressed for her not have a general anesthesia, knowing its possible effects on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, she was altered by the surgery and the Fentanyl administered for her dislocations.
Instead of creating some loving space where mom might happen upon happiness and be the hoot she so often was, the goal became to figure out her mental and physical baselines. (I was sure the rehab folks had underestimated. They had.)
When Geri and I first made our trip via an ambulance cab from the rehab facility to our new digs, I thought I might write about our adventure in the occasional “Little Wanderings” post. She could make such hilarious, quotable observations (none of which I can recall right now). “The Book of Daze,” I’d label them. I’d write scenes from our ups and downs while Geri watched TV or napped or went to bed at a reasonable hour for a reasonable duration. The one entry from those 60 days typed hastily into iPhone notes is pure gibberish.
Because all my attention (and that of the in-home therapists and caregivers) was focused on preventing falls or fending off another dislocated hip, I slept the first week on a big ivory armchair near her hospital bed, legs curled on an ottoman.
After a week of that, I remembered we had a good inflatable mattress. I set the Aero bed beneath Geri’s bed. It changed my life, until it didn’t. Almost immediately I heard the almost imperceptible hiss of air escaping from a pin-prick size hole. I bought vinyl glue. I bought adhesives. Nothing fixed it. I’d chew gum, fix the wad over the hole then put Gorilla Tape over that. The tape and peppermint Eclipse stopgap usually did the trick until about 2 a.m. when I would awake sloshing on a mattress undulating like an under-filled waterbed. I’d turn the air pump on. It sounded like a leaf blower. Apartment 403 be damned. That might buy me a couple more hours. I got sort of good pressing my finger on the hole and vaguely napping at the same time.
The third week, I graduated to the pull-out sofa in the living-room and was able to stay there more often than not, popping up whenever I heard Geri rustle, hoping that railing on the rented bed would impede her until I could get to her.
In that first month of shacking up, Mom’s sleeplessness became my sleeplessness. Apologies to every new parent struggling with sleep deprivation. I really didn’t get it. How do you hold down a flipping job? It’s an exhaustion you will not fully grasp until you experience it. I was beat.
I’d leased this apartment for four months. We lasted two. Barely. Once Geri moved into Lakewood Memory Care, I revised the plan for Apartment 503. Wanting to wring the last drops of value from the rental, I’d use the apartment, with a coffee maker, a decent desk and a view as a writing haven. In addition to a daily visit to mom’s new place at Lakewood, I’d try to match B’s nursing schedule — three 12-hour shifts — with my own shift work, writing scenes for “Icarus Ascending,” a memoir about my deceased brother’s glorious, too short time in Paris and the Alps.
I wrote a draft of this post sitting at the desk in the living room, looking out the wall of windows at the greening tops of maples and oaks. I organized some piles and took bags to the trash chute. I stared out that window, surveyed the kitchen counters and scribbled some more. As beckoning as the view was, the writer’s room plan was even then evaporating. The apartment had served its purpose and refused any other duty.
That now seems like one very specific lifetime ago.
Photos for this Post: A early spring view from Apartment 503 at 3220 Meade, Highlands; an unfinished gift at the end of a chapter/Yours Truly.