Who’s That Lady

Who’s That Lady

Who’s That Lady 1920 1284 Sandra Hunter

I kneel down and kiss my mother,

–I’m not a lady. I’m your daughter.

She pulls out her disapproving mother expression,


But she’s also smiling.

The neurons have fired and made the connections.


Her brown fence teeth are disintegrating. Occasionally, she spits out a tooth sliver as she mumbles her cookie. I learn to sit by her side instead of in front of her. I learn not to breathe her elderly mouth smell.

When we help her to stand for the bedside commode, her pants drop off the fleshless buttocks and thighs. Then comes the terror, her fear of falling, and the bent fingers that you have to pry, one by one, from the chair arms.


Suddenly she steps ahead of her shadows and forms a question,

–Where’s your brother?

–He’s at work.

–At work? That’s ridiculous.

Just as swiftly, her shadows’ malicious fingers catch up with her,

–Please. Tell me. I want to be good. Please. Please.


It goes on for hours, the high-pitched screaming that has no apparent focus, that cannot be calmed.
She calls for the dead,

–Sister, Mama, Papa, please. Get up. Please.

We rub her back, her arms. We stroke her face. She pushes us away. Wants the footstool. Kicks it over.

Language gapes between us. And she is angry: why don’t we know her language when she has to put up with ours?

Has to put up with being talked to like a languageless infant.

Has to put up with being draped with a plastic sheet to be fed with mouthfuls that are too large, too small, too hot, too cold. Can no one make a decent cup of tea?

Has to endure being washed and dressed in clothes that barely stay on in colors and patterns she’d never choose.

Has to listen to people discussing her condition too quietly for her to hear and the stupid hearing aid doesn’t work anyway.

Has to now endure the daughter, the unbeliever, after all these years still resisting Jesus.


She bends over, hands gripped. Is she praying? In pain? Both?


I show her photograph albums. She likes hearing about the birds in Costa Rica and her cello-playing granddaughter, now at college. We have a few moments of calm.

A well-meaning church friend visits and demands a Bible-study session. I explain that complex discussions are beyond my mother’s cognitive and language abilities. The friend insists that God will heal my mother of her dementia and Alzheimer’s. Already she looks better, doesn’t she? My mother begins to panic and scream. I can’t help her! I can’t help her!

I cut the visit short.

The rest of the afternoon is fraying despair. It is evening before she is too exhausted to scream anymore. We know, Norah, her caregiver and I, that the torment will begin again.


She is rocking, “Please please please. I want to go up. Let me go. Where is the door? Show me how to go. Please please.

I sing to her while she screams. Eventually, she sleeps.


She decides to brush her teeth. I bring the basin, toothbrush with a small squirt of toothpaste and a mug of water.

After pretending she’s gone off the idea she reluctantly accepts the toothbrush and uses both hands to angle it into the right position. She brushes quite vigorously. We are both pleased. She spits toothpaste into the basin.

–Where’s the blimmin’ water?

I hand her the mug,

–Here’s your blimmin’ water.

Her wheezing laugh, the way I remember it. We laugh together.


The afternoon is less happy. Norah helps her to the hospital bed where I’m sitting. I put my arm around her. She bends forward.

–I—I—I can’t do anything.

I stroke her arm,

–I know. It’s very hard.

–Please please please let me go. Please.

I lean my head against hers,

–It’s okay. You can go.

She looks at me,

–I can?

Her eyes stream. Mine, too.


The uncomfortable sticky temperature finally drops but I cannot understand why my Airbnb room stays hot even though I have the fan cranked up. I lever open a narrow cupboard door and find the water heater. No wonder the fan can’t compete.

I find things to hate: the flimsy hand-held shower head that barely dribbles. The bathtub that is almost hip height and requires a karate kick to enter and exit. Having to keep my toiletries bag perched on a high narrow ledge. The door handle to the room that is old and stiff. Like me, it only yields with a lot of persuasion. The duvet cover that is too big and drags on the floor.


As can happen with some Alzheimer’s patients, the medication is ineffective. We try to calm my mother’s mounting anguish but by the afternoon she is screaming almost non-stop. She will listen briefly and then scream again. Her anxiety is thick and feverish. Her hands and feet are cold. We are sweating, hauling her on and off the commode, running to fetch tea that she refuses.


I go back to my room with the water heater and watch TV . I wake up between 3 and 4 a.m. and lie awake  until it’s light enough to  go out. I walk the streets and the highways and the wooded trails. I come back and have a dribbling shower. I walk to my mother’s house and her pinched eyebrows ridged into her forehead, her unwashed ears, the ready meals of chicken tikka masala, the wailing and shouting, the smell of piss that lingers after the commode has been emptied and cleaned.

Breath by breath she tells Norah,

–Tell—the girl—not to—have—hard feelings.


Even in her demented state she knows. Or perhaps she is remembering how I turned the conversation when she wanted to talk about God.

She still tries, in crumbling words, to reach her stubborn godless daughter,


–I will love my family and work with my students and live my life the best way possible.

My Hallmark moment delivered bluntly with no flowers. She looks away. She often looks away. I don’t know how much she understands. But I do know that by refusing her god I have refused her.


Outside it is relentlessly hot. Inside our weather rages. Everything smells like it’s about to burn, like we’re herded, flailing, into a corner.

She is biting and kicking, screaming,

–Get out! Get out! You damn bitch!

Norah backs away. I sit down with my mother and remind her that we need to be nice to her.

My mother stares at me through the shifting veils of recognition,

–What for?


The day screams on. I watch the clock until we can make lunch. I watch the clock until it’s time for Norah’s  break. She rushes out of the house like she’s not coming back, and I want to rush with her.

A friend comes over, but my mother has screamed herself into exhaustion.

I discover that by stroking her hair she will stay calm. Stroking her hair for two hours gives me a cramp in my side. The friend and I trade off stroking duty.

We watch the clock until Norah comes back.

The friend leaves. I show Norah the stroking trick. It works for now.

We watch the clock until my brother comes home from work and we talk about what to do next. We wait for the next hour, for the morning, for the social worker, for the doctor to call back. We hitch each event onto our backs and carry it to the next. We watch while she screams, while we stroke desperately, while she occasionally falls silent, eyes rolling back and forth under closed lids, mouth sagging, fingers working her skirt.


I walk on the trails in the cool morning air. One day I am adventurous and try a different loop and become lost. I am on the far side of the woods. If I can just reach them, I will find the trail. I decide to cross the field of tall grass. Except it isn’t just grass. It’s knotted with brambles. I am wearing shorts. By the time I scramble over a tall wooden fence my legs look like they’ve been through a cheese grater.


We watch her as she sleeps, whispering because our voices disturb her, and she’ll start screaming again. She has become some terrible goddess that we cannot appease. We bring offerings, we bring bright faces, we bring the religious songs she loves so well. But her religion is now a torture wheel: she cannot do good, she cannot earn her way. She is trapped, turning, broken bone by broken bone, unable to do anything except believe.

And that is not enough.


The weather is warm. We open the back door, haul boxes and bags out of the way so we can wheel her to the doorway to look at something other than the two pictures of olive trees.

Outside the lavender is bee-heavy and a tortoiseshell butterfly poses and flirts.

She engages for a few minutes and then stares blankly at some other garden in some other place.


I dig out her old hymnal and croak my way through a few hymns. She listens and nods. Then I start “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”. She tries out a few words, “come home, come home”. She pats my hand.


Someone has sent flowers. Carnations, thistles and one white rosebud. It opens, looking ready to float out a delicate light scent. It smells of nothing.


My mother is screaming and fighting as we re-settle her in the chair after the commode. The phone rings. It is the social worker.

My mother is screaming,

–Come here! Come here!

There is anger in my voice even as I try to make it calm,

–I have to take this call, Mum.

–You stay here, stupid girl. You don’t understand anything!

Something dark boils up and I long to scream back.


I sit on the footstool, wiping the drool from her chin as she sleeps, head back, mouth drooping, one eye open looking to another country, another daughter, a land that is brighter than day.

Her eyes flutter open. I lean forward,

–Would you like a cup of tea?

She speaks half words, half-fuddle, but the tone is gentle. And there is a smile for me.


–I—I—get-up—get-up—you lazy lump—get-up—

She is cursing herself again as she wriggles her way out of the chair, legs flailing sideways.

I ask questions: Tea? Biscuit? Toilet?


Finally, she agrees to get up. I hold her hands and we lurch to the bathroom. She follows me while I walk backwards one half-step at a time, a sad swaying listing left, left, left.

It is only fifteen steps to the bathroom but she stops halfway. She is in danger of collapsing and I grasp her around her body. She is so much shorter now. Her head is on my shoulder, mouth pressed against my shirt.

I lower her onto the toilet seat. She is proud to be sitting there instead of the awful commode.

She commands paper, to be lifted up, to retrace our slow spiraling Ravel’s waltz back to the living room.


Some intuitive tendril is still searching the air, searching my face when I cheerfully sing hymns written for a god I do not believe in.

When I say I love her, she is surprised. Well, that’s nice. She does not reach for my hand.


I wonder what I love you means to each of us.


We have come too far, and there is more of this journey: the feeding and cleaning and toileting and the slow stagger from one moment to the next with longer grace periods of exhausted sleep.

We go on.

We go on.

Header photo © Vicki Miko.

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