It's a small thing: tonight Mom can't remember that she is supposed to take her false teeth out at night.
"It's the first time," says her weekend caregiver, Racquel.
We both know that for over a year now, Mom has been asked to take them out and has complied. For forty years she kept them in all night, just removing them for a half hour per day to soak in Efferdent.
But then one night a year and a half ago she took her partial plate out during the night, put it "under her pillow," and it was never seen again. After much searching, we replaced it and instituted the no-teeth-at-night rule.
"Why don't you just take them out?" I ask Racquel.
"She might bite me," admits Racquel with embarrassment.
"Oh, yes, of course. She probably would bite you," I remember.
In the last few years biting has become one of Mom's avenues of last recourse in defending herself and keeping caregivers at bay.
So I get the Efferdent cup and begin negotiations with Mom to remove the teeth.
"No! I will need them in the morning," Mom argues, but eventually she complies.
Then I floss her remaining eight teeth at the front of her lower jaw and brush them.
When I give her sips of water and ask her to rinse out her teeth, she just swallows the water. She has forgotten how to swish out her mouth and spit after her teeth are brushed.
~ ~ ~
She is having a sleepy day, but she did open her eyes and speak with me immediately when I arrived at 7 pm.
I didn't take her to church today because I was one of two leaders at the Women-Church liturgy in the morning, and I had to visit my daughter in rehab in the afternoon. It would have been hard to do these things while attending Mom in her wheelchair.
~ ~ ~
In the last week or two, the list of things Mom can't remember how to do has been growing.
She doesn't remember:
1) how to participate in her tooth care at night,
2) how to tear off individual sheets of toilet paper and stack them while sitting on the toilet,
3) how to ask for a tissue to blow her nose,
4) how to replace her foot on the foot support of her wheelchair if it falls off,
5) how to listen to the television and make sense of it.
For about two years she has not known how to dial a phone number.
She can't do two things at the same time--like eat and watch I Love Lucy, which used to be her delight.
She no longer asks for water to be run at the sink while she is on the toilet.
She no longer insists on two napkins at meals, one at her neck and one in her lap.
She doesn't interact with most of her possessions: the dolls in her glass cabinet, the jewelry on her bureau, the photos on her walls. I don't think she sees these things any more.
She hasn't talked about going to Colorado for six months or more.
When I bring her to my house, she asks to leave in about ten minutes. I put the wheelchair at her end of the kitchen table, make cinnamon raisin bread toast, serve it to her with milk, and as soon as she finishes it, she says, "I'd better go back now."
If I take her to Denny's and we order a meal, she immediately asks where her food is.
"It's not ready yet," I argue, but she feels it should arrive while the waiter is walking toward the kitchen.
~ ~ ~
Lately she has had more sleepy days, two or occasionally three per week. On really bad days, she is too sleepy to eat. She just sits at the table slumped forward.
Tonight she was sleepy and didn't eat much, reports Racquel, who managed to get her to eat a little bit.
Last week she didn't eat all day on Saturday, though I spent 45 minutes trying to get her to sip Ensure and to eat some pasta with seafood.
~ ~ ~
Tonight it all adds up: she is dying. Not dramatically, as with a stroke or pneumonia, but inch by inch, with excruciating slowness.
Item by item, she is losing her ability to do things and remember things.
"Time for a nursing home," I realize suddenly. "What she needs increasingly is just nursing care."
Yet she is still in the fancy assisted-living residence I chose to keep her happy and enhance her self-esteem. For a while it made sense for her to be in a beautifully decorated place with an elegant dining room and all of her own furniture in her private room.
But now she sees less and less of her surroundings. She has tunnel vision that extends to only a few feet around her.
It's time to give up the elegant residence and the eight-hours-per-day of private caregivers.
She is close to her 88th birthday, and I expect she will not live to see her 89th.
The caregivers and executive director of her residence want me to keep her there until she dies, paying for private caregivers around the clock when that level of care becomes needed again.
Two factors dictate a no to this plan:
1) the $7,000 per month needed to keep her there, and
2) the lack of a workable plan for evacuation of the residents on her floor in the case of a fire or earthquake. Just last month she was injured by falling when there was a small fire on the first floor.
~ ~ ~
I leave the building in tears tonight as I reflect on the shortness of her remaining days. I've been in denial, I think.
She is withdrawing from the world, but I'm still treating her like the person she was two years ago, who enjoyed her surroundings, was proud of being an author, and demanded to go Colorado in the summer.
She is methodically dying, but I am struggling to keep her eating and involved in activities.
I wonder how I will find the time to select a skilled nursing facility and move her there.
I also realize with relief that my complex life of caring for her while interacting with three daughters ages 19 to 24 will not last forever.
Perhaps when 2007 ends my middle daughter will be in recovery from cocaine addiction and my mother will have moved on to her final rest.