Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tender hearts

Sometimes all it takes is a simple look from my parents to either break my heart or melt my heart.
Daddy can break my heart in an instant. Sometimes when I'm leaving their house, he'll look at me in disgust, kind of wrinkling his upper lip. His eyes look straight at me, then he picks up his hand, waves it in a dismissive way in my direction and turns his head away from me. Often he'll add, "Just go then." Of course, I have to walk back to his side and repeat that it's time for me to leave — to go back to work, to my family, to make supper for him, to do our grocery shopping, whatever the rest of the day holds. Guilt makes me hug him one more time and assure him I'll be back. "When?" he wants to know.
But it was Mama who grabbed my heart last night. I was sitting at the dinner table with them. Like most nights, I had taken down their supper. I had eaten quickly at my house so I could linger over mealtime with them. Daddy had shredded barbecue chicken on his plate with a bowl of mixed vegetables, two deviled eggs and a biscuit. A slice of marble pound cake waited for him on the counter.
I knew Mama wouldn't eat the barbecue chicken; it would be unrecognizable to her and too hard for her to manage on her fork or to eat with her fingers. Instead she had a chicken biscuit cup I had taken out of the freezer the night before, two deviled eggs her sister had made for her, a sweet potato biscuit and a bowl of vegetables.
Everything but the vegetables was arranged in separate quadrants on Mama's bright red plate. The plate is a relatively new addition to the kitchen. The contrast of the light-colored food on a dark plate makes it easier for Alzheimer's patients, like my parents, to see the food.
I was sitting across the table from Mama, just watching her. Mama needs a lot of encouragement and direction to get through a meal. She has to be reminded to eat almost each bite. She loses her concentration and just stares. Last night, I didn't say anything to her at first. But I'm glad I was watching her, otherwise I would have missed the look.
Mama tilted her head to the right, looked at everything on her plate and smiled. It was a pleasant smile, a smile of anticipation. She actually looked happy to be sitting at the table and pleased with her options. She touched everything on her plate, like she was taking inventory, and then chose what to eat first: the chicken biscuit cup. Her hands, which usually shake when she eats, were unsteady once again as she took the food to her mouth and started eating.
Since last night, I've thought often about that happy look on her face. It brings me joy to remember it. I actually did something right! I took her a meal she wanted.
But it was a very different emotion that rocked me to the core Saturday. I was sitting with them for a few hours while the sitter was at another obligation. I was in charge of lunch and was encouraging Mama to eat a bite of the wiener I had cut into bite-size pieces. I wasn't patient enough, I'm sure, but I kept saying, "Mama, please eat." Instead, she would pick up her cup of tea and take a swallow. She did this maybe three times, and I grew more and more impatient. I put a piece of the hot dog on her fork and said, "Eat this. You have to eat or you'll get sick." She hates it when we feed her, but I tried anyway, and guided the fork to her mouth. "Take a bite."
My voice was too firm for my tender-hearted mama, I'm sure, and she started to cry. Her sitters had told me she had cried for an hour or so at the time most days that week, now it was my turn to listen and try to make her stop. I wasn't very successful. She ate very little at lunch that day, but she cried and blew her nose for at least an hour. There were wet tissues and napkins everywhere from where she was wiping her eyes and her nose. I had made her miserable because I encouraged her to eat and grew weary when she wouldn't. And all she could say was how mean I was. Broken heart again. Hers and mine.
After days like Saturday I feel like a big jerk. I wish I could be more patient. I wish I could always be happy and upbeat. I wish I could be something other than human, I guess.


  1. This is beautiful Lisa. I'm so glad you are willing to share these insights with your readers. I promise you that you are not a "big jerk," but I totally understand your feeling that way. One day when I am taking care of my inlaws or my own parents, I'll remember these words you have written.

  2. The arc of life takes us back to where we began as children. Realizing this and seeing it in my own parents is the hardest thing I've had to do as an adult. In many ways the umbilical cord is never severed. But every trial tempers you and you can emerge stronger.

  3. Lisa,
    So sorry to hear about your Father and your Mom. Grandma died 2 years ago from Alzheimers and it has really taken a toll on my Mom. Thanks for this beautiful article - it was very powerful.

    I am thinking of you and Susan during this time.

    Lisa Shingleton