Almost every day, someone asks, "How's your mama?" I appreciate the concern, I really do, but I don't always know how to answer the question.
Mama is not well. She's a frail whisper of her former self, when she was buying size 14 Alfred Dunner matching tops and slacks. At less than 90 pounds, even size small hangs on her thin frame.
She almost always has a sad or at least serious look on her face. Her smiles are saved for rare and special occasions: a visit with her sister, daughter from out of town and great-granddaughter, who, at age 10 months old, has the gift of making Grandma Helen happy.
During the summer, there were spells when Mama would eat less than a half-cup of food a day. She's had more of an appetite in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean she's eating heartily. I was thrilled to learn she had eaten one and a half chicken tenders and about a tablespoon of broccoli casserole I had cooked Saturday night. That was a huge meal for her, and I was happy.
At some meals, Mama will suddenly forget how to swallow. Of all the things I grow impatient over, this is at the top of the list. On a visit to the house to pay the caregivers Thursday morning, I watched milk dribble out the corners of her mouth. She made quiet grunting sounds and pointed to her mouth to let me know there was a problem. "Swallow it, Mama. Let it go down your throat." Blank stare. I rubbed her throat and repeated my request: "Swallow it, Mama." Sometimes this works, but not that day. I picked up a napkin and blotted the milk that was running down her chin. And forget about those last two pills. There was no way she would swallow those either, crushed or whole. So we gave up.
Walking is a challenge more and more each day, it seems. A hospice nurse told me months ago she was amazed that my mama could still walk. Her physical decline hasn't keep up with her mental decline. But her walking is so unsteady. She often crosses her feet when she walks, stumbling with each step. We hold onto her, guiding her moves the best we can. There are days when she walks with a slant towards the right. Other days, her walking pattern is definitely towards the left. Some days, one foot will lag, and one day last week, her left foot turned under with each step she took.
But don't try to stop her from walking. When she has the strength, she paces all day long, from one door to the next, looking for her family, who are busy at school or work. But she doesn't understand that. She thinks we are abandoning her with strangers.
I visit her as often as I can, but I know it's not enough. I drop by most days at lunch, and we sit and hold hands. There's not much talking. I ask her questions: "How was your night?" "Did you have a good breakfast?" She looks at me, puzzled, and has no idea how to answer. "I didn't do it." "Nobody told me." One day last week, I asked her a similar question, her answer was, "He's dead." She's still thinking of my daddy.
There are days when she talks. We don't understand much of what she says because she talks so quietly, and her words are a muffled garble. But sometimes she will tell us something that we understand. At her sister's house recently, she told us, "I don't feel good." It's not normal to hear a complete sentence that makes sense, so we paid close attention to what she was saying. Earlier this summer, again at her sister's, she told everyone present, "I love you," and followed it with a kiss. I cried. I cry a lot.
When I left her yesterday afternoon, after 30 minutes of just sitting and holding her hand, I kissed her goodbye. She reached up her right arm to hug me. She never does that. It was a tight hug, and she cried softly as we embraced. There's so much sadness inside that tiny body.
So, how is my Mama? My mama is frail. My mama is sad. My mama's not well.