Visiting Mom: Meals and Words and Muffins

Saturday I went to visit mom.

I brought her some hot tea (decaf) and a corn muffin. The corn muffins have more crumbs than the ‘honey whole wheat’ from Dunkin Donuts, but she always loved corn muffins. She made them herself. And so I try to change things up, as I think she’d want, as I’d want for myself.

It’s been several weeks since she’s spoken a word to me. I ask her questions, even questions with yes/no answers, and she just looks a bit puzzled.

My new routine is to eat with her.

I posted a video on Facebook recently about parents wanting to have dinner with famous people and their kids wanting to have dinner with their families. And I cried when I realized that I can’t have dinner with my family ever again. Dad long since dead. Sister dead over a year now. Mother in a wheelchair. I could take her out, but it would be difficult for me — my car is small — and I’m not sure she’d enjoy it.

When we were having that last meal together, I didn’t know that’s what it was. Perhaps it was at the nearby Indian restaurant where I filled her plate from the buffet as she pointed at what she wanted. Or perhaps it was the Greek diner down the road, the one she actually remembered, the one she described by saying: “I like this place.”

Now I’m afraid to watch her eat with her hands: I mean eat boiled potatoes with her hands, not a sandwich, as I’ve seen her do. It makes me sad: my mother not being able to use a fork.

When I arrive I see the cafe in the first floor of the nursing home has a sign posted in the lobby: Lunch Special — Chinese Fried Rice. Not sure how authentic it is, but I’m sure she’d like it. I make a mental note to come earlier one day, before noon, not at 3 pm after the nurses’ shift changes.

But for now when I bring her a muffin, I get myself something too. I like to avoid white flour and sugar, but I don’t want to be “the one who feeds her”: I want to share food with her — like the kids in the video.

When I arrive, she’s near the nurse’s station. They reduced her anti-anxiety medication, and I wonder if she’s anxious and that’s why she’s there — under the nurses’ watchful eye.

But she seems calm.

I find a chair to put beside her, and I rustle up a bendy straw so she can drink her tea more easily. It’s still very hot. They forgot to put in cream at the Dunkin Donuts, so we’ll have to wait for it to cool.

I start a monologue for her about my day and what’s going on and what’s around her. I want her to feel like she’s part of life, like someone’s talking to her, like it’s possible for the world around her to come to life in words. It’s noisy today. There’s some screaming and crying down the hall. The nurses look at each other uneasily. Someone is having a bad day, just not my mom.

When I show my mom the corn muffin and ask her how it looks, I’m really thinking it’s a rhetorical question, when suddenly and with a good deal of effort she says: “Excellent!” It’s a little like a cough: there’s that much force behind it.

Suddenly I’m delighted. She’s there. She’s in there. She saved up all her strength on just one word, one positive, soul-cheering word, a word just for me, just so I’ll know she appreciates me.

The occupational therapist comes by and chats with my mom at some length: chats *at* her really. But the OT knows her stuff. She looks in my mom’s eyes and asks her questions. My mom doesn’t reply; she looks at me now and again. I’m sure she knows who the OT is. I just think she doesn’t know how to respond. And she may have used up all her steam on the one word.

I talk to the OT about recipes, promise to bring her mom’s recipe for Jewish Honey Cake. The OT will come tomorrow when I’m not there so my mom can watch her ice a spice cake and have a piece. The OT knows how to bring people into the glow of her gift, her gift for helping others feel good about themselves and their capacities.

When the OT leaves, I sit and eat my cinnamon role and help mom drink her hot tea, once it’s cool enough, and bask in the echo of her word, the only word she’s spoken to me in three weeks.

“Excellent!”

I will have to savor and cherish this word for another three weeks, perhaps four — if indeed it is not the last word I shall ever hear her speak. I tell myself: this word will not be like the last meal we ate together. I will remember this word. I will remember the last word she spoke to me. I will remember all this until I am like her, and I no longer remember meals or words or muffins, or even myself.