The words on my tongue
My mother-in-law had some kind of seizure yesterday morning. The staff at her residence isn’t sure what caused it. There is so much we don’t know about Alzheimer’s that it’s possible it’s just part of the illness itself. The nurse told us that she has seen this kind of episode happen with other dementia patients before. But she returned to normal almost immediately — her normal anyway. And when we saw her before our support group meeting, her eyes stared off to the right as they are prone to doing, not looking at us despite our trying to converse with her, and her lips twitched in what looked like a mumble.
She is so frail of mind — her brain slowly deteriorating within the shell of her skull, I imagine — that I was startled when I reached out to touch her and felt the slope of her shoulders, and the hard bone beneath her hair and scalp. Somehow, I always expect to find her body mirroring her brain, porous and elusive beneath my fingers. One day her body, too may give in, but for now her body remains solid and intact.
She isn’t suffering right now, I know that. What I think I sometimes see on her face is in all likelihood an emotion I am projecting. And sometimes it’s difficult to remember that. So last night when I saw sadness and resignation in her features I parted my lips to say words you only utter to people who are actively dying. “You can go whenever you want,” I started to say. “Don’t linger for us. We’ll be fine.”
I caught myself in time, held the words tightly in my mouth, and wondered what possibly inspired them. Was it that sometimes when I see her mumbling to herself I think she might be conversing with her dead mother or father? A while back I photographed a story about a woman dying of cancer. In her last few days, she smiled and talked with people who had gone long before her. The hospice nurse said it’s very common for a dying person to talk to those on the other side.
Maybe the words I started to say to my mother-in-law at her bedside last night were simply a sign of my own fatigue. Not fatigue of caring for her, because the staff at the residence cares for her, but a bone-deep fatigue at seeing her decline and knowing that this is not the way she would have wanted to end her life. She knew the possibility of developing this disease because she was in charge of her own mother who succumbed to it. But she was still hopeful. Of not developing it herself. Of there being some kind of cure by now.
It isn’t that I wish my mother-in-law would die, or even that I wish her end would come sooner so that she wouldn’t be this way — a human being slowly turned to stone. It’s simply that I wish — and isn’t this a part of our human condition? — that things were different. For her. And yes, maybe for us, by extension.
When I finally did speak to her last night, I merely said, “You know, Nina, you’re the boss. You can do whatever you want.” Somewhere behind that solid wall of flesh I hope she knows what I mean.