It was pretty frightening to wake up to a light on in the living room at 1 a.m. today. My heart clenched a little as I walked in and found my mom sitting on the couch, fully dressed and waiting. For what? For me to finish drying the clothes she clearly remembered me loading before we went to bed, she said. And here I had just told my sister a few hours earlier that Mom was doing great while she took a break from the caregiving. And Mom was doing great — until this morning.
Both my sister and a cousin who is one of Mom’s caregivers had warned me that this has been happening occasionally. The Alzheimer’s has messed with Mom’s circadian rhythms. First it was her inability to sleep at all. Now it’s her inability to judge the hour. I pulled aside the living room shades to show her how dark it was. She refused to change back into her nightgown, so I let her slide back under the covers in her clothes. A little while later, I heard her get up again, still obsessing about her laundered clothes, so I had to retrieve them and place them where she could see them. Still, she was trying to get her shoes on, and when I finally got her back in bed, I took the shoes with me.
Ridiculous, I know. And later, as I lay in the dark, I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so terrified; it’s not as if hiding her shoes is going to prevent her from getting back up. But at the moment I sort of panicked and did the only thing I could think of that might stop her from walking out the door. Because that was my fear, that just as I’d not heard her get up and change into her clothes and move to the living room I wouldn’t hear her walk out the door into the cold night. And as I lay there, I remembered that somehow Mom lost her Medic Alert bracelet, and in the busy-ness of buying groceries, filling prescriptions, driving her to the doctor and making calls to the medical supplier, I’d not yet called to order a new bracelet. That frightened me even more.
I’ve been fighting a sinus infection, and that first burst of adrenaline that coursed through my body when I first woke up seemed to leave me more exhausted. I fought my body; it wanted sleep but I needed to stay awake. I called on those reserves that have gotten me through all-nighters in the name of work in the past. I’ve staked out perp-walks at odd hours, chased wall clouds in the dark, held vigil at pre-dawn crime scenes, and once, spent a night in a car in Maryland’s Greenbelt Park while waiting to take photos of a religious ceremony at sunrise. Surely, I could stay awake and listen for my mother, right? I mean, these are pretty high stakes — a human being who might wander and get lost in the night. As a journalist, I’ve covered enough of these stories to know they often don’t turn out well.
For the next couple of hours, every tick, creak and sigh in this tiny house jerked my head from the pillow and set my heart pounding. Deep breaths, I told myself. Like yoga class. Except I floundered, forgetting to breathe for long moments at a time. A light would surely disturb her if she wasn’t already awake, so every few minutes I peered down the hall and strained to discern the different shades of gray, to see if one shadow might peel itself away from the others and morph into my mother. I finally dozed off around 3:30, and woke up around 7 with a painful kink in my shoulder from sleeping with an ear turned toward the door. When I woke her, I thought Mom would remember nothing about last night. But when I told her she needed to get up and get dressed, she smiled and said, “I already put on my clothes.”
I may camp out on the living room couch tonight, and I need to research how to fasten the doors to that Mom can’t get out at night. And I guess remembering to breathe would help, too.
(c) 2010 Beatriz Terrazas