First Things Last
by Martine J. Byer

When I get there, I find her standing at the nurse's station, a gaze like a laser, direct, strong but off the beam. I can see from what's going on that no one can figure out what she wants. I step out of the elevator, go right up and put my arm around her. She looks at me pleasantly for a second. I smile and say,"Hi, Mommy."

Sitting side by side in her new room at the nursing home, the dressers and walls decorated with the pictures of our life before the rapid onset of dementia, I cannot get more than a word or two out of her. Until today, my mother, Bette was never at a loss for words. A great deal of my childhood was a verbal battleground. My mother's energy was locomotive. She had a detailed opinion on every guy I went out with and every new piece of clothing I wore. She could put her feelings into words at the speed of light and, in the midst of all her power, I used to wish for silence.

Be careful what you wish for. I would wear a skirt as small as a place mat now if she would just get pissed off and say ‘You look like a tramp' like she used to when I was in junior high. I would sneer and roll my eyes. I was silent then and I am silent now trying to feel some new way to be here with her.

She smiles pleasantly at me, exposing her baby pink gums. I am a little embarrassed. She refuses to put her teeth in, leaving her still very pretty face in an unfamiliar shape. Has her vanity vanished too? This was the mother who never left home without a great makeup application. "I put my makeup and a smile on, no one has to know," she would say on troubled days. I take her unpolished hand and rub it. I never used to touch her this easily but now I want to all the time. "Does this feel nice ?," I ask her. She nods and tilts her head with an extra beat. That extra beat has a characteristic look to it and I feel good. For a second or two, she is back. Mommy.

She readily nods and agrees to walk out of her room. I hold her arm, supporting her as we shuffle up and down the halls, smiling at Joan and Pauline, her aides and all of her new dorm mates. I feel like I am taking my child through her first day of school. I look at the other residents, assessing them as potential playmates for my Mom. I want for her to do well. I offer full eye contact and big smiles and she mimics me, her gums flashing.

One woman wheels right over in her chair and looks interested.

"Hi,what's your name?" I ask. "Ruthie." She answers.

"Is that your Mom?"

"Yes, she's new. Mom, this is Ruthie." My mother looks up and smiles.

"You're her daughter?" Ruthie asks.

"Yes, I'm her daughter. Do you have children, Ruthie?"

Ruthie nods,"Yes, one."

"Girl or boy?"


"Really, what's her name?" I ask.

Ruthie thinks," You know, I don't remember already."

The three of us make one more loop around the floor as I chatter on about the framed pictures, the decor of the T.V. room and the lunch trays. My Mom declines to eat in the lunch room for no particular reason so we sit in the hall where she sips a carton of milk and eats only her vanilla ice cream. I watch her feed herself, keeping on alert for spills. When she is finished I hand her a warm, wet paper towel and she tidies up. Later, we go back to her room and sit almost knee to knee in our chairs. I kiss her hand and place her palm on my cheek. The Saturday afternoon singing troubador sticks his head in the room, "Care for a tune?" My mother answers, "Yes, nice." He strums the guitar strings; the song begins. It is "Good Day Sunshine." Bette pushes herself up against the chair arms and I help her get onto her feet. She grasps my hand and wraps her arm around me. We are dancing.

Good Day Sunshine, good day sunshine, good day sunshine. I need to laugh and when the sun is out, I've got something I can laugh about. I feel good in a special way, I'm in love and it's a sunny day.

We move together in this small little area between the beds. It's like being in a dream.. I hold her tightly and rest my head on her shoulder. I feel overwhelmed by the warmth of our embrace. I brush my tears away on her shirt. The last time we really danced, I was six years old and I was the vulnerable one. The song ends, but I want to keep holding on.

I take her hand in mine and give her a manicure, shaping and reshaping her nails, massaging a fragrant creme up and down her arms. Her skin is soft, like a baby's. I comb her hair and rub her back. When it's time, I tell her aide, Joan, that I'm leaving. She comes to take my mother's arm and they walk me to the elevator. There my mother stands with her babysitter. I wave a sprinkle of fingers goodbye as the doors close, my mother clutching her brown teddy bear.

At this point, so much of my mother is gone. When I was little and did something that hurt her feelings, pushing her away, she would say, "one day you'll look for your mother." This echoes in my head as I pay my money to get on the bus that will take me back and forth on my new routine of visits. As we drive along, I watch through the window and try to picture the next time, wondering whether my mother might like me to bring some of her favorite foods. I am laying roasted chicken, bread pudding, coffee cake and peaches out on top of the bright flowered paper tablecloth that I imagine buying. I invite Ruthie to share with us. I picture playing my guitar for them. They are smiling.

All my thoughts on this ride are about how much I want to stay connected to my mother. Today, I have gotten her to eat, I helped her make a friend, I have massaged and cleaned her and she has allowed me to do all of these basic physical things. We have even danced. Instead of feeling depressed, I accept what is happening, which surprises me. In this dark cloud of loss there is a silver lining. In the end, I am where I began with my mother, in love, plain and simple.

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