We Called her Piggy

Hanging out with my parents is a quilt of emotions. There’s laughter, frustration, admiration, impatience, love and sometimes sheer surprise. My mom has dementia which makes things very interesting; you never know when a nugget of raw wisdom or blur of confusion will enter the conversation. Yesterday was a great example.

When we visit them at their apartment, it throws my parents off their routine. They have a very specific and regular routine that revolves around the television programming schedule and meals. Not that they eat much anymore, but meals are the cornerstone of their daily lives. Normally my dad will wake up first around 7 a.m. followed very closely by my mother who can hear and see things at that hour; she knows when my dad is up and apparently doesn’t trust him to manage himself alone in their small abode, so she gets up when she knows he’s on the move. My dad is now the family short order cook since my mother can’t see well and her memory isn’t great for short term items (did someone say they wanted a coffee?). My dad is content to head to his “office” (the den with the extra large tv … I hate watching it with him as it’s like being in the front row at the theatre … he loves it and that’s all that really matters) and “flick” while mom hops around the kitchen putting a fruit plate together. If you ask mom what she has for breakfast, even though she likely doesn’t really remember, she will tell you by rote the usual menu: sliced fruit, bread or cracker with cheese and coffee. My dad has eggs which he makes himself.

However, we were there yesterday and something got lost in translation when we discussed the amended routine to accommodate our presence and Rudy was heading out around 8:30 a.m. to head to an appointment. That small tweak threw my dad for a loop. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. to ensure he didn’t miss making Rudy’s breakfast. When he got up at that ungodly hour, he (according to my mother) thumped around the room and turned on the light in the bathroom without shutting the door to block the light from the room where my mom was still sleeping. My mother was adamant that my dad did this on purpose to which he replied simply: I needed to put in my teeth. The breakfast did get made and Rudy hit the road. No problem.

The next mission was getting my mom to the dentist. Getting her going at any time is a process. You let her know that we are leaving in 15 minutes and it would be a good time for her to start the steps: bathroom break, shoes on, cane and sunglasses etc. She dutifully gets up from the table (she is loathe to miss any conversation and resents that she needs extra time to prepare for an exit) and starts into the next room. On the way to the next room she has to pass through the adjacent kitchen area; this is a trap for her as she can’t resist feeling her way around the counter and in this action she forgets that she was actually on her way to the washroom. I remind her that she needs to pee before we head out. Oh … she says, that’s right; I was on my way. Distractions are deadly. My dad is quite happy that he’s off the hook for now and can take his time showering and getting ready. In the getting ready sense, my dad is a bit of a diva. He always strives to look fresh and shaven and well dressed if he knows there’s someone to see or something to do. In this case it was the pedicure nurse coming later in the morning. Take your time he says. I chuckle to myself thinking that’s how parents might have felt leaving their kids with a willing and able babysitter.

I bring mom to the dentist office. She hates wearing the mask that’s required these days; I tell her to keep it on her chin just for appearances. I don’t see the point of wearing it to the dentist office where the whole idea is to get your teeth checked; pretty hard to do that with a mask on. In any event, she wobbles in where the nurse says she will take it from there and don’t worry about the mask. I tell mom I will be back to fetch her as soon as they give me the nod. Off she goes. About 30 minutes later the nurse comes out and waves at me in the parking lot. Your mom is ready and wanted to wait for you to get her. How cute! The nurse could have brought her out (she came out to wave at me) but mom told her: my daughter is here to get me and I will wait for her. I grab mom and bundle her into the car. Off to the grocery store.

It’s my brother’s birthday. My parents beam reminiscing how on this day 53 years ago their baby boy bounced onto the planet at around 7 p.m. They would love to speak to him, but I remind them its a work day for him and may not be possible. The truth is, my brother lives far away and has for years; he doesn’t get to feel the emotion of the family umbilical cord as acutely as my sister and I do. I sent him a text the day before to ask when a good time might be to FaceTime …. crickets. He’s often in his own (western) world. So plan B is to get a couple of birthday “cakes” and sing happy birthday on a video which I will send him. Mom and dad think that’s a great idea so we head to the bakery after the dental visit. I pick up the cakes and candle (one for each of them) and when we get home we create the video which is hilarious and painfully cute. My parents are now kids. I have to remind myself often that they are the parents and have a wealth of knowledge and experience and raised three kids. It can be hard.

The pedicure nurse arrives and I take that opportunity to venture out to visit my aunt. She’s been living in a retirement home since my uncle died last year. It has been excruciating for her (and most seniors in her predicament) as the plandemic has isolated them and crushed their spirits. Finally after months of “jail” time, we are able to visit in person. When I arrive in her suite she is sitting at the window and working on a word search puzzle. She’s surprised and happy to see me. I ask her if she would like to walk outside and sit under the tree as I have Molly in the car and it’s a hot day. So we mosey outdoors and the three of us sit under the big shady tree in the front yard of her building. She seems a lot happier now than she was last time I saw her and she has gained some weight back; she still misses her husband, but is getting used to being alone. It makes me want to cry thinking about how her life has changed so much. She tells me that she calls my dad just to hear his voice (she says it’s similar to her husband’s and that’s comforting) but he seems disinterested. I let her know that he’s super hard of hearing and if he’s not sure who he’s talking to he’s a bit ornery. She thought she might have caught him in the middle of a soccer game on tv; that’s very possible! Her son (my cousin) has retired since my uncle died so he’s been the main source of care and support for my aunt. He took her to the grave site and she mentioned how happy she was that my dad had kept up the garden around the grave stone. She noticed that there was a lantern at the stone and asked about it (she asked my dad on the phone but that conversation didn’t go very well). I explained to her that when my dad and my uncle were young boys and were displaced from their family farm after the war, each of them was sent to different farms on either side of the valley in their village. The young boys made a pact with each other to communicate across the valley via lantern. Each night at the designated time, each brother would hold up a lantern and swing it in the air like a signal. They would each see each other’s signal and know that all was well (under the circumstances). My sister installed a lantern at the grave of my uncle and an identical one on my dad’s balcony and every night the battery operated lantern lights up. The story brought a tear to my aunt’s eye and she said that the brothers were connected in life and in death. I waited until I was in the car alone before I let the tears flow.

Back at my parent’s apartment the daily lunch routine is underway. I brought soup and fresh bread. With their toes neatly primped, lunch is in order. Dad is heating the soup and mom is busy looking for utensils (…. he knows I can’t see!! why can’t he put things back where they belong!!??). We sit down to eat and mom pecks at her soup adding more salt and seasoning … enough to make anyone cringe. She eats most of her bowl before she declares herself full “up to here” drawing a line across her throat. Dad wolfs down his soup and bread so fast and I wonder what the rush is. Then it’s clear! He wants to attack the birthday cakes!! One is a fudgy caramel creation that is burning desire into his palate!!

After lunch we play cards until it’s time to head out again. Cue the departure routine where mom, on her way to the washroom, stops in the kitchen and wonders aloud when we are going to have lunch. Oh dear. We just ate and she’s forgotten already? Her hearing aid appointment is scheduled for 2 p.m. This is an extraordinarily busy day! Dad is coming for the ride this time as we will be stopping at the grocery store and the gravesite on our way. At the hearing aid centre mom and I head in leaving dad and Molly in the car with the AC on; dad declares that both will be napping for sure. sugar rush???

Inside the clinic (mom with her mask around her chin) the receptionist asks mom the covid questions (seriously, we are at the hearing aid place! hearing is not the strong suit); I respond to the questions on her behalf. They allow me to accompany mom into the testing room where they perform a hearing test on her. The audiologist is super patient and accommodating; I guess that’s par for her job daily. At the end of the test we go into her office to review the results. While seated in front of her desk, mom has to cough. My mom has a very gross phlegmy cough (that disgusts me to no end! I joke that she should start smoking to justify the cough!!) and as she coughs she looks at me and then at the young audiologist. I’m sorry, she says, my daughter hates it when I cough, but I’ve had this terrible flu …. I immediately jump in at that point and clarify that there’s been no flu (fearing the covid death squad to enter the office at any minute) that my mom has this cough and it’s nothing to be concerned about. Did my mother know that her words were potentially dangerous??? We continue through the rest of the appointment which includes my mom trying out a new pair of aids (and the audiologist standing behind her and asking questions to test the clarity … wouldn’t you know it, one of the questions was “what did you have for lunch” … I cringed inwardly until mom answered and said “my daughter’s soup”) and the end result is new hearing aids required; her hearing has declined significantly and better technology would help with background noise reduction and clarity. Also, these aids are rechargeable! no more batteries.

When we get in the car, my dad wants to know what happened. I let mom fill him in and she mostly remembered the whole episode. A moment of clarity. Whew. Off we go to the store and the gravesite. At the cemetery we let dad out to water the plants while mom and I take Molly for a stroll. On our walk we run into a lady who steps up to us and starts talking like we were long lost friends. She’s tending to her friend’s grave (Mrs. Culliton) and starts to fill us in on how her friend would be so sad to know the troubles befalling the eldest son (who’s a lawyer in town and presently going through a law society and police investigation for fraud). This is titilating information for my mother who can’t decide (as we walk away from this stranger) if it’s more important to ask who that person was or what was the son doing?? My mother loves good gossip!! As it turns out, my dad was done watering and watched the exchange of conversation between us from afar. He’s also craving the scoop … who was that?? what did you talk about?? my mother is delighted to fill in the story to which my dad says “I read about that in the paper”. This throws my mom right off her game: what do you mean you read it in the paper??? why didn’t you share that with me??? she’s getting hot and bothered at the notion that my dad would keep such juicy tidbits to himself. My dad looks at me sadly and then turns to my mom: I did read it to you …..

There’s a moment of unpleasant silence as the reality of dementia slithers back into daylight. It’s painful for everyone. But the moment was just that. A moment. When we leave the cemetery we drive past my mom’s old friend’s house; it’s a small government assisted apartment building near our middle school. My mom’s friend is in the hospital and we don’t know the status. My mom says she’s sad that she hasn’t been able to see her friend in over three years (for some reason, mom seems to have three years as her go to date for things she can’t remember); I console my mom by telling her that we saw her friend a few weeks ago on her birthday and she was so glad my mom could hug her and wish her a happy birthday. My mom relaxed after that. For a moment.

We drive through town and pass another building. Out of the blue my dad says, I wonder if you could look someone up on your computer (referring to my cell phone); there’s a guy that lived in that building and I wonder if he’s still alive. (lately my dad has been obsessed with how many of his friends and colleagues have died and lamenting that he’s the only one left) My mom wants to know who he’s talking about and he starts to explain. My mom says: I don’t know that guy. Dad says: Yes you do. He was married to Piggy. I practically drive off the road; grateful that along the park drive it’s so slow reaction time is not an issue. Piggy? My mom: Oh, ya. Piggy. That was the clue she needed. I need to know: Why did you call her Piggy?? Dad, who comes up with very hilarious (and unconventional) vocabulary says: Because she was distorted. She was short and round and had a round pig face. Your mom and I nicknamed her Piggy. Then we all laugh. It was another moment.

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