Today I offer an excerpt from a memoir, a work in progress, about walking with my mother through the tangles of dementia. The year is 2003. My 82-year old mom has been in long-term care for just over a year.
You May Go to the Ball
“A wedding, Mom! Your grandson is getting married. Woo hoo!” I pumped my arms in celebration.
“This calls for a shopping trip!” my sister Cathy chimed in. “We need dresses and shoes.”
Mom was unmoved, pale blue eyes seemed fixed on some faraway landscape.
“Any ideas about what the grandmother of the groom would like to wear?” Still nothing. I grew impatient and with more edginess than I meant, barked, “Mom?”
“Yes dear, what?”
“Andrew is getting married!” I pointed to a picture on her bookshelf, “this guy."
“Oh yes,” she smiled. “I need more peanut butter. And where is my bright pinky mauve lip gloss? The nurses here steal everything!”
Cathy and I rolled eyes at each other and shrugged. “Tell you what Mom,” Cathy bubbled, “I’ll bring in some bridal fashion magazines next time. We can get some ideas from them and have fun looking at all the brides.”
Over the next few weeks, visits with mom were spent thumbing through umpteen bridal magazines. Lots of bright colours on the pages caught Mom’s attention along with bare arms and overly exposed cleavages.“That’s disgraceful! No bride can walk into a church looking like that!” Then with a snap, Mom turned the page to view the next candidate. “Red?! Those bridesmaids look like hookers!”
And so it went. Occasionally something I thought suitable – elegant yet understated – would appear on the page. Mom was not once impressed with my suggestions, but after much page-flipping announced that she knew exactly what she wanted – a full-length gold dress and stiletto heels.
Having scouted out a route through the mall beforehand to avoid encounters with low height shiny jewelry, candy and pastries that in the past had proven to be too big a lure for the fashionista in a wheelchair, Cathy and I steered Mom into the plus sizes women’s store. While Cathy kept Mom occupied checking out the’ New Arrivals’ section, I sought out a saleswoman.
Please God, spare me from a chatty twenty-something-year-old with zero sense and less tact. And God delivered – a fifty-ish woman with a kind face stood at the sales desk. I nodded in greeting then presented the white business card:
“Our loved one has Alzheimer’sHaving read the card, the woman looked up at me with eyes liquid with compassion. Gentle words filled the space between us, “How can I help you?”
and may say or do strange things.
Thank you for your understanding.”
“Well Mom’s grandson is getting married,” I said with a raised voice so Mom would hear, “and she would like a gold formal dress.” I then lowered my voice to add, “Size 18 to 20 petite. Do you have anything close?”
“I have just the thing.” Then she disappeared into the stock room. Minutes later she emerged with not one but three gold, full-length dresses. She walked directly over to Mom and presented each gown to her, telling her about the fabric, the cut, and the maker.
Mom listened intently while her hands explored each fabric. On the third dress, her fingers found a price tag. She studied it for a moment then flicked it away. Curling lips snarled, “Well that’s far too big for me! I’ve never been more than a twelve all my life.”
I sucked back my breath and braced for a tantrum. My mind raced to work out a way to get out of there with some decorum and mother too. But the saleswoman took the tag in her hand, stared at it for a moment, then chuckled and shook her head. “Tsk! Someone has put the wrong tag on here.” Looking directly at Mom she continued, “I’m so very sorry. You just can’t get good staff anymore!”
Mom bought it, the whole nine yards. Cathy and I had to turn away to suppress our giggles and gratitude. Composure regained we mouthed thanks to our sales angel. In the fitting room, we struggled to get dresses on and off Mom. We were clumsy at best but careful to keep all price tags out of Mom’s sight. In the end, it was the “wrong sized” dress that Mom fell in love with.
I watched her stand before the mirrors, straight and tall, and give her head that familiar tilt. A nod and a smile of approval flooded her face, then she turned to face her daughters. The shrouds of dementia evaporated. Wide-eyed, I beheld my mother, the sophisticated New Yorker. I think my heart stopped. I know it was a few minutes before I could speak.
Back out at the sales desk, my hand shook as I offered the credit card. I blew out a sigh a relief then a raspy “Thank you so very much.” to the woman who made my mother whole again, if but for a moment.
On to the shoe store! I knew full well that the chances of finding stiletto heels in a store my children called "the old folks' shoe store" were nil or worse, but my sister and I were on a roll. After presenting our business card to a bleached blonde, gum chewing forty-something saleswoman – a flicker of fear rippled across her face as she read but she controlled it – Cathy showed her the dress and the shoe parade began.
A scene reminiscent of Cinderella followed. Every pair offered to Mom, every full leather, flatish dress shoe presented to her small bunion-distorted feet was greeted with a screwed up face, tightly curled up toes and fully arched soles. “Oh no, I can’t even get my foot into these... Owww, they’re way too tight! ...I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them!”
Mom got fed up with our sense of style and sensibility. She pushed herself out of the wheelchair and hobbled over to the display. With a squeal of delight, she picked up a gold, higher-heeled shoe adorned with what I considered to be a confusing array of thin straps. But did it fit? Well of course it did! Or so the grand dame announced with glee. And with that, she rose again from the wheelchair to glide her feet across the floor, tall, proud and elegant.
I, on the other hand, followed behind Mom doing what must have looked like some kind of scarecrow imitation, arms flailing from side to side ready to catch any faltering step or loss of balance.
Mine was a wasted effort. Mother’s stroll around the store was the smoothest, surest walk I’d seen her take in over a year. Priceless!
At the cash, my sister and I acknowledged each other with self-congratulatory nods and smiles. We had done it: full-length gold dress and not quite stiletto heels to match. Mother had done it, shaken off the shackles of dementia twice in two hours.
"Mom, you may go to the ball!”
©2018 April Hoeller