Toward the end of her life, her faculties compromised by dementia, macular degeneration and the cumulative wear of some ninety years of minor ailments, my mother never lost her appetite, her fashion sense or her eagerness to be the center of attention.
If she couldn’t bathe or dress herself, she was still emphatic about how she looked and insistent upon a careful, daily review of all the options. Though the choices didn’t change, deciding what to wear took up more and more time.
She loved going out and the promise of a restaurant meal or a walk through a museum would fuel her with anticipation. Yet these small adventures were, again and again, the most challenging interactions we had in those last difficult years.
Excited as she was to go, as much time as she had spent preparing — choosing the right clothes, earrings, accessories — when we arrived at the car she became mulish and angry and refused to move or be moved. She was always small, but she might as well have weighed a thousand pounds for all my ability to budge her from her wheelchair.
Any evidence of new-found passivity or compliance would vanish as she seemed to concentrate an entire lifetime’s worth of complaint and blame into this minuscule geography: the stand-turn-sit between the wheelchair and the passenger seat. It was not as if she couldn’t; she still could and did transfer in and out of the chair and she still walked, if very unsteadily, with a walker.
It didn’t matter where we were going or even if Southern California was having one of its rare rainstorms. There we would be, at the curb or in some parking lot, she unmoving, I cajoling, flattering, joking, soothing, looking for any wedge into her stubbornness.
Sometimes, if there was time urgency, I would have to recruit help — a man to lift her from the chair and set her in the car. The rest of the time, I’d just have to wait until her determination weakened or her mind signaled readiness. She’d seem to lighten, set her hands on the chair arms and push herself upward. Buckled in at last, she’d look around eagerly, excited, again, to be going somewhere. But arrived at the other end of our journey, the scene would unfold once more as she refused to emerge from the car.
It wasn’t just me; she did this with other people too, and, not surprisingly, the number of friends willing to drive her diminished fairly quickly. From one time to the next, she had no memory of these confrontations and no awareness that her obstreperousness might have a negative impact on someone’s desire to take her out.
For whatever reason, and I still don’t understand it, this was the line she needed to defend. Whether it was some unexpressed fear or simply the disconnect between the way she imagined herself and the reality of the moment, she would not or could not say and I will never know.
. . . . .
photo: Dorothy at age 6