I’ll always remember the afternoon of Sunday, November 15, 2020.
That’s the last “normal” conversation that I had with mama. As usual, she was asking when I was goin’ to get me a husband and have her some grandbabies.
“One day, mama. One day.”
That was always my response to her. That was back when I thought that time was on our side. That was a few days before my life would change forever.
As crazy as it sounds, I never really imagined a world without my mama. I know that death is a fate that we’ll all meet one day, but mama just always seemed so invincible. She birthed four babies. Buried a child. Survived an abusive marriage. Got married again. She worked until her feet blistered and her soul grew tired. Then she came home and raised a handful of grandbabies as her own, including me. You see, mama ain’t the one who birthed me, but she’s the one who raised me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.
She’s all that I know.
I’ve watched her shape and shift. Make a way where there was none. Cuss you out and fix you a little dinner. She used to make me pick my own switches. And she’d give me a stern talking to before every whipping. That’s just the type of woman she was. She raised a lot of hell, but she meant well. And those are the very things that I love about her. Her spirit has always just been so resilient.
But for the past few years, mama has been different.
I’d notice her asking the same questions repeatedly. Sometimes she’d leave the eyes on the stove on. She’d forget to pay bills, and other times she’d pay bills twice. And though Alzheimer’s disease runs on both sides of her family, her doctors would always chalk her forgetfulness up to “old age.” Parts of me knew better—the other part clung to hopeless optimism because mama always been a hardbody.
I was curled up on the couch after work one day binge-watching You on Netflix. I received a frantic call from daddy. Mama had been vomiting that entire day and couldn’t keep solids down. He wanted to take her to the hospital.
“Is she running a fever? What about coughs? Chills? Shortness of breath?”
No. no. no. no.
I could hear mama moanin’ and groanin’ in the background. My immediate thought was that she had come down with one of those 24-hour stomach bugs. After all, she hadn’t experienced any of the three main symptoms that the CDC warned us to look out for in this COVID-19 climate—fever, coughs, and shortness of breath.
So, after a bunch of going back and forth, me and daddy decided that it would be best to call an ambulance. Mama had grown increasingly weak. In my daddy’s old age, he just couldn’t muster up the strength to carry her to the car.
Fast forward to 24 hours into her hospital stay: mama had become a completely different person. She lay in a confused haze—a mental state that she has yet to snap back from.
She kept repeating, “I need for somebody to come get me. I do not know these people. I do not understand why I’m here.”
“Mama they’re saying you have COVID, and so, we just can’t be with you right now. I would be there if I could, mama. But since I can’t, I just need you to keep fighting. I need you to get better. We miss you. Please just make it back home.”
We still don’t know how mama got sick or how long she had been battling it. But they say when it comes to COVID-19 and older adults, they tend to have “atypical” symptoms, complicating efforts to ensure they get timely and appropriate treatment. “Some older people, whether from age-related changes or previous neurologic issues such as a stroke, may have altered cough reflexes. Others with cognitive impairment may not be able to communicate their symptoms.”
Maybe things would be different now if we could’ve gotten her some help sooner. All I know is that mama couldn’t even remember how to use her cellphone while she lay in that hospital bed, so I’d call the nurses station fifty ‘leven times a day.
“Please take care of my mama. She’s all that I’ve got.”
At one point during mama’s hospital stay, she became so irritated and combative, they had to restrain her to the bed. After a while, she became apathetic in her tone with no orientation to her surroundings. The doctor said that she had developed delirium, which is the medical term for her abrupt, severe disorientation. And what we thought would be a temporary bout of confusion transformed into permanent cognitive decline.
Mama aged over ten years in a matter of a single hospital stay. I’m still struggling to understand what happened.
Before she took sick that Thursday, November 19, 2020, we had been living around mama’s memory loss. I now realize that mama’s cognition had been slipping away for quite some time, but it was the stint with COVID-19 that really accelerated her condition.
People living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia may have problems sleeping or experience increased confusion, anxiety, agitation, pacing and disorientation beginning in the late afternoon or early evening and continuing throughout the night. I’ve read a lot of stuff trying to understand why it happens and if there’s anything that we as a family can do to help.
But the truth of the matter is that with mama’s condition, at sundown is when the demons will dance.
Sundown is when mama gets to rummaging, rumbling, and remembering things that just didn’t happen.
She’s gonna open every cabinet and every drawer and every closet that she sees. Sometimes she’ll hide things from herself, other times she is living out a memory.
“Them boys climbed through the window and was jumping in the bed. I just made that bed up!”
“I want to go to my own house. Why are all these people here?”
“There was something in the bed pulling on me.”
I try to keep her grounded in truth, bringing her back to reality if she goes too far off the deep end. Other times, I just try to affirm to her that everything will be okay.
“I won’t let anything happen to you, mama.”
“I love how you look after your mama,” she says. “How long will you take care of me?”
“As long as God continues to give us time, mama. I’ve got you forever. And I’ll find you in the next lifetime and do it all over again.”
She nods and smiles with a childlike wonder that melts me and breaks my heart at the same time.
This whole experience has tapped into emotions that I never even knew existed, but I do my best to be strong for her. I’ve also got to be strong for daddy, too. Mama is in the mid-stages of this disease, and it has forced me to accept that we’re living on borrowed time. We have some good days, but there are many days filled with devastating lows. I’ve been thinking about starting a scrapbook to hold all the [new] memories I plan to create with her in the days to come—in whatever time that we have left.
I don’t know when the sun will go down for the last time for us. And so I give my mama her flowers every single day—just as I’ve always done. And on the days when it gets extra hard, I call and sing to my mama.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.