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The Heartbreak Of Packing Up Your Parent's Life

Tragically, my mother no longer has memories. My mother, my Mum, has Alzheimer’s.

05/10/2016 5:37 AM AEDT | Updated 05/10/2016 5:39 AM AEDT
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Thomas Northcut
"Where do I start? What was meaningful for her? What is meaningful to me? What will be meaningful to my children, or their children?"

Slipping the key into the lock, I turn the handle, and step into times past. Immediately, I inhale the scent of my mother's life, captured forever in the carpet, the cupboards, the air contained within the walls of her home.

Only -- it's not her home anymore. Now, this house (once a home) is a museum for family memories.

Tragically, my mother no longer has memories. She can barely speak, or open her eyes. My mother, my Mum, has Alzheimer's.

I walk into the nursing home, just in time for lunch. As I spoon various colours of baby food mush into her mouth, I realise the tables have turned. When I was young and helpless, my mother spooned food into my mouth. Now, she is aged and helpless, and I feed her. Gently, I wipe the residue from the corners of her lips with the adult sized bib. Her eyelids slit open, and I glimpse the vacant watery blue of her once vital, sparkling eyes.

'Hey, Mum. It's me. How are you? We're staying at your place for a little while.' She closes her eyes, and I talk to her fluttering eyelashes. I relive aspects of our lives together. 'Remember when . . .?' I describe her grandchildren's latest adventures. I know she's not asleep, because she has my hand trapped in a vice-like grip.

I recall the research I've read about music reaching into the minds of people with dementia. Pulling out my phone, I search for songs by Glenn Miller. As the first strains of 'In the Mood' reach her ears, her eyes snap open. Wide. And I am astonished. Her eyes do not close while the Big Band plays. Suddenly, a sound emits from her mouth. Tears slide down my face, as I realize she is trying to hum to the tune.

I continue my one-way conversation, speaking to Mum's unfocused gaze. There is no response, no laughter, no repartee. Our deep understanding of each other from a life-time together, is now just an invisible whisper in the air between us.

Back at Mum's place, I drag flattened cardboard boxes into the hall and stack them next to the laden bookcase. Recipe books, photo albums, well-thumbed fiction, compendiums of gardening knowledge, fill the shelves. A series of white-jacketed Agatha Christie books, which we read together during my teen years, are neatly stacked along the top shelf.

My eyes circle the house. Sporting trophies glint through glass, some going back to Mum's childhood. Rose-painted china cups rest on matching saucers and plates. There is a story behind two of those saucer sets. Mum told me of the great pride she felt when, as a young girl, her mother sent her to buy cups for a special afternoon tea. But I don't know which cups she actually purchased. And now, I can't ask her.

My shoulders slump. I am overwhelmed by the heartbreak of packing up someone else's life. Where do I start? What was meaningful for her? What is meaningful to me? What will be meaningful to my children, or their children?

When I make dinner that night, I open the cutlery drawer and am hit by a wave of recollection. The distinctive pattern on the handles immerses me in my childhood, but I'm not sure why. Did my mother buy these when she moved away from being very poor, to just poor? Am I remembering her pleasure as she unveiled them?

The next morning I sit on the deck. A puff of sea air caresses my face, and I become aware of the bird sounds associated with this house, this part of my life -– so different from my inland home. Sadly, I realize that this is part of my past, and soon, will no longer be part of my future.

I am submerged in grief, and feel as though I am experiencing two deaths of my mother. The psychological loss of the Mum I knew -- the person she was, with opinions, humour, memories, and feelings -- as she succumbs to the slow ravages of Alzheimers. And her physical death, that is to come.

I breathe in the salt-tinged breeze, and recall those posts on gratitude I've read lately.

Perhaps, instead of becoming mired in the pain of loss, I could become aware of the joy of memory. How fortunate I was to be raised by a mother who loved me, who loved my children, who was supportive and generous to a fault. I realize how lucky my family and I were to have had this home to visit, to provide holiday comfort. I am grateful for all that my mother, imperfect and human, provided.

Sighing, I rise to face the first task of saying a long goodbye. I know that this will be a painful process, but resolve to try turning to gratitude when sadness threatens to consume me.

I blow away the dust from the first book, and begin to pack away my mother's life.

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