The Long Answer to a Short Question

People frequently ask me how my mother-in-law is doing. The short answer is “Fine.” A slightly long one is “she has good days and bad days.” I don’t know that that means anything more than “fine.” We all have good days and bad days and how we define “good” and “bad” is relative.

So, recently, I’ve been answering the question with a question so that I can give a more complete answer. Of course, I am assuming that if you asked, you want to hear more than “fine.”  If you ask, “How is your mother-in-law doing?” I ask, “When is the last time you saw her?” because if I know what kind of condition she was in when you last saw her, I can tell you what has or hasn’t changed.

If you tell me that you last saw her at her husband’s funeral fourteen months ago, I will probably say, “About the same.” She was out-of-it that day, but who wouldn’t be? Aside from her own brain injury and the dementia, she had just lost her husband of 53 years. I think she had the right to speak very little, sit quietly, and stare into space that day—no matter what her physical and mental condition.

Recently, however, I was prompted to recall how she was a year ago when she came to live with us. Yes, it will be one year on the 26th of this month. For a brief time, I think she was a little better than what she had been at the funeral. By no means was she “doing well” or anything like “her old self,” but she was more verbal and more alert.

  • A year ago, she was angry a lot. She would yell at the children if they were too loud. She scolded the housekeeper when she brought her son to work with her. She fought my husband when he bathed her.
  • She used to ask about my father-in-law a lot. She would ask why I had not set a place for him at the table. She would ask where he was and why he had not come to visit. And every now and then, she would say that she saw him. She would point to a distant corner and say he was there “with the tall man.” No, I don’t know who the “tall man” is. Ghost? Guardian angel? I just know that she saw her late husband and the tall man and thought they were alive enough that she needed me to ask them what they want for lunch.
  • She would call out “Hellooooo! Helloooooo!” if she wanted to get my attention.
  • She ate like a linebacker. For breakfast, she would typically have two eggs, toast with butter, bacon, juice, coffee, half an avocado, and a banana.
  • Frequently, she would ask “¿Que passé?” (Translation: What happened?) The slightest sound or movement could trigger this. “¿Que passé?” “I opened the refrigerator door.” “¿Que Passe?” “The mail was delivered.” “¿Que passé?” “I flushed the toilet.”

Now, she isn’t angry as often. Although I have heard her say, “Shut up!” recently, I know that was out of frustration, not anger, and the response is triggered less by other people and more by her own confusion and inability to communicate.  My children run around her singing and dancing and making all kinds of noise, and she doesn’t yell at them. Mostly, she sleeps through their noise. She hasn’t inquired about her late husband in months. Yesterday, while looking at a photo album, she pointed to his picture and asked who he was. She eats very little—mostly yogurt, apple sauce and homemade soup that slide down easily.  She seldom cares or notices what has happened so there is no more “¿Que passé?” And she never yells, “Helloooooo!” to get my attention.

Today, I gave her apple juice in a cup with a top and a straw. She kept chewing on the straw. I kept pulling it out of her mouth, reshaping it, and then putting it back in her mouth while half-cheering and half-instructing her to “Suck. Mom, suck.” Even with me puckering my lips and making slurping noises to illustrate how to suck, she just couldn’t get it. Eventually, I threw out the straw, removed the top, and spooned the juice into her mouth. THAT is how she is doing today.

And why am I writing about this now? Giving you an update that seems more appropriate for the 26th? Honestly, I expect the 26th to pass without notice. I’ve marked it on my calendar, but I bet it will come and go and a few days later I will as my husband, “Did you realize your mom has been with us for a full year?” and we will probably talk about all that has changed and all that hasn’t.



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