Things were getting more difficult with each passing week. Doris, the personal care worker, proved her worth repeatedly, but, still, the load on all of those caring for Alberta was increasing. And, somehow, in all her confusion and forgetfulness, she knew it. She could see the strain showing on those around her.
She said as much one morning, as Jenny took her for a walk in the local park. Her position in the wheelchair was warm enough, covered, as she was, in layers of clothing, a comforter, and a woolen toque. Seated opposite her, on a cold bench, Jenny talked about anything and nothing – things to keep her mother’s mind engaged with the day. At one point, she blew her warm breath into her chilled palms and then rubbed them together.
Jenny looked up to see her mother staring at her directly, her eyes clearly in the moment and communicating awareness.”
“What, Mom? Sorry? Sorry for what?”
“I know this hasn’t been easy for you or Robin. Every mother is innately programmed to tend to her children, and here I am, needing care every day. You have a life to live and I’m keeping you from it.”
Jennifer grasped her mother’s gloved hand. “I’ll get to all that, Mom, but right now, everything I truly want in life is here, with you, by your side, and up here, in your mind.” The last phrase was uttered as she patted Alberta’s head.
“When you reach my age, everything seems to be slipping away anyway – it’s not just Al …. Al – this disease that causes that. You lose mobility, your place of employment, the ability to travel or to even ride a horse. But worst of all is that you lose everyone you knew growing up – parents, friends, co-workers – your husband.” The last phrase was said with a tremor in the voice. “You lose all these things, and in their place … what? If you’re a relational person at all, there are no more signposts because the people are gone.”
“Robin and I are here, Mom, as is Elizabeth, but I know what you mean. I might not have understood it as well had Dad not passed. And now we’re facing your struggles.”
“It’s a visitor.”
“A visitor? What does that mean?”
“Do you know that when I became pregnant with you, I knew it even before Elizabeth confirmed. “I had a visitor, and it was making itself known inside me. I learned I had another visitor when your Dad was gone. I felt grief when my parents died, but it didn’t linger the way Sandy’s passing did. He was gone but in his place was the new presence, the knowledge that death had taken up abode in my life and wouldn’t be leaving until it claimed me as well.”
“Oh, Mom, please don’t talk like that! Let’s enjoy what’s left.”
She knew Alberta would apologize and console her in that moment, but when she looked up, her mother’s mind had gone – off to some faraway place that claimed her attention regardless of the circumstances. She had reached inside her coat and caressed the golden key the best she could in the cold.
Jennifer felt abandoned but knew the disease – the visitor – had moved in and taken her spot. “I love you, Mom … I love you.”
She stood, pulled the comforter away from the two large wheels supporting the chair, and wheeled Alberta inside, without another word being said. The house was a spacious one by English standards, permitting Jennifer to place a cot in her mother’s bedroom so that she could keep her company. For half an hour, she undressed her mother, changed her diaper, helped brush her teeth, and then, placing her mother’s arms about her neck, swivelled her out of the chair and onto the bed.
Her mother tucked in, Jennifer turned out the light and moved to her own cot when Alberta said, “Time to pray, Mommy. Time to pray.”
Moments such as these were resented by Jenny; she felt so insufficient in speaking to a God she had hardly acknowledged for years. Yet she knew her mother required it, even if she had journeyed back over the years to her youth. Jenny knelt beside her and grabbed her hand.
“Dear God, thank you for today, and for Mommy and Daddy. Thank you for little Alberta, and for this house.”
“Don’t forget Patch, Mommy.” Patch, named so because of the black patch of hair that surrounded one eye, had been her constant companion in her youth.”
“And Patch, God – we pray for him, and we thank you that he’s always so happy. We pray that you give Alberta a good night’s sleep and that she’ll wake refreshed in the morning. Amen. Amen.”
Jenny rose, kissed her mother on the cheek, and chided herself for such an unoriginal prayer. Still, it was the best she could do.
As she shuffled to her bed, a voice behind her said, “And Sandy, Jenny – let’s pray for Sandy.”
She turned to look at her mother in the dim light. But, even in the darkness, she could see that Alberta had returned from wherever she had been. Her eyes were full of understanding. Kneeling once more, Jenny said, “Dad, if you can hear us, we love you. We miss you every day. We hope you know that. Thank you for all that you taught us and for all the comfort you gave us. And now, God, we ask that you comfort Mom with thoughts of her husband as you did down here. Both of you, watch over this dear and gentle soul – so strong but so humble, so principled but so understanding, so loving but so capable of receiving love. Amen. Amen.” Jenny smiled to herself, knowing that the prayer she had just uttered was much better than the previous one.
As her eyes rose to meet her mother’s, the gentleness and longing for her daughter was unmistakable. “Tell Robin I said good night. I love you both.” She clasped the key as she whispered this.
Sometime later in the night, Jennifer woke and looked over to insure her mother was okay. Her bed was empty. She bolted upright and went straight to the washroom – she wasn’t there, either. Panicking, she grabbed a robe and hurried out into the house, turning on all the lights as she went. “Mom. Mom.”
Robin emerged from his room, alarm on his face. “She’s gone! We have to find her,” pleaded Jennifer.
It wasn’t unusual for Alberta to move about during the night, but, in recent weeks, it had happened less and less because of her condition. Jennifer felt this time was different, and it showed on her face. “Okay, Jenny, okay – we’ll find her.”
In an instant, Jennifer knew where her mother was. She moved quickly to the side patio door and saw the woman’s form hunched over the pile of stones. “Oh no – God, no!”
Robin followed her quickly outside. Alberta was half sitting, half lying – crouched over, dressed only in her nightgown. “She must be frozen,” Jennifer said. But in an instant, both knew it was too late. Alberta’s eyes were closed. Her face was lifeless. Jenny touched her neck to be sure and then burst into sobs, the likes of which she hadn’t experienced since the death of her father.
Robin assisted in carrying his mother onto the couch just inside the door, and covered her with a comforter. He looked down at his mother, expecting her face to be placid, but, instead, it looked strained, as if she were in pain, somehow. They learned later that she had died of a heart attack. Jenny had called the ambulance and then dialed Elizabeth to deliver the news. The physician said she would be right over.
The ambulance took longer than expected, arriving only a few minutes before Elizabeth Fairborugh. The medical crew had already pronounced her gone, but Alberta’s old friend went through her own procedure, to be sure. Unable to restrain herself, she just let the tears flow freely as she knelt forward and kissed her friend on both her cheeks and her forehead. “To your rest, my dear friend. To your rest. Very well done.”