Monday, November 30, 2009

Losing Ruthie

Last Thursday night, cotton towels tumbled out of our upstairs hall closet as I tried to stuff in a set of flannel bed sheets. The towels’ domino action roused a memory from December ’95, when my father-in-law, Albert, had just died of congestive heart failure. The day before the funeral, I sat refolding towels on my in-laws’ family-room floor, while my mother-in-law, Ruthie, sat dazed in Albert’s rattan armchair. She looked down at me and said hoarsely “I fold the towels into thirds so they’ll fit in the closet.” I was comforted by her attention to something so mundane. It gave me hope that despite her heartbreak, she would eventually move on.

Now, I’m hoping I can move on when the expected happens. Ruthie is in hospice care, bleeding from an unknown source, her energy leeching out with her blood. She’s too frail for anything heroic to be done anymore; all the do-not-resuscitate papers have been signed.

The impending mourning period, however, may be shorter than the one we’ve experienced these last few years.

Seven years ago, we started losing Ruthie to Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she forgot places where she’d been a million times: “What a lovely home you have. How come you’ve never invited me here?” Or, after everyone had eaten dinner and we’d picked up their plates, seeing the now-empty setting in front of her, Ruthie would ask, “Aren’t you going to give me something to eat? You’re feeding them.” I often detected that undertone of hurt.

In the 27 years I’d known her, I’d never seen any reason why Ruthie should hurt. In fact, I’d always been a little jealous of her. Her four children and their spouses (including me) and her seven grandchildren had loved and pampered her. We filled her closets with stylish clothes and dressed her like a Barbie doll for special occasions. We framed her family photos and mowed her lawn. We funded shingles for her roof, the Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center, and her trip to California. We drove her to the drug store, grocery store, ophthalmologist, and cardiologist.

Over time, Ruthie sank deeper into Alzheimer’s, forgetting her husband of 54 years, our names, and her age. We welcomed her into our homes and gave her books that she’d read over and over and over. We bought her medicines and new underclothes. We took her for wheelchair rides among azaleas, treated her to decaffeinated coffee at a diner, and escorted her to all the family dinners and parties.

Thanksgiving last year, I was sitting next to Ruthie on my brother-in-law’s sectional sofa, my hand on her shoulder. I had just served her a plate of turkey and potatoes and a decaf coffee the way she always drank it: black with one-and-a-half packets of Sweet and Low™. She said, “You didn’t have to do that, but I really appreciate it. I don’t even know you, and look how well you’re treating me.” Then, she leaned over conspiratorially and, stabbing the air with her index finger, said, “You see those people?”


“They’ve known me since I was a little girl, and they won’t even give me the time of day. I don’t care what they think of my parents.” I looked up at the room full of everyone who loved Ruthie most: her children and spouses, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren—generations of a family all originated with her. “By the way,” she said, “are my parents coming?”

“Who are these people?”
Ruthie, front and center, surrounded by family,
Thanksgiving 2008

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