March 8, 2013 by Karin Brown
My husband’s parents arrived at our home early that morning: Curtis, my father-in-law, was excited and eager; my mother-in-law, Eleanor, was not. My husband, Sterling, and his dad were headed out for a day of refuge and hiking in the mountains, but his mom wasn’t healthy enough to join them. So Eleanor was to spend the day with me and my girls. Sadly, she seemed uneasy at the prospect of a full day alone with us. Since we had never lived close to my in-laws, I never got to know Eleanor as well as I should have, and now it felt too late.
I squinted my eyes against exhaustion and honestly felt a bit put out by the day’s arrangements. I was just recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia and was still feeling spent just keeping up with my four children, but spousal obligation and a subtle nudge from the spirit compelled me to stay with Eleanor for the morning, even though our time together is shy and self-conscious, like an awkward date. She’d entered the early stages of Alzheimer’s soon after Sterling and I married. We were physically separated from his parents by a desert spanning two states. Although we saw her once or twice a year, I never felt like I really knew her. The real desert that separated us was the barren wasteland of her failing memory.
Curtis placed a nondescript bag on my kitchen table. He rested a resolute hand on the bag and looked at me with an awkward smile. Then he turned to Eleanor, whispered a few words of comfort, and walked out the door.
She’d been exhibiting symptoms for ten years, but the last four were a fast downward spiral, leaving behind a shadow of the woman she once was. I often listened to family members’ stories about Eleanor good-naturedly “thunking” kids on their heads when they misbehaved, or taking a gourmet cooking class that led to “experiments” at home, but I couldn’t really picture who they were talking about. Almost before I knew her, those little fragments of who she had been were getting lost. I knew her only a few short years before she started to retreat within herself, embarrassed by her lapses in memory—forgetting a grandchild’s name or the ingredients in a favorite dish.
The warm summer morning promised to be hot before long. We wandered out to spend the cooler hours on the front porch, watching my girls play in the yard. Eleanor let out a sigh and folded her long fingers in her lap while the girls ran after butterflies and sang “Ring Around the Rosies” before falling in giggles and rolling in the grass. I looked at Eleanor, still and silent but with a subtle smile, as her eyes followed the children prancing around the yard, almost like she could remember. I wondered why I never thought to ask her about being a young mother before, when she could remember.
I wondered if Eleanor smelled the sweet summer grass and remembered those childhood days my husband still talks about. He says that Saturday mornings he always had to mow the acre of lawn surrounding their house. As the Arizona sun beat mercilessly on his back, his mother would meet him half way through with a glass of fresh lemonade and offer to take over for a few minutes while he rested.
Back inside the house, I noticed Eleanor began pacing and murmuring more than usual. I glanced at the bag Curtis had left on the table and knew what task lay ahead. I ushered Eleanor into the bathroom.
At first I focused on my own sacrifice. But as I knelt down to care for the needs that this beloved mother and matriarch could no longer address, the truth of her situation leveled me. For a woman who had devoted to her family so much of her time and her self, this seemed like an unfair turn on investment. After easing her shoes back on, I struggled to get off my knees.
I pulled rolls out to make sandwiches for lunch. Butterhorn rolls had been Eleanor’s specialty. In the days that Eleanor had ruled her kitchen, it never mattered that her recipe cards were smeared and stained by greasy fingers and scattered flour. She didn’t need a recipe; she knew them all. Every dish my husband requests for dinner came from her kitchen, enjoyed mostly for the memories. But now I remember the visit when Eleanor forgot to turn off the stove, wondered why the burner was red, and burned her hand. And in my kitchen today, she stood in a corner, mumbling while she fingered the hem of her shirt.
With full tummies, my young girls went down for naps while the older two watched a movie. Several minutes into cleaning the kitchen, I realized I didn’t know where Eleanor was. After looking through the house, my heart beat faster as I approached the wide-open front door. I desperately called out her name again and again. A neighbor, working in her garden, heard my cries and pointed toward a nearby field. Frantically, I asked her to keep an eye on my children as I raced after Eleanor.
Following my neighbor’s direction across a vacant field, full of dry weeds and grasshoppers, I spotted Eleanor on the street below. I realized I had been holding my breath when a mix between a sigh and a sob escaped my chest. I caught up to her and asked her to come home but quickly found she had no intention of going anywhere with me. I had no choice but to follow her.
She kept trying to walk faster and weave along the sidewalk to shake me off. “The mountains look beautiful from here,” I said to distract her, but she ignored me. “Let’s see what’s up this road,” I suggested. With squared shoulders, Eleanor turned in the opposite direction. Eleanor’s favorite vacation used to be coming to Utah, seeing the Y on the mountain and Temple Square. Now she was here, and she didn’t even know it.
“You don’t have to walk with me,” she sternly ordered. “I’ve just got to get home, to my brothers.” With that, she crossed the street and kept walking. I followed, shocked into silence and now a few steps behind.
Eleanor fidgeted with her hands as she walked, a remnant of decades of keeping her hands busy. Her house was a virtual museum of years of handiwork: quilts, cross-stitching, and sewing projects. She also kept her hands busy at the piano. Once she invited me to sit next to her and try some duets. Her fingers moved easily through the primo part, while my fingers nervously stumbled to keep up. Then she made a mistake and started laughing. She made another mistake and bumped my shoulder. I started to laugh with her. She grasped my hand in hers and we laughed side-by-side at the piano.
Ahead of me, Eleanor’s hands were still busy, fidgeting with anxiety. Soon we came to an intersection; we had to turn west or end up on a very busy road. I didn’t want to cause a scene. I tried to walk in her way; she walked around me and into the middle of the street. A truck turned the corner and she didn’t react. Embarrassed, I pulled her out of the street like a mother upset with a child. Conflicted emotions wrestled inside of me. Who is she now? She is my mother-in-law, not my child. Where is the mother who once guided and directed my husband?
For nearly an hour, the same routine occurred at each corner, steer/avoid, nudge/nudge back, pull/resist, until we were a street away from home. I was tired. I was hot. I was lonely, walking behind Eleanor. And I was frustrated. Why do we have to do this? Why does she have to be so lost? Is this really how her life plays out after all she’s worked for? The sun beat down on us and she started to weave on the sidewalk, not to avoid me, but because she was exhausted and weak. I needed to get her home.
She turned up a neighbor’s driveway, heading for the shade of the open garage. I gently pulled her arm to bring her back to the sidewalk. She shrugged me off. So I held her by both arms from behind, to direct her. She quickly turned and gripped my shoulders. In a breath, her eyes held my own captive.
“I want to go home,” she yelled. “Don’t you understand? I need to go home!” Her eyes said everything she couldn’t find the words to say. They were ice clear and piercing, yet gray and lost. “I know!” I yelled back, our eyes locked. I didn’t care anymore about causing a scene. I was mad and I didn’t know where to direct the anger. Her stare pierced my heart, pleading to me, with the desperate determination of a woman who felt eternally lost and only longed for home. I knew I could take her to my home, but that wasn’t the home she yearned for. Her home was lost in a cross between earth and heaven, a heartbreakingly elusive place of peace and rest.
“I know,” I whispered. A heavy blanket of surrender fell over me: she was truly lost. While I could recognize her physically, that was nearly all. The person she had been was missing. The mother who brought my husband lemonade, the mother-in-law who laughed with me at the piano, the grandmother my girls should have known was somewhere I couldn’t reach. Though she stood two feet from me, she wasn’t there. All I could do was pray.
“Please, Father. How do I help her home? What recourse is there? Is there no peace for her here?” But she had already moved on toward the next house. Slowly, as if in defeat.
Finally, back in the cool shelter of my house, she still avoided me. Different couches, different sides of the room. Eventually, different rooms. Relieved to just have her safe, feeling pushed away and trying not to be hurt, I let her be. She sat alone in an old antique rocking chair, her eyes fixed on the dusty window. In the next room, I sat staring into the distance, grappling with role reversal, justice and mercy, heaven and home.
It’s hard not to feel like she’s already gone, and harder to wonder where she really is. If the spirit still inhabits the body, then where is Eleanor? I mourn the loss. My children will never taste her Christmas pies, never hear her play the piano, never feel her arm around the shoulders. I can’t stop myself from continually searching for her. In time, I find traces of Eleanor all around me. I see her in my husband’s long fingers and quick smile and her daughter’s soft words. I feel close to her on the porch, watching my children play. I find her in cherished family recipes and stories passed on to grandchildren. It doesn’t take away the ache for the real Eleanor, the longing for her active influence; yet these whispering traces bring hope that she is not lost forever and that one day, we will find her again, when all that is lost will finally be found and we will be home.