Cruel Words Spoken in a Nursing Home

When I was a child, music was always a part of my life. My sister and I were given piano lessons, my father played the violin, and my mother played both the piano and the violin. On Sundays we would all gather around the piano, my sister beside me on the piano bench and my parents standing side by side near us playing their violins.

One of my favorite songs was “Beyond the Sunset,” actually a rather sad song about dying but supported by an element of faith in God and the belief that there is something beyond this life.

Today I played the song when I returned from a visit with my mother in the nursing home. She has been in a depressed, feeling-sorry-for- herself mood for several days, complaining that no one talks to her or takes care of her or believes that she is important. I do my best with daily visits but it’s never enough. We have had bad moments before when she is like this, but today she broke my heart.

She accused me first of being late to visit her (I was finishing up with a load of laundry and arrived ten minutes after my usual time) and then blamed me for her bad mood and her refusal to participate in activities there. Then she told me (in what words she could gather) that it was my fault she was in there. I put her there, she accused me. I didn’t help her when she had her stroke, in fact it was my fault she had the stroke, and I wasn’t taking her out anywhere for rides. (She is not capable of getting into and out of a car without the strong possibility of a fall and I’m not strong enough to hold her. ) She actually told me she wanted me to suffer as much as she is suffering. The words were harsh and kept coming on stronger and stronger. I tried to leave and she grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go, the cruel words continuing. I broke free and left the room in sobs.

I know she has dementia. I know the staff will explain to me that she can’t help it. But this is a mother I have sacrificed everything for, including time I want to spend with my children and grandchildren in California and Arizona. I don’t think my mother ever loved me. I don’t remember being held or praised or made to feel that I mattered to her. And so now that she has dementia, her mental filter has been removed and she is free to say to me whatever she has wanted to say for years.

I hope I never tell my children that I want them to suffer. I hope I never accuse my children of not loving me. I hope I never make my children feel like they aren’t doing enough for me. I hope if I am ever in a nursing home, I try to make the most of it and let my children live their lives to the fullest because life is far too fragile and too short to spend being mean to another human being, especially to someone who loves you beyond words.

The piano is my refuge. The piano is my saving grace. When I got home and found the sheet music to “Beyond the Sunset,” I remembered those moments when I was a child and I had my sister and my father and my mother with me and we were a family. The song is a sad song for sure, but it makes me want to believe that somewhere above me in some other realm, my father and my sister understand the pain I am going through and will try to help me be strong enough to face whatever comes next for me and for my mother.

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St. Patrick’s Day: Morning Joy, Afternoon Panic

St. Patrick’s Day:  Morning Joy, Afternoon Panic

Even though I am partly Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is usually low-key for me.  I don’t frequent bars or drink, although I do love Irish music.  My plan was to watch some Sunday morning television and then visit my mother at the nursing home.

My favorite show to watch is CBS Sunday Morning, mainly just the last five minutes, however, when a nature video is shown.  It is always a secret shot of nature, like someone spying on the wonders of the lives of birds or buffalo or deer.  There is quiet except for the natural sounds of the animals or rushing water or the cries of gulls.  Yesterday the video was of porcupines.  I never thought of porcupines as particularly cute, but in their natural environment as they munched on hickory berries, they were adorable.  Close ups showed the mouths, with their protruding front teeth, munching on berries while emitting soft moaning sounds of pleasure.  One porcupine snuffled around in the snow, pulling up berries from underneath and placidly munching while seemingly talking to the berries.  Another porcupine was up in a tree, pulling the berries off the branches.  These few moments that connect me to scenes in nature I would never experience by myself always bring me a sense of peace.

After lunch, I went up to the nursing home as usual.  My husband, who sometimes goes with me, stayed home to cook corned beef and cabbage.  When I walked onto the floor where my mother’s room is, the nurse stopped me.  She told me they had just called in the rapid response team for my mother who appeared to have had a seizure, her second one in a few weeks.  She told me she had a pulse but was unresponsive.  I couldn’t process the words.  Another nurse escorted me to a small room off the dining room to wait for the response team to continue to work on my mother.  At that point I was convinced my mother would not live.  Then she was whisked off to the emergency room in the hospital.  (The nursing home is attached to the hospital.)  Once again she went through a series of tests.  As the minutes went by, my mother returned to the living.  Oxygen restored her breathing and her blood pressure began to go down.  She could move and speak and seemed to have strength in her arms and legs.  Over the course of the next four hours, she gradually returned to her normal self.  The tests did not show what had happened and she was returned to her room in the nursing home.

Today I went up to see her and spent more time than usual.  I brought her a cup of coffee and we went in to the dining room to enjoy the DJ Sal sing and play music for the residents of the nursing home.  Fifteen residents sat around tables in their wheelchairs, some sleeping, some staring, some singing along and laughing at Sal’s jokes.  He played and sang Irish songs and then moved on to country and pop songs of the past.

One resident, a prominent local surgeon dealing with Alzheimer’s, loved the music.  He couldn’t speak well but he sure could sing.  He sang along with “Danny Boy” and swung his arms to the music.  At one point he wheeled himself over to me, took my hand, and kissed it.  I told him I liked his sweater, a bright orange, and he told me in slow speech that he liked it too.  I said it was my favorite color and he said then he would wear it tomorrow.

All the time I sat at my mother’s side, thinking how different today was from yesterday when I feared the worst and expected to lose her at any minute.  Today she sat quietly, laughing at times, smiling, clearly enjoying the music.  Sal is her favorite.

Sitting in the dining room with the residents, these men and women who are now my mother’s acquaintances, who I now know by name, people who once had active, busy lives, jobs, hobbies and activities and now sat in their wheel chairs listening to the joys of music, an overwhelming sadness came over me.  I kept glancing at my mother, loving her, and wondering how I could ever exist without her.  It comforted me to sit so close to her, to touch her shoulder, to laugh with her, to feel like she was still there if I needed her.  And I did.

There was joy in the dining room of the nursing home today.  The only tears were mine.

Prelude

Prelude

Enclosed within a crystal globe
An angel in a burgundy, gold-trimmed gown
Stands in peaceful silence, wings outstretched.

A vigorous shake
A few turns of the key
And a symphony of swirling snow begins.
A prediction of life.

The storm grows in intensity,
A crescendo of white
Obscuring the angel within.

Still,  troubled souls peering in
From the cold outside world
Feel the angel’s peace
As with grace she offers an interlude of serenity.

The music slows to largo
The snowflakes diminish, settling downward.
The angel reappears
And more gently now
Life resumes.

Pianissimo.

© Barbara Flass 2008

A Reflection on Music’s Connection to Our Past

One of the August concerts at the Round Lake Auditorium is about to begin.  I am always amazed at the historical significance of this place.  Today’s performance is an organ concert, one of at least four presented this month.

The Tracker organ has aged well.  Built in l847 and brought to Round Lake, New York, in 1888, it is the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States.  Equipped with 1900 pipes, it is enormous, filling the wooden building from the platform to the ceiling, dwarfing the young organist at the keyboard.  Today’s organist is twenty-year-old John Walthausen, talented and personable, instructing the audience in the pieces he is playing, a mixture of Bach and newer composers, relaxed and smiling on this day before he leaves for further study in Paris.

The audience is also aged.  The first three rows are filled with senior citizens from one of the retirement villages in the area, their white hair cropped short, talking softly to each other, enjoying another outing to break up their days.  They are an appreciative audience, acknowledging this young talent with their applause and smiles.  I admire these women for their strength and independence.

I am sitting several rows behind them next to my about-to-be eighty-nine-year-old mother.  She does not have a walker or cane, like many of the women in front of us.  She is healthy and mobile, walking slowly but steadily now, and she loves the organ, playing herself even at her age to pass the time each day.  I am surrounded by widows, with only a handful of men in the audience.  I think that in twenty years I could be a widow myself, knowing how women outlive men, a tradition in our family especially.  I could be living in a home for senior citizens, brought to various venues in a bus, looking for ways to add interest to my routine days.

I don’t entirely enjoy the concert.  I appreciate the young man’s talent, but the music is heavy and sluggish at times.  I keep checking my watch.  I begin to count the stripes on the shirt of the woman in front of me.  I check out the patterns in the stained glass windows at the top of the auditorium and I watch how the breeze from the open doors causes the black stage curtains to move from time to time, ghost-like and unpredictable.

In the 1800’s the auditorium was the focus of a Methodist church camp that took up summer residence in the village, at one time a resort with hotels, museums, and lecture halls.  Tiny Victorian cottages replaced the original tents set up for the summer, and they still dot the village with their porches, window boxes, gingerbread trim, and colorful paint.  I wonder as the curtains move gently if it is perhaps not the wind at all, but the spirit of a previous resident, maybe one of the preachers who gave dynamic sermons or one of the women who came from the city with her husband and children to enjoy the cooler air by the lake.  The music is a mere backdrop for the stories unfolding in my head.

The concert ends with an energetic symphony by Louis Vierne, written, explains the young organist, as an emotional outlet after he was rejected for a position he coveted and during an explosive divorce from his wife.  Music, I note, is like words used to express one’s emotions, sad or happy, reflective or angry.  The final symphony is full of energy and volume, a good ending to help us depart from the traditions of the past and enter again the predictability of our days.  Whether we are young or old, alone or not, healthy or not, energetic or not, we are always connected to those days that have preceded us, just as we are unaware of what may be ahead.

My mother and I leave the auditorium, walking carefully across the lawn to the parking lot, our footsteps on the same ground where families walked over a hundred years ago, families who also were entertained by the Tracker organ, standing now silent in the aged building, waiting for music to begin again.