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Before she drifted into an ocean of Alzheimer’s, my mother asked me to pull the plug

MICHELLE THOMPSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

'My wishes are clear: no heroic measures are to be taken to prolong my life. No life support. I don't want to live lying in a bed helpless, not knowing what is going on."

My mother adjusted the blond curls against her forehead. "I want you to just pull the plug. Do you hear?"

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"Yes, I hear," I assured her, rolling my eyes. "I'll pull the plug." I was only being the teeniest bit sarcastic.

"And don't ever try to put me in a nursing home – I would rather be dead. You can take me out of here in a box. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly." I smiled at her, amused by her love for drama. A box, for God's sake. Did she really think the ambulance comes and if the paramedics decide you are dead, they skip the whole gurney thing and just go straight to a pine box?

She studied me for a moment, her gaze penetrating.

"I mean it."

"I know. Don't worry."

Evidently satisfied by my compliance, she turned back to the mirror of her bureau and applied bright red lipstick. She dusted powder over her face, adjusted the sparkly barrettes at the back of her upswept hairdo and gave herself a misting of perfume. I loved watching her put on her makeup and do her hair. I didn't get to see it much any more. I was in my early 40s, and a mother myself. I was overwhelmed with the hectic whirl of my own life. Spending time with my mother in her bedroom, warmed by the sunlight streaming through her stained-glass windows, was a special treat.

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My mother was in her early 70s but looked at least 10 years younger, and acted about 40. No one had ever thought she was as old as she was, even when I was little. Brimming with energy and ideas, her mind was as brilliant as always. She loved a good debate, and was a fierce opponent. She was well read, incredibly accomplished and completely engaged in the world. She devoured the newspaper and watched CNN every day, and was working on a novel, a film script and a photographic book. She threw gorgeous dinner parties and attended cultural functions and art exhibits. She was constantly buying art, even though her walls were covered. When she couldn't find room to hang a new painting, she made space by giving something away to whomever she thought would love it. She was generous beyond belief.

I loved her completely.

Sitting today in her hospital room, holding her fragile hand, I tenderly brush a curl off her forehead. I am singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow to her, close to her ear so I can be sure she hears me. Every now and then she moans and squeezes my fingers.

"Do you remember that song, Mummy?" I ask softly. "It was sung by one of your favourite singers, Judy Garland. Do you remember Judy Garland?"

She lies against the pillow, silent, her eyes closed. She is blind now. She never opens her eyes, not even when her caregiver, who has been with her for years, gently implores, "Won't you open your beautiful brown eyes for me?"

"And when Judy Garland performed, she would always end her show by singing that song, which she sang in The Wizard of Oz," I continue. "Do you remember?"

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She lies still. She seems to be contemplating what I am saying, though now that she is in the dark ocean of Alzheimer's it is impossible to know. She rarely speaks. She no longer knows who I am, which shreds me to my core. The nurses and caregivers have to do everything for her. They move her into a chair to feed her puréed potatoes, carrots and chicken all mixed in one bowl. They give her words of praise when she opens her mouth, tell her to swallow, then wipe her mouth with a white towel and tell her she is good. Then they lift her back into bed and change her.

I leave the room when they do that.

She broke her hip slipping from the grasp of a caregiver. When I visited after her surgery, she was moaning. She had orders for painkillers by mouth, but she couldn't swallow. It took nearly two hours to get intravenous meds dripping into her. Within minutes she stopped flailing and was quiet. How intense had her pain been for all that time, with no ability to make her nurses understand?

At least when I sing to her she seems content. I sing Tomorrow from the musical Annie. It has a nice, cheerful sound to it. I try not to ruin it with my tears.

She can never go home. She was on a wait-list for a rehabilitation hospital, but when they discovered how advanced her Alzheimer's was they took her off. Now she is on a wait-list for a nursing home. When there is an opening for one that is decent, she will be moved there. To lie in a bed and be cared for like an infant. Until she dies.

"I have to go now, Mummy," I whisper. "I'll see you later." I put my lips against her smooth, warm cheek and stay there, willing my love into her, willing her pain and fear away. She moans again and holds my hand a little tighter. My tears are escaping now. I really need to go. "I love you, Mummy."

I slip away into the hall. I feel sick and hollow, and impossibly sad.

I want to save my mother, I do. But there is no plug to pull.

Karyn Monk lives in Toronto.

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