If You Can Laugh

“Can you imagine your mother in a nursery setting like this?” Just a moment before my aunt had been wincing in pain, but the thought of her older sister, lined up in her wheelchair, being led through a routine of saying her vowels and thinking up words that begin with the letters in PANCAKE was enough to make her laugh. You can get through anything, if you can laugh, my grandmother used to say.

We were sitting in a nook in the activity room. She was positioned in a recliner with pillows propping her up, supporting her broken ribs and collarbone. She drifted in and out, sometimes her eyes bright and clear, letting us know that she knew us and appreciated our being there. Other times, she stared into space, lost to the moment until the pain pulled her back. It was hard to hear her when she did speak. The activity room was buzzing with the morning program.

She fell a few weeks ago, so now she is here on the memory unit, where a bed was available along with more staff to help care for her. She has watched two of her siblings lose themselves to Alzheimer’s (while a third, also diagnosed, has responded better to treatment), but despite that tragedy, she still finds the humor. My mother, had she been able, would have been one of those residents lined up for exercise and games, and probably hating every minute of it. By the time she had to leave her home, though, her disease had advanced too far and she was incapable of participating in any meaningful activities.

Each time I visit, I wonder if it will be the last time. Will something happen? Will she take a turn for the worse? Decline more rapidly? Her sisters are praying that she will have a good death, that she’ll go peacefully and quickly without suffering long. I’m not ready for another loss. They come too frequently these days. Maybe she’ll rally. Maybe she’ll heal. I look at her, though, and see my mother toward the end, as her body grew weak and wasted away. She’s the last of that family without dementia. Her two sisters live in the same facility. Both have more advanced memory problems, yet they still recognize us. That too will change.

Once they’re gone, in body or mind, we will be left with only our own memories to link us to the past, to my grandparents, to that world that shaped us as we grew? What happens when those memories fail? I look at my aunts and wonder which path I’ll end up taking. Will I, like my mother, disappear completely long before my body gives out? Or will I remain trapped in a body that no longer supports me? I’d rather go like my grandmother did—she baked blueberry muffins in the morning and died that afternoon when her heart gave out. When my aunts got home from church, she was gone.

It’s March. The month of death and loss and suffering and mental anguish. My aunt reminded me, though, to look for the humor, to laugh at the absurdities. And I will. Tomorrow.