Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Vanity of Graham Crackers

For those of you who don't know, we recently put my Mom into a home for people suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia. This is all okay because it seems to be a good place and we knew it was coming.

I went up to Chicago last week to visit her there for the first time. What I expected was something from "Awakenings," maybe something as exciting as "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest." People who were not totally there, but who were not totally gone either. Maybe there would be one or two McMurphys, or that woman from "Awakenings" who wouldn't walk on the white tiles. In my head I guess I wanted to imagine that, while we don't understand her in her disease, once she got around other people who had the same disease they could somehow find each other out there in that place where Alzheimer's takes them. But I guess it just takes everyone somewhere different.

Before I went to the home Dad was telling me that he had gone to visit one morning and the staff had gathered everyone around a table for coffee. When he walked in everyone was just kind of dozing there in their chairs with their coffee and a single graham cracker sitting in front of them. Nobody was talking, nobody was really even awake or present in any way. That is the kind of scene I walked into when I visited for the first time.

It was before lunch and they were all gathered in a common room, and looked like they were having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I don't know what they were doing in there. Dad went in and kind of woke her up a little and she was happy to see him. Then he pointed at me and she jumped up and left the circle to give me a hug, which started out as a really joyful thing and quickly evolved into a tear-soaked act of desperation on both our parts. It was classic Mom and Annie, and it remained classic Mom and Annie. At one point we were sitting on a little bench and we each, at the same time, tried to lean our head on the other's shoulder. I asked to see her room and she led me down the hall. The room looked like it belonged in a hotel. It was tiny and there was a bed, a dresser, a side table, lamp, and chair. That's it. When I left I told her that I was going to go get all of her stuff. We were going to decorate her room.

At lunch Dad and I were talking about the whole deal there at the home. I said how depressing it seemed there.

I said, "You know, that whole graham cracker thing. I don't know, man, the graham cracker with the coffee just kills me."

I never liked a graham cracker. They were always giving them to me in grade school and I ate them because I wanted my snack, but I never looked forward to getting a graham cracker. It always seemed like they had to give us something for a snack, but we didn't have to enjoy it so, hey, graham crackers are easy.

Dad agreed. "Yeah, they always represented taking the easy way out to me. Like 'I'm going to give you something totally useless, but I'm going to act like I did something very meaningful.'"

We both laughed about how stupid graham crackers are, and I don't know about him, but I was kind of laughing about how he and I could, independently, come to the same conclusions about the implications of graham crackers.

I spent the next morning excavating the bedroom at Mom and Dad's house. I picked out lots of gardening and decorating books, books that she didn't have to read but could just look at. There were calendars and circulars and unopened boxes of mechanical pencils, there was an old journal from 1985. I didn't know what it was, but was kind of flipping through things out of curiosity and found my name in this particular journal. She was writing about a dream she had in which she was on a beach and she sees this woman, very tall, thin, with dark hair and dark brown eyes. In the dream this woman gave her a hug and felt very "mothering." She wrote, "I thought it was Annie, all grown up." I'm not tall, certainly not "very" tall. Mom always thinks I am though. She was always asking how I got so tall. It was with this in my head, and with about four baskets of books and notebooks, that I had to go see Mom. I was determined that it was going to be a good day. I was going to be "Annie, all grown up." We were going to decorate her room, and we both like to decorate.

It was a good day and we got some life into her room. I mainly just wanted her stuff in there so that people walking by would look in and think "wow, she must have been a really interesting woman!" There were no afghans or doilies, nothing made of yarn, nothing mauve. Her room had books, it had baskets, it had multicolored antique boxes that said "this woman is young, she is smart, she floated through life and she liked the color red!" I don't know that it did too much for her, but I left feeling much better.

The next day was the last day of my visit and we made one last trip to see Mom. I was happy to walk into her room and find that the books were not all exactly where I had left them. We took her out to eat with us and she fell asleep at the table. We laughed about her, and then Dad, not being able to zip up her coat. On our way back, as we were turning into the home Mom said "Oh, noooo." To the best of my knowledge the last time she saw the place from the outside was when they moved her in over a month ago, yet somehow her mind held on to that memory, and she knew she was going to have to watch us walk out that door without her.

As hard as the whole trip was I feel good about where she is. Like I said, it seems like a good place. I just miss my mom, and in a way it's kind of a neat situation because I can tell her that. Lots of people don't realize how much they miss their parents until they're gone and they never get to tell them. I have that opportunity, and while there is no indication that she's not just being erased, I still like to think that she's somewhere hearing me when I tell her that I grew up to be just like her, maybe she already knows. Annie, all grown up. I just wish I were closer, I wish that I could be there more, that I could see her smile, that I could bring her this disgusting bitter dark chocolate she likes and redecorate her room so she doesn't get tired of looking at the same stuff all the time. I don't really know if those things make too much of a difference to her anymore. They make me feel better though. Maybe graham crackers are not so bad.


  1. Oh Annie, this was so sweet and just got to me. I think that everything you do for your Mom has meaning to her, but since she can't share what's going on inside her the same way anymore, you've got to just assume it does. And it may pop out much later, when you're not there, but something makes her think 'Annie put that there for me' and she'll be glad of it.

    I see that a lot with my residents; they remember and react to their loved ones much past anything else. One of my ladies recognized her daughter the other day and greeted her differently than she greets the rest of us, and was clearly so happy to see her that we all teared up. Another (whose daughter is named Abby) wakes up every morning and says "Where is Abby?" and once she knows Abby's fine and on her way to work, she's good to go for the day.

    Love to you and your parents.

  2. This story just reminds me that you don't know what you have until its gone. I try to keep that perspective in my mind all the time, remembering everyday is a gift. I truly want to spend as many great times with the people I love at any age...great story to remind us for what we should be thankful for in our lives...and we have a lot.

  3. I'm glad you got the graham cracker moment down in the official record. I wouldn't want to lose that. Really, no kidding. Moments like that are all that's left.