It was late afternoon, and I walked into her room quietly. Both she and her roommate were napping. Mom looked so tiny in the bed. She was covered up to her neck with a blanket and her TV was on.
I spoke softly, so I wouldn’t startle her. She opened her eyes and it took her a moment to focus. She was excited to see me and sat up in the bed.
“Hey, Mom. How are you today?”
She was in a pleasant mood. “I’m good, honey. I am so glad you’re here. I have missed you so much.”
It was true, I haven’t visited much lately. Emotionally, it becomes too much at times. She begs me to take her home. Many of our visits end with her crying and becoming angry when I try to explain that she needs to be in a nursing home. And every time she does this, I question the decision to place her long-term. I run the scenario through my head. I think back to what life was like when she was still at home with my father. She would become anxious and call me to take her to the hospital for something minor. Or how she called the newspaper to run classified ads trying to sell things around the house that she had already given away or sold. I recalled how she refused her medicines, refused food, refused to take a bath. And it leads me back to all of the ER visits for dehydration or bladder infections. All of this reminds me of why she is better served in a healthcare setting. She needs the care…24/7
But even after having played it out in my head, I still struggle with the decision. Am I doing the right thing? Did I move her into a facility too soon? The questions in my mind are deafening.
I noticed that she was wearing the same shirt as the visit before…and the visit before. She has a habit of wearing the same things over and over. So I asked her about it. She said the facility laundry had lost all of her clothes. So I opened up her closet to check. It was sparse.
But prominently on display, hanging in her closet, were a pair of orange pants. She saw me looking at them.
“Those aren’t mine.”
“I know, Mom. I wonder why they are in here?”
Her voice cracked as she told me, “They couldn’t find my some of my clothes, so they gave me some clothes to use. I bet the woman who wore those orange pants passed away. Every time they put them on me, I cringe. They are so ugly”
Then, she turned her face away and I could see she was crying. My mother, the stoic one. The Iron Lady. The person who rarely cries, had tears streaming down her face. I wanted to cry too.
Seeing her tears made me realize that to my mother, those orange pants represent:
Humiliation. She has always been a proud and conservative woman. She is not flashy and has always worn muted or neutral colors. She doesn’t like to draw attention to herself with clothes. When they dress her in those orange pants, they might as well sew a scarlet letter on her.
Those orange pants represent:
Loss: She cannot dress herself any longer, so she feels she has no say in what she wears. Which is not how it is supposed to be in a nursing center. Patients should have a voice and a choice. It’s a dignity issue. But no place is perfect and I am sure there are days when it is easier for the people dressing her to make the decision. Some days, because of her dementia, Mom may not be able to make the decision.
Those orange pants represent:
Mortality: The pants belonged a patient who passed away at the facility. Imagine how it must feel knowing you are wearing the pants of a woman who died. A woman, like yourself, who was once strong, once able to care for herself, once able to make her own decisions, who died…in the very place you are. It brings home a dose of reality and makes you wonder, “when will it be my time?” And you begin to think, “will someone else be wearing my clothes after I die?”
Those orange pants represent:
Reality: Having worked in the nursing home industry. I know what the days are like. I understand the decisions that have to be made to ensure everyone is cared for and dressed. I have been in situations where patients are out of clothes, and clothes that are left behind are given as a substitute. This typically happens when there is no family available to bring additional clothes. In this scenario, Mom’s clothes were misplaced by the laundry. But for some reason, those orange pants lingered.
I saw the pain those ugly, polyester, safety orange-colored pants caused her. I yanked them out of the closet and took them into the bathroom. They were hideous. And were two sizes too big for her. I tried to see if the name of their original owner was legible on the tag, but they had been washed so much, it had faded. Instead, I noticed Mom’s name had been written in them. So they would continue to show up in her closet. They would continue to torment her.
I did what any good daughter would do. I tore them to shreds, right there in the bathroom. Each time I ripped another piece, I felt I’d won a small victory. Mom was never going to have to wear them again. No one in the center would ever have to wear them again. In some twisted way, I vindicated my mother. I restored a small piece of her dignity by shredding those pants.
When I walked out of the bathroom, Mom looked at me and said,
“Hey honey, I am so glad to see you. I have missed you so much.”
She had no recollection that I had been there before…that I had been in the bathroom destroying the albatross….freeing her from that orange shame. So I took the cue from her (and her diminished short-term memory).
“It’s great to see you, Mom. How are you today?”
And we talked about recipes and what I was going to cook for Thanksgiving. We talked about family. We talked about all things good. It was a great visit.
That night, I left our time together with a sense of peace. A small feeling of victory. I reflected on my childhood, when Mom was still my mother and I was her still her daughter, long before the roles reversed. I thought back to when I was a little girl and how Mom chased the monsters away from my closet, so that I could sleep peacefully.
Today was my turn to repay the favor. For now, there are no more monsters in her closet.