September phone call unexpected, treasured

September phone call unexpected, treasured

I didn’t think it would ever happen again, but it did. She spoke to me — in sentences. There I was lying on the couch over that lazy Labor Day weekend, stealing a few precious moments of reading, when I received the call from Shepherd of the Valley. That phone call usually means I have a visit with Mom on FaceTime. And I did.

Let me preface this by saying Mom hasn’t spoken to me since my spring birthday when she uncharacteristically became chatty, knew who I was and then wished me a happy birthday. Even when I visited in person this spring and summer, she most often slept, rarely spoke and did not respond to questions except with a brief shake of the head — questions like “Would you like a bite of doughnut?”

However, I detected a difference from the first moment of this morning call. Mom sat unusually erect in her bed, wide awake, her snow-white hair brushed, with a knowing look in her eyes. Unlike Alzheimer’s patients, vascular dementia sufferers have good moments where their personalities surface and memories even return. This was one of those good moments.

In other words, it happened again.

And yet, since Mom mainly lives in her youth, preceding 1941, the year she graduated from high school, I’ve come to the realization that to her I am a stranger or perhaps just “the nice lady who decorates her room,” not her youngest child who she once called her baby. So I greeted her that morning with the requisite “Hi, Catherine” instead of Mom. Any reference to our relationship as mother and daughter completely throws her off-kilter, stuns her to silence. She has even argued I can’t possibly be Leslie, her beautiful 17-year-old daughter.

That morning, however, I quickly assumed my studied role. She was Catherine, my friend, the lady whose room I fuss over with the 6-foot pencil tree I decorate seasonally. This decorating serves three purposes, by the way.

First of all, she sometimes recalls that “Leslie, her daughter” is in charge of her room décor. In addition, she sometimes participates in the decorating by holding an elf or a bunny to her chest, kissing that item and connecting to the world. Lastly, there isn’t much I can do for my mother from 100 miles away, except participate in weekly calls and visit her on occasion. That decorating task, though simple, gives me a job, like the manicures I used to give my grandmother. That action also allows the staff to know, that although my mother is mostly silent, her family cares deeply for her.

Ironically, I had been in touch with Mom’s hospice nurse just days before the call. Mom has been a hospice patient for the past four years because she has nearly died several times, and their services make her more comfortable. I had called the nurse because the hospice chaplain, a kind man named Gary, had recently told me Mom was more silent than he had ever seen her, could not pray with him as she usually could and uttered several words as he was leaving her room. “I’m suffering,” she had said. I was very concerned.

Nicki, Mom’s hospice nurse, is a kind soul who knows all about suffering. She assured me Mom is not suffering, because when she bathes her, she does not display any body ailments other than being underweight, which is common in a 100-year-old patient. She assured me Mom is comfortable, and although she sometimes speaks, she does not complain about any kind of pain.

So there was Mom on that Labor Day weekend phone call, chirping away about old friends, her parents, her brothers, even my dad and siblings. Her voice dropped in register to the one I recall from her earlier years. She was mentally somewhere in the 1970s, I’d surmise, when her children were still young, not with grown children of their own; when my dad was still working in security at Republic Steel; and when her parents were still living on Humbolt, or so she thought.

Since the weekend activities' aide was busy with other tasks, she’d said, “Take as long as you want today.” And so I listened to my mother talk about a variety of subjects. It was pure magic. At the end of the 40-minute call, I sang two Slovak songs she taught me as a child. She listened closely to each verse. Then she said, “I do love you.”

Leslie Pearce-Keating can be emailed at

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