A 98-year old's life is like gumbo from Louisiana or khichdi from India. Done right, it makes your senses dance. Winging it can be catastrophic. It takes a lifetime of everyday ingredients to render perfection. Like okra some raise your eyebrow sky high. Others like ghee leave you craving for more. Mostly though, life at that age seems like plain rice. It’s definitely not bad for you, but on the excitement scale, it hovers near zero.
For those of us who care for the elderly, life delivers a stream of incredulity, sadness, poignancy, frustration, love, and hilarity, sometimes simultaneously.
Our mother (Tarun's mother, actually), Santi, has lived a rich life. She was one of six siblings, three older, two younger. By the time she was sixteen, she lost her 42-year old mother to heart disease, mistaken for asthma. After her mother’s passing, the two younger brothers kept her on her toes. Her father never recovered from the tragedy and became a recluse. Santi married at twenty three and went on to make a happy home with her husband and two sons. She was the CFO of the house, a disciplinarian to her boys, a chef to be envied, and always ready to assist friends and family.
I’ve known Tarun’s mother since I was fourteen. On day one, she told me about her math prowess: I loved math; I always scored the highest; I would practice for hours to the point where I would know the answer from reading the question.
After 35 years of listening to this, my cynicism had attributed her comments to exaggerated memory.
Then came the experience of my lifetime.
Before Neil’s wedding, she used to regularly berate Tarun and me for not shouldering the responsibility of arranging his marriage. One evening as she sat across the kitchen counter from me while I fixed dinner, she incessantly threw verbal arrows regarding our irresponsibility. At first I muttered under my breath that you can take an Indian out of India but you cannot take arranging marriages out of them. After fifteen more minutes I exasperatedly said to Tarun, “Give her some math to do!”
Delighted at the ingenious gotcha, I continued cooking, while she worked on solving the problems Tarun gave her. To my utter surprise, she pushed the paper towards me after a few minutes, declaring, “I am done!”
I kid you not. Here's the evidence.
There’s no way she could have finished the problems on such short order. Ready to find mistakes, we were stunned. Not one mistake and she did the work in her head. That same head that has zero short-term memory. The same one that asks us each question a hundred times. And the same one that repeats old stories until our eyes glaze over. Oy!
I bellowed to Tarun, "More problems, harder ones!" and again she delivered correct answers within minutes. Utterly defeated, I took a picture of her work and we went back to lectures on arranging marriages.
As I watch our mother deteriorate with dementia, I am aghast. All of this confidence I have now will dissipate. Not because I will be frail and afraid, but because my brain will simply dry up. Like an old plant it will no longer pull nutrients from the roots. There will be no leaves upon which to rest new memories and the old leaves full of beautiful moments I cherish now will wither and fall.
On some days mother is lucid. She remembers the old and the new. She cleans her closets, organizes her papers, and phones everyone she knows. On other days she looks at me with vacant eyes and asks, "Tui ke?" - who are you. While Tarun converses with her, she tells him nobody is at home and she's all alone. She asks if she has eaten right after we feed her. And she climbs into the bathtub two hours after I've helped her shower. Worst of all, she conflates reality with delusions. Confused about her own age and ability, night and day, who is alive and who has passed, her days are a never-ending string of anxious moments.
And what scares the bejeebers out of me is that this precursor from Garfield is already happening to me, more than I want to admit.
Dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses several diseases. 1 in 3 seniors dies of dementia and it kills more than breast and prostate cancer combined. It's not a question of "if" but "when" we get it. There are habits that help stave cognitive impairment, but they take decades to inculcate. A Mediterranean diet along with omega-3 fatty acid, nuts, whole grains, and eating smaller and frequent meals fall in the list "dos". Studies prove that keeping the brain busy is essential too. Social isolation is front-and-center of the "don'ts".
So I compulsively work on crosswords and sudoku and talk to strangers whenever I get a chance. I obsessively text, write notes, and call friends. And I blog regardless of who reads or does not. I pray that this fuels my processor as long as possible, thinking that math is what protected mother from the ravages of dementia until so late in life.
From being caregivers, Tarun and I have learned three essential truths. First, we will live very long. Second, we will drive our children up the wall with our stubbornness and illogic. Third, we will bring them joy and tears while we forget just about everything. We can neither run nor hide from these truths. All we can do is prepare. In the meantime, we try to forgive when frustration makes mother or us lose control.
What cheers up mother is talking to people. Anybody. Language, age, gender, profession are no longer barriers. She will converse with you in Bengali even if you don't understand a word because everybody speaks Bengali, of course.
"I was very good in math," Santi will say. As you roll your eyes, remember that she may not know where she lives or how old she is but, by God, can she do arithmetic.
And so, as I continue to "math forward" in my own life, I am constantly on the hunt for partners-in-crime. Crossword, anyone?