Local Dispatch / Mom's confusion provides laughter to bear the pain

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Thud! Splash! Even before I turned around to see, I sensed my mom had dropped her senior-sized coffee.

Soon, kneeling, hands crammed with napkins, I was sopping up the steaming liquid, trying to avoid eye contact with bemused customers ordering lunch inside our local Arby's. But the show had just begun: Mom suddenly began warbling one of her favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, "Getting to Know You." Deborah Kerr she ain't!

I'd hit rock bottom ... again.

My 88-year-old mother suffers from dementia. Fortunately, except for short-term memory loss and some aberrant, harmless behaviors -- singing in public, etc. -- she functions well enough to live safely alone, with a little daily help from her three kids. And being the only retired one in the trio, I steward her most frequently -- usually, five days each week.

I cut grass, trim hedges, shovel snow, pay bills, buy groceries, tidy up inside her house and, most importantly, take Mom out for a little ride and tasty meal each day. That's how we became the floor show at Arby's.

Cutting grass is the most strenuous of my chores, because Mom's house is built into a hillside so steep several of my boyhood friends were terrified to sled down it. My wife frets that some sweltering day I'll meet Jesus on the dizzying slope. And if I do, He'll have to hold His nose!

My yard work outfit literally stinks. It's my badge of manliness. Dirt, sweat, drool, grass clippings and sunscreen have imbued each seldom-washed fiber with a stench that even repels ticks and flies. Such is the toxicity of the miasma I generate.

"Nooooo," I screamed one day this summer, when I'd finished washing up after clipping Mom's yard. My good clothes weren't where I'd left them in the basement, and I was meeting my wife for dinner.

My mother hides everything: shoes, purses, coats, keys, bills, pills and TV remotes. Most items I find -- a few I never do. My clean clothes didn't turn up that day, or that week, or that month. In fact, I only located them several weeks ago, after the weather turned cold. They were in her bedroom closet, under a winter coat.

Each week, we see a flick, and earlier this year we caught "The Great Gatsby." After buying tickets, drinks and popcorn, I pleasantly suggested, since "Gatsby" was fairly long, that Mother should visit the restroom. She declined.

About 30 minutes into the film, she started shaking like a loose window on a speeding school bus. We carefully climbed over several irritated patrons, and then I guided her to the lobby ladies' room. I sat on a bench, on the other side of the crowded lobby (Mom never spends less than 15 minutes in a lavatory) and did some people-watching.

Finally, Mom appeared. She was carrying a roll of toilet paper. I ran toward her, and when I arrived she said, "I got you a present." Red-faced, I grabbed the roll and dashed for the men's room, where I deposited my treasure. Soon, we were back watching Leonardo DiCaprio chase Carey Mulligan.

Do you love Christmas tales? Have I got one for you, featuring a real Hallmark moment. Well, at least it began in a Hallmark store.

A few days before Christmas, a few Christmases ago, Mom and I headed for the local Hallmark store to purchase greeting cards for her grandkids. After literally several hours (Mom kept being distracted by assorted baubles and other customers she knew), we purchased six Thomas Kinkadesque-decorated beauties.

Returning to Mom's, I wrote pithy salutations on each card, followed by Mom's painstakingly added signature. The final task was adding a $20 bill, before each was sealed. I placed them in the back of a kitchen drawer, for safe-keeping.

On my way to my sister's house, where we exchange gifts Christmas Day, I stopped to pick up Mom. She was sitting in her favorite chair, admiring the six opened, corn curl-stained Christmas cards. Torn envelopes littered her rug.

Before I could speak, she excitedly said, "Look at all these Christmas cards people sent me! Look at all the money that was in them!"

They say it's better to laugh than to cry. To which I humbly add: "Life is loss, and to rail against it is folly."

Rob Biller of Fombell can be reached at briadob@hotmail.com.

The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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