My mom died in March 2003. She had survived cancer multiple times (breast x 2, lung, brain). She got through surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. And lived 17 years longer than her last cancer diagnosis. What was worse than all of that was the dementia caused by the radiation to her brain. It sucked the life out of her one cell at a time. For over ten years.
When dad was going through her clothing to decide what was going to be donated to charity thrift stores, he had me come over to be sure there wasn’t anything I wanted. I was fairly certain I could go on with life not owning her socks. There were very few items I wanted- the Christmas sweater she wore so much when I first moved back, and some goofy shoelaces she got at the San Diego Zoo. That was pretty much it. In her ‘normal’ state, she never would have worn goofy shoelaces. She could be a bit on the prissy side, and only pricey name brand shoes with the shoelaces they came with would do.
Dad and I were getting to the end of the stuff he wanted to go through, and we came across a rather dull shoebox. I opened the lid, and that’s when I lost it. Inside, her hairbrush and make-up case (still with the make-up she hadn’t worn for years in it) were like a time capsule. Dad did a good job of keeping her clean and dressed, but in mom’s ‘normal’ days, she had herself put together from head to toe. Her hair was perfect, and she always had make-up on in just the right amount. I couldn’t let go of that make-up case or hairbrush.
Some of the things mom did when she was demented were SO unlike her. She had always been so mannerly and socially proper. With the dementia, she was clueless. She’d munch on the shrimp ring at holiday events as if it were for one person- HER ! When she’d get done on the bedside commode, she didn’t wash her hands unless she was told to and given the supplies. She had no problem immediately reaching for the gumdrop jar I kept for her when she and dad visited. If dad couldn’t get to her fast enough, she’d be happily munching on gumdrops. She was generous however, and would offer those gumdrops to me after her unwashed hands had been wandering through them. “No thanks, Mom- I’m good. You can have them…”. I’m so glad she didn’t know how far she’d sunk. It would have finished her. The disease was making a mockery of her former self.
She never left her bedroom (with adjacent bathroom) in the morning without putting on her make-up and doing her hair the way she wanted it to look. I don’t remember her ever having breakfast in her robe. She was always dressed and ‘made up’.
I’ve still got those personal things in that shoebox, along with assorted sympathy cards and things from the memorial service. I never had any real use for them, but they represented what she’d been like. They gave me back a piece of who she was before dementia took one piece of her at a time, over a year at a time until she no longer was who she had been. In many ways, the mom I knew was never going to leave that box. So I had to keep it.