Exit Ramp: Dressing my mother-in-law
My mother-in-law pulls her new black pants over her navy flowered leggings to see if they fit. “You might want to take the other pants off first,” I gently suggest. “That would be a good idea,” she responds. And with incredible agility for an 85-year-old, she does, then moves to grab the matching black sweater. I tell her to try on the blouse first before putting the sweater on. Finally, I hand her the new black loafers I bought to complete her outfit. She puts them on and is delighted with the comfort and fit.
She has no memory that she tried them on five minutes before.
Dressed head to toe in her new High Holy Day ensemble, she strikes a pose and I take a picture. She tells me, “You’re too good to me,” and then says she has something for me too. She pulls a sparkly red costume bracelet off her wrist and says, “This is for you.” I tell her she should keep it. She has given me many pieces of jewelry in the past and I have no need. I don’t tell her that I bought her that bracelet, along with a couple of others, a few weeks before because she had admired them at the local crafts store.
My mother-in-law, for the past few months, has been living in an assisted-living residence in our town. Despite a lifetime smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, she literally walks circles around the other residents, who are mostly walker- and wheel chair-bound. A tough, independent woman whose primary defense mechanism was denial, she refused to acknowledge her failing memory, her unmanageable life, or that she needed any help.
My husband had to trick her into leaving his childhood home after finding her unshowered, in the same clothes she had worn for days, and buying endless containers of soup that she never consumed. On the day he took her to lunch at her new residence and told her she would be staying, she flew into a rage, cursing him and his act of betrayal.
Honoring our parents, as we are commanded in the Torah, took on a new meaning. We had to see beyond her wishes, while improving her quality of life and preserving her dignity. Ironically, her dementia worked well for her. Within a couple of days, she settled in nicely, forgot that she ever smoked, and was thrilled to see us when we visited, singing the praises of the staff at her new “hotel.”
And so it was, because she left her home with no warning, because she had not bought new clothes in several years, and because she had lost a considerable amount of weight, I needed to buy her a new wardrobe.
Always a large woman, my mother-in-law had impeccable taste in clothing and accessories. For every occasion, she was turned out in a smart outfit with just the right jewelry and shoes. She was also a talented knitter, crafting countless amazing sweaters for my three boys, my husband, and me. Each grandson received a needlepointed tallit, kipa, and matching bag for his bar mitzva. She cross-stitched treasured baby blankets, decorated her home with her needlework, and wore many of the fashions she created.
The task of buying my mother-in-law all new clothes was formidable. What size would she wear? What colors would she like? Does she wear nightgowns or pajamas? Would she wonder how the new clothes wound up in her closet? Would she wear them? And yet, as I walked through the stores and perused the racks, creating outfits, I felt purposeful and energized. My mother-in-law was no longer the woman who was angry at us for begging her to move. I am no longer frustrated and fearful for her safety and can treat her with the kindness she deserves. She now has aides whom she respects to ensure that her clothes are washed and changed daily.
Whenever I see her, she is wearing the shirts and tops I have chosen, although not always matching. I feel a strange pride that I imagine I will feel as a grandmother when I see a grandchild in the party outfit I lovingly purchased. Her hair is done, and she is clean, happy, and stylish. In the new black ensemble that I bought her for the High Holy Days, she looks like the put-together woman I met 35 years ago. Most importantly, she can join us and proudly attend the holiday services she has always loved.
But, tomorrow she may not remember I was there. Tomorrow she may call my husband and say she needs money. Or she will ask us to bring her food, not realizing that all her needs can be met where she lives. Our phone might ring several times a day with her confused voice hoping we can bring clarity to her disoriented state.
For today, however, I will concentrate on finding her the perfect black bag.