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My Mother’s Keeper

It is a mitzvah to take care of your parents: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” And caring for people comes naturally to me. I’m a physician; this is what I do.

But when my father looked to me to cure my eighty-five-year-old mother’s dementia, saying, “You’re the doctor! Help her!” I knew he was asking too much.

And yet. How could I stand idly by while my mother’s mental acuity slowly drained away?

For over ten years, my mother had been drifting deeper into the murky waters of Alzheimer’s. At first, she had trouble recalling words and phrases: “Thermostat.” “Smoke detector.” Then one day she called to say that she couldn’t operate her sewing machine. Several years later, her ability to drive a car faded away. When we went to a hotel for Passover, my normally outgoing mother refused to sit next to anyone but family, confiding that she was afraid she couldn’t follow a conversation.

On Sundays, when I visited my folks, I’d find her lying diagonally across the bed, eyes closed or staring into space. She spoke very little, using only single words. And her eating became painfully slow.

Over the years, I tried various treatments with her, but none of them worked. First, I went through a range of nutritional supplements, but Mom resisted swallowing pills. Next, I ordered plant-derived drugs available only in Europe. Then I brought her to a memory-training center, and after that to a program for frail adults that met five days a week. Still, she deteriorated.

With each new therapy, my expectations would rise. And with each failure to help her–let alone cure her–my hopes would plummet. 

In the early stages of her illness, my mother knew she was going downhill. She sometimes seemed sad, even mildly depressed. Later, as her disease progressed, she appeared obliviously content, while my father, my brother and I were the ones grieving.

Serving as your mother’s physician is not included in the commandment to honor your parents, nor is it well-regarded in medical circles. “Never treat friends and family” is an apt mantra.

That said, it’s often ignored—as in my case. I simply could not give up.

Even after my mother had lost the ability to read, to speak or even to eat, and resided in a nursing home, I was still looking for treatments.

A case in point: Along came the new “miracle” drug, low-dose naltrexone. At regular strength, it blocks opiate receptors and serves as a kind of “Antabuse” for heroin addicts. When compounded in tiny doses, it blocks the receptors only partially, causing the brain to compensate by pouring out opiates at levels enjoyed by a healthy young adult.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this chemical sleight-of-hand might help my mother, I thought. After all, higher opiate levels reduce brain inflammation and improve focus and energy. It was a long shot, but I had to try.

My mother hated swallowing pills, but that hurdle was easily surmounted. I had the naltrexone compounded in a cream. Then my father told me that the nursing home wouldn’t allow this non-formulary drug. Okay, that wasn’t surprising.

I’m a doctor, I reasoned. I’ll speak to the medical director.

Dr. Kaplan was very kind. He was even interested in the new drug. But, ultimately, he couldn’t authorize it. He told me that I would have to bring it myself. But, alas, it had to be given every night at bedtime. What should I do?

“Give it to the night aide,” suggested my mother’s personal physician. “Pay her a little extra and have her rub it on.”

A fine idea. But what if the aide got into trouble and lost her job? I decided to ask my father to rub the cream on my mother—maybe not at night, but at least during the day, before her afternoon nap. True, he didn’t visit her every day, but four to five days a week was better than nothing.

Then one day, I walked into the home to find the head nurse waiting for me.

“Don’t you try to smuggle in medications anymore!” she fumed. “Do you realize we could lose our certification?”

Turns out my father had been leaving the prescription cream in my mother’s night table.

Okay, so he’ll carry it back and forth every day, I thought.

Problem solved—except, of course, that the drug made no difference to my mother’s medical condition. She remained mute and childlike.

I usually visited my mother during the home’s regular daytime visiting hours. But one summer evening, while on my way to an engagement party, I stopped by the home just as the patients were being put to bed.

I walked into my mother’s room. She was dressed in her soft pink sleep outfit. Her aide, Delores, was helping her to bed.

My mother didn’t see me. She gazed up at Delores as if at her own mother. As Delores leaned over the bed to fix the covers, her long hair fell across the sheets. My mother stroked it, and the aide smiled.

“You like my hair, darling?”

My mother smiled back. Tears formed in my eyes as I recalled my beautiful, competent and loving mother.

I didn’t want to break this moment—but if I wanted to speak to her, now was the time.

I walked to the bedside.

“Good night, Mom,” I said through my tears.

She looked up at me. Her face was calm. I put my hand on the covers. She stroked it as she’d stroked the aide’s hair.

“I love you, Mommy,” I said.

I kissed the soft, wrinkled skin of her forehead.

I wished I could know such peace. Or does this serenity come only when you can no longer ponder the vagaries of life’s twists and turns? 

Clinging to my sadness and grief, I left to wish the young engaged couple mazel tov.

Marjorie Ordene is an integrative physician and nutritionist in private practice in Brooklyn. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in Tablet, The Sun, Lilith, Op-Med, Wish, Ami, Mishpacha and elsewhere. “I have always loved writing. I feel it gives you a chance to take a second look at past experiences, often turning the not-so-good into the quite wonderful.”


13 thoughts on “My Mother’s Keeper”

  1. Beautiful story: well-written, insightful, and candid.
    Thank you for sharing such a personal story.
    All the steps you took to counter the dementia were a reflection of your mom as well as yourself.

  2. It’s a sad and beautiful story, Marjorie about the complexities of this human existence. But it does help us feel less alone, st least it does for me, to read about another person’s journey. thank you for sharing it.

  3. A truly beautiful and very moving story written from the heart about the love and connection in a family. You were very fortunate to have such a gentle and nurturing mom. She was very lucky to have a such a wonderful daughter.

  4. A truly beautiful and very moving story written from the heart about the love and connection in a family. You were very fortunate to have such a gentle and nurturing mom. She was very fortunate to have a such a wonderful daughter.

  5. A most touching story. Such a lovely reward for all your efforts.
    It reminded me of my father’s decline into infancy and the wonderful people who cared for him.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I was tearing up as I felt the deep love and care – while feeling the helplessness you felt- while caring for your mother. . It is so painful to watch the people who were the “powers” of our lives become frail . Beyond your Mother’s intellectual limitations, I am sure her soul was watching and feeling your dedicated love.

  7. Dr. Ordene, like you I watched my mother disappear into the darkness of dementia. She died in 2007; I wish her now what I wished her then: peace. I confess that I still struggle to find that peace, but your beautiful story made me feel less alone.

  8. Dr. Abbey Pachter

    Hope and love are two of the greatest gifts we can give our patients. When your mom (z’l) was also your patient, those gifts surpassed the knowing, and that was the gift you gave yourself, and your dad. Thankyou for your lovely story.

  9. What a touching, beautiful and honest story about choices, sacrifices and love. I’m still crying. But they are good tears. We can’t live forever, but you captured the essences of your mothers life, beauty and soul. May we all be so blessed to be loved like that.

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