I remember telling my mother four years ago, when she had just turned sixty-three, that she was looking well. This was before the Alzheimer's disease had taken full possession of her, and her wit was still mostly intact.
Honey BaboonThomas Sennett
"There are three phases of a woman's life," she said to me. "Young, middle age, and my you're looking well."
I remembered we laughed our ass off about that at the time. It was good to laugh in the face of something as insidious as Alzheimer's. She had only been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's by a neurologist with the bedside manner of Adolph Eichmann. After an MRI and an EEG he gave his diagnoses to me, suggesting that I immediately look into nursing homes and cemetery plots.
Four years later I was at her bedside in her last days in a nursing home in Florida. The disease had not progressed as quickly as forecast. She had not become a vegetable within six months of the diagnoses. Indeed, one could still converse with her up until the end. However, in the final stage she seemed to speak in code. Her vocabulary had become scrambled. She spoke in fractured symbols.
"I want my rake," she said to me one afternoon. At first I thought she wanted to do yard work. She had been a gardener once---she'd grown the largest pumpkin in Fairfield County in 1974. But I saw that her eyes were focused on her dresser, and her hair brush.
I gave the hairbrush to her, which she used to rake her hair.
Her room was decorated with mementos of her life. Besides being a mother and wife, she had been a member of the Screen Cartoonist Guild. She had worked on Max Fleisher cartoons mostly---"Popeye" and "Betty Boop." Her room in the nursing home looked like a cartoon industry museum---pictures and figures everywhere. On her nightstand was a figurine of "Betty Boop," like some religious people might have a statue of St. Joseph.
In a curious way, cartoons were her religion. In the cartoon world, one might be hit by a truck or be smashed by an anvil but recovery was swift and usually accompanied by a snappy remark. Her life was testimony to her resilience. Her husband had died of cirrhosis and one son was lost in Vietnam, but she never gave up or lost her sense of humor.
In her last hours she began calling out for "Honey Baboon."
At first, I was damned if I could decipher what "Honey Baboon" meant. The nursing staff was similarly mystified. But then I saw the stuffed figure on the shelf opposite her bed---it was "Winnie the Pooh." I took the stuffed bear down and gave it to her. She smiled at me. She held the bear close, rocking it as if it were a child, as she had undoubtedly rocked me as an infant thirty five years earlier. I suspected she just wanted a cartoon friend to accompany her on the journey ahead.
She soon drifted into a coma and died.
Copyright ©1997 Richard Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
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