4. Mother’s Feet

Only after days and nights of frenzied, anxious pacing up and down that narrow Alzheimer’s hallway, did she finally allow me to remove her shoes and put her to bed. She’d finally collapsed, exhausted, into a deep sleep. Until now, her restless mind and body refused to be still. It had been impossible to manicure her nails, especially given her heightened sensitivity to the slightest touch. I took the 86 year old hands I’d loved for nearly 62 years now into my own, not knowing that this would be her last manicure….her last pedicure.

As I held each beautiful hand, admiring her long graceful fingers, I carefully removed the nail polish (Mom was a “girlie-girl” to the end), then I cut and filed the nails. No need for polish I thought, there’s no telling when she’d be still enough for me to do this again. Compelled to keep her nails unadorned. I gently placed each hand back on the bed, praying she wouldn’t wake before I could attempt what I’d tried and failed to do before…..a long overdue pedicure.

Uncovering those long, narrow, size 10-10 ½ feet, I flashed back to our many “feet” talks. She gave me so much of herself in every way, even physically – auburn hair, brown eyes, a striking resemblance according to strangers who’d always comment in public. When I was 20 years old, her oldest brother, my dear Uncle Fred told me “Christine, as long as you live, your mother will never die.” She even gave me her long narrow feet! Mine are “only” a 9 ½ N. Even so, I wear 10’s in some shoes to accommodate orthotics. I feel closer to Mom wearing the 10’s! I don’t think I ever appreciated my “big” feet….. until now that is. My sister once remarked “you have feet just like Mom’s!”

Mom and I talked about “our” feet a lot because we had similar issues: bony, narrow, painful, expensive to fit, and so hard to find comfy shoes that didn’t look too orthopedic. After all, “we’re vain” she’d say with her impish Irish grin! She told me how she’d always wished she could wear a variety of “cute” shoes but couldn’t deal with the pain. It’s the same for me. Stylish shoes are reserved for church and special times. Most of my days I’m relegated to wearing lace ups with a build up on the right sole. I broke my right leg snow skiing at West Point while in the Army and lost an inch due to multiple fractures. So now, between the orthotics and the buildup, I cast vanity aside (most days) and opt for comfort.

In 1990, Mom had painful foot surgery which created more problems than it solved. It was now even more challenging to find comfortable footwear. Although the Army took me far away from my darling mother for far too many years, I continued to hunt for shoes for her, hoping to find something in her hard to find size that was cute but comfortable. It’s not easy to buy shoes for someone else, but I was intimately familiar with Mom’s feet. If they felt good on me, they’d work for her even though she was a half size larger. It gave me such joy to find something that she liked. A time or two we talked about how great it would be to have new feet in heaven one day.

But now, she was finally in a deep sleep, wincing a few times as I meticulously gave her that last pedicure. Overcome with emotion, I realized that her foot issues would soon end. Our talks had become very one-sided as the dementia ravaged her mind. We couldn’t have those priceless mother daughter conversations anymore. Oh how I missed that! Still her eyes clearly recognized me….love was unspoken. The only pair of shoes she now owned was a pair of plain white nurse’s shoes which helped stabilize her unsteady gate. Day after day they facilitated her shuffling up and down the hall. She even lost them a few times in other patient’s rooms which created a major crisis!

On one of our many walks, she “tried” to communicate to me that her foot hurt. It was so frustrating for her to communicate her thoughts and feelings. As I took her sock off to examine what might be the source of pain, I was shocked to see half of her foot deeply bruised! She must have tripped over that protruding wheel at the foot of her bed I thought. Seeing her beautiful injured foot brought instant tears to my eyes…it distressed me…..hurt me…. angered me, as I viewed the old bed. I urged the nurse to have the foot x-rayed, fearing broken bones. Thankfully it wasn’t broken….just badly bruised and very painful. It was easy to see how she could injure her feet as I examined that old fashioned bed with protruding little wheels, leaving little space to navigate around, in her small shared room. I inquired about getting a different bed and was frustrated that this was the best available.

Fearing she’d continue to injure her feet again as she roamed in the night hours, I brought old hand towels and wrapped them around each wheel, securing them with tape. Each time I entered her room I carefully turned each wheel so that it didn’t protrude. I was desperate to protect the feet I loved so much. It was enough that she couldn’t think clearly, talk very well, was struggling to swallow even liquids, and had to live in a ward with scary people, 80% of whom had far more serious mental illnesses than she. She couldn’t speak up for herself much now though she tried desperately to communicate with me. I had to constantly be attuned to every discomfort, every signal.

Try as I did to keep her feet moving up and down the halls, just two weeks later, on July 28, 2009, Mom’s feet finally rested forever. As I stood there with my family looking at her now cold feet, it seemed as if they had been transformed. Gone were the spider and varicose veins, and the bruises. Her body lay still, absent that beautiful heartbeat which sent blood to her weary feet. Her feet were whiter, almost glowing as she lay there at rest. With uncontrolled weeping, I held them one last time. I didn’t want to let them go. I didn’t want to let her go.

Gone were those dancing feet, doing a little jig feet, running to the school bus feet, chasing 12 kids feet, ice skating feet, swimming feet, biking feet, ….. laboring feet….they took her many places over a lifetime. As siblings each took some of Mom’s meager possessions to forever remind them of her, I looked around for her shoes…..her white nurse’s shoes, now well worn and empty. I picked them up, carefully placed them in a plastic bag and keep them to this day.

I sat on the floor of her closet after the funeral and wept as I looked at all of her old shoes, knowing her feet would never fill them again. As I examined each pair, I noted that, like mine, they were mostly made of soft, comfortable materials to ease her pain. She’d given me a tip long ago that she’d put masking tape on the bottom of her dancing shoes so she could glide easily across the floor. Mom was known for her love of dancing and just couldn’t sit still when she heard the music. She refused to let painful feet keep her from what she loved. Now, whenever Nick and I dance, I put masking tape on the bottom of my shoes too. It works great! Thanks Mom! I tried on a pair of her “dancing” shoes and they fit perfectly! They were a bit tattered but comfortable and comfort was key to Mom….to me. “I can take them to a shoemaker, remove the ankle strap and refurbish them a bit I thought. I can actually wear Mom’s shoes…..she would just love that……but I would love it even more knowing she had danced in them too”.

I’ll never forget the day Nick and I wheeled her into the community room on music day at Sarasota Rehab Center. Although she’d been able to walk with ease, she’d been much weakened from her increasing inability to swallow food. She hadn’t walked without assistance in a week. We parked Mom’s wheelchair in the rear of the room fearing she might not last long and would have to leave soon.

As the piano player struck up a tune, the patients all sat around listening….some in wheel chairs, some able to walk, but all just sitting there enjoying the music. As the music played on, a sudden impulse overcame me! “Nick, let’s dance (for Mom)!” It’s not like me to boldly get out as the only one on the dance floor but I felt compelled to at that moment. We bravely walked through the crowd onto the empty floor and began to do the swing to some old WWII patriotic tunes. Before we knew it, other patients were hobbling up to us to dance with us…..then suddenly, the floor was filled with patients dancing as we took turns with each! We even danced with the wheel chair bound patients, swinging their arms around.

Little did we realize the impact all of this was having on Mom until suddenly, I felt a tap on my back and turned in utter shock to see her standing there motioning w/her arms and trying to move her shaky little legs and feet to the music. She’d gotten up from her wheel chair and to the utter amazement of her nurse and aides, had walked from the back of the room to reach us. She wanted to dance! They were stunned knowing her weak condition. I grabbed her hands and we danced for a few minutes until she weakly muttered, “I’m sorry, I can’t ……I’m sorry”. I took her back to her chair. Incredibly, this same scenario was then repeated several times as Nick and I danced with her whenever she’d get up the energy to wander out to the floor. Her desire was there, her feet were willing, yet the rest of her body had finally given out. Mom was never one to give up on anything easily. She was fighting to walk, to dance, and to live!

Just two days before Mom left us for Heaven, my sister Pat drove all night and called me while it was yet dark out to announce that she was with Mom. Pent up tears and relief spilled out of me as I heard her voice. It had been an emotionally draining week – Mom hadn’t had even a sip of water for days and was slipping away fast. I was distraught, wondering if my out of town siblings would ever see her alive again. However, the night before Pat arrived, a very compassionate nurse told me she was calling Mom’s doctor to order water by IV …. “Your Mom is suffering and dying from dehydration…this is the humane thing to do” she said. Mom hadn’t been out of bed or even conscious for a few days at that time. Although they had a hard time getting the IV into Mom’s dehydrated veins, it finally happened and life giving water flowed into her body. I went to sleep that night praying it would revive her and keep her alive a little longer.

Pat’s message to me that morning was music to my ears: “Mom’s awake Chris! I’m getting her out of bed…bring her something to drink and bring me some food too.” I couldn’t believe my ears! The water had brought her back! Pat put her in a wheelchair and took her outside the building to pick a flower. She told me that Mom’s feet were moving fast and actually walking the chair as Pat guided her along. Mom’s feet! Mom’s feet were still very much engaged in her fight to live! God gave her those beautiful, long, graceful, narrow size 10 ½ feet and they kept on moving long after the rest of her body had given out.

Finally God saw that those beautiful feet had worked hard enough after 86 years. They’d assisted her in raising her large family and were swift to serve the multitudes of other people He sent her way. They’d danced with joy on many mountaintops and trod through dark valleys of grief and pain. They’d brought Him much glory and now it was time for them to take off running ……back to Him. And so she did didn’t she? She ran into the arms of Jesus hopping and skipping and jumping for joy! Can’t you just envision her dancing before the Lord right now? Can’t you just see her running around heaven with Dad?

Lord, on this the second anniversary of mom’s homecoming, I just want to thank you for her life. Thank you for giving us the very BEST when so many have never known such love. Thank you for giving us a Mom who sacrificed her life for her husband and family. Thank you Lord for giving us such a beautiful glimpse of yourself in Mom…..and thank you Lord for your great gift of salvation which assures us of that grand reunion in the not too distant future.

Love, Christine

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