Tin-Hearted Sons and Hard to Hold Parents

Annie Mae is a little bird of a woman, a sparrow poised for take-off, perched on the edge of her white plastic, rolling wheelchair. She is sitting in her room when I find her. Her arms and legs are crossed, as if she's folding up inside herself, but still, somehow, she seems restless. I see it in her eyes- In the quick way they dart back and forth, missing nothing, ever vigilant for danger or signs she's not doing the "right" thing.

Annie doesn't want us to know how lost she is, how much she's forgotten and how useless she feels- but it's never far from the surface.

She smiles. She's overly polite to everyone and that's the give-away. You can see how frightened she is just by the way she smiles and says "Yes, ma'am," even to girls younger than her granddaughters.

Today Annie Mae tells me everything is just fine, then hedges her bets with "But I'm not a hoppin' or a skippin' or nothin'. Not by no means!"

I nod. Her aide comes in and tells me in the overly loud voice only used with toddlers and the elderly that Annie's boy sent her a box of cookies and a letter.

"Oh?" I say, every bit as polite as Annie.

Annie confirms this with a nod. She is content to chat about her "good" boy for awhile, until she's sure I think she's okay. But when I ask if there's anything at all I could do to make things just a tiny bit better for her, she cocks her head to one side and for the briefest nanosecond considers her request.

"Well," she says, hesitantly. "I sure do wish you could get my parents to understand it's okay to have public displays of affection." She rushes on, watching my face as she monitors whether or not she's committed a faux pas with her request. "See, it's natural. There's nothing wrong with it at all- not with a hug or a kiss or touching. Sometimes they don't understand."

I do not let my expression belie my confusion. It's a bit late to convince Annie's parents of anything. They've been dead forever.

"Well," I say, equally reticent. "Maybe they were raised in the old school. You know, their parents might've said no touching."

Annie leans closer to me. "You know, you can get pregnant without even kissing!" she confides.

I nod my head wisely.

"I just...Well, you know, sometimes they're just so..." Annie stops, searching for the right word.

"Remote?" I offer.

"Yes!" Annie cries. "I don't know how they feel. They don't never touch or say 'I love you,' or good job or nothing."

The lights are on and I am finally home.

Sometimes my old guys get the generations confused. Sometimes the nurses and aides get mixed in with their families, especially their parents. The great thing about the old guys is they tell me everything, as long as I understand the code, the vernacular specific to that particular person's dementia.

It is always a joyous time for me when the lights go on and I finally understand.

"I bet you hugged your boy," I say softly.

"Oh, you bet I did!" she says and then sighs, lapsing into thoughtful silence.

"I bet he doesn't forget his Mama, either," I say. This is not a good therapist remark. I am leading the witness- trying to supply an answer that will calm my own anxieties, hoping my own boys won't abandon their mother as Annie's boy has abandoned his. A tin of cookies and a card addressed to "Annie!" Why I could just take a stick to the man myself!

"I don't know," Annie murmurs. "I think sometimes, maybe...but I don't know if...or how deep it runs with him, you know?"

I abandon Annie for a moment to envision hunting down this tin-sending boy and kicking his tail all the way up to see his Mama- because I know what kind of mother Annie Mae is. Her entire life has been spent loving this one boy with every bit of her heart and soul.

I don't tell her I'm sure her son loves her. I don't do her that disservice. Annie may have memory issues, but she's not stupid.

Instead, I ask her if I may hug her.

She giggles like a little girl. I throw my arms around her frail frame and hug her close.

"Now, it's not like I asked you or nothing," she says, still grinning. "It's not like I'm asking for your pity."

"Oh, not at all!" I say. "I've got a couple of boys myself and well, sometimes us moms just need a hug and you're about the most hug-able woman I know, Annie. I hope you let me hug you the next time I visit."

Annie grins wider. "Well, you can come see me anytime!" she says.

But I know what she's saying. She's not confused or forgetful about this-It's her son she's really talking to...

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