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An Old Woman Living Alone

By Charlotte Lowrie

MargieI called Mom to tell her that I was coming home for a visit. With an unmistakable welcome in her voice, she said, "Well! It's about time you came home."

Several days later, the plane touched down in Oklahoma City late in the evening. My brother and sister-in-law greeted me first, and, from the corner of my eye, I saw Mom carefully pushing herself out of a chair.

"Well look who's here," she said reaching for a hug. During the hug and those first timeless minutes, she was just as I remember her, the beautiful woman with an unfathomably kind heart. A remarkably beautiful woman who, thanks to a stroke of good fortune, also happened to be my Mother.

In the space of those first few minutes, we took in the changes that the years had brought. And, in our own good time, we walked arm in arm out of the airport, content to be together again.

A matter of consequence

When we got to the house, we went through our bedtime routine, politely taking turns in the single bathroom. She let me go first. But before I closed the door, she warned me that water was expensive. She said she would "just as soon" that I not fill the bathtub with water. Instead, she said, I should use the hand-held shower that "saved water."

I hurried through washing, taking care not to let the water run unnecessarily. Then it was her turn. With ingrained frugality, she went through her bedtime routine -- a routine that she had honed to an efficient 15 minutes, start to finish.

Deer Creek, Weatherford, OKThen she came into the kitchen. She stood in the doorway wearing a cotton, floral-print housecoat and terry-cloth slippers. Just as when I was a child, she brought with her the fragrance of fresh soap and hand lotion.

On any other night, this would be the time that we would have a little snack, talk about tomorrow's plans, and then go to bed. On this night, however, she had a determined look about her -- a clear forecast that she had something of consequence on her mind.

Quickly, I reminded myself that with Dad's passing and the accumulated years, Mom's reluctance to speak plainly had disappeared. As I waited for her to speak, I tried to prepare myself for anything. As mindful of time as she is of expenses, she wasted no time getting to the point. Looking me in the eye, she said, "I'm just an old woman living alone. I don't know what I'm going to do to keep you busy for a week."

With relief, I laughed and assured her that we would figure it out together. With that settled, we were free to pick up from where life had taken us apart.

An Update on Mom
With profound sorrow, we mourn the passing of Mom on April 14, 2008. She exemplified love and strength in her life, and we will always remember her with love. We will see her again in heaven; of that, I'm sure. I miss her still.

Before her passing, Mom is being tested for NPH, a condition that mimics Alzheimer's disease, but a condition that often be successfully treated. For information on NPH, click here.

"...I won't let it pass me by"

For the next four days, Mom rode with my brother and me through the farming communities that were, at once, both familiar and foreign. Despite the heat and skipped lunches, Mom never complained. When my brother and I stopped every half-mile to take pictures, more often than not, Mom got out and walked with us. One hot afternoon, she tromped a half mile with me through a terraced wheat field to get a closer look at her old "homeplace."

Cattle run awayOccasionally during our drives, she would tell us a story from her childhood with a clarity of recall as if she were in that moment again. But most often, given the progression of Alzheimers, she would ask questions. My brother or I would answer. But the next day, she would ask the same questions. The repetition didn't matter. Mom was with us, and she was having a good time.

One afternoon, we stopped to take pictures from a bridge on old Route 66. Below us, a herd of cattle grazed contentedly near a creek. My brother and I were leaning over the bridge railing taking pictures. Out of nowhere and without warning, from behind us, Mom let out a stillness-shattering cattle call. Startled cattle scattered. If the camera strap hadn't been around my neck, I would have dropped my camera.

My brother and I looked at Mom dumbfounded and astonished. I had no idea that such a sound existed, much less that s uch a primal sound could come from my Mother. She chuckled off-handedly and told us that she learned the cattle call when she was a girl on the farm.

With that explanation, she was finished, and walked back to the car. My brother and I followed her, sobered and speechless.

At night, Mom would talk. Sometimes she talked early into the next morning. As tired as she was, having skipped her afternoon naps, she had many words just aching to be spoken. All of the slights characteristic of small-town living needed to be aired, all of the accomplishments she'd made needed to be shared. Through those nights, she told me the story of an old woman living alone. I felt privileged to listen.

One morning after a late-evening chat, I asked her if she was tired. She said, "Yes. But I made up my mind that I wasn't going to let this visit pass me by."

You can't go home again

One week after I left, Mom went outside to tend her garden. She wanted to fertilize and water a fire bush that had been one of Dad's favorite plants. As she worked, she lost her balance and fell, hitting her head on the scalloped concrete trim around the garden.

Mom and CharlotteDisoriented and nauseous, she stayed where she had fallen. She thought it best to wait, knowing that my brother would come by her house that day to refill her medication dispensers.

Muddy and sick, she waited in the summer heat for more than an hour until my brother arrived. He found her, washed her off, and took her to the hospital. During the next week, there were two, maybe three times that we thought she wouldn't pull through. But, finally, at the end of the first week, the swelling subsided.

The road to recovery was long and tenuous. Every day by phone she told me how anxious she was to go home. She missed her home. She missed the solitude, and she missed her independence.

After four weeks, the doctor released her to go home.

But Mom didn't go home. The Alzheimer's, the injury, and the potential for more swelling around her brain together presented too much of a risk for an old woman living alone. Instead, we took Mom went to a new assisted living center in town.

The transition to communal living has been hard, maybe one of the hardest transitions in Mom's life. But characteristically, Mom has been resilient. And characteristically, she has used the nurse call button only once in the past year.

The first picture in this story is one that I took of Mom. It was taken the last morning I was with her in her home. It is a simple picture of an old woman living alone.

-- Charlotte --

About the author: Charlotte Lowrie is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of 17 photography books, numerous magazine articles, and she teaches photography classes at BetterPhoto.com.

All images and articles are copyrighted by Words and Photos and may not be reprinted without permission.
Contact: charlotte@wordsandphotos.org