Mum and the Rhubarb


Sometimes things start off so well that you fall into the trap of thinking everything’s going to be just peachy. Mum’s sitting in the upstairs lounge, legs crossed, reading the paper. All around, her fellow residents are staring straight ahead or dozing in the sun. She recognizes me straight away, scrambles to her feet and falls into my arms.

"Shall we go out?" she asks. Absolutely!

By the time we set off it’s drizzling, but Mum’s as happy as Larry. We’re beetling down the road, her favorite duet’s up loud on the stereo and we’re chatting about the grandkids. We arrive at my house to the usual Saturday chaos: groceries and veggies to unpack and a table full of unwashed dishes.

“Well, dear, where shall we start?”

Mum’s the world’s best housekeeper, but lately things have gotten tricky. To unpack groceries, you need to know where each thing goes. Or how to figure these things out. To do the dishes, you need to sort the clean from the dirty and not mix them up.

Then I spot the rhubarb. Perfect! Mum can chop that and put it in the pot while the rest of us sort out the kitchen.

Sadly, it’s amazing how much can go wrong with a once-familiar task. The leaves are going in as well as the stalks. Stop. The chopping takes strength that Mum no longer has. Change knives. The sharp blade is heading for her wrist. No!

“Obviously,” says Mum, “I can’t do anything right!”
She takes off her apron.
“Oh, no!" I stammer. "It’s just... a very dangerous knife... some very tough rhubarb... you're probably very tired...”

Mum and I are on the sofa. She’s not angry now, just sad and wondering what went wrong. Is it depression? Old age?

“Tell me, what is it?” Mum asks.

“Just some problems with your short-term memory."

“I want to die,” says Mum. “A fitful memory is a terrible thing."

rhubarb /'rōōˌbärb/ n.
1) The thick leaf stalks of a cultivated plant of the dock family, which are reddish or green and eaten as a fruit after cooking.
2) colloq. A murmurous conversation or noise, esp. the repetition of a word.
3) colloq. Nonsense; worthless stuff.
4) colloq. A heated dispute.

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

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Nice story. I go through this dilemma daily with my dad. He still wants to be useful but even the simplest tasks present such challenges..its really very sad.

By the way..i love rhubarb...
I wonder if your Mum could have manged scissors to cut the rhubarb - that's how I cut mine. Thanks for sharing :-)
Have a little bowl of that early spring rhubarb and celebrate the perennial return of new life. Your Mom's life accomplishments and lovely spirit will be with you forever. Blend them into what you leave for your loved ones. (Indulge in a little heavy cream poured on top!!!)