I don't know why I'm thinking of this now -- I'll never take my mother shopping again. Sometimes I think that's a good thing.
Mom has Alzheimer's and Dad took care of her for the last few years of his life. Toward the end of his life, he was exhausted and failing. He didn't feel like doing anything -- including cooking -- so he didn't. Mom had not only forgotten how to cook, but she had forgotten about the need to cook . . . or eat. She lost about fifty pounds in the last several months Dad was alive.
The day after my father died, my sister and I went through my parents' closets looking for something to take to the funeral home for Dad, and for something appropriate for Mom to wear to the funeral. There wasn't anything. Everything that Mom owned was either shabby to the point of being threadbare, about three sizes too big for her, or both. She pulled out a navy blue skirt that she thought she'd wear, but when she put it on, it immediately slipped off her and fell to the ground. Even her underwear didn't fit. There was nothing for it but a trip to the big city to find something for my mother to wear to my father's funeral.
I don't know if anyone reading this has ever taken an Alzheimer's patient to a shopping mall. If you haven't had the experience, you don't want to. Take one mother who is always right, one sister who is never wrong and one who can never seem to be good enough and shove them all together in a car for a 90 minute drive to the city on about two hours of sleep each and you'll begin to have an inkling. Then imagine that one sister is completely lacking in sense of humor and that the other finds humor in everything, especially when sleep deprived . . . . it's a recipe for disaster. Throw in a mother who is confused and overwhelmed and shake them all together.
We walked into the toney dress shop -- the kind of place that my mother would never dreamed of setting foot into, that I could never afford and that my sister regularly mines for power suits -- and the saleslady (who apparently discerned who had the money in the space of about two heartbeats) materialized at my sister's elbow. "How may I help you?", she inquired in cultured tones. I'm neither stupid nor attention-seeking. I kept my mouth closed but mother (who is always right) announced that we were looking for a suit to wear to a funeral. "I don't need it", she confided, hitching up her too-large polyester pants, "but my daughter is making me get one." She pointed at me -- still dressed in the clothing I was wearing when I boarded the red-eye 36 hours previously. The outfit wasn't thoughtfully put together to begin with -- Dad was dying and I was rushing home to be with him -- and a night trying to sleep on the plane followed by a day of driving through a snowstorm and another night spent on a straight backed chair in my father's hospital room hadn't improved upon it any. The saleslady sniffed audibly and asked if 'Madame' also needed some help with proper funeral attire. Since I doubted that the shop carried anything larger than a size eight, and since I'm firmly in the double digits, I allowed as how I didn't need anything at this time. The saleslady sniffed. My sister (who is never wrong) made haste to put as much distance between herself and my mother as possible leaving me with my demented mother and a saleslady who clearly thought we were both beneath her. I knew I couldn't afford anything in that shop even before I looked at a price tag. My mother, though, was undaunted. She picked up a black cashmere sweater from the display in front of her, and carefully picked out the price tag.
"Seven hundred dollars!", my mother shrieked, dropping the sweater as if it had bitten her. Muriel, the saleslady, managed not to lose her composure. Instead, she asked my mother what size she required, no doubt thrown off by the layers of ill-fitting clothing my mother was wearing.
"I'm a 16", Mother proclaimed as her size 16 polyester pants slipped again. "Or maybe an 18." And she laughed. She'd already forgotten about her bout of sticker shock. "Whose funeral are we going to again?" To me, she said, "Don't let them fool you. If they tell you something looks good on YOU, it's just because they want you to buy something. You never could wear clothes the way your sister can." Two well-dressed women picking over designer hair accessories near the back dropped what they were doing to size me up. Clearly, they agreed. They gave my sister a look of supreme sympathy and sidled out.
"Let's go to Sears", my mother said. "I always do my shopping at Sears. Or Penney's". And she headed for the exit with me following close behind, relieved to be out from under Muriel's ill regard.
My sister wouldn't dream of setting foot inside Sears unless she were buying power tools, so we settled on Macys. Even before a saleslady spotted us, my sister was pulling suits off the rack and holding them up to my mother. "We'll try a 14 and a 12", she said, shoving a pair of suits into my arms and going for more. "You take Mom into the dressing room to try them on".
Mother and I arrived in the dressing room, and Mother said "You try them on, honey. I'm sure we can make something do". It was difficult, but I finally convinced her that we were here to buy HER something. "Oh I can't wear this", she said looking at the size 14 skirt. It's way too small. I need an 18 at least". When she tried it on, it was so big it could have held her and my sister both. Foolishly, I left Mother alone to go find a smaller size. My sister had disappeared with a stack of sweaters from the sale table. When I got back into the dressing room, Mother was wearing her own clothes again, looking at herself from all angels in the three panel mirror and said, "I like this one. Let's get this one". I talked her into trying on the smaller size, but the pants were hip huggers -- not the best look for an octagenerian.
This time, I took my mother with me when I went looking for a different size. She was still wearing the suit, and had her own clothing bundled up under her arm. The salesladies (both of them) were following my sister around, making suggestions while I hunted the racks for something appropriately subdued for my mother to wear to a funeral. I found a couple of candidates, and belatedly realized I'd forgotten to watch Mom for a minute or two. I found her neatly folding her polyester pants and adding them to a display of designer jeans.
The large dressing room was in use this time, and the remaining one was too small to hold both my mother and me, so with some trepidation I handed her a black suit and asked her to try it on. The pants fit well but the jacket was too tight. Fortunately, there was another suit in a larger size. The jacket fit well but the pants fell down and Mom didn't like the fabric. I handed her something else to try, and she emerged from the dressing room wearing the same suit she went in wearing, having removed it, hung it up neatly and then tried it on again. Back into the dressing room and she came out wearing the wool suit jacket with her polyester pants. Now she went in and came back wearing her ratty old sweater with the suit jacket over it and no pants. Other women were coming and going, and not even Mom was oblivious to the funny looks we were getting. My sister brought a stack of suits and told me to have Mom try them. One fit well but was "too bright for your uncle's funeral." Another was appropriately dark, but summer weight. This one was too big, that one was too tight in the hips and the jacket on that one over there fit well but we couldn't find the pants. (Mom was wearing them UNDER the other pants -- no wonder they were tight.) Finally, Mom stepped out of the dressing room wearing a jacket and pants that fit reasonably well, and both pieces were black. By then, I was well over the shopping experience. We bought them.
It wasn't until we got back to my mother's house that I noticed the jacket was a size 14 and the pants a size 10. I didn't care. My sister brought home a whole stack of sweaters that were on sale, a marvelous deal. I had aching feet and a migraine.
At the funeral, Mom looked great. She always wore clothes well, even at Dad's funeral. As we lined up next to the casket to accept condolences, my aunt complimented my mother on the stylish new suit. "Thank you", my sister answered before either Mother or I could. "I took her to the city and bought it for her yesterday."
I am neither attention-seeking nor stupid. I kept my mouth shut.