Birdwatching with my mother: Caregiving, dementia and us

When she can no longer walk I have to hire live-in care, then worry about how much she hates strangers in her house

Published June 19, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from "The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me" by Cathie Borrie. Copyright 2018 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Every day I sit with my mother and watch the sea. There’s a row of birds perched on an errant log — cormorant, cormorant, seagull, heron. Crow.

“Cathie, sometimes I drift off for ten minutes and I don’t know where I’ve gone.”

“Does that bother you, Mum?”

“No, it doesn’t. Are you my daughter?”

We watch frantic wing-flitting at her bird feeder. Chickadees, starlings, sparrows. A house finch, brown-striped.

“Cath, I think it’s a finch, it’s only . . . oh—a finch a finch a finch! Are they trying to tell you they aren’t in there? What are they trying to say?”

“To say . . . ? I don’t know.”

“I think there’s something, they’re trying to get something across, aren’t they, love?”

Bird-pecking at the feeder. I tap on the window.

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,chick-a-dee-dee-dee. How do you think birds get their names?”

“I don’t know.”

“What shall I call myself? What name?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Yes, but I’d like a different name.”

“Well, I like Hugh or Cath but I think Hugh is better. More suitable.”

“But you won’t ever forget me, will you?”

“As if I ever could.”

Starlings replace chickadees. The seed is getting low.

“What do you think is the most important thing, Mum? I mean, a good thing?”


“And what about the rest of your life? What’s your thinking on the rest of your life?”

“Oh gosh, there can’t be much left of it can there, Cath? What will I be, sixty-six?”

“You’re going to be eighty-six.”

“Oh yeah, eighty-six.”

“How old am I?”

“Oh about sixty, sixty and the pen you’re holding. I’m sixty-two or -three, the age I quickly got to.”

“How would you like to live out the remainder of your days?”

“I don’t know, it fills me with horror. The same as what I’m doing over there only I’ll be better. I’ll be flying down the hill in my jacket!”

We listen to Bach.

“Did someone take the place of A-flat minor? You know, I think about the radio, listen to the radio, and I wonder if Cath is listening, too.”

“You mean . . . you wonder about me when you’re listening to the radio?”

“Yes. It’s the only time.”

Prelude no. 1 in C Major. My mother sighs, closes her eyes.

“What was he thinking? What was Bach thinking?”

“What’s the nicest thing about you?”


“Okay, what’s the second-nicest thing about you?”

“My love of music, my love of good music. In fact it might be the first thing. Do you know what I had last night?”


“Two lots of the London Conservatory taken away.”

“What do you like least about yourself?”

“All the things I could do and wanted to do and didn’t do because I couldn’t be bothered.”

“You always loved music, didn’t you?”

“It was Mother who made me compete. Once, when I was six, at that big hotel downtown, a man lifted me up onto the piano stool and I was so mad because I could have got up by myself. Mother never forgave me for quitting, but I was just so nervous. I hated it. After I left, my piano teacher told Mother that the German adjudicator asked her where the little golden-haired girl was, the one with music in her ears.”

Our eyes scan the sea.

“There’s a huge freighter coming in. I wonder where it’s from.”

My mother squints.

“It’s coming in too full, you can’t see the Plimsoll line.”

“You have a good eye.”

“Yes, but is it the right eye?”

“You’re feeling better today, aren’t you?”



“Because it’s all coming in and none going out.”

Four cruise ships leave the harbor for Alaska one after the other.

“Here they come, Norwegian Wind, Veendam, Dawn Princess, Radiance of the Seas. They’re getting bigger every year.”

“I’ve been on one of those ships and spent a whole morning up on the bridge. You should see the instruments. Wow!”

“Which do you like better, the sea or the sky?”

“The sea.”


“You can swim in it.”


“It’s always out there for you. It’s always there.”

* * *

I feel guilty if I don’t visit her every day, all day, guilty every moment I’m not with my mother. Worrying all the time that she’ll fall and not be able to call me, not remember the personal alarm pendant around her neck. Worry she’ll be lonely. Most of her friends are dead, and visits from family dwindling. For a long time she won’t let me hire anyone to help.

“I like my own company, I always have. So did Dad, it’s one of the reasons we got on so well. I think the nicest thing about it is that I like people and they come to see me and they want to come and see you. Everything is on my head, you know. I don’t want them to come and see me, or you. I’m a loner, darling, but those fancy things, they like it. It’s just that I like it best when you’re here, love.”

“But Mum, I can’t keep—”

“We don’t need anyone else, lovey. I like it the way it is.”

When she can no longer walk, I have to hire live-in caregivers, then worry, knowing how much she hates strangers in her home. Worry about what they’re doing, not doing, and spend as much time with her as before we had help. I fire one when I learn she isn’t talking to my mother. Another I’m never quite sure about quits while my mother is dying. The best, a quiet gentle soul. The one who stays.

The spring my mother has a good spell I spend time with an artist, a wood-turner. While he works I paddle my canoe in search of treasures and find a discarded bird’s nest. At night we curl up on the couch listening to Coltrane and Metheny.

When my mother gets worse I stop visiting my woodturner. Before I leave, he makes me a half-moon treasure box turned from a cedar burl, and during long winter nights with my mother, I breathe in the earthy scent of wood and oil, dreaming of trees and stones and bark and the buttery slice of my paddle slipping into the sea.

When my mother can’t get in and out of the bath anymore I wear a green garbage bag over my clothes and help her in the shower. We’re both embarrassed.

“I don’t mind, Mum. You gave me lots of baths when I was a baby.”

“I’m not a baby.”

“I didn’t mean . . .”

I can’t get the room warm enough, the water temperature right. She shivers, her thin, dry skin flaking off on the towel. I feel sick.

“Love, do be careful. Don’t let me fall!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

When we can’t manage showers anymore she goes to the Seniors’ Day Centre for her weekly bath and hair wash in a bright, heated room. There’s a towel warmer, lavender-scented suds, kind staff, a yellow rubber duck.

* * *

Once a month we visit her doctor for advice, prescriptions, and for the kind words she makes sure my mother hears during every visit.

“You’re doing so well.”

“I know, I’m much better.”

“Yes, you are. I just want to listen to your chest today.”

“Oh yeah, you and all the other boys.”

“Good one! I know you had some trouble with that pill I gave you and I’d like to try another one.”

“I just can’t remember things. My mind, it’s all mixed up.”

“Mrs. B., Parkinson’s does that in some people, so I’m hoping this drug will help with that. I’m really very impressed with how you’re doing.”

My mother beams and for the rest of the day she goes over and over what the doctor has told her.

“Did you hear what she said? She thinks I’m doing really well and I am, you know. I’m better every day.”

“She’s really pleased with you.”

“Do you really think so? Oh my.”

When she no longer remembers the visits I tell her what the doctor has said.

“She said she was really pleased with you and that you are doing a really good job.”

“And then what did I say?”

“You told her that you were trying very hard.”

“I did? Well, that sounds silly.”

“Um, oh, and then you thanked her for her kindness and for being such a good doctor.”

“Oh, that’s better. Yes, I like that better.”

When we get home I put on the kettle.

“Are you happy?”


“How happy?”

“I’m very happy.”


“Because I have no faith in anyone.”

I start to close the blinds.

“Leave the curtains open so I can see the birds.”

“How does one look after a bird?”

“Unless it’s very tame, you can’t. You know, I’m twice bitten and three times shy and I can’t remember. Listen—a bird!”

“What are the birds saying?”

“They’re chirping.”

“In a language?”

“In their language. In an upside-down language.”

By Cathie Borrie

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Aging Alzheimer's Disease Dementia Eldercare Elderly Parents Parkinson’s Disease