My Mother's Keeper

Dale Crawley worried about his mother and what she called her "memory slips" as they became more frequent. In the beginning, her absentmindedness was cute and humorous but they quickly turned much more concerning - forgetting the names of objects or people or confusing words that sounded similar. She once made a complaint about a "buzzard" on her foot (she meant a bunion). She'd forget the password for her computer at work and laugh about it.

When her symptoms started getting more serious - she backed out of the garage with the door still closed because she forgot to hit the auto-button, she showed up for Sunday Mass on a Saturday morning, and one day she offered Dale an iced tea and then asked 'What does a lemon look like again?" when she went to put the fruit in the glass – Dale knew something was terribly wrong and he brought his mother to see her long time family Doctor.

Doctor Bryant administered a simple memory test. He told Dale's mother to write a sentence of her choice and then try to remember the following three words: orange, chair, and dollar. She wrote a brief sentence: "I love my son, Dale."

"And what were the three words I asked you to remember?" Doctor Bryant asked.

Mrs. Crowley smiled. "Orange...dime...closet".

She had bungled the simplest of memory tests and the concerned Doctor Bryant referred her to a specialist. After three hours of testing, the kind specialist Dr. Stone gave a preliminary diagnosis of amnestic mild cognitive impairment and Dale knew by the look on the Doctor's face that this was not a good prognosis.

"Most cases progress to full Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Stone revealed. "I'm sorry but we're looking at an inevitable decline on the horizon."

Dale felt as though he had been punched in the gut but his mother was surprisingly calm and realistic about the situation.

"Don't worry, Dale," she said bravely. "I could never forget you."

But Dale was panicked by the prospect of watching his dear mother become a hollowed- out person with no memory or sense of identity.

"I'm really powerless to do anything but endure it," his mother told him in true honesty. "Don't be afraid of this, son. We'll take the sunset ride together."

Dale's mother decided to take an early retirement for medical reasons from the community college. She finished out the school year and then allowed some of her associates to throw her a farewell party.

"Thanks for a wonderful birthday party," she told her colleagues when making her remarks.

Dale hired a home aide company to spend a few hours a day at the house and he gradually increased the hours as his mother's mind continued to slip. He was grateful for the kindness of Diane Hines, his mother's god-daughter who began stopping by the house to offer her support and assistance.

"I knew something was wrong when Nanette stopped coming by the Greenville Diner," Diane told Dale.

"She'd stop by the diner?" Dale asked with surprise, unaware of his mother's routine.

"At least once a week," Diane smiled. "To have lunch and see me."

"How long was she doing this?" Dale asked.

"Oh, since I started working there about twelve years ago," Diane laughed. "Your mom has always been wonderful to me," she explained. "My stopping by the house now is the least I can do."

Diane was seven years younger than Dale so he didn't have a lot of interaction with her growing up. He remembered her as a sweet, friendly and polite kid the few times his mother had her to the house when he was around and now Diane was around more often and she told Dale many stories about his mother's kind generosity when she was growing up, always showing up for her recitals and other activities, taking her out to lunch on her birthday, and sending money when she made the honor roll.

"She was like a second mom," Diane said warmly. "Never judgmental or assuming, just nice. She'd offer advice and insight if I asked for it but she never told me what to do."

Diane was pretty with long blond hair to match her long lanky legs. She had a long face and a wide smile and she was very good at taking the edge off of Dale's stress whenever she showed up to help out with his mother. Dale liked it when he'd stop by and find Diane visiting too.

"Today your mom tried to describe the maddening reality that her mind - once so alive with thought and feeling - was being erased like chalk on a blackboard," Diane told Dale as they shared a glass of wine after one such visit. "She said it's all disappearing and she can't even remember what was on the board in the first place."

Diane and Dale both noticed the mental decay of his mother's cognitive abilities as well as her mood swings. Dale told Diane how hard it was to watch his mother slip away.

"I think she has grace in enjoying simple pleasures now," Diane observed.

But Dale had no illusions. He had already watched the mild symptoms (misplacing things, repeating questions) advance to the moderate: being unable to learn something new, getting lost, failing to recognize people (a former co-worker stopped by a few days earlier and his mom couldn't place her) and Dale knew it was only a matter of time before she advanced to the severe stage: losing the ability to speak and needing help with every function of day- to- day life.

"Your mom just wants to squeeze in as much joy as possible while she still can," Diane told Dale. "We talk. We have good talks. She just wants to be happy while she can still remember what happiness is."

The doctors had Nanette on drugs to slow the memory loss. Dale took his mother to most of her doctors' appointments because he was afraid she would forget where she was going or become distracted in her driving. He took notes on what the doctors said knowing his mother would quickly forget the details of the visits.

Remarkably, Nanette rarely complained. She seemed to accept her situation and she approached each day with a positive attitude even when she forgot what she was doing in the moment. She found a way of appreciating even her weird behaviors and she liked to sing silly songs making up her own lyrics because she'd forget the actual words even if she remembered the tune.

"I'm still me," Nanette told Dale when he became frustrated after she left the coffee machine on and burned the bottom of the glass pot.

"I know, Mom," Dale sighed.

He was grateful for how much of herself his mother still could be even as she became increasingly forgetful and wacky.

"None of that matters," Diane reminded Dale. "The only important thing is the love she has for you and the love you have for her."

"It's still hard to watch," Dale said.

"I know," Diane said with sympathy.

Most of Nanette's casual friends fell out of her life, partly because she retired and changed her routine but mostly because it was hard to watch her decline. Previously an avid reader, Nanette stopped opening books because she had a hard time concentrating on the words although Diane would often read to her. She stopped watching her favorite television shows because she couldn't remember episodes and characters from week to week.

"Musicals seem to retain her attention the most," Diane observed. "We've watched Grease and Annie about ten times each already. The music keeps her engaged."

"Anything that gives her some small pleasures in her life is okay with me," Dale said.

"When did I become so dumb? Nanette asked Dale one night when she had trouble opening the door to the bathroom (pulling instead of pushing).

"She knows she's slipping deeper into the abyss," Diane remarked.

"She doesn't laugh much anymore," Dale complained. "She doesn't seem happy."

"I'm sure she's getting depressed," Diane said. "Who wouldn't?"

Doctor Bryant prescribed the anti-psychotic Zyprexa in hopes of better regulating Nanette's moods.

One night, Diane and Dale both stayed to have dinner with Nanette who looked a bit lost as she sat at the dining room table.

"We drink when we're thirsty?" She asked, as if she wasn't quite sure the two went together.

"Yes, Mom, have some water," a dazed Dale told her.

"I'm your mother?" Nanette asked. "That means you're my..."

"Son," Diane answered for her.

Nanette glanced at Diane. "And you're my sister?"

Diane's eyes watered up. "In a matter of speaking," she answered.

"It won't be long before she's completely gone from our lives," Dale told Diane later as he walked her to her car.

"She still has a powerful presence," Diane said, recovering from her earlier emotional defeat. "Don't lose hope, Dale."

Dale was just getting accustomed to his mother's dementia issues when he received a second double whammy diagnosis: his mother had cancer. Doctor Bryant ran some tests after Nanette consistently complained of abdominal pain enough for Dale to take notice. His concerns about his mom's mental health evaporated from his thoughts as he shifted his focus to the new news that struck him as much more ominous. His mom was "only" sixty-four and as stunning as the dementia prognosis had been months earlier, the recent cancer finding felt much more dire.

"Cancer?" Dale asked the doctor with his head spinning. "Where?"

"It's everywhere," the grim-faced Doctor Bryant announced with a sorrowful face. "Her stomach looks like she drank a gallon of cancer cells."

Dale thought he was holding his own dealing with his mother's onslaught of flightiness and forgetfulness but the concept of a new physical ailment in addition to her mental difficulties was almost more than he could take. How was he supposed to deal with both illnesses at the same time?

Ironically, Dale's mother took the devastating prognosis much more gracefully than her son but Dale attributed some of that reaction to her less than normal mental functioning. He wasn't sure if his mom was truly grasping what the Doctor was telling them.

Dale was in shocked panic mode. Even with the increased usage of the Home Aide services to help with the daily care of his mother, Dale was going to need even more assistance with the new medical challenges his mother faced so he decided to move into his childhood home to be closer to his mother and more available for assistance. He put most of his belongings in storage and he sold his condo knowing the house would be his eventually (as morose as that realization felt).

The house was a one story three bedroom ranch – a blessing now as Dale didn't need to worry about his compromised mother falling down the stairs. He had the bathroom remodeled with a walk in shower to make it easier for her.

One night after his mother went to bed Dale asked Diane if she wanted to have a drink with him.

"That would be nice," she smiled and she followed him into the kitchen. "You're doing a good thing," Diane let him know. "You're a good son."

"I'm her only child," he remarked as he poured two drinks.

"I know," Diane said as she took a seat at the kitchen table.

"Did you know that when I was six I was asleep in the backseat of my parents' car coming home from a holiday visit when the car hit a patch of black ice and went off the road and down an embankment?" Dale asked as he took a seat across from her, sliding her glass to her across the table top.

"No, I didn't," a fascinated Diane said.

"I awoke to the sounds of twisting metal and my mother's screams," Dale told her. "Followed by excruciating pain in my legs as the car flipped over."

"Oh my God," Diane exclaimed. "I can't believe your mother never told me."

"I was pinned under the seat and my mother was trapped underneath the smashed dashboard."

"What about your father?" Diane asked.

"He was quiet," Dale revealed, taking a long sip from his glass. "My mother told me 'Daddy's asleep'."

"Oh, Dale," Diane said with disbelief.

"I was able to hold my mother's outstretched hand and I listened to her sing to me," Dale said. "She encouraged me as we waited. I drifted in and out of conscious and each time I awoke I heard my mother's soothing voice."

"That must have been very comforting," Diane remarked.

"I spent a month in the hospital and nearly six months at home recuperating from the injuries."

"What kind of injuries?" Diane wondered.

"Two crushed legs was the most severe part," Dale revealed. "I still walk with a limp."

"What about your Mom?"

"She suffered broken ribs and serious scrapes and bruises but she was okay," Dale told her.

"And your Dad?" Diane asked sadly.

"He never 'woke up'," Dale sighed.

"I'm so sorry, Dale," Diane said with sympathy.

"My mother never left my side," Dale recalled fondly. "We developed a close unbreakable bond. I missed a year of school and I had to work hard to catch up. The accident left me meek and reserved. I missed my father and I lived cautiously knowing how fleeting life could be. My mother was understandably over-protective but we had an unspoken commitment as survivors because we only had each other."

"And that's why you've been so close even after all this time," Diane realized.

"Mom eventually went back to work as an administrative assistant at Blue County Community College, working her way up to Secretary for the College President before being forced into early retirement when she got sick," Dale said. "She always balanced her responsibilities as a working single mom with her professional career and I had a fulfilling and successful upbringing."

'That's good after everything you went through," Diane commented.

Dale took another long sip from his drink. "I didn't move out of the house until I was twenty-six and even then I was only five miles away. I visited my mother a few times a week and I took her out for Sunday brunch every weekend."

"That's being a good son," Diane smiled.

"But I'm nearly forty and still single," Dale noted.

"So?"

"Some of the women I dated didn't like competing with what some called my 'mother complex'," Dale said bitterly.

"That's stupid," Diane assured him.

"I was perplexed by such concerns because I considered my relationship with my mother as perfectly normal so I didn't understand why they felt threatened by my affection for her."

"They were obviously shallow if they were jealous of your mom," Diane decided.

"Really?" Dale asked hopefully.

"They should have been thrilled to have been in the same room with Nanette," Diane said. "I know I am. If they were threatened by her that says more about them than it does about you or your mother."

Dale was relieved to hear her sentiments. It was refreshingly different from the complaints he was used to hearing.

"I always felt like I had to choose between the woman I was seeing and my mother," Dale sighed. "I appreciate your unique perspective on the subject."

"Well, I've been lucky enough to know your mom for a long time," Diane said as she stood and brought her now empty glass to the sink. "It's getting late. I should go."

"Okay," Dale agreed, walking her to her car feeling uplifted and relaxed after their unusual conversation.

Dale was a successful manager with Aztec Manufacturing in Greenville with enough credibility and stature to be able to balance his schedule around his mother's medical appointments and other needs. He was also able to work from home on some projects.

"I'll quit my job before I'll abandon my mother," he told Diane one day knowing he needed to hold his mother's hand just as she held his in the wreckage of his father's car.

Dale developed a good relationship with the home care staff and the visiting nurse, Laura who was young but confident and intelligent with a terrific presentation. The Staff was appreciative of Dale's generosity and his commitment to his mother.

"Relax," Diane would remind Dale when he fretted about medications or appointments or how his mother was holding up. "One day at a time, stay in the moment, it's all going to work out okay."

"She's dying, Diane," Dale groaned with frustration when her Pollyanna attitude rubbed him the wrong way during one of her increasingly more frequent visits.

"I know," Diane said quietly.

They were standing on the back patio taking a break in the warm afternoon sun.

"Nobody ever tells the truth about dying," Dale complained. "Real dying is hard and it's ugly and the worst thing is that it's grotesquely undignified."

"It's part of life," Diane replied and Dale realized that his mother's god-daughter was in a much better place emotionally and spiritually to deal with this than he was.

"I learned all about that part of life when I was six," Dale said bitterly. "And now I have to watch my mother go through it."

"I know it's hard," Diane said with sympathy.

"It's a curse and it sucks," Dale grumbled.

"The shock of mortality is difficult sometimes," Diane calmly replied.

Dale realized that he was collapsing under the burdens of his mother's illness while Diane refused to let it overwhelm her. Of course, she didn't live there so she didn't have to deal with it 24/7 like Dale did and sometimes he resented Diane for being so upbeat, positive and cheerful in the face of such a painful and horrible illness.

"Why don't I move in?" Diane suggested one day after Dale bit her head off for being too cheerful for his foul mood.

They were standing in the kitchen. She was making his mother a sandwich and he was nursing a much needed beer.

"What?" Dale asked in baffled surprise.

"You're obviously stressed out and overwhelmed," Diane commented. "I'm practically living here anyway. I'll quit my job, move out of the apartment, and live here full time for extra support."

"I couldn't ask you to do that," Dale replied. "I appreciate the offer though."

"Please let me," she replied knowingly. "I really don't like sharing an apartment with two other girls anyway and I can get another waitress job after…." Her voice trailed off.

"You have your own life to live," Dale said.

"I can't think of a higher calling than this," Diane shrugged. "That's something your mother taught me. Do unto others as you would want done to you. If I was lying in a hospital bed comatose somewhere your mother would be visiting me every day."

"She would," Dale admitted.

"You have an extra room," she said.

"'The bedroom for the child that never arrived' my mother used to say," Dale remarked with a heavy sigh.

"You can either get a pet to help comfort your mother or you can let me move in," Diane announced. "Those are your options."

"You'd be in it for the duration," Dale warned.

"I understand," she replied.

"It's not going to be pretty."

"It's going to be beautiful," Diane told him.

"You're going to be my mother's keeper?" Dale asked.

"Something like that," Diane answered.

So Diane moved in a few days later, piling her boxes in the guest bedroom and making the place her own. She sold her car for extra cash since she could use Dale's mother's car for errands and appointments. Now Dale could go to work without worrying as much about his mom.

Diane was there to make sure she was okay, spending time reading Nanette stories, taking her on walks around the neighborhood, and bringing her to her medical appointments. Dale didn't feel quite so much alone with Diane around full time and it was a great stress reliever to know he had a partner to help him with his mother's care.

Nanette had good days and bad days. Some days she'd eat like a horse, other days she barely touched her food. Some nights she'd sleep for fourteen hours straight, other nights she'd be restless and uncomfortable, wandering aimlessly through the house (they now had all sorts of locks and alarms on the doors). Some days she'd be lucid and sharp, other days she'd be lost in a fog of garbled memories and misplaced realities. Some days she'd willingly entertain visitors, other days she'd keep her bedroom door closed and stayed to herself. Some days she'd be sitting up in bed, or comfortably seated in a chair beaming and chatting about the things she wanted to do, other days she couldn't get out of bed. Nanette's kind and wonderful friends would nod their heads and encourage her while marveling at her bravery knowing she only had months to live.

Nanette had a bucket list. She wanted to visit New York one last time. She wanted to last long enough to see one more Blue County Fair Parade. She wanted to go out to a fancy restaurant with Dale and Diane. That gave Dale hope and encouragement.

"What her life lacks in length is made up with depth," Diane observed.

But there were also days when Nanette was clearly demented and confused. Dale tended to humor her when she was in distant places but he didn't necessarily engage her in in-depth conversations. He felt he did more good just being physically present, holding her hand the way she had held his in the car that terrible night.

The chemo treatments were the worse for Dale and he didn't mind having Diane take on that depressing duty.

"They're dumping Draino into her veins," Dale said to Diane one time.

The doctors performed a couple of surgeries to try to slow the spread of the cancer. Dale's mother was noticeably losing weight – and her hair. Diane did a good job keeping the hair styled but there finally came a point when it was easier just to shave her head and let her wear a variety of attractive wigs instead.

"Doesn't Nanette look beautiful?" A beaming Diane asked when Dale came home on the day his mother became totally bald.

The brave smile on his mother's face made Dale want to cry.

Diane was a much better care giver than Dale could ever hope to be. Part of the reason was because of the emotions Dale was constantly feeling – anger, guilt, remorse, resignation, depression, exhaustion, and the fear of a sad little boy still needing and wanting his mother to hold his hand in the wreckage of the car.

Diane never saw the negativity of Nanette's illness. She seemed oblivious to the wear and tear it was taking on Nanette's body. She never lost patience when Nanette was having a bad day, either physically or mentally – or both. As her dementia worsened, it became increasingly difficult to figure out what Nanette needed or what was troubling her. Was she in physical pain or was she mentally absent?

Diane refused to let Dale drag her down.

"You have to look for the tiny victories," Diane told Dale late one evening after they finally got Nanette to stay in bed after hours of roaming and distraction. "I like it when she's lucid and cracks a joke or says something self-deprecating. Sometimes she'll just look at me and smile and I know she knows perfectly well what's going on."

"It's much too depressing and sad for me to deal with," Dale complained.

"She still triumphs," Diane insisted.

Diane basically took over the running of the house. She's the one who interacted with the home care and visiting nursing staff. She stood sentry duty for Nanette's bedroom and she kept oversight over all activity in the house. She set up the visitation schedule for Nanette's "church lady friends" as Diane called them. Dale had lost patience with the ladies because he felt they were always interfering, second guessing him, and getting in the way.

"They're angels," Diane said. "There's no force in heaven as strong as a band of religious old ladies waging a battle of kind intentions! I mean, their prayers can't hurt!"

Diane also regulated Dale's schedule and routine to make sure he got enough rest and relaxation.

"Staying up all night is not going to help anybody," Diane said.

"I'll have plenty of time to sleep after she's gone," Dale muttered in self-pity.

Dale couldn't handle the more extreme medical procedures and treatments while Diane apparently missed her calling as a nurse because it was second nature for her to be able to change Nanette's bandages and perform other responsibilities like wound packing. Sometimes Nanette had an oxygen mask on to help her breathe. One time she had another tube stuck up her nostril.

"What's that?" Dale asked.

"The machine is pumping her feces up from her bowels and out her nose," Diane explained without missing a beat.

Dale wanted to go throw up. Diane realized she may have been too blunt. She stepped into the kitchen to find Dale seated at the table with his head buried in his hands. Diane got a bottle of wine and poured two tall glasses, taking a seat across from him.

"I'll never be prepared for this," Dale told her.

"What choice do we have, Dale?" Diane challenged. "Stick her in a nursing home and be done with her?"

"I want her to be able to stay at home for as long as possible," Dale replied.

"I'm hoping she dies here," Diane countered.

Dale couldn't get used to the physical horrors of the illness but Diane was much more practical about what Nanette was going through.

"It's just part of life," she reasoned.

Dale thought his mother looked miserable and tortured but Diane said she still had her spirit and her spunk.

"Just the other day she told me that I needed to get a life," Diane laughed.

Nanette continued to lose weight. Diane and Dale didn't notice as much because they saw her every day but when a visitor who hadn't been by in a while saw Nanette they looked shocked and horrified by their friend's condition. Nanette's clothes hung from her frame when she walked around the house and she sunk into her (now hospital) bed in her bedroom like a little kid sinking into the ocean.

"She looks like a Star Trek alien," Dale muttered one night after his mother floated through the house like a ghost.

One time, Dale noticed puss leaking out from underneath one of his mother's bandages and he nearly gagged. Diane shooed him away and she cleaned the wound and redressed the bandage. Later, Diane found Dale sitting on the back steps of the garage with a stiff drink in his hand.

"I always considered my mother a beautiful woman," Dale said with reflection. "Now all I see is shriveled skin and wounds the size of dimes."

"She's still beautiful," Diane replied, staring at him. "She's a beautiful person."

"Sometimes in the middle of the night I get in the car and go for a ride," Dale revealed. "I get on the interstate and go about 80 and I stick my head out the window and I scream."

"I've cried plenty of times," Diane admitted.

Sometimes Nanette would wake screaming and sweating with a twist in her bowels or some other physical ailment. Diane and Dale would rush from their beds to try to assist her or determine whether or not to call for an ambulance.

One night Dale came home late from an evening meeting. His mother was peacefully asleep and he found Diane sitting on the garage steps with a stiff drink in her hand.

"Something wrong?" He asked with concern, taking a seat next to her and studying her tired and drawn face.

"I noticed something strange the other day," she revealed.

"What was it?" Dale asked.

"There were little bits of half-digested food emerging from Nanette's wounds," Diane told him. "I called the oncologist and he said when there's an infection in the body the flesh works to eject it by forming tunnels to the surface," Diane explained.

"Oh God," Dale groaned.

"Her body no longer recognizes food as useful so it's expelling it directly out the front of her abdomen like a foreign substance." Diane took a long sip from her glass of booze. "How can you see something like that and not be affected?" She asked.

"You can't," Dale sighed.

In the coming weeks, colostomy bags, special bandages, and cloth diapers were tried but Nanette's stomach acid burned through and eventually it started eating her flesh.

"There's no stopping it," Laura the regular visiting nurse said. "There's only narcotics for the pain."

"We're getting near the end," Dale told Diane a few days later. "These physical horrors have got to stop."

"Before it's over you'll long for it to end," Diane predicted.

"What about you?"

"I don't want it to end," she said. "Every day, every hour, every minute with her is precious. But I'm selfish. And she's not my mom so it's not the same for me as it is for you. You don't want to see her suffering. I understand that. I don't want to see her go because I will miss her."

More machines began appearing in Nanette's bedroom, including a large noisy contraption that pumped fluids into her veins that whined any time it needed attention, such as when a tube kinked or Nanette rolled onto the tube, or it ran out of fluid. Nanette was being sedated more and the strength of the drugs was increased, leaving her unconscious or even more confused given her ongoing dementia issues.

"We need a break," Diane announced one morning as a drained Dale dragged himself into the kitchen for some much needed coffee after another restless night. "We're both exhausted, mentally, physically and spiritually."

"You're burned out?" Dale wondered, amazed at the amount of non-stop time and effort Diane had been putting in to assure the proper care for his mother.

"I just need a break to recharge my batteries," Diane said, rubbing her eyes as she sat at the kitchen table in her pajamas and bathrobe.

"Why don't you take a few days off?" Dale suggested as he took a seat across from her. "You deserve it."

Diane reached her hand across the table and squeezed his arm. "We need a break," she said forcefully, the emphasis on we.

"I'm okay," Dale insisted.

"I've already made the arrangements," Diane announced. "We're going away for a couple of days," she said forcefully. "You and me."

"I can't leave Mom now," Dale said.

"A friend of my father's has a cabin in the woods up in Vermont," Diane said, ignoring his resistance. "We'll spend the weekend there. Laura the visiting nurse, the home aide workers and the Church Ladies will be here for your mom."

"What if something happens?" Dale worried.

"We'll have our cells," Diane replied. "It's only an hour away."

"I don't think it's a good idea to….."

"It's for the best," Diane said, cutting him off. "It'll make both of us better caregivers."

Dale was going to argue further but then he realized she was right. They'd been doing this for months without a break and it was going to get worse before it got better. Maybe a weekend escape was something the doctor ordered. Dale might have thought it weird to be going off for a weekend with his mother's god-daughter had he not spent these many weeks sharing a house with her, intimately interacting with her as they both cared for his mother. He had gotten to know her as a person, as a woman, and as a caring caregiver and he had become drawn to her in a nurturing and uniquely emotional way as they shared the same concerns, passions, and hopes for his mother. Quiet and personal conversations late at night over the sounds of breath machines was an experience few could relate to.

Crisis situations, sickness and an uncertain future bring people together in natural ways. The prospect of death amplified the importance for life and their mutual love for Nanette gave them something in common. They were familiar with one another simply because they shared living space and spent time conversing, usually about his mother but sometimes about other topics to fill in the time. Diane had plenty of funny diner stories to tell, the perils and pitfalls of being a waitress in a small town diner. She mentioned a couple of previous boyfriends, her childhood being raised in Greenville, and some of her high school experiences. Dale had occasionally bitched about pressures at work (especially with him missing so much time) and he told Diane every memory he had about his mother growing up. Diane seemed willing to confide in Dale about some of her biggest failures and regrets.

"Running off with my boyfriend after high school was the dumbest thing I ever did," Diane confessed. "I thought I was in love but he left me high and dry in Colorado and I had to call my folks to send me money so I could get home," she sighed. "By then, I was twenty-one with no degree, no training, no trade, no future."

"You could still go to college," Dale told her.

"I'm thirty-three years old," she sighed. "Too late for me."

"I bet my mom would tell you that it's never too late for anything," Dale replied.

Diane smiled at that remark. "You're right,' she admitted. "You know, she never said anything but I know she was disappointed in me. She used to tell me I could be anything I wanted but I don't think she ever imagined I'd end up being a waitress."

Dale took Friday off from work. He let Diane drive them in his mother's car since she knew the directions.

"I've been there a few times," she said. "My Dad would take me there to go fishing."

It was a pleasant drive and with each passing mile Dale seemed to relax more. The further they got from Hillsboro the less his mother occupied his thoughts and worries. They stopped at a country store to buy groceries and supplies for the weekend. The cabin was out in the middle of nowhere, a dirt road off a dirt road off another dirt road. The cabin was small and rustic but well-built and well maintained, surrounded by woods, trails and streams.

"There's a neat waterfall a mile or so away," Diane informed Dale as they lugged the supplies and overnight bags inside the cabin.

The interior was one large room with a sink, refrigerator, and stove in the far corner and a bathroom off to the side. There were plenty of windows allowing natural light inside with an alcove bay window on the front end. There was a large feathered bed, a couch, some soft chairs, a coffee table, a desk, and a couple of bunk beds in the corner. They ate an early lunch and then set out on foot to enjoy Mother Nature and the great outdoors, free from the sounds and smells of a sick woman in Hillsboro.

Diane led them to the waterfall and they sat on a ledge on the opposite side watching the cascade of water flowing from the top of the cliff. It was late August now and the shade of the trees above kept the area comfortable. Dale hadn't realized how physically tired he was until they sat on the rock drinking in the surroundings and slowly feeling his body relax and replenish. His mind suddenly felt sharper than it had in months and for the first time in a long time Dale felt at peace.

They heard giggles and laughter and suddenly a handful of college aged young women emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the gorge and Dale watched with amused fascination as the intruders began stripping out of their clothes. He glanced at the smirking Diane and they both began to laugh but the naturalists didn't hear them because of the noise of the falls.

"Can you believe this is happening!?" Dale grinned.

"Don't question it, Dale," Diane advised. "You need this."

The naked coeds began leaping from the rocks into the deep water at the base of the falls and then they'd climb up the bank and jump all over again.

"They look like snowflakes falling to earth," Dale observed as he watched and appreciated the naked beauty before them.

The girls seemed impractically youthful, joyful, carefree, and free spirited, laughing above the sound of the waterfall with each splash.

"We should join them," Diane playfully said as she stood.

"They might not appreciate the interruption," Dale warned.

"Oh, they won't care!" Diane laughed as she took off her tank top.

"We shouldn't do this," Dale warned.

"Why not?" Diane asked as she shimmied out of her shorts, standing above him in her panties and bra.

"Because I'm an old man," Dale sighed nervously.

"You worry too much," Diane replied. "You're not being disloyal having a good time."

He watched as Diane tossed aside her bra and pulled her undies down her legs, revealing herself as naked as the other snowflakes. After all the ugliness Dale had experienced, he couldn't help but admire her unexpected beauty. Diane turned and stepped toward the edge of the ledge.

"Is it deep enough?" Dale worried, staring at her wonderful backside.

"Yep," Diane replied as she stepped off the ledge.

Dale heard her lighthearted scream followed by the splash of her entering the water. He jumped to his feet and ran to the ledge, glancing down to see the naked Diane swimming toward the girls on the other side of the water pool. The water was clear enough for him to watch her naked rear slice through the surface. Then he watched as Diane climbed up the opposite ledge and chatted with the coeds. She pointed toward Dale who was still standing on the ledge and they began to clap and cheer, urging him to join them. The naked Diane was waving at him with encouragement and amusement.

Dale was forty years old. He hadn't done anything wild, crazy, daring, or even remotely outrageous in twenty years. He counted the bare naked ladies waiting for him on the other side of the gorge. Seven lovely nude angels and he wished they'd never age, get sick, or die like his mother was in the process of doing. Nanette had once been as young and carefree as those lovelies waiting for him. He found himself stripping naked and stepping off the ledge, wishing he could hang suspended in the air forever so all the pain and hurt would go away.

The water was cool and refreshing when he hit the surface and he sunk a good ten feet under the water before bobbing back up and then swimming to the other side as his audience clapped and cheered. He climbed up the bank and Diane made the introductions –but the names weren't important. Dale couldn't believe he was standing naked alongside seven nude beautiful smiling and laughing women as if he was in some sort of crazy Esther Williams film.

Dale watched as one by one the angels leaped into the water and then it was just him and Diane again and she laughed at the expression on his face.

"I bet you're glad you came now!" Diane giggled before dive bombing off the ledge.

The coeds eventually left, waving goodbye from the edge of the woods above as they dressed and disappeared into the woods, leaving Diane and Dale behind alone in the wonderful water.

"That was different," Dale deadpanned as they tread water, staring at each other.

"I had planned on getting naked all along anyway," Diane confessed with a sly smirk as she bobbed in the water.

"I'm not complaining," Dale smiled.

"Why would you?" Diane teased.

"I wonder what my mother would think if she knew her son was skinny dipping with her god daughter," Dale remarked.

"I don't think she'd mind," Diane said knowingly.

"What do you mean?" Dale wondered.

"She's told me things," Diane shrugged.

"Like what?" He asked with concern.

"Nothing, really," Diane insisted. "Just that she wished you'd find the right woman, settle down, and be happy."

"She never pressured me," Dale remarked.

"But she worried about you," Diane said. "I think the worse thing she thought about getting sick was you having to move in and give up a part of your life."

"My mother shouldn't have to die for me to have a successful relationship," Dale complained.

"She hasn't died yet," Diane said quietly. "And we seem to be having a successful relationship."

Dale smiled at her, perhaps for the first time realizing that maybe there was something going on between them - an easy deduction to make since they were skinny dipping together.

Diane smiled in return and they swam ashore, climbing naked up the bank to where they left their clothes on top of the cliff. They slowly dressed while enjoying the beautiful serenity of their surroundings. They didn't talk much hiking back to the cabin but it was clear that something was definitely different between them now.

They spent the rest of the afternoon resting and relaxing. Later, Dale grilled some steaks on the brick-built outside grill and they turned in reasonably early, not bothering to turn on the lights in the cabin as dusk settled in.

"I can take one of the bunks," Dale said as Diane stood in the shadows preparing the large feather bed.

"You'll be more comfortable in the bed," Diane replied and he didn't care to argue.

They slept for twelve hours, their first good night of sleep in months without having to worry about Nanette down the hall. It was the sounds of the rain that woke them in the morning, refreshed and recharged, energized and renewed. Diane was wrapped around Dale under the covers, her in panties and bra, him in pajama bottoms and a tee shirt.

They didn't care about the rain. It just meant for a lazy day spent lounging around reading books and escaping reality. Diane made them bacon and eggs and they sat in the bay window watching the rain and basically decompressing from the past few months trying not to think about what still laid ahead. The rains didn't let up and Diane commented that it was God washing away the misery.

Late in the afternoon, Diane said she was going to go take a shower. Dale assumed she met in the bathroom but she stood from her chair, stripped out of her clothes and ran naked out the front door laughing as she pranced into the rain. Dale followed her to the door and smirked as he watched her dance around in the muck and mud, the heavy rain bouncing off her soaking shiny naked skin. She gestured for Dale to join her and he figured why not. He hadn't had this much spontaneous fun in...well...forever.

Dale pealed out of his clothes and trotted naked into the rain to join Diane dancing in the elements, her soaking hair painted to her head and the rain dripping into her eyes. She was laughing as she embraced him in a hug and Dale found himself kissing her with reckless abandon.

He was too old to be making love in the muck with the rain bouncing off their impassioned bodies and the mud making its way into their various body crevices and cavities but that's exactly what happened as Dale and Diane slid, squirmed, and slipped around in the grassy mud enjoined together in a much needed escape. Dale was glad it was raining so Diane wouldn't notice the tears of relief and need as he clung to her almost desperately forgetting all the pain, sorrow and loss of his life. Diane was perfectly willing to comfort him and be with him like this. She thought it was going to be wild sex in the muddy rain but she realized how wonderfully satisfying and strangely tender it became despite the elements.

When it was over, they lay hugging each other with spent delight and satisfied relief, letting go of months of emotional turmoil and the burden of care-taking just for a little while.

"Should we have done that?" Dale worried as they lay in their mud bath together.

"Yes," Diane replied without missing a beat. "It was meant to be. We both needed it. We both wanted it. We both deserved it."

"It feels incestuous for some reason," Dale said.

"Don't over think this, Dale," Diane advised. "We're consenting unrelated adults who happen to love the same mother. There's nothing wrong with that."

He kissed her to demonstrate his agreement.

They picked themselves out of the mud and ran through the rain to the cabin where they took a hot shower (together) to wash out the mud, muck and grime from every inch of their bodies. Dale grilled up some chicken for them on the stove and Diane made a salad. They sat dressed in dry warm clothes watching the rain out the window while they ate, not talking much but not needing to. It was all about the getaway and forgetting about reality and not worrying about Nanette.

They climbed into bed exhausted and drained and fell asleep to the sound of the rain trumping off the roof and windows and Dale couldn't remember the last time he felt this at peace. It might have been never.

The rain had ended by the time they awoke in the morning. They had pancakes and coffee and then packed up to leave agreeing that the 'climax' of the getaway couldn't be repeated and they took a leisurely back road ride home, stopping at tag sales and for ice cream, and even a carnival. They were well relaxed and rested by the time they reached Hillsboro, returning to that which they had left. Nanette was having a rough day lost in herself, silently afloat on a mixture of pain drugs and dementia,

Diane slipped into Dale's bed late that first night back to establish a new understanding between them. Dale was back at work the next day while Diane stood watch over Nanette when she wasn't washing clothes, cleaning the house, shopping, or cooking. She also monitored Nanette's scheduled dosages, ordered supplies, and kept Dale appraised of the various bills, appointments and other requirements concerning his mother.

Sometimes Nanette was adrift on drug-induced cloud of fog or lost in the sea of dementia.

"We have so much morphine around here we could be drug dealers," Dale noted one night.

The drugs caused hallucinations which only exasperated Nanette's dementia symptoms and created some weird situations. Sometimes Nanette called Dale "Jimmy" (his father's name) and she'd call Diane "Mom" or "Sister Agnes" (her favorite elementary school teacher).

When Nanette was having a reasonably good day she would be horrified by her appearance or how the house looked. One evening, she drifted into the kitchen and announced that she was going to make Eggs Benedict for breakfast (even though it was after supper) but then she became befuddled when she realized she didn't have a clue what she was doing.

"How can I die in peace?" She asked. "How can I die like this?"

Dale wanted to cry but instead he gave his dear mom a gentle hug (she was so fragile she could literally snap if he was too demonstrative) and Diane assured her that it was okay because they weren't hungry anyway. Another time, Diane found Nanette putting clothes in the oven - thinking it was the dryer.

"It's not your fault, Nanette," Diane told her,

"Jimmy needs to fix the dryer," Nanette replied with woe.

Sometimes late at night Diane and Dale would lie in bed together and review the day, rating the quality of both Nanette's day - and their own (as care givers).

"There's nothing I can say or do that's going to make any of this better," Dale sighed. "Mom's condition and situation has robbed us of a relationship because nothing can stop dementia and death."

Diane cuddled against him and she tried to sooth him in his sorrow. Dale didn't like making love with his dying mother down the hall so they had only done it a few time since returning from the cabin, once in the car behind the drug store like a couple of teenagers and another time in the laundry room when they thought Nanette was napping but she wandered in on them with Diane bouncing on the washing machine in its rinse cycle but Nanette hardly seemed to notice or care.

Sometimes Nanette would call Diane and Dale to her bedside and accuse them of stealing her money or jewelry, something a healthy Nanette would never have done - even if it was true! Diane could see the pain and sorrow etched on Dale's face as they watched Nanette continue to fade both mentally and physically.

Diane remained the eternal optimist, telling Nanette to keep fighting because she could beat her illnesses and Diane would ignore Dale's protests when he said it was cruel to lie to Nanette like that.

"You can't be negative," Diane argued. "We have to give her hope."

"She's going to die, Diane," Dale said coldly and Diane burst into tears.

Dale felt guilty, of course, and he hugged Diane and patted her hair and tried to shush her.

"Death is an inevitable curse that can't be denied," he said with defeat. "But I shouldn't take it out on you. I love you and I'm so glad you're here helping me through this."

Sometimes Diane and Dale stayed up late watching mindless television just to escape from the reality of the situation and numb themselves with irrelevancy, sitting in the dark in silence.

"In my worse moments," Dale whispered to Diane late one night as they lay cuddling in bed together, "I don't think she's dying fast enough."

Diane held him tight but said nothing. She knew that everything in their life had revolved around the frail figure down the hall. Nanette represented sadness and depression, illness and heartbreak, memories and loss. In her best moments, Nanette carried herself with courage and poise. She would smile at Dale or pat Diane's hand with affection and there would be a moment of normalcy and comfort but it wouldn't last very long.

Diane advised Dale not to resent his mother for her illnesses. He needed to accept his mother as she was and where she was no matter what kind of day she was having. Diane did a good job keeping Dale balanced and rational. She was also good at using humor to break the tension, cracking jokes so dark and morbid that if others heard her and Dale bantering back and forth they would think they were rude, crude and insensitively vulgar.

In their heartache and exhaustion, Dale and Diane would sometimes lie in bed late at night giggling for no real reason other than they were relieved and happy to have each other to fall back on and snuggle with after another heartbreaking day of Nanette's slow fade.

Even in his sorrow for his mother Dale knew that he had fallen in love with Diane because of her compassion, her strength, and her belief in him. One morning, Dale woke up at dawn to find a peaceful and angelic Diane sleeping by his side. He looked into her face and touched her cheek and her eyes fluttered open. Diane smiled, happy to see him.

"Good morning," she said.

"I love you," Dale whispered.

"I love you too," Diane told him warmly.

It was only a matter of time until Nanette died. The number of bad days now far out-numbered the number of good ones. She weighed less than ninety pounds and wasn't eating. She seldom muttered a coherent thought these days and her breathing had become noticeably slowed in recent days - louder too; so loud that Dale and Diane heard it from down the hall. It sound like someone was playing a juice harp across her vocal cords.

Dale had been preparing himself for his mother's death for many months. He even envisioned it sometimes - foolishly playing it out in his mind like it was some scene from a movie - a small group of her friends would be there with Dale and Diane watching as Nanette drew in and blew out her final breaths. Maybe they'd be holding hands and singing or praying, sharing the profound moment when death comes. Laura the visiting nurse would feel for a pulse and calmly announce: "She's gone."

But death rarely happens the way it does in flowery sweet tear jerker movies. On the day his mother died, Dale went out to run a few errands and stop by the office to drop off a report to his boss. He was touching bases with one of his co-managers when his cell phone went off.

"You'd better come home," Diane's urgent voice advised. "And you'd better hurry."

Dale was shocked. His mother seemed no different that morning than she had in the several precious. Laura said she was stable and doing reasonably well all things considered - otherwise he never would have left the house. He rushed from the office and sped home, his heart racing as all sorts of images and thoughts flashed through his mind. Was this really the end? Would he be able to hold her hand the way she had held his in the car crash? Would she already be "asleep" (like his Dad) by the time he got home?

Dale skidded the car to a stop in the driveway and ran into the house, rushing into the bedroom to find Diane sitting on the edge of the bed holding Nanette's hand while the nurse Laura monitored the various medical machines in the room. Dale could hear his mother's rasping breath that sounded like something from a horror movie.

"What's going on?" A breathless Dale asked.

"Any of these could be her last," Laura said. "They're coming awfully slow. Her pulse is so faded I can't even feel it anymore."

The three stood watching Nanette struggling to live. Dale took her other hand and began to sing softly just like his mother had done for him in the car that night. He watched until Nanette simply didn't breath anymore. The three exchanged glances and then stared at Nanette's suddenly silent and lifeless body.

"Wow," Dale said with amazement. "Just like that?"

Tears rolled down Diane's face. "But she looks the same," she observed.

"I'm sorry," Laura said.

"Goodbye, Mom," Dale sighed. "Say hi to Dad for me."

Dale's grief would have been worse if Diane wasn't around to share it with him. She was struggling with her own sadness, of course, and neither would admit to the other that deep down they felt a deep sense of relief that Nanette's suffering was over and their daily burden had been lifted even if the house felt empty without Nanette. That was their new normal now - adjusting to their life together without worrying about (but feeling guilty for not) taking care of Nanette.

"I never would have made it if you hadn't become My Mother's Keeper," Dale told Diane one night as they lay together in bed.

"Don't be silly," Diane replied.

"I'm serious," Dale insisted.

"I wasn't your mother's keeper," Diane informed him.

"Of course you were."

"She told me to be yours," Diane whispered, kissing Dale on the cheek.