Adventures in Dementia*land: Part VII

The Smell of Prell: Nostalgia Comes Knocking

Tonight was intended to be the last night of this visit. Though I am not really leaving first thing in the morning, this is what I told my mother. I did not want to have to saturate my clothes yet again with smoke and stank, then drive in a car for four hours to my next stop. It seems petty, given how existentially lonely she is; petty, despite the fact that I have become increasingly sick after each visit at my mother’s house: dried-out eyeballs, scratchy throat, lungs made raw by all the nicotine dust I have inhaled.

(I am convinced that I have sacrificed several weeks of my life by spending time with my mother in her smoke-infested squalor palace and the sad thing is, she won’t be alive when I am dying of lung cancer for me to guilt trip her.)

Yes, really, that’s the sad thing.

Not the crumbly layer of organic material that had grown behind my mother’s right ear (but strangely, not the left) or the unintended but rather impressive dreads she has grown at the back of her head, both of which I discovered when she let me wash her hair. Not the pitiful “I get up early in the morning so we could still see each other before you leave but you don’t have to if you don’t want” response from my mother when I lied to her about leaving at the crack of dawn. Not the whole darn shooting match of my mother’s wits going on hiatus.

It’s all so fucking sad and that’s just the beginning.


When I was little, we spent a fair amount of time at my grandparent’s farm, which was called, “The Ranch.” Don’t go conjuring images of western ranches, cattle, and cowhands. I don’t know why it was called what it was called, but it was, even though it was really a farm surrounded by fruit orchards and majestic Mt. Hood.

Prell shampoo
Prell shampoo

When I was little, I could fit on the counter of my grandmother’s kitchen, lay on my back with my head in the sink, and get my hair washed. The sink had a regular faucet, but also a flexible spray nozzle, which was perfect when filled with warm water. My grandmother used Prell shampoo and as I write this, I can smell it.

According to her daughters, my grandmother was not a particularly nurturing woman. Yet, for me, for this granddaughter, I have such luxurious and pleasant memories of her massaging my scalp, of deliciously warm water washing away bubbles, of a scratchy (air-dried) towel wrapped tightly and elegantly around my head like a turban. All of which added up for this granddaughter as pure bliss delivered by my grandmother.

Tonight I washed my mother’s hair. Though I do not have a general “bucket list,” it was on my bucket list for this trip. I hoped she would allow me and she did. Not only was I aware of how infrequent her personal hygiene has become, I was also hoping for the intimacy that would come from sharing such an experience together.

Because she is too big to climb onto the counter and lay comfortably on her back, I set up a tall stool next to the kitchen sink (which I had scrubbed the day before). We got towels and shampoo. She leaned back, far more limber than I expected her to be. I took the modern version of the nozzle sprayer, I adjusted the temperature of the warm water, and then I did it: I washed her hair.

Not once, but twice. She asked me to really rub her scalp. At first I thought it was for the pleasure of the massage and I should consider adding yet another item to my resumé. But it turns out that her hair is matted beyond untanglement. I think she thought that it was something that could be shampooed away with a little elbow grease. Instead, she has a fair number of unintended dreadlocks, about which I tried to make a joke (how hip and modern she is) but this did not play in Peoria. So I offered to cut them off, but she did not want the significantly denuded hair appearance. So they are staying.


"Joyful Woof" was the name of my mother's last dog
“Joyful Woof” was the name of my mother’s last dog

Tonight was meant to be the last visit and though I will walk her dog in the morning and give her a hug good-bye, it won’t be a visit-visit. I have asked her not to smoke in the morning, so that I can enter the house with some overly optimistic chance that after five short minutes I won’t smell like a tobacco festival, but what good is it to ask someone with dementia to do something twelve hours later? What are the odds?

I remember just three months ago, during my last visit, when I arrived with a stone heart and left with a beating, flesh one, I was an absolute wreck when I had to say good-bye to her. I wanted just one more day, one more day’s worth of chance to get her to do…something, or anything: sign the power of attorney, agree to see a doctor, promise that she will eat three meals or clean her dishes before they mold.

It doesn’t really matter now what it was then, we were on the brink of a some very essential change that would ensure her well being, and I had to leave, dashing all hopes of preserving my mother’s dignity. It’s amazing how powerful I am (she says with her tongue in cheek).

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