Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 3, 2009

Red rubber ball

Mother-in-law Donna turned 99 on Tuesday, but we marked the milestone early when our family was in Wisconsin over our Spring Break. Donna enjoyed the cupcakes we took to her new home at Brewster Village in Appleton, although she wasn't quite sure whose birthday we were celebrating because she knew hers was still 10 days away.

After suffering a debilitating stroke on Jan. 13, Donna is wheelchair-bound, has little use of her right arm, has memory loss and has speech and comprehension problems.

Still, for someone given less than an even chance to survive in January, she's doing pretty well. Her color is better, she's eating better than before her "event" and she now looks to her right, although her peripheral vision on that side is impaired. She can take small steps with help and still tries to move quickly as she always did.

But even beyond those improvements, Donna surprised us several times over the course of our visit.

Daughters Mariya and Katie were a bit apprehensive about seeing their grandmother in a nursing home. The last time they had seen her was over the holidays, when she was still living independently in her own home. Although Katie cried when she first saw Donna, her big sister Mariya's unflappable nature kept her from getting too bent out of shape.

Before long, we were experimenting with different activities to see what Donna could do.

Husband Art found a 10-inch red rubber ball in one of the therapy rooms and threw it to her. Donna, although startled by his first toss, grabbed the ball with her strong left hand and tossed it back. An animated game of "Catch" ensued. She even instinctively moved her right shoulder in an attempt to reach the ball when it went to that side.

On three occasions, we bundled Donna into Art's car for a drive. The first thing she noticed was that the car was different.

"Butch, when did you get a new car?" she asked, using his family nickname.

When Art told her he'd had the vehicle about a month, she repeated over and over how "nice" and "just beautiful" it was.

As we drove along, she became excited when she saw landmarks of the city she's lived in most of her life - her home, the houses her parents and siblings lived in, the church her father helped dedicate, her old high school and the Piggly Wiggly where she shopped for groceries. When we stopped at her home to pick up the girls, we wondered if she'd want to try to get out. But she just said, "My gosh, here we are." At the end of the trip, we stopped at hamburger chain Culver's, where she downed an e entire crispy chicken sandwich using only her left hand. We joked that she was neater with one hand than Mariya and Art are with two!

On the second trip, we drove into the country and saw the homes, churches and cemeteries where her ancestors lived, were married and are buried.

The third time, we went around the city again. At one point, she tried desperately to ask us something, but it came out as gibberish. Finally, Art figured out that she wanted to see how progress on the College Avenue replacement bridge was going. College Avenue is one of the main east-west streets in Appleton, and the city had begun tearing down the old bridge before Christmas. It surprised us that she remembered it, let alone was interested in seeing it. When Art drove into Riverside Cemetery in an effort to find a vantage point from which to see the bridge area, Donna said, "We'll all be here soon enough!"

And she startled us one day when Jenny, one of the aides, came by and asked Donna if she remembered her name. Donna said "yes," but didn't repeat Jenny. But then, out of the blue, she spelled, "J-I-N-N-Y!" Not an exact spelling, but pretty darned close!

Although the Donna we knew is unlikely to return completely, many of her old expressions, physical mannerisms, personality traits and quirks have resurfaced. She even used her "I'd like to see how you are at my age" comment at one point. For a 99-year-old, she seems to have bounced back much like that red rubber ball.

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