My cousin, my mom’s ‘baby’ sister (she’s 89), my mom and I, with my uncle’s two daughters reflected in the window. We had lunch together recently to celebrate my uncle’s life — he was in the middle, and 90 years old when he died last month. My mom is 91.
* * *
She cannot hold it. It floats by, tantalizing, intriguing, possible. But she cannot hold it.
I watch her try to think and the picture that comes is this: the rotating rack in a dry cleaning establishment. You know the one. The attendant looks up your order, punches in the number and the clothes start moving, almost by magic, until they stop. The correctly numbered slot is right there in front, and the cashier picks up the hanger, hands it to you and says, “That will be $10.00, please.”
But for my mother, the right number hardly ever comes up. She punches those numbers for all she’s worth, but someone else’s clothes land in her lap. And she truly doesn’t know what to do with them.
Watching a person’s mind unravel is a sad and terrifying thing. She is so old now, so frail, and yet, there is evidence that somewhere in there, my mom still lives and breathes. Sadly, that evidence is sliding away on a daily basis and I often find myself unraveling right along with her.
I am, by turns, angry and exhausted, sad to the point of tears and frustrated by the reversal in our roles. I never signed on for this — this long, long good-bye. I never imagined it. Never. And that’s a big part of the problem.
What is it that creates this protective naiveté in me? This terrible lack of imagination? Maybe it’s because her mother, my grandmother, lived to be 101 without a single sign of dementia. Anxiety? Oh yeah, by the bushel basket. But she never did battle with her own mind. She didn’t lose herself. She didn’t forget her life.
I fully expected my mom to follow suit. She lost her vision in the same way, at about the same age. But this losing her mind, this dementia? It is a complete bolt from the blue. And to tell you the truth, I am frightened by it. Terrified, to be exact. Because . . .
What if it happens to me, too?
I fold my mother’s small load of laundry each week, buy the king-sized package of Depends at Costco once a month, try to take her out to lunch once a week, visit her several other times, call her when I don’t see her. But underneath all of the good-daughter things I do to assuage my sadness (and my guilt at being unable to have her live with me), there is a large, festering pool of self-pity, self-concern and stark, flesh-eating terror.
All my life, I have valued my mind. It’s a pretty good one, a gift, a blessing, a self-defining characteristic. That means I am sometimes an intellectual snob (even though I am not much of an intellectual) and I am sometimes unduly proud of my ability to think quickly and well. I battle with deep-seated impatience when others don’t ‘get it.’ I like being able to reflect deeply, to articulate things well, to figure out people and problems when others struggle to do so. My cognitive abilities fall on the plus side of the ledger, when many other things about me do not.
To think about losing that identity — well, it scares the crap outta me. Walking through my mother’s last years is pushing all that terror right up to the surface where I am forced to look at a lot of things about myself that I don’t particularly like. I wish I could tell you this whole painful process was making me a ‘better’ person, a kinder one, a more patient one. So far, I see little evidence of that.
I am prayerful about it all, learning to be scorchingly honest with myself, and wanting to want to be less of a freakazoid inside my spirit. And I truly do not want to minimize the anguish of my mother’s experience by focusing only on my own. Some days are better than others, but overall, this journey is lonely, scary and crazy-making.
I wonder where God is in all of this, even though I see tendrils of grace in her sweet face, in the occasional flash of her feisty spirit, in the tenderness I feel toward her, in the valiance with which she is adjusting to the memory-loss unit that became her home six weeks ago. Like Moses, I see God’s backside for a moment here, a moment there.
At the end of the day, perhaps this is the most important thing I can say, the truest thing I know: over and around and under all of the craziness, all of the selfishness, all of the worry, the battle with impatience, the spiritual angst and the emotional weariness, there is this overwhelming reality: I miss my mom. I miss her so, so much.
And she’s still here.
She is still here.