Spending Time with Mom
The day is bright, 9/11, time-stopping, breath-holding, bright. I focus on the moment--the vivid blue sky, the architectural sweep of the clouds, the perfect 72-degrees, the late summer breeze in the air—before I pull open the heavy front door to Hallworth House. I have 45 minutes before I need to return to the temple for the rest of Yom Kippur services. Mom lies asleep on her hospital bed, fully dressed for summer: yellow checkered seersucker pants I recognize, a pale green tee shirt from Talbots (Ernestine once had a veritable collection of these in every color for every season) and a white lacy shirt of miniature doilies stitched together. That shirt came with us from Tamarisk. Maybe the elderly were no worse than my teenage daughter and her friends who treat their closets like a collectively held asset.
Mom looks grey and waxy asleep on the bed. She wakes up as I pull up a chair. “Hi Mother.” A huge smile breaks out on her face and bursts in my chest as joy. “How’s it with you today?”
She smiles and weakly tugs on her hair. “Well, fine I suppose.”
I tell her about the perfect weather today, how it is bright and clear and warm outside. She tries to say something about the sun but struggles to find the word. Her fingers poke at her neck under the lacy collar. I slip my fingers to her collarbone and rub the soft loose folds of her neck. She shuts her eyes. “That feels good.”
I rub her neck and tell her about my day, about services, about how Jews fast on Yom Kippur but that I don’t because fasts remind me of when I stopped eating, when I tumbled head first into anorexia at sixteen. I hate being hungry, I explain.
“I forgot about that,” Mom says. This is the causal heartbreak of dementia. The saga of my hospitalizations, my descent into my own ring of suffering and the lasting imprint it left on my relationship with my mother, wiped away. It’s the latest iteration of the denial she accidentally on purpose imposed on me. Back in high school she held me responsible for my illness, preferring not to see it as a family matter. My father, who refused to attend the handful of family therapy sessions, eventually held me financially accountable for the cost of my hospital stays. What did I know of such matters? I assumed it was my fault alone that I couldn’t manage my own life, that it was my problem that I couldn’t stomach food much less the persistent loneliness I alone seemed to suffer from. I agreed to whatever terms would leave us the most unharmed as a family and built my own moats. I shift my fingers to the other side of her neck. “That side doesn’t itch,” she states. I move them back.
“Everyone at my house is grumpy, so I’m happy to come visit you,” I push on, letting the past drift around me like a vapor.
“I don’t think about that anymore.”
I’m not sure if this refers to grumpy family members or Jewish holidays. I remind her that she never celebrated Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur because she is Episcopalian. “You followed the Christian holiday schedule, Mom. Remember Lent and Easter and Advent and Christmas? You did all that. You even changed candles in the house to match the color of the religious seasons.” Mom’s attention to candles continued to astound. When Claire and I packed up the oversized apartment she and Bob lived in for fifteen years, we found a stockpile of candles in all shapes and sizes and colors, enough to supply a mall kiosk.
“I did?” She seems surprised. I sit back in my seat. I remind her of her mother’s love of Easter, that I sat next to Grandma at Dad’s church, that all the kids got a potted violet on Easter and how I always gave mine to Grandma, her mother, because I loved her so.
“I don’t remember that. I don’t remember her like that,” Mom says.
A text from my daughter May interrupts us. “I have to pick her up before I go back to Temple,” I say, putting down my phone.
“Why?” Mom has forgotten that I have to go back to services, that I have spent the day there, that everyone at my house is grumpy from fasting, that I came to see her to get away from all the soul searching inspired by the liturgy of Yom Kipper. “It’s terrible that I don’t remember. There is so much I don’t know.” I rub the soft skin of her collarbone. She shuts her eyes. “I should try harder…”
“Mom, it’s not your fault that you don’t remember.”
“It isn’t?” she says this with an innocence that cuts me.
“Well, for one, you have dementia so your brain is like a bucket with holes in it. Things just fall out of it and there’s nothing you can do about that. And two--I know this is going to come as a shock--you are 88.”
“I am?” Her face becomes a mask of disbelief. When asked, Mom regularly says she is in her thirties. I feel always like a teenager in her presence.
“Yes, you are.” I laugh.
“Oh my.” Her face crumples up and she shakes her head. “How did that happen?”
“It happens to the best of us, Mom.”
“I can’t remember. It is wrong that I can't remember.” Mom’s analytical mind, always sharp despite the weight of her chronic anxiety, is intact and even possibly more pronounced as she grows less burdened from memory. I am stunned as she notices and comments on the loss of her sense of history and the universe of specifics that make us who we are.
“But when I tell you things, you remember, right? Things come back. You told me about Jack the dog.” I switch tactics. “You know, Mom, some people practice letting go of the past and the future. They work hard to be in the moment they are having right now. You enjoy life as it happens, Mom, each minute. Like it’s new.”
“That’s good, I guess.” She smiles.
We start again. Mom struggles to find the name of her sister. I give it to her. “How Alice…” She struggles to find the word. She shuts her eyes and searches. I give her a word. Close enough. We jump like in a game of leapfrog. How Alice pushed her to go to … She pauses, lips trying to locate her meaning. I offer her a word. No. Another. No. “School,” she gets out.
"Yes. To Sweet Briar."
“But why?” I ask. Mom knows.
“Alice . . . she wanted . . . we had to be, to go. Father, he didn’t…he wasn’t educated. Mother wanted us girls to be educated. I don’t know why. The boy couldn’t be.”
In Mom’s head, our family tree is more like a pile of leaves than a genealogy. Alice could very well be her mother, her father could be my brother or her husband. It doesn’t matter. It matters only to keep her talking and keep her connecting words and images, however fragmentary. I keep the balloon of her memory airborne in a slow game of back and forth. I remind her about artistic Alice and her being sent home because of the war and how she came back angry at her bad luck, how Jane, smart Jane, had gone to Cornell, how at Sweet Briar the students had to do work around the campus because the employees had taken better jobs doing war work. She nods. I tell her she had waited tables. I tell her she had been happy there.
“Yes. I don’t know why. The words make me happy for some reason.”
What can I say to that? I am adrift with descriptions to hold the fatness of this moment. I say how sweet it is that the words bring her a feeling, that words keep the happy times afloat in her mind, that they return a piece of herself to herself for a few minutes. I don't say how this new memory, the one happening right here and now, is settling into my body as a pleasure I hope never to forget. It matters to me that I can be with her in this moment, as she is now, and so I keep handing back to her the things that she has lost.