My mother, aged 99, is sinking slowly and inexorably into a quagmire from which she cannot escape. Strangling in the tentacles of advanced vascular dementia, she has lost her hold on the world as we know it. Most of the time, now, she does not know who I am. She has lost the ability to smile. Words emerge garbled, or not at all.
I wrote this essay five years ago, fearing and foreseeing this day.
My mother navigates her days suspended in a chaos of past experiences. They blur at the edges, undefined by time and space. Every day she is less herself. She mourns the creeping losses of age. Her eyes see less well. Her ears fail her. Her fingers are gnarled and stiff from the arthritis that is slowly invading her joints. She sleeps, and awakens into a strange space that is neither today, tomorrow nor yesterday. I try to define it for her, try to find a context that will create meaning for her, that might situate her firmly into the moment her body occupies. But her voice, once so assured, trembles with doubt and pain.
Her own childhood memories blend indistinguishably with memories of my childhood, memories of my brother and sister and of my children when they were small. “I remember...” she says with certainty and her voice trails off, then resumes a memory that has jumbled the messages of the past beyond understanding.
She wanders in a maze, her every thought stunted by tall hedges. The story she is trying to tell, the point she is trying to make, all are obscured by the twists and turns her mind takes as it tries to find its way to the center of the maze where she knows that we wait patiently to greet her. More often than not, she gives up with a shrug and a laugh, or deviates abruptly into a different memory, another thought, irrelevant and unbidden, that takes her into yet another journey into the unknown, she who was always happiest with the tried and true.
We watch, listen, and wonder. Where will all this confusion lead her? Will she lose herself completely and find no way back? We wait in pain and fear, patiently sending out balls of twine to roll to her feet and lead her back into her life, into her mind, into her heart where we, her children, wait, sure of our welcome.
Conversation between us starts out valiantly enough and comes to an abrupt stop. I have come to realize how much of our interaction with those we love is dependent on question and answer, filling in the blanks of time spent apart. “What did you do today?” I ask, knowing that she may have been out for a walk with the kindly woman who is her home attendant. “Today?” she repeats in bewilderment. “Today? I can't remember. I slept a lot.” She is almost afraid of sleep, afraid that it will sweep her into the eternal sleep from which there is no awakening.
At ninety-four she still lives in her own home, surrounded by photos of people she has loved, the piano she can still play, the rich exuberance of the paintings she created, the furniture she has known for most of her life. But returning from her walk she turns to us at her door and says “Where are we? I want to go home.”
She never thought to be so old. She is half proud of her great age and half resentful. Why is she still here? she asks. I remind her of the grandchildren and great grandchildren whose presence she so enjoys. I remind her that we love her and that her presence in our lives continues to illuminate them. A flicker lights in her eyes. Almost, she is there again. Almost, she remembers.
The feeling she has not forgotten, will never forget, is love. Every night when I call to see how her day went, we move in circles around the factual elements that shape experience and that seem to matter less and less with every day that passes. As we say goodnight, every night, every small parting as she loosens her bonds with life a little more, she takes care of my future as she has always done. “I love you,” she says, her voice filled with warmth. “I am so proud of you. You are a good girl.” and we hang up, both uncertain of whether tomorrow will allow us to speak to each other again.
But my mother has wrapped my night in love, taken care of my future.
I am learning from her as I have done all my life what it means to be a mother. She is still my mother, and if the day comes when that memory too floats into the fog of age and vanishes, she makes sure every night that I will always remember her voice speaking love. I do remember, Mum, I will always remember.
And that is what sustains me as I watch her drift farther and farther away, a small ship without an anchor, leaving us behind in this world. Read More