I called my mother on Sunday afternoon – Mother’s Day. The phone rang a few times and her answering machine picked up. Just as the familiar recording began, I heard Mom’s voice faintly say hello. I knew then that I had awakened her from a nap. I waited for the recording to end, for the beep of the machine to subside, and then I spoke to her. She was confused for a minute as she tried to clear her mind. Being roused from sleep always causes her to be very confused. I told her who I was and that I just wanted to call her on her special day – Mother’s Day. She was pleased, and as always, her ingrained politeness kicked in as she thanked me for calling. It was almost as if she was talking to a casual acquaintance and not her daughter.
When I asked how she was doing, Mom told me that she had been in bed for awhile and that she really didn’t know why. As we talked and her mind cleared, she was still very uncertain about herself. Each time I talk to her, I can read between the lines and I know that she is failing mentally. Actually, I don’t even have to read between the lines. Her end of our conversations are most often very vague and this vagueness speaks so clearly of just how unclear she now is mentally.
We didn’t talk very long on Sunday. Once the answering machine went off, she couldn’t understand me. We said goodbye and hung up. I called Jan then, and she told me that Mom was suffering from a bout of her severe colitis. Bob and Jan, and John and Jeanie, take care of Mom as she lives in the beautiful assisted living center that she has called home for nearly two years. They know all too well how her mental state is changing. One of the saddest things that Jan told me was when Mom opened her Mother’s Day card from John and Jeanie, and she asked who John and Jeanie are. It’s not the first time that she has shown that level of forgetfulness, but it’s always alarming to see.
When I call Mom and tell her my name, I’m not so sure that she always knows that this Patty is her daughter. Her realization seems to come and go as we talk. She never asks about our children by name but will instead ask me how the family is doing. She is always pleased when I give her a report on Gary and each of our children. Mom has that social politeness that is a part of her fabric, so she exhibits happiness as she hears about Aaron, Andrea, and Andrew. But does she even know that these are her grandchildren? And this polite conversation lacks the depth of familial closeness that we always shared. Something is missing.
What’s missing is………Mom. Her very being has slowly been drifting away as the effects of her dementia increase. She is living and breathing and talking, but MOM is fading away. We still have her with us, and yet we don’t. It’s a different sort of death. We watched Dad fight cancer for eight years……….eight mostly good years. He kept his mind all through this time. His kindness……his wit……..his dear humor and sweetness and awareness never left him. We could still share life with him, hard as it was, even as his own life was slipping away.
But with my dear mother, there is very little sharing now. There is surface talk and politeness, but the soul and the connections are mostly gone……..from her side. For us – her children and grandchildren – we are always connected to her in ways that she probably no longer feels. We must accept, though, that the motherly affirmation and expression that even as adults we still long for……..are for the most part gone.
So many times I have found myself thinking that I would call Mom and ask her for some advice……….ask her how she made a certain dish……..ask her for a bit of family history that I wonder about. But then I know that most or all of this part of her is gone. Forever gone. This is a sobering realization. My totally competent, amazingly organized and gifted mother, is now the one who needs Jan or Jeanie to organize and manage her daily life.
She no longer looks at her calendar and knows that March 20 is her anniversary or that May 2 was Dad’s birthday or that September 14 is her own birthday. This past Christmas, Jan wrote a note that was taped on each of Mom’s presents under her tree. The note simply said, “Do Not Open.” Yet shortly before Christmas day, Bob and Jan walked in to Mom’s apartment and found that she had opened every single present……….and was ready to put the tree away. We smile as we see in that episode a side of our organized mother that is still there. Let’s get the show on the road and then clean up the mess!
Mom’s wit and her love of jokes and puns is almost legendary. Yet now, at least when I talk to her, she seems rather flat. Conversation lags between us because she has trouble with making important connections. It’s hard to find something to talk about when she can’t even remember what that thing is that her cat, Princess, sits in front of………and I gently remind her that it is a window. “Oh yes!” she says. “The window!” And I am struck with just how deeply she is affected……….and how deeply then we all are affected by this fading of her mind and memory.
I love this picture of her, though, still working at The Hunger Challenge at Johnston Chapel. Still serving and smiling and enjoying being able to help. That part of our mother is still there, as is her kindness and her concern for others. This exemplifies my mother to her core, and I’m thankful that she can still physically do these things, though somewhat limited.
This gradual letting go…….this sitting on the sidelines of her life and watching her gradually slip away……..is heartbreaking for all of us. There is really nothing we can do but be there for her, as Bob and Jan, and John and Jeanie, are every day. We can tell her about our families, even as we sense that she’s not sure exactly who we are talking about.
And we can, and do, tell her how much we love her. Someday even those words won’t really reach her. But we reach into our hearts and into our memories, and we recognize her value to each of us in so many different ways. Our love for her is not based on her memory or lack thereof.
I also realize how important it is that I say to my children the words that I want them to hear from me. Someday I may not be able to say them, even though I may still be here physically. Words of encouragement, instruction, family history, and love………words I hope they store away in their hearts forever.
Our sweet little mommy is fading away, but her example and influence is as strong as ever. In fact, her impact in our lives is eternal and we are all so thankful for that fact…..and for her.
We can smile through our tears and be thankful for all that she was…….and still is today.