For the love of mom
My mother was once a woman who would invite you to dinner and then spend an entire day cooking an elaborate meal in your honor. And, if you arrived late, she would say to you, “I’m glad you didn’t come any earlier, because I’ve been running behind all day and I wouldn’t have been ready for you,” even though it wasn’t true; even though she was a woman who deplored tardiness and was always ahead of schedule. If, at this meal, you praised her cooking, she would say, “Oh, this dish is really easy to prepare,” even if it wasn’t. And then she would offer to teach you how to make it yourself.
And, if you invited my mother to your home for dinner and you made something from a box mix or served something store bought, my mother would praise you for being smart enough to take shortcuts. If you burned the meal, Mom would tell you a story about the time she forgot to bake the pie crust or the time she set fire to an entire Thanksgiving dinner, even though, of course, she had never so much as scorched a slice of toast.
She was a woman who photographed every moment of her children’s lives – first day home from the hospital, first tooth lost, first day of school, recitals, graduations, weddings, and everyone’s birthdays well into middle age – and arranged the photographs in crumbling albums that sent the message, “Here is who you were. Remember this person. Remember me. I loved you.”
Today, my mother is baffled by the toaster, and likely to start crying at the thought of having to use it or to find a place to store it. She is, at 87 years old, a woman who takes 13 pills each day, most of them designed to offset the Alzheimer’s disease that has been overtaking her life – as well as my father’s life and my own – these past five years. Afraid of most of her appliances, confounded by the stove, she sits now in the kitchen where she cooked all those amazing meals reading, and re-reading, the diaries she kept as a young girl.
Watching my mother disappear has been frightening, sad and profoundly enlightening. I’ve learned life lessons I would rather have skipped over entirely. I’ve set aside the life I called my own and taken on one I don’t recognize at all, even as I’ve been living it these past five years. I’ve done so sometimes grudgingly, often with deep regret.
But I’ve done it knowing that I have no choice. My mother is a tree falling in an unfortunate forest, and I want – I need – to be there to hear her crashing to the ground. I know that she would want, as she goes about the business of forgetting herself, to be helped by someone who remembers when she forgot to bake that pie crust. Someone who can say, “I know who you were. I know who you are. I remember.”
When I was a boy, my mother frowned on my prevarications. I’d come home from school and she’d ask, “How was your day?,” and I’d answer, “Lousy. Pirates broke into our classroom and kidnapped Mrs. Neal. They forced us all to wear eye patches and eat sauerkraut. Plus, they smelled really bad.” Making up stories was more fun than reciting the usual list of math lessons and spelling tests. My mother would roll her eyes and say to me, “Do you ever tell me the truth?”
Not anymore, I don’t. Forty-five years later, telling Mom the truth usually leads to tears. Her Alzheimer’s makes it difficult for her to understand a lot of what’s happening around her. Any mention of doctor appointments confuses and upsets her, since she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong with her. Following a lifesaving colon-cancer surgery four years ago, she asked me repeatedly why she was wearing a wig – a fact she’d rediscover over and over each day. I’d tell her, “Because they’re so fashionable!” She had no memory of the chemotherapy that made her bald, or of the cancer that made the chemo necessary.
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