I remember one of my uncles talking not very long ago about a relative who visited his mother every day in a nursing home when her memory began to fail and how the first time this relative walked into the room and his mother didn’t know who he was he visited for a while and then sat in his car and cried for an even longer while.
I visited my mother in Florida at the end of last week, prior to going to another part of the state for a family memorial service for my aunt’s husband. Mom knew I was coming and in truth we spoke the day before I flew out to see her as to what time I’d be arriving in the state and what time I’d likely be over to see her, and she wrote it down as we spoke. My flight was on time and I arrived even a few minutes ahead of schedule thanks to a favorable tail wind.
The nearby airport I’d landed at was uncrowded – my rental car had been obtained smoothly enough – and I was on the road very quickly. I wound up at Mom’s assisted living within the half hour window I’d given her, parked outside and went to her door, opening it (she likes it partially closed when she’s inside and fully closed when she leaves) and walking in to find her on her bed rather than in her recliner near the window as is the norm for when I visit.
She looked up at me – blankly, as if she was expecting me to announce that it was dinner-time, or medication-time, or there was an activity going on somewhere in the unit she lives in. She looked up at me as if I was a stranger. It only lasted for a few seconds before she smiled and said, ‘Hi Honey’, but I know that in those few seconds she was not aware of who I was.
We went to dinner that first night, where Mom relied on ‘my good judgment’ to help her order. In truth I think menus with a lot to offer are somewhat overwhelming for her these days. Nonetheless, I tend to know what she likes to eat, ordered it for her, and I even coerced our waitress to bring Mom’s dessert with a candle in it, even though her birthday isn’t until the 3rd of next month, whereas I won’t be able to celebrate it with her in person. She’ll be 85.
The conversation was light and happy – the dinner enjoyable enough. I held her hand – she held my hand – we talked, we laughed, we smiled – enjoying the kind of intimacy that only a parent and child can share – if they are fortunate – a kind that a child who is watching their parent become, in many ways, a child again learns to enjoy and savor. Mom is getting beyond the capacity to have serious, in-depth discussions all that much. She has her aches, her pains, her confusion – these things dominate her day to day conversation now. I do all I can to simply make her laugh through it as best I can. I listen, even when I’ve heard it all before. In her mind, she’s never said it. I nod in agreement when she gets things completely wrong. In her mind, she’s right. I say ‘I’m so happy to see you’ instead of ‘I’m so heartbroken to see this happening to you’. They’re both true. Only one is helpful – to either of us.
The next day, before I had to leave her and make my way to where the memorial service was, I took Mom to lunch. We went to an outdoor venue, at the edge of a river. Mom looked out over the water as we waited for our order, a wistful smile flirting with her lips, and then looked over at me seated next to her. She reached up onto the table and put her hand on top of mine and a full smile emerged.
‘How do you always pick such perfect places to take me?’
‘I imagine what will make you smile just like this – and then that’s what I choose.’
I ventured inside the small ‘gift shop’ the restaurant has, looking for a t-shirt with the venue logo for both the boys, an easily transported gift from my trip. The gentleman who waited on me asked if I was from Florida or visiting. I answered, said where I was from, and he smiled saying, ‘I’m from New Hampshire originally’. He asked what had brought me to Florida, I pointed outside to my table and said, ‘Visiting with my mother, she’s in assisted living down here, doesn’t get out a lot.’
‘Dementia?’ he asked, assuming a familiarity that, per the look of caring on his face I didn’t see as an intrusion.
‘Yes.’ I replied.
‘Never easy.’ He said. ‘Especially when they forget who you are.’
‘I’m sure. But that’s okay. I remember who she is. My mother. She deserves to get out and smile.’
As we sat in Mom’s room, prior to my departure, she admitted to me that she hadn’t known, at first, who I was when I had walked through the door. That it had taken her a few seconds. I smiled, choked back my sadness, and said, ‘It must be the goatee – I didn’t have it the last time I was here.’ She nodded in agreement, but said nothing. I think we both knew I was full of shit. I don’t think either of us cared to admit it.
I fear that my visits with Mom will continue in this vein until she truly doesn’t remember who I am any longer. I fear it more so for her because the trust she has in me and comfort she takes from seeing me will no longer be there for her. I fear that everyone will be a stranger to her eventually, and the world will become a much more frightening place for a woman who never was very adept at giving up control.
It was nearly a year ago that she said the following to me:
‘I want you to know that no matter what else I forget…I will never forget you, my son. I promise.’
I said the following in response:
‘I know Mom, but just in case that does happen….I know if some day I’m no longer here,’ (I touched her head) ‘I know I will always be here.’ (I placed my hand over her heart).
I meant it then, and mean it now. Nothing about that has changed.
The only thing different is that now it would seem I have to ‘live it’ as well.
None of this is easy. As someone said to me recently, it’s like a long, slow goodbye.
I left her with a hug, a kiss, and a promise to see her as soon as I could, and to talk to her even sooner on the phone.
I got in my rental car, set my GPS, and pulled out of the parking lot.
And as I drove away – I began to cry.