In the past six to eight weeks, Mom has been mentioning ‘all the time we didn’t see each other or have contact with each other.’ I know this is a byproduct of the dementia. In my forty-seven years of existence, I think the longest I’ve ever gone without speaking with her was a month and a half long period when I was very angry with her several years ago. Other than that – we’ve always had contact with one another – good, bad, or indifferent.
Now, for some reason, she’s convinced that most of the time I was growing up we didn’t speak with one another, or at least not very often. At times I wonder if she’s remembering that month and a half long period (that happened within the last ten years) and confusing the timeline; or if she is simply confusing me with someone else.
Either way, whenever she says, “Just think of all those years we had no contact with each other” my answer is always the same.
“At least we’re talking now.”
Most of my conversations with Mom of late (which happen virtually every day now) are made up of the same details – what she ate for her most recent meal, what book she’s reading, how she’s feeling, etc. The details of her day to day life now rarely change. Having seen this come to pass with my grandmothers and my father, I suppose in a way I’ve been prepared for it. Perhaps more prepared than she was.
The details of her past, of our past, and of the past she shares with everyone she has encountered in life, are far more ‘fluid’ for her now. Days or weeks become months, or years, that passed in between events. Moments that became memories have melted away – as if they were a story she once heard, or a movie she once watched. Details become jumbled and disconcerting and old wounds are reopened in the mind, perhaps proving that they never really healed in the first place – they just got a bandage stuck over them at the time and life continued and maybe at first you looked under the bandage to see if a scab was forming over the wound and when it didn’t you just covered it back up and convinced yourself that some day you’d attend to it – when you had time.
Whatever reason Mom has for believing that there was such a long period of time that we had no contact with one another – and as much as I might like to try to convince her that it simply didn’t happen – that no matter what differences we’ve had over time we’ve worked them out or at least put them in a place that we both could live with them and move forward – that is most likely the worst thing I could do, to ‘remind’ her that her memory is going and her mind is inventing things that didn’t happen.
Alanis Morrissette had it wrong – irony isn’t rain on your wedding day, or ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. It’s realizing that it’s kinder to let someone have a memory that might be painful to them, even an invented one, because telling them that memory is not real or incorrect is likely to be more hurtful to them in the long run.
About two months ago, Mom told me that she was feeling lonely. That she wished she had more visitors and more to do, and is feeling very separated from her family. I live 1300 miles away from her. There’s little I can do about this except what I’ve done, which is to call her more often, talk to her longer than before, listen to her tell me the same things repeatedly – listen to her lament all the years we didn’t talk, false or not, and tell me how much it means that we talk like we do now and how it’s ‘given her something to look forward to every day’.
What she doesn’t realize is that that’s exactly what I set out to do when she told me how she was feeling – to give an eighty five year old woman with mobility issues and memory issues and aches and pains galore who resides in an assisted living facility with no interest in group activities and exercise and socializing with strangers and is feeling lonely, something to look forward to each and every day that remains for her. And no matter the (imagined) separation she feels we had for years, perhaps she’ll feel better about that in the end – that it was a thing of her (imagined) past – if she even remembers it a few months from now.
Khalil Gibran said, ‘And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’ Right now the separation is imagined – it’s all a product of Mom’s impaired cognitive process. But, be that as it may, it’s real for her. It’s real, and regretful, and hurtful. And the kindest thing I can do for Mom about it is to let her have that regret and that hurt without questioning or challenging it – and let her think that it all worked out in the long run.
When the ‘hour of separation’ comes – really comes – at least Mom, hopefully, will have long since let the hurt and regret, real or imagined, go.