Mother Knows Best

MarthaAndMe
A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

On Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.

Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.

Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.

“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.

“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”

When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.

{On Minding My Mother: “Give Me Just a Minute”}

IMG_1631Last month, while visiting with my mother, 92, we danced the dance we’ve adopted since her dementia diagnosis about two years ago. We change it up as appropriate, depending on how she’s feeling and how I’m handling how she’s feeling. Some days it’s jazz like, where we make it up as we go along with a lot of zigging and zagging and very little rhythm. On other days it resembles a waltz, with smooth and deliberate steps. Always, one of us leads and the other follows. For the most part it starts out like this:

She looks at me intently for several seconds before breaking into a smile that cracks my heart a little more each time: part surprise, part gratitude, and still, thankfully, part recognition. All the while I’m smiling back at her, trying not to panic, resisting the temptation to burst forth with, “Surely you remember me, your favorite daughter!”

“Oh sweetheart,” she says, coming close to hug me. “I didn’t know you were coming.” Which is often true, as I’ve been advised by counselors to say “I’ll get back as soon as I can,” instead of “I’ll see you tomorrow,” in case my plans change and Mother is left hanging, waiting for me to drop by. (I live in Tennessee and she’s in Mississippi in a residential facility.) Just as sure as I told Mother I’d be there on a certain day, at a specific time, she’d be lucid enough to hold me accountable. And trust me when I say you don’t want that kind of guilt weighing on you, getting a call that says, “Your mother is waiting for you. She’s anxious that you’re not here when you said you’d be. And she’s all dressed up. With her purse in her lap.”

On this particular visit I could not recall the name of another resident while Mother and I were talking. I’ve known the woman forever, grew up with her children, and yet I couldn’t bring her name to my mouth.

“You know, Mother,” I said, pleading and pointing toward the hall. “The woman who lives just up the way from you. The one with the—“

“Give me just a minute,” said Mother, interrupting me and holding out her right hand in a “stop” position. “Let me think.”

She came up with the name shortly thereafter and presented it to me without fanfare. Just another mother helping her child.

On the Occasion of Mother’s 92nd Birthday

IMG_3336When my precious mother turned 80 in January 2002, my sisters and I hosted a lunch in her honor at the small church my parents had helped found in 1956. There was chicken spaghetti and cake, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. People told us how much she had meant to them over the years, shared stories about my sisters and me, and remembered my father, who died in 2000, with affection. Mother stood up and thanked them, cried a little when talking about Daddy, and made sure folks got second helpings.

This year, Mother’s birthday looked different. She’s 92 and living in a care facility, diagnosed with dementia. There was cake and and pink lemonade, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. My sisters and I didn’t know if the residents would want—or be able—to sing, but one of them started belting out “Happy Birthday” so we joined in as best we could.

Mother stood up and thanked them, smiled over at her three girls, and made sure folks got second helpings.