It’s rare that my sister and I get time alone together. One, or both of us, is usually preoccupied with care of my mom. But over Memorial Day weekend, I drove with my sister to visit family and see a bunch of our cousins. The trip was great ’til a traffic accident stretched our two-hour drive home to SIX hours!!!
Mother Robin’s pride and joy
When we started our return trip, the weather was gorgeous and we were both happy from sharing good times with people we love. But everything changed as the turnpike came to a stand still because a tractor trailer flipped over just ahead of us. We were only five minutes from our exit but there was no way to get off the highway. While rescue crews raced to free the truck driver, we sat wondering when we’d escape from our car.
As we waited, a vicious rainstorm settled over the highway so we couldn’t even get out to stretch. To entertain ourselves, we started playing “Questions.” One question was: What is your favorite memory of “Old Mom?” When dementia first started changing Mom’s personality, we used the term “old Mom” or “real Mom” to describe the person she was before the disease. These days, we seldom use that phrase because “old Mom” seems kind of irrelevant now. It gave me such pleasure to have the time to remember our mother as she was in the past — a dementia-family version of “Memorial Day.”
My sister shared her memories of things Mom did when we were at the beach on summer vacations. Those were interesting times spent far from our small home town. We all got to live a little larger while relaxing away from home.
I enjoyed thinking about those times — which had not made my top ten list of Mom memories. My favorite snapshots from the past focused on how my mother looked. In the sixties, she had a blonde pixie haircut and wore sparkly earrings when she went out dancing with my dad. I remember being on the couch with the babysitter and watching Mom come down the stairs. In high heels and a black mini-dress, she was ready to cha cha the night away with my father. I always thought I had the prettiest mother in town — maybe everyone sees their mom that way.
These memories made me teary, but those people I remember haven’t existed for a long time. My mirror shows crows feet that couldn’t possibly belong to the little girl on that couch. And for Mom — petite, adorable Mom! — just walking is a struggle now. She hasn’t climbed stairs in years. But oh, she was lovely in her day! Maybe we need to turn Memorial Day into our annual family Memory Day. Trading recollections isn’t just for traffic jams. It’s nourishing to cherish happy snippets of our disappearing past.
When your mother gets dementia, many aspects of life decline. There is no way to swim around the waves of pain churned up by the disease. But now and then, dementia reveals things that are helpful, even rewarding. We’d never want to say thank you, but Mother’s Day is a good time to consider these strange gifts.
For many years, my mother had only one face. She was 100% effort and diligence. Her house was clean. Her clothes were organized. Once a week she went to the beauty parlor to get her hair done. This image of my first mom — my true mom — gazes back at me from photographs. I can see how her shoes matched her dress, how her waistline stayed slim. The pictures show how well she organized everything around her to keep life running smoothly — not just for her, but for our whole family.
My personality is not like hers, and I never felt that I could measure up to her high standards of efficiency. It was impossible for me to see the other qualities she kept from public view. Mom was so quick and effective, it was hard to believe there might be something vulnerable in there.
Dementia has erased most of my original mother and put a new one in her place. It’s not a gift you’d ever ask for, but I try hard to accept the changing face of Mom. She is still a good mother. But good in a way that requires patience to understand. She can’t express herself or take care of herself. But she retains some essence of pure love that resists the cruelty of the disease. This feature of new Mom is gentle in a way my first mother couldn’t always be. She is defenseless in a way true Mom would have hated. New Mom is generous — but this part of her is consistent. Old Mom was always generous. She worked very hard to make sure we had what we needed. In fact, she often indulged us.
I hate the fact that we can’t have a Mother’s Day celebration in the old style. We used to take her to a high-end restaurant and Mom would wear one of the silk scarves that are now piled in my closet. We laughed through so many Mother’s Day meals, relishing our freedom to be happy and the delight we took in each other’s company. I do miss that old Mom. As I write these words, I long to visit those places all over again.
But I also love this other mother, the one whose eyes remain bright despite her blindness. The one who laughs even when no one is making a joke. Sometimes I wonder how she summons the strength to get through a day. Yet I am enchanted by this mother who is now so small she seems about to splinter. This is my child mom, my baby mom, my little friend who knows my voice but not my name. I am truly grateful that she is still with us. I hope that despite your trials, all of you can find some quality that has been revealed by your mother’s transformation — something that’s still there to remind you of the treasure inside. Happy Mother’s Day.