My mother passed away on February 3, 2017. I don’t have a living mother anymore. I don’t know if that will ever feel like a normal statement. After years of progressive dementia and a year in an assisted living facility, she experienced a problem – never identified – with her gallbladder or liver which turned her skin bright orange-yellow and a month or so later she had a stroke. A few days after that she was dead. My MFA manuscript includes an essay in which I reflect on my mother’s dementia and the gradually waning importance of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The piece expresses my rage, justified or not, at the changes in our family traditions, our relationships, and the challenge of her growing dementia. From that essay:
This New Year’s eve Mom did not know who I was. During the two and a half weeks I had spent at their home that holiday season I had gotten accustomed to Mom’s memory loss but not to her worse and new inability to recognize me and her confusion about which relative was which.
My sister, my daughter, my niece and I are at times interchangeable, our ages, names and faces confused. I had become accustomed to that; rather than being shocked I focused on how to respond to her confusion.
Last year Mom and I watched a movie and then watched the ball drop in Times Square. This year she was confused about the movie and the TV and how the remote controls worked. I went ahead and turned on a film which I had seen but would enjoy seeing again. I was 52 and alone with my demented mom and it felt like the smallest bit of enjoyment I could ask for. We started the movie and her griping began.
The volume wasn’t working.
The plot was implausible.
There was too much gratuitous shooting.
We stopped the film and moved on to the Times Square ball drop. She agreed to watch it but then deemed it stupid and got more agitated and more irritable.
I suggested that she get ready for bed. We sat on the sofa for a few minutes and she said, “Listen, please don’t be offended by this question, but did my family leave you here to watch me?”
She went to her room and changed in to her nightgown. She asked me again, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and please don’t be offended, but did my family ask you to come here and watch me?”
In a crisis like the one my mother’s dementia has spread over our family, normal becomes different. A few days into my stay that winter my dad had brought me into his office almost triumphantly, so that I could see that Mom really didn’t know who I was, that it was true. It’s the kind of thing that causes both panic and pragmatism. It’s horrible, but what’s the plan?
I explained who I was and she said it was impossible that I was in my fifties and her daughter, because she was in her fifties. I gently told her that she had forgotten. It seemed like a relief to her to talk about it, not to have to cover for it.
I counted down by rote to myself – 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – although there was no one to say “Happy New Year!” to. Counting down numbers: my mother thought she was twenty years younger than she is. New Year’s eve is a celebration but also a stand against decay, destruction, the inevitable changes that time brings.
Fifty, 40, 30, 20, 10 years ago. Much is fuzzy but some things are clear from those decades.
She says she bitterly misses that stoop, where neighbors gathered to chat while the children played nearby.
I have a photo of her when she decided to go back to work and was learning to type. She sits at the dining room table over a typewriter, with a horrible seventies perm and giant glasses and a look of concentration.
She always dressed me in red shoes. She cooked tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips for dinner. We traveled to England when I was four months pregnant and hypoglycemic, disgusted with the slight bulge forming in my abdomen that made me just look fat without the classic curve of pregnancy. She drove on the left side, we visited Stonehenge, I missed my new husband and she was upset at my melancholy sense of being overweight and always being on the verge of fainting.
I look at her face and I have some understanding of what it means to have elderly parents, and for the first time wonder what it means to have dead parents.
She has framed photos in her hallway of her grandmother, my great-grandmother. I see our faces in her. A certain curve of the cheekbone that we share.
The morning my father brought me before her to prove she didn’t know who I was, after a few minutes she said she could see that I was her daughter by the curves of my face.
She put her hands to the sides of her own face and stroked them to show where she saw the resemblance, where the clue was to her recognizing me as her daughter. That face and then my grandmother’s and then my mother’s.