Her eyes tear up when I come into the room although the word “daughter” holds no meaning for her anymore. When friends and relatives ask me "How’s your mother?," they are not referring to the woman I used to relate to in that role, but to a whole other person behind an invisible wall.
I give her a kiss on the cheek, and she smiles and strokes my hand. Sometimes she says or does something that seems like old times but it’s really just husks of what used to be that still linger inside her.
It takes a lot of time to get her ready for her walk, into her coat and shoes. She can’t remember how to put shoes on anymore. We need the help of a carer to get her coat on: it’s difficult to get a person’s arms into sleeves when that person doesn’t understand why. Also, my mother no longer trusts anybody.
So much of her has gone, so she’s afraid of losing herself completely – she doesn’t want to sit down or stand up because she’s afraid to lose control over space the way she already has over time. She is constantly on the defensive. But I’m not giving up. I don’t want to lose our walks too. But they get shorter every time.
I have to admit that in some ways my mother was always a challenge for me, even before she got sick. We fought a lot. When I was writing my doctoral thesis, she used to send me want ads for secretarial positions so I wouldn’t get too self-important. Nowadays such things no longer matter, and I am just a person that knows deep down within herself she has emotional ties to – she just can’t remember why. And I have to accept that. Anger is not the answer, and I try not to grieve too much.
I pull open the heavy door – extra heavy as a deterrent to running away – of the premises my mother shares with eight other dementia patients, and we go outside. I gulp in the fresh air – the smell of urine is ever present inside. What will it be like when we can’t go on walks anymore? What will we do when I visit? She doesn’t talk anymore. She seems to enjoy being read to but when we leaf through old photo albums I sometimes feel as if I’m trying to prove to her that there was a past.
"Who’s that you’re with?" I remember her doctor asking her once when she saw us together, and my mother had looked at me, smiled, opened her mouth and then shut it again, confused. "That’s right, that’s your daughter isn’t it," the doctor had filled in, and she’d nodded.
I had thought that maybe if I so totally believed she was still my mother, it would give her an anchor and she would believe it too. But then I saw from the way her eyes were darting around as if looking for something – something from the past perhaps, maybe even something that had never existed. My mother is no longer here, I thought. She has become someone else.
A woman who reminds me of my mother
Walking down the street, she particularly enjoys it when we encounter small children. I tell her about my children – her grandchildren – but she no longer remembers them. My daughter doesn’t want to come see her grandmother anymore, because the last time mom told her “Get out! I don’t know you!” But then when the child, in tears, had said “But you’re my Gran!” she had felt pity for this unknown, crying child who couldn’t find her grandma and she had stroked her head.
A fire truck drives by sirens blaring, and this angers Mom; she puts her hand up as if to ward it off. Sometimes she gets angry with me as well – she tried to hit me once when I was helping her shower. Since then I have only helped her shower infrequently; I leave it up to a carer to bathe her, not because it’s so difficult but because I remember how when she swung at me she suddenly became my mom again. I wouldn’t have tried to hit her back but I would have hated her, and I have no right to because she’s not my mother – she’s a helpless, scared woman who sometimes reminds me of my mother.
When we get to the playground, she wants to go in – she likes the kids, but she also threatens them if they get too loud, and that frightens them. So I steer her past the park. It also frightens me to see the anger come out of her, that she used to keep well-hidden maybe even from herself. All the aggressions a good mother was not supposed to have, the endless sacrifice. "You go ahead and eat, I’m not hungry," she would say and would only eat after we’d all had our fill.
We walk by her old apartment. We had put off having her in care because we didn’t want to take her out of familiar surroundings. But a month after she moved out, she stopped recognizing the old building where she and her husband lived for ten years. The loss of her husband, about ten years ago was when it all began. She was in her early sixties, and I in my late thirties. She lost the great love of her life and with him her interest in living. She withdrew into herself.
She is slowing down now, leaning more heavily on my arm. She wants to go back to the home. She seems as she often does, to be searching for something, mainly with her eyes, her hands. Fleetingly I think that as an adult I have no right to a mother, yet there’s a pinprick of sadness and also anger at the thought that there are other women who go home to visit their mother and get their favorite meal cooked, get a call and a present on their birthday … and you, you don’t even know my name.