These days, when I think about my mother, it’s less about a life lesson she taught me (salt water cures every ill), the angriest she’d ever been at me (hand to god, that neighbor kid deserved to be locked in our garden shed), or the time I made her laugh so hard, she had to pull the car over (the wholly original “Oh, Wiener Dog!” is still one of my all-time favorite Christmas carols). I don’t think about the memories we share, but about the memories we’re losing, every day. My mom has Alzheimer’s disease, and from the cowardly safe distance of 2600 miles away, I’m watching and listening as she slowly loses her grip on both her present and our past.
You’re probably imagining some heart-rending sickbed scene where the parent no longer recognizes her child. Where, instead of a glimmer of love and recognition, the husband meets with only a glassy stare from his spouse. Where two friends who once shared everything can no longer share even their names. But all that comes later. What happens first is entirely different.
If I’m honest, it’s less tragic than it is absurd and infuriating.
Today, one of my mom’s caregivers told me mom was delighted with the Mother’s Day flowers I sent her. I’m sure she was, in the moment. By the time I called her, that moment had completely evaporated — along with the last three times she walked the dog, the last seven times she checked to make sure her purse was on the chair in the dining room, the last ten times she went up the stairs for reasons she couldn’t recall by the time she reached the top step. That’s what this disease does: It forces you to live the rest of your life in a series of moments. Most are immediately forgotten, only to be relived at regular intervals throughout the day. To me, it’s like watching the same 30-minute television episode for 24 straight hours. The same situations, the same lines, the same minor epiphanies, repeated over and over. To my mother, it’s just another day. Unique in its relentless sameness.
Perhaps that part’s a blessing. Not remembering all the things you have forgotten. But then there are the times when my mother shows she knows exactly what is happening — and what is happening to her. Like when she makes a campy quip about something I’ve said. Or when she apologizes angrily, sarcastically, bitterly about “being so stupid and embarrassing to you.” Eerily reverse-mimicking the exact tone and content of every argument I ever had with her between the ages of 12 and 17. If she stormed upstairs, locked her door, and threw on a Smiths record, I would be only mildly surprised.
Those are the times when I see how much like me she is. When the Alzheimer’s is looking the other way and she cracks open this shell she’s been trapped in and out pops something so funny or frustrating that I hear me in her. Not the other way around. It’s not about my being influenced by her when these things happen. It’s not about chronology, because that word loses its meaning when you lose your sense of time. It’s a circle. I am her. She is me. We are the same person, repeated, different because of our improvisations, but always reading from the same script.
Of course, this is also terrifying. Not merely for the hundreds of reasons every woman fears — secretly or no — that she will become exactly like her mother. Because there is a good chance I have inherited not only her occasionally too-biting wit and bookworm-earned intelligence, but also the affliction that is robbing her of both. Because when I hear myself say something and think “guh, that sounds exactly like my mother,” I realize that it doesn’t. Not really. Not anymore.
So when I visit her in my childhood home in Pennsylvania, or when I talk to her on the phone, I listen for the ever-more infrequent clues that reveal the person she once was. Mostly, our conversations aren’t conversations at all. She repeats snippets of phrases she’s used all her life, sticky bits of language that have somehow held fast, strung together in her customary cadence, but largely without context.
“Oh, we’re just…lunchtime and ‘root, hog, or die’…but it’s so beastly gray out…we’ll just putter around…so many people today…I mean, it’s no problem…that’s just fine….we’re hanging in there…I’m so glad you called.”
Even still, I understand what she means. And that’s just fine. It’s no problem. We’re hanging in there.