Thursday, October 17, 2013
chapter eight | on the eve of seeing my mother, who is no longer there.
“Oh look,” said my mother in a sing song voice, pointing wistfully ahead, “it’s the man in the moon. We haven’t seen him in a while, but there he is. He’s so bright tonight, but that’s him.”
We were driving down the street I grew up on and the sun was large and orange and just beginning its trek down toward the horizon. We slowed to a stop at a red light and were squinting in the brightness, and while I have grown used to odd exclamations from my mother, this one struck me as something different, as a magical clue to the dwindling world inside her head.
I turned over her words, puzzling over them and looking at the sun and trying to see what she saw. What a beautiful world, I thought, where the moon is the man in the moon and tonight the moon just happens to be enormous and orange and blindingly bright, and the night sky behind him glows, streaked with pinks and yellows and the occasional dab of blue.
What a majestic world wherein such a thing as that is so exceedingly normal that one might say simply, Oh, there’s the man in the moon. My, isn’t he bright tonight?
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia about two years ago. It was in the early stages then, and manifested mostly in a confusion about numbers and the internet and entirely irrational mood swings and paranoia. To my sister and I, she merely seemed more unpleasant than usual. Our mother had always been a generally crazy person and prone to irrationality, so when the symptoms first began, they didn’t seem that out of character. She had always been the kind of person who might threaten to smash a jar of tomato sauce over your head or who might tear out her own hair or who might tell you that you belonged in bedlam and that she was going to kill herself when you were just a little girl.
My mother might have been someone who would do all of these things to you and around you and in front of you, and then much more and much worse, but she was also an exceedingly brilliant woman with a mind comprised of miraculous connections and an understanding of relationships that few historians have. She was highly lauded and extremely well known in her field and students still study -- and will likely continue to study long after she is gone -- her texts and translations. When the symptoms of Alzheimer’s first began, the most obvious sign of them was that she was no longer able to hide the more damaged parts of herself from her friends and colleagues; that she was no longer able to direct them only at her family and only in private. And so when her friends first began to tell my sister and I that something about our mother was “off,” our initial response was, “Well, yeah.”
This woman looks like my mother. She sounds like my mother. She smells like my mother. There is that visceral feeling when I hug her, that I am hugging the woman I came from, the woman of whom I am a piece, a rib. But each time she opens her mouth, I find that she is just an echo.
The thing is, none of my mother’s ‘defects’ ever made me love her any less. I loved -- and love -- her fiercely, and while she was often not the best mother, and while she damaged me and hurt me and cost me lots and lots (and lots) of money in therapy bills, I always knew that she loved me into oblivion -- into an insane place where only mothers and children are able to exist -- and the two of us, both easily dramatic and equally troubled, were tangled in a heated codependency for just about as long as I can remember. I could count on my mother to say terrible things and I could count on her to love me ferociously, and when that is what you’ve grown up with and the way you’ve always been loved, those things are one and the same.
My sister and I have counted on our fingers the ways in which our mother is kinder now, more appreciative, more gentle. In many ways the Alzheimer’s has made her a better person.
One morning I was making breakfast for her in her kitchen (my mother can no longer cook or figure out how to pair or prepare ingredients) and I remembered that neither of us had taken our medications yet that day. I said, “We’ll take them together.” When she asked me why I took medication, my eyebrows drew together and I felt a pang in my heart. “Because I’m bipolar,” I told her uncertainly. “You are?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, so puzzled that this was something she could forget. “You don’t seem like someone who’s bipolar,” she said. I laid out all six of her morning pills in a row beside a glass of water and said wryly, “That’s funny. You used to tell me all the time that I was crazy.” “I did?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “all the time.” She paused, the look on her face like something you might see from a gentle bird that has just flown into a window and is dazed. “Well, I guess I wasn’t a very good mother,” she said, and softly laughed.
Tears rose in my eyes. “Oh yes you were,” I said hugging her to me so that she could not see my tears. “You were an amazing mother.” It was half lie and half truth, but it didn’t matter either way. That something as awful as Alzheimer’s could give my mother’s mind enough empty space that she could see herself from outside of herself, for the first time ever in her life, was touching. And it was sad. And even then an enormous, aching part of me wanted my real mother who was so often cruel to me, but was my mother. Was wholly and truly and utterly my mother. And this woman, while kinder and more gentle, is barely even her.
I can see the Alzheimer’s progressing. My mother forgets words more and more frequently. Words like “ring” and “grapes” and “cats” (she has taken to referring to my cats as “those big things at Becky’s apartment,” which she pairs with a hand gesture that is more suggestive of spider legs or jelly fish than of anything related to a cat.) She can barely read at all, and doesn’t remember anything she’s read almost immediately after she has read it, but she does like to sit with a book from time to time. She likes to feel the pages in her hands and she still reads the newspaper every day, albeit all day long because each time it is new. She still has a vague but passionate sense of the news and politics and loves discussing them; little makes her happier than talking about how awful the Republicans or George Zimmerman are. There is a part of her still attached to the academic side of herself, although she is not aware of it. But she has not even opened the door to her office -- the door that leads to walls covered in shelves holding book after book after book, including some of her own, and folders haphazardly splayed across the room full of documents and notes scribbled in foreign languages -- in at least a year. Every time I visit her and walk down that hall, I see that door so poignantly, so utterly closed. That part of her mind is simply gone.
One night my mother fell down the stairs and I ran to her. I held her like a mother holds a child and asked again and again if she was okay; I clutched her to me and rocked her. I felt completely responsible for her and more protective of her than I have ever felt of anyone; just the very idea of her being in pain cut through me like a knife. I would do anything to make it better. I would do anything to make my mother better. I would even give her up as my mother if it meant she would be living her life as herself, even if it was without me, even if it was somewhere where I could not see her. I would do anything.
I try to appreciate her for who she is now, to appreciate the gentleness and the unabridged and uncomplicated love she has to offer, but knowing and feeling that I’ve lost her, there are times when I believe I would prefer that she hurl all of that past abuse at me all at once if it meant having her back with me now. If it meant that she would have her brilliant, glorious mind back and that I could look at her again and know that nobody, nobody on this earth knows me better than this woman, that this is the one person who can take all the screaming fights that we can readily invoke -- and therefore see the absolute worst that my person has to offer -- and will still love me and love me ferociously.
I am accustomed now to having a mother with Alzheimer’s. I am accustomed to not having a mother on whom I can depend, in whom I may confide, with whom I may simply converse. And when I think of how accustomed I am, my heart breaks all over again. It is a constant ebb and flow, a constant healing and breaking again like the ocean.
I feel so much wiser and I feel so much sadder. And it’s lonely.