Thursday, February 18, 2010

The first memory of love

Next week, I am going to visit my parents. It's been since August-- it's overdue. Though, considering the fact that I was there for three weeks in August, I think things will even out.

The main trouble is that my mother probably doesn't remember much about that visit. What she does remember may be unpleasant: That was the visit that ended her driving. Getting her to stop driving was one of my prime objectives during that visit, apart from keeping my dad alive after his triple bypass surgery. And by "my" I should actually say "Our." My brother was also in Utah for three weeks, though we were only there for about ten days of it together. That was enough for us to talk about our mutual goals for improving our parents' quality of life. We spent tons of time shopping, cooking, cleaning, and then doing quiet research on the basement phone and computer. We identified home aid options, alternative transportation options, and began, quietly, to investigate nursing homes.

The driving is the only goal we really accomplished for that visit, but it was a huge thing. My mother didn't want to speak to me for months. I know that it permanently changed her life, made her dependent in ways she hasn't been since she was a child. I also believe that it saved lives-- potentially even hers.

On Valentine's Day, we went out for brunch with our friends Jamie, Karen, and Nancy. We spent most of our time talking about aging: Both our own ridiculous aches, pains, insomnia, the dark circles under our eyes, our heavy dependence on caffeine, and also on the joys (are there any?) and trials (there are many) of caring for aging parents. That came out worse than I intended it to. I love my parents. And I still have a solid, quality relationship with my father. We speak and email often.

Sometimes, I have a coherent conversation with my mother. The number of pain medications she is on for her severe, chronic pain (spinal stenosis; rheumatoid arthritis; two replaced knees) has been reduced. This has helped with coherency (somewhat), but also radically increased her complaints about her pain-- which were already... how do I put this?... Intolerable.

I am a patient person. But not with her. I know intellectually-- have known for more than three years, actually-- that my mother is not there any more. When my grandmother died and I spent a week with my parents, it became increasingly clear that I couldn't find my mother in there anywhere. I don't have a time of death or a death certificate, so I kind of assign my grandmother's death date to my mother's. Even though, it became clear at the funeral that my grandmother had already known my mother was gone. I went through a period of deep grieving for her that Fall.

I am still sad. I miss her. I've come closer to acceptance now, though. It's very difficult to have someone with dementia and its accompanying personality changes living in the body and using the voice of someone you love so much. It's confusing, insulting, and infuriating. I feel that it fundamentally disrespects my mother and who she was. She isn't really aware of it enough now to know how much she has changed. But when she was in that horrible, liminal state of knowing but not knowing, of fearing-- just like you cannot explain the experience of being a parent to someone who has not had it, I am not sure that you can explain the horror of this to someone who has not experienced it. And frankly? Why would you want to?

I have enough amusing anecdotes to fill an entire blog. Believe me, gallows humor is saving us all right now. But out of respect for both my parents, I will not post them. My brother and I, though, got a bottle of Red Stag last August and kept it in the pantry. And when our mother would do certain things, we would run in and take a drink. Our own, maudlin little drinking game. It helped.

I am not sure that posting the details would help anyone anyway. And I don't think strangers should laugh at my parents' expense. However, I think it is perfectly acceptable for my brother, father, and I to do it. I am sure the details are both the same and different for everyone else. If you are experiencing it yourself, you know the details. If you are not, again, why would you want to?

I admit that I try to compartmentalize. I try to be there for my dad, but I don't call as often as I should. I am both looking forward to and dreading this trip. It will be brief. And then there will be another. And another.

Since I have been thinking about it, though, I will post this poem I wrote about ten years ago, before my mother was "gone."

The First Memory of Love

My mother is a worried voice on the phone. I miss you, she tells me, instead of How are you?

I miss you too, I tell her because there are things I will not tell her.

My parents have come to visit after eighteen months of worrying and missing. There are grandchildren to see.

I tell my parents one secret each.

I tell my father that I have left the Church, it is official, in writing. This is a truth he will accept and admire.

My mother and I sit under the oak in green chairs while I tell her I smoke three cigarettes a day. One for each child I have carried.

I have resisted telling her this.

My mother lives in Utah with the Mormons, she is
Mormon and it hurts her that I am not Mormon too, although I have not told her.

The smoking is close enough.

She would rather be hurt by knowing I smoke than hurt by not knowing it, and as we sit in the Missouri summer wind, she can see that the smoking has not yet hurt me.

I bend over her in the kitchen at night and smell her hair, her clothes, her skin. Lanolin,  Clinique, Aquanet. How can one person smell the same for thirty years?

Her smell is my first memory of love.

Standing there in the kitchen, I circle her tighter and tighter, surprised by the strength and suddenness of grief. I miss you, I tel her, though she is in my arms and I am safe.

I miss you, I tell her again and again, and by now I cannot stop
the crying. She is in my arms and I cannot let her go.

It was so much easier not to miss her when she was gone. 


  1. I know this pain. I lived it for 7 years as I watched and cared for my Father-in-law as he slipped away. WHile he passed away in July of this past year, he really left us years ago, living in the memories of his past..the ones that were easiest for his captured mind mind to access.

    You are right, it is not something that you can explain to someone who has not gone through it...but know that from someone who has...I understand.

  2. Oh, wonderful post.

    I hear you.

    My grandmother lived with us for two years, as she was obviously transitioning from functional grandmother to dementia patient. She lived with us while I was in junior high.

    I didn't realize what impact this had on me until I was doing therapy a few years ago. It had totally changed my worldview.

    It's huge. It takes a human being whom you know and love and turns them into a clinical case. It's very hard. And I'm sorry you're going through it.