My mother is going away. I spoke to her last evening, and she was so happy to hear from me. She asked about the children, and my granddaughter. We shared funny stories and memories. But she didn’t remember that my husband has been sick for the last six months, and I’m not sure she actually remembers that my daughter is marrying in September.
She has dementia, and she knows it, which makes things much easier. We can talk about it, and there are no embarrassing moments where she tries to justify her loss of memory. Of course, I try to tailor my conversational patterns so that I remind her of what I am about to talk about before I actually begin talking about it, saying,” Mom, you remember that Emily is getting married this fall”, and then of course she does and we can go on. She frequently eludes to her “mind going”, and doesn’t seem to be too distressed about it. Her husband helps, with his cheerful patter and constant busy-ness. He cooks, he gardens, he emails, he yells at the TV when his favorite basketball team is losing-it all is very congenial, and they love each other very much.
When she married him, it changed things forever. She became a part of his family in a very real way, and we lost her in a very real way. Her conversation centers around his children and grandchildren now, probably because that is what he talks about so that is what she remembers. They spend more time with his family than with ours. His son refashioned his wood shop into a beautiful apartment for them, and they are delighted with it. They have essentially abandoned the apartment she lived in for those long years of widowhood that is attached to MY brother’s house.
They have known each other for many years, as they were friends when my father and Chuck’s wives were alive. In fact, he has buried three wives who all died from long illnesses. He likes being married. I think she observed his marriages at close range for a long time and they appealed to her. He is an easier man in many ways than my father was. We all are so happy for her, to have a companion and friend again after twenty years of being alone. But we have lost her. And it hurts, as much as we try to not take it personally.
After I got off the phone with her, both of us saying “I love you” and both of us truly happy to have connected, I try to analyze what feels so awful about it all. And this is what I come to: I am not particularly proud of this, but it is what is true.
I am grieving because I will never again be able to hope that I will be important to my mother in a way that matters to me. That part of my life is over. She cannot really focus on me or my family or my accomplishments, the poetry of my life. She is sitting in a small enclosed nest of her own making and she is happy there. I feel a lot like white noise. I want her to be proud of me, of my kids, of what I am doing with my life. But it isn’t even real to her. it is fuzzy and out of focus and will surely remain that way, or more so, until she dies.
I want her to admire me. I want her to feel about me the way I feel about my children-how I continually marvel at what they are becoming and doing. I want her to delight in them the way I do. I want her to want to talk to them, to see them. But somewhere along the line she let that go. In reality, I am not sure she ever felt those things. Which of course is her privilege and her choice. But it created an itch in me that I wanted scratched. And now it will never be.
I don’t think we ever get over that first relationship, the one that continues on some level to matter the most, the one with our parents. Even if we are loved to distraction, there are hurts and disappointments that seem to nag endlessly at our sense of ourselves, our self-esteem, our identity. Our parents tell us who we are and we spend the rest of our lives agreeing or disagreeing, trying to prove them wrong, despairing when we see the truth in their estimations. Even when they think highly of us, we are haunted by that golden calf into endless performance orientation, perfectionism, and a continual sense of falling short. We feel like they are in on the secret-the one that says who we REALLY are, the one that is so shameful at times.
Many things that I have done in my life have been direct attempts to please them, impress them, or fulfill their worst beliefs about me. It feels kind of ridiculous when I am almost sixty, but I think that it is a fact of existence, and if you think it isn’t true of you, guess again. They made you and they formed your life for many years. How can you think that hasn’t affected you irrevocably? And for better or for worse, we do the same to our children. We can only hope that we are close to the truth and can tell it with love and gentleness. Because they are always listening, always measuring, always ready to defend.
All this goes through my mind as I think about my mother, who is fading away in the gentlest possible way. She is not in pain, she still enjoys every day, she is the happiest she has probably ever been. But she is happy without me. I think in a deep sense, this weather change in her life has allowed her to let go of all the ways in which she felt like she failed or fell short. She has found another life, a new one, a peaceful one. And I can’t really blame her for losing herself in it in a haze of pleasant forgetfulness. Lord knows, we had some hard times that I would just as soon forget as well.
But this is what I remember: walking home from school when I was six and in first grade, when I was still new, untouched and innocent, and seeing my mother waiting for me at the back door in a light blue shirtwaist dress and her black hair in a french twist on her head. Her smile is broad and warm. She has on red lipstick and she is very beautiful. She is everything I want, everything I need, and she is waiting just for me.