“I wish you could meet Julie. You’d really like her.”
My mom says this to me while I drive her for an outing to watch my grand daughter, her great grand daughter, go swimming.
I reply, “I bet I would like her.”
I briefly wonder if the Julie I know would be the same person she does. I conclude it’s not likely. My mother was never realistic about me. Her subjectivity was a handrail when it felt like life wanted to push me down its steps.
Mom has dementia. She is aware of me but sometimes forgets I am her daughter. It doesn’t matter because whoever I am to her, she loves me.
She is 83 years old and has beautiful white hair and the same strong jaw she always had. She walks like a woman on a mission. Her mission now is mostly wandering around the large yard outside her home with her dog. She stops and looks up frequently and I suspect she is talking to whoever she imagines is up there, but I don’t know. If I ask her she cannot remember stopping or looking up.
Mom has lost most of her memories, her sense of self and her husband who died a few years ago. Her brothers and sisters are gone now too.
She does not care about her purses or jewelry or how the days go by. If I showed her the files of her clients whom she loved and nurtured as a social worker, she would not recognize her own signature.
So what is left when we’ve lost everything?
What happens when your once brilliant mind tells you to hide Coca Cola cans in book shelves or car keys or pieces of chocolate? Where is your soul under all that loss which tells you so little about your life?
In the case of my mom, she tells me in her own words: there is love.
Late one night unable to sleep, I came down the stairs I have descended for more than fifty years. I wanted to see my mom, maybe just to hear her voice in case I might never hear it again. When someone you love is dying a slow death it’s a kind of torture. Every word they speak may be the last one–so you hold on.
She was sitting alone in the living room and she reached out her hand to me. I sat beside her on the sofa and she said this, “I don’t know why it is true but we are deeply loved. All of us. There is nothing else but that.” She told me how “God loves us just the way we are and all we have to do is give that away to other people. To help if we can and to love–always.”
Then she smiled and kissed me on the lips. “Well, that’s all I know.”
She knows one other thing: humor. She has always loved laughter. Once she told me she married my father for the jokes.
This humor is now her other way of rolling with dementia.
Somehow she is aware that she hides things, she is vaguely alert to the fact this comes from some misshapen part of her mind and it is odd but also funny. We find little boxes of chocolate and breakfast sandwiches in the china soup bowls. “That’s mine.” she’ll say raising her hand with a goofy smile and a comedic shrug.
We decide to go out one morning. Folks with dementia don’t like taking showers or baths or changing their clothes. Actually, all kinds of people are like this, but most certainly old people. Getting her to bathe and change clothes is like producing a play. There must be a story line or she won’t do it.
The story line on this day was going out for frozen yogurt. She will do about anything for a good bite of sugar.
We pile into the bathroom where I run a bath and my grand daughter lays out clothes for her. She looks nervous. “I’ve got this.” Her voice trails off and then she quickly reaches into the waistband of her pants and pulls out a banana. She widens her eyes, leans her face forward and flashes a crooked smile so comedic my grand daughter, mother and I begin howling with laughter. Why does she have a banana hidden in her pants? No one knows. It is beside the point.
In life there is love and humor and those things are choices.
Mom did not pick being the lone survivor of her tribe nor did she pick dementia. But somehow when she is literally reduced down by the pressure of her own old bones through osteoporosis and no memory through the painful shrinking of her brain she remains in contact with the essence of being Mary. She has fierce humor and graceful love.
If I should find myself on that same shore one day where all of me is gone but a little body and shrinking mind- I hope that I discover I inherited her enormous soul.
She is culling life down to its core and knows what the great writers and philosophers knew even if she cannot remember their names–there is nothing more than love and laughter.