Most Memorable: June 2014
I never knew quite how my mom would answer the question that I’d pose to her each morning when I’d call at 6:45. It was the same question every day, a question that a daughter never imagines she’ll be asking the woman who gave birth to her.
“Hi, Sue!” my mom would sing out happily, after I’d identify myself on the phone.
“Hi, Mom! Do you know who I am?” The question might’ve seemed unnecessary, given that I’d just told her who I was. But with Mom, we just never knew.
When I was a kid, Mom used to brag that she still remembered phone numbers of clients from the days when she’d worked for a lawyer over a decade earlier. Her powerful memory had a tenacious grip on every family birthday and address, every Catholic prayer and hymn, and every baseball player and statistic.
But now, with the Alzheimer’s having wrestled from Mom the control over her memory, everything had been slowly floating away—her sense of time, events, words, and people. Even her kids, my three siblings and I. Little bits of us were floating away, out of her memory, though it felt more like she was floating away from us.
So I would ask her, once each day, if she knew who I was. I hoped that reminding her would help her to keep hold of us longer. I’d ask because it was often fascinating to hear what she’d say. And I’d ask because I thought it would help desensitize me to the fact that my mother, as she was slipping away from us, might forget who we were to her.
I wouldn’t have put the question to her if I’d believed that it caused her pain. I always told people that my mom had “Happy Alzheimer’s” rather than the tortured kind, dementia’s rough equivalent of a piña colada compared to a shot of whiskey. People with Alzheimer’s often demonstrate irritability and even aggressiveness, but nothing seemed to faze Mom. She radiated serenity. In her Alzheimer’s reality, Mom’s natural sweetness had somehow become concentrated, distilled by the process of her mind slowly destroying itself.
When we moved her into a retirement community in Napa immediately after my dad died, I often joked that walking down the hallways with her made me feel like I was accompanying the Dalai Lama. All the way from her apartment to the elevator, the faces of residents and staff members alike would light up when they’d catch sight of gentle Mom, with her large dark eyes and friendly gaze. They’d reach out to touch some piece of her as she and I would stride along the indoor-outdoor carpet, past vacant upholstered chairs and paintings in shades of beige and burgundy. With our arms interlocked, Mom’s short legs would move briskly in her determined walk, and I’d feel like a giant next to her 5’1” self. She’d wave cheerily and bestow a special smile upon each individual, giving them no clue that she didn’t know who in the world they were. She’d reach out, often laughing, and pat someone affectionately on the arm as we’d pass.
For a very long time, I felt no need to ask my mom if she knew who I was. I knew that when she looked at me, I was as familiar to her as was her own skin. But, as is eventually the case with Alzheimer’s, words that expressed connections and categories gradually began to slip from her. We’d drive to see my sister in Elk Grove, and Mom would laugh at “all those animals,” pointing at the cows in the pastures along Jamison Canyon Road. My husband, John, and I would drive her to Twin Pines Casino in Middletown, and Mom would observe, “There sure are a lot of trees out there,” pointing to anything green out the window, whether grapevines, ferns, or pine trees.
John thought that I’d exaggerated Mom’s deficits until one afternoon on our way back from the casino. To get there, we’d twisted our way up two-lane Silverado Trail for an hour, past vineyards, over a mountain, through forests. For three hours, Mom had perched between us on a stool, the three of us laughing and punching non-stop the smooth plastic buttons of the nickel poker machines, while curls of cigarette smoke stung our nostrils and permeated Mom’s kelly-green cardigan.
The “ding-ding-ding” of dollars being won was still ringing in our ears as we started back down the mountain, and as John drove, I turned back to Mom and said, “Well, we sure had fun up there today, huh, Mom!”
Mom’s smooth forehead crinkled just the tiniest bit, and she asked, “Where? Where did we go?” On her lap, she was still holding the Styrofoam box of left-over tater tots, her favorite treat that she always ordered for lunch from the casino’s diner. They were still warm.
I felt the familiar little stab deep inside, and John and I replayed for Mom how we’d just spent the last few hours at a place that was still visible in the rear-view mirror.
“You were so lucky today! You got four of a kind twice, and I didn’t get it even once. Not fair!” Mom agreed with me, and burst out laughing.
Whether or not our prompting helped her to actually remember really wasn’t important. She was happy in that very moment, and all day she’d had a lot of happy present moments. John was still a bit taken aback by the realization that the whole day had already disappeared for her. But my mother was laughing as we headed down the twisty mountain road.
* * *
“So, Mom, do you know who I am?” It wouldn’t be my opening sentence, but it would come early in my every-morning phone call. I’d tell her I was Sue, I’d ask her how she’d slept, I’d ask her what she was wearing. And then I’d ask her if she knew who I was.
“I sure do!” She always said it with certainty, her musical voice clear and strong. “You’re Sue!” Triumphant and proud, she often punctuated this declaration with a laugh.
“Yup, I am! And do you know who I am to you? Do you know how we’re connected?” This, I always said in a relaxed and friendly way. No pressure.
That’s where it could get interesting. For a long time, she always said, “You’re one of my daughters!” On a day of great clarity, she might even specify, “You’re one of my four children,” or “You’re my second daughter.”
Then, as descriptors and connectors started slipping away for her, her answers became more convoluted, more cryptic, more curvy. I wonder if it’s strange that some of my favorite answers were the ones she gave after she’d lost some of her grip on her label of herself as my mother.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure, but we’ve known each other for a very long time.” This she answered very thoughtfully one morning, trying hard to be precise. Another day, her response was, “Are we in the same family?”
I affirmed that we were, and continued gently, “Do you know how we’re related?”
A moment’s pause, and then her response: “I think maybe we’re cousins.”
I’d known that eventually the Alzheimer’s would steal from her the sense of what day, season, or year it was, so gradually, Mom’s confusion over time and age stopped surprising me. But I still found it unsettling when her words would spell out for me just how lost she was inside. On that day I was her cousin, on another I became her sister, and then I was a very good friend. I realized that in her mind, I’d gone from being the generation below her to belonging to the same generation.
But we weren’t done, because not long after that, either I hopped up another generation, or she hopped down. I think she was the one who moved, because on the infrequent occasions when I’d ask her how old she thought she was, she’d gradually de-aged from “in my sixties” to “forties” to “twenty-two.”
On the day that my eighty-four-year-old mother told me on the phone, proudly, that I was her mother, I thought I’d finally heard all the answers that there could be to my question. I did hear that one a few more times, and I always clarified the actual connection. But as I did, I knew that I was doing it for myself, and not for her. She was happy either way, mother or daughter.
A few more months passed, and with them came another of my favorite answers: “I don’t know exactly, but I know that you’re one of the really good ones.” I figured I could live with that. It was definitely better than the alternative.
* * *
And then it was December 23 of 2009, and I was sitting next to my mom in the lamplight of her studio apartment. We were at the peaceful assisted-living place where she now resided, very near to my sister in Elk Grove. Mom was feeling a bit under the weather, so we were taking it easy, just resting quietly in her room. She was in her beige corduroy recliner, nestled cozily under the puffy flannel quilt I’d made for her a few years earlier, her short legs propped up on the footrest.
Since the day I’d given it to her, every single time she’d seen me and the quilt in the same room, she’d said the same thing. “You made this, didn’t you?” After I’d respond that, indeed, I had, she’d continue, “All the work! This must have taken you a long time!” And she’d pat it lovingly.
But today, she didn’t say it. Her cheeks were a bit rosier than usual, and, very uncharacteristic for her, she was quiet and a little sleepy in the middle of the day. I sat in a folding chair at her side, just quietly stroking the soft skin of her forearm, letting her drift peacefully in and out of her nap.
When she woke fully after a while, I just couldn’t resist. My right hand was holding onto hers while I traced a path on her arm with the fingers of my left hand. I asked her: “Mom? Do you know who I am?”
Her calm gaze was especially tender, and her smile was its sweetest. Her eyes warmed me as she answered quietly, “I sure do.”
“Who am I?” I couldn’t stop brushing my fingers against her skin. I needed to touch her.
Her answer was just: “I love you.”
That was all she said. And that was the last time I ever asked her that question. She had no more answers in her. But I probably didn’t need any answer other than that.
* * *
Less than twelve hours later, she quietly slipped into a mysterious, semi-comatose state. As she drifted in and out over the next six days, speaking a few words here and there, we hovered over her. My siblings and I knew that the last few bits of Mom were floating away from us, and we were in agreement that we wouldn’t stop her from going. For those six days, we stayed with her—talking to her, kissing her, visiting with each other in her presence, touching her. Slowly bidding her good-bye.
I’m grateful that she gave us that time. Two nights before she died, I was sitting on her bed next to her, watching her face as she lay on her back, resting. My husband was in a chair behind me, seated near Mom’s feet. I don’t think I was crying. I was just touching her arm, holding her hand, doing the things I’d done for days as Mom had gradually become weaker, and more inside herself.
Her soft brown eyes were open, and I saw that she was looking straight into mine. By that night, she’d become too tired to speak anymore, but her gaze looked so awake, so alert. So—Mom. Just then, she began pulling up both arms very slowly from where they rested at her sides. Inch by inch, she was raising them up toward her head until finally her hands were on top of her head, with her elbows pointing at the ceiling. Her eyes remained locked on mine.
I had no idea what was going on. She’d hardly moved for days, and this maneuver looked so strange, and so intentional. I wondered if she were having some sort of a weird precursor to a seizure. I felt a little nervous.
But Mom knew exactly what she was doing, and she wasn’t done yet. Her hands went a little higher atop her head, still moving so very slowly. Then I watched Mom lace her fingers together, and now, with her hands joined, she continued raising her arms higher and higher, until they were straight over her head, in the air, aimed at the ceiling.
Next, she extended her reach further out, toward me, now stretching forward as far as she could reach. Mom reached out in slow motion until she could slip her locked-together fingers over my head and rest them behind my neck. Then she slowly pulled me down, down, down, and the thought flitted through my mind that maybe her muscles were going to jerk and lock. Was she about to have a stroke?
And then somehow I felt on my right cheek the whisper of the papery wings of a butterfly, fluttering. It wasn’t until then that I realized what was happening.
My mom was kissing me, over and over and over again, her lips brushing my cheek with impossible softness. My mother was hugging me. It was my mother, saying good-bye to me, her daughter. My mother. She was here. And I knew that she knew who I was.
At that point, I needed someone else to see the miracle. Without pulling back or taking my eyes off of my mother, I choked out, “John? John! Are you seeing this?” His whisper from behind me let me know that I had a witness. Mom continued kissing me, and I remained still, not wanting to break the spell. I think I held my breath.
Mom’s silent kisses brushed me again and again, until I felt that my heart would burst. Then I lowered my face slowly and we rested against each other, cheek to cheek—mine, covered in the tears that I was by now sobbing. I lay on her, crying, for minutes, forever. I don’t know.
At some point, I raised my head a little bit so that I could see her. Mom then loosened her hands from behind my neck, and I felt them moving behind my head. Then I realized that she was moving them with purpose. Her hands were now gently smoothing the loose strands of my hair back away from my face, tucking them into my ponytail. She was still staring directly into me, her face like the sun. My mother. Her loving gaze poured into me, and on her face was the most exquisite smile I have ever seen. Was there ever a face more lit up, more serene, more tender, or more beautiful than my mom’s was at that moment?
I hope that the picture of her in that moment never fades for me. That night, when my mother kissed me good-bye forever, I knew that she was there. And I will always believe that she knew that I was there.
I was also there less than thirty-six hours later, when the butterfly fluttered away for good. I’m glad that I was there when it happened, when the softness of her features was molded into something else, something I’d never wanted to see but could not tear my eyes away from, because it was my mom.
But that’s not how I remember her face, because that wasn’t really my mom, just as I really wasn’t her sister, or her cousin, or her really good friend, or her mother. I will always be my mother’s daughter, even though for part of her last days here, she couldn’t always remember that she was my mother, that I was her daughter.
But it’s okay. I can remember for the both of us. I know who I am.