My mother’s father died suddenly when she was twenty, almost fifty years ago. She was extremely close to him, and adored by him, and one of her biggest regrets was the fact that he never knew her children and that we never knew him.
I understand regret. About nine years ago, my family started noticing my mother’s memory issues. As my son is seven years old, he has no understanding of the fact that my mother planned to move to live near me when I had children so that she could be my childcare. He has no recollection of sleeping on her shoulder as an infant, of her eagerness to change his diapers and to knit him almost a dozen stuffed animals. Instead, he now sees her at her basest elements, slow, vacant, lost.
My son is an active kid. He likes playing baseball and soccer and offering running commentary while my husband tries to watch football. To no one’s surprise, given the choice, he often prefers to stay home when I go visit my mother. It takes some planning, energy and extra enthusiasm to have a fun visit with Nana.
Fortunately, a few times a year, the nursing home where my mother lives holds special events, often tied to holidays, for its residents, staff and families. I try to take advantage of these events when I can. What a gift it is to have a holiday party for my children to get excited about when thinking about their Nana, as her interaction with them is limited and a far cry from the loving relationship she imagined many years ago.
My children had a great time at the last year’s Christmas celebration and were looking forward to the party this past holiday. We went to Nana’s room and brought her to the party. The children were thrilled to eat cookies, goofily dance to holiday music, and settle down to color and watch part of a movie.
While I was happy to see the kids so excited, for me, the party was excruciating. Without meaning to, I was comparing the party to the event the year before. Where my mother engaged with my daughter and colored with her. When I still believed that my mother could have retained any of her talent on the piano, or even just the ability to read music. Where it was clear at every visit that she knew who I was to her.
Santa stopped by the party and gave each boy and girl a coloring book and a three pack of crayons. While listening to holiday tunes, my mother, slowly, meticulously used her fingernail to open one end of the crayon box, and then the other. I stood there, mesmerized, wondering what it was that brought about such intense concentration. After she opened the flaps, my mother dumped the crayons into the palm of her hand. She then took a magic marker that my daughter had been using and shoved it into the now-empty crayon box, again and again and again.
This was my smart, capable mother, who used to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, often in pen, working diligently, repeatedly, to make the marker fit in the tiny box. A pointless enterprise, which somehow made sense in her fuzzy world.
And, just like that, my heart shattered, visualizing all she has lost. And all we have lost.
Except I was at a holiday party with my children and my mother, where I did not have the luxury of grieving. I had to keep it together while we gently ushered my mother back to her room, said our goodbyes, buckled up, and started the drive home. Tears could then fall silently under cover of darkness.
Without even realizing it, I have choreographed this dance with the existing version of my mother. I visit, often with my children. We bring smiles, treats, brief periods of semi-controlled chaos, which my mother enjoys and then forgets, probably within minutes of our departure. I am so focused on getting through the now, having a good visit, making her happy, engaging my children, that I almost lose sight of the bigger picture, the one that smacked me in the gut as I watched her intently focused on that crayon box: My mother’s illness makes no sense. How cruel, heartbreaking and just so unfair to reduce a vibrant, warm, brilliant, talented person, to an empty stare, a slow gait and so much confusion.
I choose not to focus on the horrors of her disease. It is what it is and there is no point in thinking about it too deeply – or fearing for my own future. Instead, I make the best of the time I have with the parts of my mother that I have left.
There are so many things that I will never understand about what has happened with my mother. I wish I could just find comfort in the fact that some inquisitive part of her remains, as diminished as it may be. But instead, at that party, all I felt was her loss. And so much regret.