My mother is in the sunset of her life.
She is 89 years old, and lives alone in the house where she and our Dad raised six children. Where my siblings and I learned to walk, talk, cook, read, play the drums, play baseball, take turns, rake the leaves……
She is in our home place.
Mom has no intention of leaving that home place, not until she has breathed her final breath. This is her home. Her kitchen. Her bedroom.
I get it.
But today I had one of those conversations with Mom that make me stiffen up and shake and want to argue.
You see, my Mom has some type of dementia. We haven’t bothered to go through the evaluations and tests that would give us a definitive diagnosis, because what would be the point?
We know that Mom has lost her short term memory. We know that she can’t recall the key details of her past, or of ours. We realize that no matter how deeply she loves us all, the details of our lives continue to elude her.
When I visit Mom each week, we talk about my children. She remembers that I have three kids, but confuses the details. She remembers that my daughter has children (two of her four her great-grandchildren) but she might ask me ten time in an hour if those children are girls or boys.
For the most part, these repeating stories are fine for me. I understand. Mom’s memory no longer works reliably. I know that she doesn’t remember the names of her grandchildren’s spouses without a prompt.
I’m always OK with that. I repeat things for her, patiently, feeling good about myself as a daughter.
A moment will occur where Mom forgets some key memory from my relationship with her. “You came to the hospital to meet my first baby, ” I will say. Mom will jump in then,
“I remember! It was a boy and you had to stay in bed, so you couldn’t see him.”
My heart will race, my brain will screech, and I will carefully but firmly tell her, “NO. My first baby was Katie, remember? You came to see her at the hospital! Dad was with you.”
When she doesn’t remember that poignant moment, my heart will sink.
I know that my mom loves me, and that she loves my kids and theirs. I know this deep in my bones.
And yet, when I tell her something that seems important, and she changes the details, I feel betrayed and forgotten.
I want my Momma to remember our best times. I want her to remember how close we were, but I also want her to remember how much we fought. These are the key threads of my life; and they all involve her. I need to recognize those threads.
Today I visited Mom. I made her some soup, and helped her to feed her cat and clean out the litter box. I checked to see what groceries she’d need. I put lotion on the dry skin on her back, my hand gently rubbing in a circle, just as she’d done for me when I was a child.
Today I asked my Mom what she wanted to drink with her lunch of homemade minestrone. As she often does, Mom looked at me with a sparkle in her dark brown eyes. “How about a nice dry martini?” she asked with a grin. We both laughed.
But then she went on to tell me how fun it was when I first introduced her to martinis. “Remember?” she coaxed, “You made us both extra dry gin martinis! That was my very first martini!”
This is, of course, not at all what happened. In fact, my Mom had been a once-in-a-while martini drinker for years. She had learned about the famous cocktail back in the 50’s, when I was newly born. She used to tell me hilarious stories about getting together with the neighbors or her sisters-in-law and enjoying one too many martinis.
When my Dad died, and I started to spend one night at week at Mom’s house, we sometimes drank a vodka martini before dinner.
Her memory was a happy smooshing of both of these truths.
For me, her story came with pain.
I wanted to correct her. “No!” I wanted to say, “You taught ME about martinis!”
But Mom wasn’t having it. While she generally admits that her memory has lapses, this time she was adamant. She told, and retold, a story of the two of us making “extra dry gin martinis” in her kitchen. She was delighted with the memory.
“I think we got a little silly, didn’t we?” she asked with a laugh.
And oh, how I wanted to correct her.
But then I remembered what families of patients with dementia are told. “Don’t correct them. Those memories are real for them.” I took a breath. I nodded and tried out a smile.
Mom took both of my hands in hers. I felt the tender, brittle bones of her fingers in mine.
“Wasn’t that fun?” she asked.
And I realized that while my mother’s memory was a false one, it was also lovely, and happy and filled with her love for me. She had created a shared moment that hadn’t really existed.
But it didn’t matter. She held my hands, and looked at me with gratitude and love. I kissed her cheek, and then we went into the kitchen to eat our soup.