When I came home from Madrid last Tuesday, I sent my friend Janice a Whatsapp saying I had her saffron. The answer was “Yupee”. Thirty minutes later I got a message from her also through Whatsapp saying that her 96 year old father had just fallen down the stairs and died, and that she was leaving for New York to bury him and find a home for her mother who is suffering from dementia (also 96). Today I asked how she was and the answer was that she is sad and tired, seeing where she can put her mother to live. She said: “Mom understands he is dead but she hasn’t cried yet; that is dementia for you.” I answered: “Yes, sometimes dementia might be a blessing.”
As I was walking out this evening with Salomé for our evening stroll, I looked up at the moon that in the night-time haze lay with a bright orange fringe all around it. I thought of my mother and her dementia. I can remember the beginning.
She called me one afternoon and said: “I think I am getting gaga”. I said something noncommittal thinking she was trying to manipulate me into going over and keeping her company or something, and jotted down in my diary: Mom trying to hook me in with the idea that she is going gaga, and forgot about it.
But I couldn’t forget about it long because the onset was very fast, if I remember correctly. She stopped being able to carry a conversation, then she began doing a funny thing sticking her tongue out all the time and repeating a senseless phrase in Spanish which literally said: “When are we going to eat nothing.”
I took her to the doctor and got the news some days later: mother had progressive dementia. I phoned my brother and told him: Mom has dementia, I said. He was immediate in his response: “Of course, you’ll take her to live with you.” “No way,” I responded; “why don’t you take her to live with you?” I can’t remember what he answered but it definitely wasn’t “ok”. As my brother lived out of the country, I knew it would fall to me to care for my mother, but I was decided to do that without bringing her into my house. I understood from the very beginning that if I brought my mother to live with me I would end up killing her long before life did.
We had never gotten along. There could be a lot of reasons and a lot of excuses but I think that is just the way we were programmed. Part of the problem was that my mother always competed with her sister and, when I became an adolescent, she just seemed to shift that competition over to me. The situation was complicated, not only because as a daughter I naturally competed with my mother, but also because my father unconsciously used my very heavy Electra complex to make my mother jealous, something that heightened my own competition with her. And then again, my mother was extremely beautiful and I… well, I wasn’t that kind of beauty and I tended to be overweight.
Whatever caused it, we had never been close and as my mother became more needy because life began to take things away from her and she just naturally expected me to make up for their loss, I drew farther and farther away.
When she realized that she was losing her mind, her fear was unbearable, I had trouble staying with her for any time, but as the disease took the last vestiges of understanding of what was happening to her, it got more bearable and I could spend a couple of hours two or three times a week at her house. In order to ease my conscience, I saw to it that she had every care in the world and was never alone. She had a cook and cleaning girl, someone to care for her who could drive her around, a handyman who did the chores and could carry her from the wheelchair to the car and back again. Her medicines were taken care of, her needs and whims were catered to, she was well cared for. That made it easier for me to not take the guilt trip down the road of bringing my mother to live with me. I understood very well that after three days I would probably throw her out of the moving car.
By the time I brought her to Spain and put her in a residence for the elderly who needed care, she had stopped talking all together and was barely walking. She had gotten feebler, but there was still someone there who was recognizable: she still was capable of getting mad. As she slowly slipped down into oblivion, she never lost the capacity to get mad, but not being able to talk made her incapable of pushing my buttons as she had done so well all our lives, so I finally could relax and begin to realize how much I loved my mother.
At the end, she was like my child. The strange thing is she would still get mad, as she had gotten all her life whenever things did not go the way she wanted them to. I would visit and upon entering the room I would see her face tighten and she would glare down at the floor.
“Are you mad, Mommy?” I would ask giving her a kiss on the forehead. She would contract up even tighter, drawing away from me to show me that she was. I remember, I would smile and sit by her side watching the images on the tv screen, or chatting with the nurse who kept her company during all her waking hours, until, about 5 minutes later she would get up from her chair, take the step that separated us and sit on my lap lifting up her legs like a child so that I could hold her tightly. It was such a gift, there was so much love in my heart as I held my Mother-Child in my arms and told her how much I loved her. She weighed almost nothing, thin as she was, and she would stay there, sitting in my lap for a while, just letting herself be held.
That was the gift; that was the gift of her dementia for me; it let me love her as I never had before and she didn’t leave until I had really satiated myself with that love, enough to last me the rest of my life.
They say dementia is a terrible disease, that it is a tragedy. My experience was different, for me it was the greatest gift my mother could have given me. When she finally slipped away, one night in her 91st year of life, with me sitting beside her holding her hand, I was so happy for her and with her that my tears were of joy: my mother hadn’t left, she had just moved into my heart forever. I love you, Mommy.