Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Still My Mother's Daughter?

I am leaving next week for New York to visit my mother. This may be the first time I see her and she’s not sure who I am.

Once before, she went to breakfast and returned a few minutes later saying, “I didn’t realize you were my daughter!” Someone at breakfast must have asked how her daughter’s visit was going, and Mom realized that the person sleeping on her couch was me. But that was only momentary; all her Barbara-memories quickly lined up.

But recently, when I talk to her on the phone, I feel like she’s “being happy” or “being nice.” I can’t really describe it, but I don’t feel the ring of truth. It’s most obvious with the “add-ons” to her four kids – spouses, grandchild – but I feel it with me, too. I could be a waitress she’s friendly to.

In July, we moved her into the dementia unit of her assisted living. She is much, much happier there since they provide the near-constant company she craves. No more wandering in the night looking for desk clerks and nurses to sit next to. She says it’s the “just right” place for her, and my siblings and I would be greatly relieved except….

Except that she’s frequently in the hospital for “unwitnessed falls” on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. (Thank goodness her bones are so dense they never break.) My poor sister – the only contact in the same time zone – now sends emails to the rest of us with “Again” or “One guess” in the subject line.

My mother has always been the hub of our family’s wheel. When we all left home, we’d telephone Mom and get the updates on everyone else. If someone had good news, she’d pass it on. If someone was sad, she’d tell us to check in and rally her. She was the Master Link.
Now she’s still the connecting force amongst us, but it’s about her, not with her. She’s still central, but not The Center. And what she is for us is not joy, it’s worry. Concern. My sister clenches when my mother’s area code comes up on Caller ID. I clench when I see subject lines like “Again” or “One guess.” Or even just “Mom.”

My mother used to wear Blue Grass toilet water from Elizabeth Arden. (That’s what they called it.) She’d splash it on after a shower and ask us to get it for her for Mother’s Day. The smell of Blue Grass is Mom. A reader, Michele, suggested that smells might be good for her Memory Box so I will try that.
I am bringing the videos I’d made of her telling stories from her childhood. The woman in those videos is so startlingly Mom – her vitality, her wit, her language. I wonder whether seeing her younger self will be a pleasant experience or a disturbing one.

My last few visits with my Mom have been crisis visits or task visits. I have either gotten her out of rehab, nursed her through the flu, or bought supplies, fixed the car, organized the paperwork. I have hired personal aides, met with facility administrators, taken her to the bank. In between, we have played bingo, watched movies, and looked through albums; but at the end of the visit, my mother says, “This was a great visit. We accomplished a lot.”

“Accomplished a lot” because my mother’s main concern is that her life get handled around her. I don’t think she’d say “This was a great visit. We laughed a lot” because she forgets a photo the instant we turn the page, forgets a story the second it’s finished being told. But somehow, the comfort of being taken care of lingers.

I’d scheduled this trip as a pleasure trip. A simple, have-happy-times-together trip. But now she’s back in the hospital after another fall. She’ll probably be discharged in a couple of days. Maybe fall again and go back in. There are no simple, have-happy-times-together trips.

I don’t know what will happen “in the flesh.” This is the first in-person visit for any of us since July. Will my mother snap to recognition that I am her daughter Barbara or maintain that superficial friendliness I sense on the phone, that cover for not really being sure of things? Will there be a “Mom” there … or some kindly older woman? Am I still my mother’s daughter?

I guess I’ll see.


  1. Even if she doesn't seem to know you, she will know that you are someone important to her. She will know that you are there to visit her. She will be pleased to have a visitor. She will still have emotions.

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  3. My mother had cancer but was pretty sharp to the end, so I have no experience with this. Each visit Outside I wondered if she would be different. Her body was different, but our relationship was the same and her personality never wavered -- I was always immensely relieved. Only at the very, very end did she descend into paranoia. It must be terribly hard to have your mother there physically, but not really "there" as your mother. I have no suggestions, just sending empathy and agreement that it is important both for you and her to visit and make every effort to connect. Blessings!


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