Sunday, October 9, 2016

Who is my mother?

A visit with my mother and my philosophical side runs rampant with questions. Now back home, I sit here and wonder about our “self-ness.” What makes me Barbara, and would I be Barbara if all the memories that I’ve collected over my life were gone? Is there some core of Barbara that has nothing to do with what I’ve experienced, seen, done, etc.?

So who is my mother now that she’s virtually memory-less?

When I’d asked before the trip whether I was still My Mother’s Daughter, one reader, The Noodler, commented that “she will know that you are someone important to her.” And yes, she did! When I walked in the room, her face lit up. She knew my sister and I were there to see her, not someone else in the dining room. So yes, I am still my mother’s daughter, but who is my mother?

Right now, she has a lump the size of a tennis ball on her forehead and black and blue marks lining her temple, cheek, neck, and under her eyes. Our guess is that she fell in the bathroom and her head hit the support bars on the toilet. We’d need an NCIS crime scene analyst to know what happened because my mother asks, “I fell? When did I fall?” So she is in rehab before returning to the dementia wing and her room.

On prior trips, I was intent on “rescuing” Mom from rehab so she could get back to her normal life. Now I know there is no rescue. While that relieves a lot of pressure, it also leaves these philosophical questions. At one point, my sister and I wheeled her onto the patio into the warm sun.
Still like my mother: She loves warm sun. She offers money so we can buy something nice. She doesn’t like raisins. She would be upset that she hadn’t been to the hairdresser.

Not like my mother:
My mother was a voracious reader and major movie-goer. She helped found a whole film center. She wrote poetry. Now she can’t read because by the time she gets to the end of a sentence, she can’t remember the beginning. She dozes off in movies. My mother was chatty with the energy of an Energizer Bunny. Now she sits and doesn’t really engage with her company. She sits. (But this is rehab after an injury and she’s not really just a sitter in her normal life, but still…)
When I look at myself, I think my self-ness is tied up in curiosity. I have questions about everything and find just about everything worth exploring and asking about. Who would I be if I just sat?

I took one reader’s advice and had a conversation with my mother, telling her the things I’d want her to know just in case I didn’t see her again. She appreciated it, I guess. It’s hard to tell because her responses are muted.

My mother never made an ethical will or legacy letter, but she communicated her values, loves, and hopes regularly. All her life. We know what her Mom-self thought and wanted.

But this later version Mom: Is she happy? Does she think about happiness? Is just sitting like interminable waiting or is it like being peaceful? Is this what she would want for her 90s?

I’m not sure she could answer these questions. In a quiet moment, I tried asking what she was thinking, but she looked confused and told me she wasn’t thinking at all. Should I have tried again? Should I have been more specific? But look at those happiness questions: they are insensitive if not harrowing questions. My memory-less mother is sitting in a chair and I’m going to ask her if life turned out the way she wanted?

Insensitive? Harrowing? Is that more about my fears or her happiness?


  1. You might look into some of the writings of Oliver Sacks: "Gratitude", and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

  2. This is heartbreaking--even more so since I experienced the same with my dad. It's so hard to physically see the person we love and not have them react the way we're used to. It took me a long time to understand this was harder on me than it was on my dad--since he really had no clue who I was for a long time.

    I don't think I ever told you what happened. For many years my father didn't really know who I was. One particularly gut-wrenching Father's Day when I called to wish him a Happy Father's Day, he seemed to know I was his daughter (prompted I think by my mother sitting at his side) but he asked me--how college was going? I got off the phone & sobbed (in the parking lot of Barnes & Noble)

    After that when he saw me, he once thought I was my sister and thought my niece was also my sister--even though we were both standing there at the same time.

    The week he turned 80 I flew in to visit. He'd been having a bad day--but they said he was better and we could all come to see him at the home. At this point he hadn't known who I was for quite a while.

    He actually wasn't feeling all that great and my noisy family apparently got on his nerves. He started telling us to shut up or he'd hit us (something he never did when we were kids). Then he looked right at me and said "Rieva" The room instantly got silent, since we all knew he hadn't said my name or known who I was for years. And then he said, "I'm going to hit you first."

    I tried to pass it off as I was the first kid he taught to hit a baseball, but that didn't really work.

    About 10 days later as I sat in my house I started seeing shadows--inside and out. At some point I was on the phone on a business call on the couch--Skip was in the hot tub outside and started staring in the house and saying "can I help you" over and over. I kept motioning I was on the phone. When I got off the phone--he was getting out of the hot tub--I asked him who he was talking to--and he said he thought he saw a man standing in the kitchen.

    A few hours later I got the call my dad had died.

    My "spiritual" friends tell me that when he would hit me first--he meant he'd come to say goodbye before he died. I guess he did.


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