At the Heart

When my mom escapes again, tottering down the concrete steps that lead from her front door to the cul-de-sac below, it is in the not-quite light of morning, or so her round-the-clock caregiver informs us.  She, despite her increasing dementia, her disconnect from the life she has lived for the past 76 years, has managed to find the key to the extra lock we, my five siblings and I, have decided to install to preclude exactly this.  Imagine a disoriented, diminutive, tousle-haired, bathrobe-clad figure stumbling along alone as day dawns.  This must be the last time, we vow.

So begins the quest to find the best place for our mom, an amazing woman to whom we owe our lives, literally and figuratively.  We will start from a place of complete information, a comprehensive physical and psychological assessment.  We are assuaged by a plan of action, the pragmatic and logical a balm to our aching souls.  She has been taken to Good Samaritan, and the six of us have come together from our respective parts of the country to meet with the gerontologist on this clear, sunny summer morning for the findings.

Like my mother, the specialist is small, soft-spoken, intelligent, and respectful, reserved but warm.  I relax in her presence, confident that we have gotten lucky in the doctor-lottery.  In measured tone, leaning forward she provides some of the medical evidence to support the diagnosis of dementia, mom’s increasing tentativeness, her bouts of extreme agitation, her lucid periods—lightning glimpses of the mom we know and adore.  She explains that in the Philippines where she was born and raised, the elderly have a different place and regard than they generally claim in the United States.  There, it is much easier to take the aging into the arms of the extended family.  She offers this without judgment, sympathizing with our desire to do what is best for our mom, our different family structure.

Our parents, mother and father, raised us to fly.  We have all done just that, our travels landing us in disparate parts of the country.  If routine, consistency, stability can best support our mom, then we have serious decisions to make.

The doctor must read the pain in us that four walls can barely contain, and closes with this:  “Your mother must have been a wonderful person when she was wholly herself, for that is what I see in her still, what endures.  Dementia is funny that way; it will not make an unkind person any less unkind; what is true about one’s nature emerges.  And your mom is truly dear.”

I think of this moment, her  words, when a character in a novel I’m reading describes her relationship with an elderly, addled woman: “Me and Mrs. Erroll…best friend I ever had…when you’re confused it sort of strips away a lot of the shite about ye.  All the stories you tell about how great ye are or where you’ve been; she couldn’t remember those things.  She just was.  And what she was was lovely.”*  Those words resurrect feelings from that morning, now almost 30 years ago, and my concern about what the crucible of losing my past, distillation to the core, would reveal about me, about my self.

In my mother’s case —Marylou Patrick Emerson— only good, all good.

*Author Denise Mina’s italics from her novel The End of the Wasp Season, 203.

10 thoughts on “At the Heart”

    1. Thanks for visiting…St. Patrick’s Day always reminds me of my mom. When people say “Gone, but not forgotten,” they may do it in passing. I say it as a beatitude.

  1. What a beautiful slice. It’s so sad, but also just so beautiful. I love the dr’s words: Your mother must have been a wonderful person when she was wholly herself, for that is what I see in her still, what endures. Dementia is funny that way; it will not make an unkind person any less unkind; what is true about one’s nature emerges. And your mom is truly dear.”

  2. Our struggle with all diseases comes down to the stories of those struggles. Your slice captures the heart, and the ache, of your family’s struggle. It is both haunting and beautiful.

  3. I’m sure this was a hard decision for you and your siblings. You wrote about it so compassionately and descriptively. I’m glad you were able to find some peace for your mother.

  4. As a country we must do better for our aging parents and for the elderly in general. Your memory offers a haunting reminder of this, yet our transient society, and our parents who teach “us to soar” make this challenging. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman, and while your memory makes me sad, perhaps because of my step-mothers battle w/ dementia, I’m also blessed to have read it.

  5. This slice hit home. My mom is 90 and suffers with dementia. She is in an assisted living facility where she is happy and well cared for. That makes it a little easier, but not easy – remembering the person she was. She is still very happy and loved by all the caregivers on her floor. She does a little dance on her walker. They call it the “Lucy Shuffle.”

    1. I read your heartfelt post to your “mum.” Thank you for your sensitivity and obvious empathy. I have written many stories about my mom. I took a multi-genre writing class with Tom Romano at the University of New Hampshire where I was allowed to celebrate the incredible person she was as well as expiate some of the guilt I felt at not being able to have done more. Your words,” My mom lived another nine years in a nursing home, alive but lost to us,” says it all. Thanks, Connie. Even after 11 years…still mourning.

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