As my mother nears her 98th birthday in June, the dementia that has consumed her brain is taking more and more of her away. It’s as if there’s been an invasion of a body snatcher.
My mother is, on the one hand, still there. She sounds, smells and feels the same. But increasingly, she has entered into oblivion.
In my last three visits, she didn’t know who I was – I, her son of 65 years.
In my visits these days, I try and discover where she is and what she thinks about and remembers. I’m no longer asking her if she knows who I am. She may indeed know, but I don’t think she easily remembers my name.
One of the tragedies of advancing dementia is the utter isolation that sufferers progressively experience as they move through the fog left by lost memory. It’s also difficult and painful for us who love them because we can’t help but grieve as we watch them disappear.
My mother’s world has become so very small. She had always lived an active and fully engaged life invigorated by family, friends, people, Jewish community, causes, and ideas. Then, she began to forget things. She couldn’t find the words that had once flowed so easily past her lips. She couldn’t recall the memories that made her who she was and defined her world. She didn’t know the names of the people she loved. And she couldn’t recognize anyone in the room.
My mother has always been exceptionally verbal, and though she still talks up a storm, her words are nearly impossible for me to understand, and I know her better than most people.
I’ve asked myself what is actually left, what remains of all that she was, learned and knew. Thankfully, certain things haven’t yet left her. She retains her essential sweetness, gentleness, kindness, generosity, and joy when she looks into my face and has some recognition that I’m an important and familiar person to her, but I wonder what the content of the familiarity is.
For those who suffer with dementia, it’s as if the life cycle has been reversed. They undergo a great unlearning, an unmaking of themselves, a reversion to a uncluttered brain – but this time, the mind is shutting down and not opening up.
Sometimes, nevertheless, my mother offers a pearl of wisdom. Last week she said, “We all have to love each other – for what else is there!?”
Because my mother can’t hear, can’t see and can’t walk, I sit very close to her when we interact, touch her constantly, look into her face from five or six inches away, and speak very loudly into her left ear, the better ear of the two. If I’m able to break through the fog of her confusion, she may know me, but most of the time I’m not sure that she does.
In being with people with dementia, it’s important for us to remember that when the mind goes our bodies carry powerful memories too that may remain. A mother never forgets the vibrations, smell and energy of her child, and I, her son, certainly have never forgotten my mother’s vibrations, smell and emotional presence.
After all the years, what’s left between her and me has come down to this – the purity of a love between a mother and a son. I cherish this and pray that she still does too.
Each time I leave her I kiss her and say directly into her ear: “Mom – I love you!”
“I love you too,” she always says.
I hope she knows that it’s ME who has spoken those words, and not just some stranger showing her love and kindness.