Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Demented Mom

My mother is 78, and following two hip replacements four years ago, she very quickly developed a form of dementia characterized by zero short-term memory. As her cognitive function deteriorates, she has developed child-like behaviors and a loss of verbal skills. She also became a quilting machine, sewing quilt after quilt of cut-up jeans and fabric squares.

She sewed so many quilts, we three adult children struggled to find homes for them all. They went to the women's shelter in bulk; they went to the hospital; they went to the homeless and to Africa on missions. They went to the police department and to skid rows in L.A. and San Francisco, and they went to homes of unwed mothers.

This year, the quilts began to shrink in size, from twin-bed dimensions, to baby-blanket lengths, and now they have diminished to the size of large placemats. Mom's ability to do the math required by quilting has vanished. This past month, she can't remember how to run her sewing machine.

Watching my mother's mind collapse inward is painful for me, her only daughter. She ran a business for 25 years, until she was over 70. In my childhood, I was afraid of her brisk, no-nonsense personality; now I am afraid of her childlike innocence. She asks me how to dress. She asks me, "Is this my purse?" She says, "Thank you for taking care of me."

Mom lives in assisted living with five other women who need elder care. I take her out every Wednesday on a field trip to real life, and she marvels at the sky, the hills, the breeze in her hair. To battle my sadness, I practice the attitude of gratitude that seems to be a secret of success in life. Her cognitive function may be shrinking like her quilts, but her joy in living has grown.

Sometimes Mom can make funny little jokes that are quite lucid. One day in January, I carefully explained to her that it was an important day in the church calendar: Epiphany. She listened to my explanation, then said, "Oh, I have epiphanies every morning. I wake up and realize, 'Here I am again!'"

And here is my poem about my mother's dementia, written on one of those sad days:

The Waiting Room

I sit here with my mother
feeling like a parent
hush, keep your voice down
don’t talk to strangers
stop squirming in your seat
why don’t you read this nice magazine

Oh, Mom,
where did you go?
I watch you browsing Newsweek
and you show me the pictures
You exclaim over Highlights
studying the hidden-objects page
You speak loudly of the fat lady
three seats over as if she can’t hear you

I can’t hear you anymore, Mom
You referred to yourself
as an aged child today, the first
truly lucid thing I’ve heard you say
in months. I’ve had better conversations
with my three-year-old grandson
yet you and I once explored
the whole wide world together

I wish I had known the last good talk
we had was the last good talk
we ever would have, so I could
remember it down to the last detail
With bitterness I’m at war
with your frontal lobe, and your
temporal lobes are my enemies

We wait here in this room
for the doctor to pronounce sentence
on your disintegrating brain.
It could always be worse,
and how much worse it could get
he will tell us, a word I use politely
for it is not us he speaks to, but to me
for you are lost in the fairy tales
of childhood once again
and I am left behind to sweep up the pieces.

Chris Alba (c) 2009


ARTIST658 said...

Hi Chris,

You left me a lovely comment on my blog, so I felt the desire to read through yours... and oh myy... I do believe I've found a kindred soul in you! I am humbled by your serenity, your outlook on life... the transformation you've undergone through recovery. It shows!

My heart ached as I read of your mother. As my own mother was dying, earlier this year, and her mind was going - I had such similar feelings. That awful sense of... if only I'd know our last lucid conversation was going to be our last... how I would have treasured it, how much more I would have said to you. Even writing this, those feelings return. Ouch. Beautiful poem about your mom... absolutely beautiful...

I also read through several other messages of yours, and I could just sense "who" you are as I read your words, Chris - funny how it comes through! How wonderful that you have been reunited with your daughter - what a blessing. She is a beauty, isn't she? And then to read of your dad... your marriage... it's been a joy just getting to know you through your writings.

You have also managed to inspire me to write more. I haven't been inclined lately, as it has been a difficult year - but then again, as you've shown me, it often does help to write it out.

So glad you came by my blog and left your name - I'll keep coming back, to see what you're writing.


enchantedoak said...

Oh, Ruth, you just made my morning wonderful. I'm off to see my mom, was feeling some dread, now because of you, I'm back to my better pair of glasses. Thank you for listening to me. I felt the same way about reading your blog. God bless your new day.