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
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
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