Should be beyond debate, right? Of all the things you can legitimately claim you are too busy to do, visiting your mother isn’t one of them. Even if you can only spare a single day. Even if she lives a plane trip away. Even if she can be prickly, and kinda draining. She’s your mom. Come on. A phone call twice a week doesn’t wash. She wants to see you, and hold your hand, and tell people in the facility, This is my son.
I knew all that, but still found myself making excuses as the weeks turned into months since I last saw her. For me there’s a bigger question than time and expense, and that is: What value is a visit when she may not even remember it the next day?
Mom has Alzheimer’s. The disease is as grim as advertised but strange, too, because the degree of cloud cover changes so quickly. On bad days it probably isn’t worth my being there: she is in her own private Alberta. But on good days she’s peppy, face-to-the-world, alive. And alive to how displaced she feels — like she got tranqued in the night and woke up in a zoo. Get me out of here! she thinks and sometimes says.
“I don’t belong here! Everyone is … old!”
“Well, Mom, you aren’t exactly…I mean, you are 92.”
“Yes but you know what I mean. All they want to do is watch TV. I can’t even get a bridge game. Nobody knows how to play!”
(In fact, Mom doesn’t remember how to play, either. She just doesn’t remember that she doesn’t remember.)
My sisters, who live closer, are absolute champions about seeing her fairly regularly. But when Mom is feeling down, it’s still not enough. Her thirst for contact is unquenchable. “Are you coming soon?” she will say. “I’m lonely.” Then she stops talking and lets the silence do its work.
I booked my flight. And as I did I vowed to make this visit different. Better. The best ever.
My strategy hinged on a thought experiment: What if I knew this was the last time I would ever see her?
Of course it could be the last time, and there are websites like this one that help you calculate the odds that it will be. But to pretend that you are certain of it, well, that’s a powerful intervention. It raises the stakes hugely. Dave Isay’s great oral-history project StoryCorps encourages us to ask this very question of our aging relatives and friends: “If this was to be our last conversation, what would you want to tell me?” Frankly, I doubt mom could handle an approach that blunt. But maybe there was a way to ask that question without asking it — by behaving as if this was it: one day and out.
It’s not like there would be no small talk. But the small talk would be aimed at getting us to the big talk. Or at least to the big feeling. Alzheimer’s doesn’t wipe out the memories that feelings are partly made of — it just messes up the retrieval system. So presumably the thoughts and emotions that make Mom Mom are still in there. Maybe I could seed the clouds to help draw out the most meaningful episodes of her life. And all those flashbacks might add up to a bigger story that makes a new kind of sense.
She was watching TV when I arrived, at wake-the-dead volume. I knocked for awhile and finally just let myself in. She wasn’t expecting me. (I’ve learned this is the way to go; if I announce in advance that I’m coming, she gets confused and anxious about when.) For a couple of seconds she stared uncomprehending. And then … she lit up.
It’s not true that you never regret visiting your mother. (In the moment, when she’s pushing your buttons like a shuttle commander, Netflix and a beer can seem like the better alternative.) But you never regret having visited your mother. The first five seconds – the pure reaction, blood meets blood, no judgment — drives home how much it means to do this. For almost all of human history, as long as our mothers were alive we were never far from them. It’s weird, on some level, to just move away. It’s like telling the taxi driver to wait at the curb for a sec while you mail a letter, and then you just don’t come back. And the longer you’re away, the harder it is to come back, because you know the meter’s been running the entire time.
Mom looked good. She’d just had her hair done, and was wearing a bright new blue top. She sat on the new couch my sister Carol had bought for her. It’s firmer than the old one, which made getting her into the wheelchair an easier rollout.
We had coffee and banana bread down in “the “court,” easing into this visit. She introduced me to a few people. Got some facts wrong (wrong city, wrong job) but she knew my name and she knew I was her son. Conversations with Alzheimer’s patients are an adventure. It’s rarely a good idea to flat-out contradict what they just told you: it tends to put the brakes on further sharing. Better to think of the whole enterprise as improv theatre. Whatever is offered you nod and accept and build on. Yes, and…
Back in her room, I brought out a memory aid: her high-school yearbook. There she was, a graduating senior: blonde, blue-eyed, with a “weakness for chocolate milkshakes.”
“Contemplates a business career” the entry said, under future ambition.
“Business?!” I said.
Mom shrugged, and grinned a little.
I thumbed forward a few pages. Mom spotted a face she recognized. A gentleman with a pointed chin and a huge pompadour.
“He was my boyfriend,” Mom said.
Under “likes,” this fellow, Gordon Robertson, had put: “skiing, skating, shooting, and blondes.”
Ew. My mom isn’t some “blonde.” She’s my mom.
I needed to bring a real man into the theatre of her mind — the man she married. So out came the home movies. Thanks to my sister Lynn, the best of the footage Dad shot on super-8 over the years was now on a single DVD and set to music. This was it, the story of our family, if Chuck Mangione had been sitting in the corner softly bugling the whole time.
Up through the years we tumbled. Summers in Jasper, Penticton, the Oregon dunes. California, where Dad did post-doc work. Period cars driving on the beach. Relatives now long dead looking spry and mischievous.
My own memory vault was popping rivets. I recall being squired around by Mom as a little kid, just the two of us (Dad working, my sisters already in school). Each of those memories tagged by smell: cinnamon-y Bee Bell Bakery, the sulfurous swimming pool at the Y, leathery Jack and Jill Shoes. For a number of years I was her date. We went places, holding hands.
But Mom wasn’t having quite the same pleasant trip down memory lane.
“These are old pictures,” she said.
I kept trying to steer the conversation back to Dad, her North, her love. They were so happy. You can see it in her face in every frame. And yet.
“I don’t think he’s still alive,” she said.
At a certain point the DVD started skipping. I tried monkeying with it.
“You know,” she said, “this is kind of a waste of time.”
“These are old pictures.”
It dawned on me then that I had miscalculated. Everything I was building to, all the questions (“How did Dad propose?” “What was the worst thing you did as a kid?”) that would make her laugh and cry and connect the dots, Mom didn’t want any of that. She didn’t want to live in the past, even for a day. She wanted to be right here, right now.
We spent the rest of the visit just hanging out. I told her about what our girls are up to, who their friends are, what they’re learning. Then we rack-focused back to Mom’s world. What a beautiful facility this is, I said. So clean. And the staff so friendly. And the light! Good old Edmonton: cold as the bejeezus but a riot of sunshine more days than not.
“When do you have to go?” she said.
“My plane leaves in about two hours. So, you know … soonish.”
Mom nodded. I held her gaze. Her eyes are rheumy, and there’s often a sadness in them that makes looking at her for very long uncomfortable. But I didn’t see that sadness now. I saw something like peace. The Tao of Mom. The tau of mom: those brain plaques that hijack whole personalities, but somehow can never quite get their sticky fingers on the soul.
I made a mental note to bring her a chocolate milkshake.