The absence of things known
It finally happened. Last night, I arrived at her house after long flight delays, and my mother, who had been waiting for me, didn’t know who I was. She beamed at me with that smile reserved for people she thinks she knows, or should remember, but doesn’t. No panic on my end; but I grasped at reasons like so many proverbial straws.
It was because we were late; airline glitches had us walking into her house at midnight. Or, maybe, it was because we were an entourage. My cousin and his fiancée had picked us up; four people knocking on your door at midnight is confusing to anyone, more so to someone with dementia. Maybe it was the combination of it all – the lateness of the hour, the break in routine, the number of faces to match with names.
She had dozed off while waiting for us. Now she lay on the couch, smiling and watching the rest of us laugh and talk. I bent over her and asked if she was sleepy. “Tiene sueño, Mom?” Nothing, just a smile as she looked right in my eyes. “Sabe quien soy?” A pause, a flicker of the eyes to her caregiver, and then a small shake of the head. Negative: she didn’t know who I was.
How does it happen, this waver in the mind that makes things disappear? It’s a bend or interruption in the streaming of thoughts – the equivalent of lights flickering in a storm, threatening to go out. That’s the only way I can visualize this absence of things known; they sometimes reappear as soon as you notice they’re gone. But sometimes, they’re gone a long time. And with Alzheimer’s, you grab and squeeze them to you in the hopes of forestalling the moment their absence becomes permanent.
My moment of nonexistence was brief – a few minutes at most. I was too exhausted to feel the weight of my own disappearance from my mother’s mind. Maybe that’s why I was able to smile back and calmly remind her with my nickname, “Soy su hija, Betty.” And just like that, the flickering stopped, her thoughts came back into alignment and I reappeared. She reached up and took my face in her hands, laughed, and said, “Que bonita mi Betty!”