It was a strange dream in which I walked along a river bank with my mother and one of my aunts. At one point, my mother somehow slipped on the bank and fell into the water, and floated under a natural bridge created by a fallen tree and its branches. She bobbed up on the other side while I stood frozen in terror on the bank repeating in a panic, “I can’t swim! I can’t swim!” Then somehow, my mom was on the bank, and my aunt was in the water, and similarly, my heart pounded while I tried to figure out what to do.
Helpless, I thought. I feel so helpless. My mother is going to drown. My aunt is going to drown. And I can’t swim.
When I woke up, relieved to see the walls of my bedroom, and the dog lying on the bed between my husband and me, it still took some long moments to rid my mouth of the taste of fear. What did this dream mean? And to what can I attribute the words, “I can’t swim. I can’t swim.” Why couldn’t I dive in the water to rescue my mom? Or my aunt?
These two women have played major roles in my life. This particular aunt has been like a second mother to me in some ways, and in the wake of my mother’s diagnosis, is the one to whom I’ve turned for retrieval of those memories disappearing from my mother’s mind. When my mother was still trying to pretend that nothing was wrong, my aunt and I would talk by phone and she would fill me in on the things my mother didn’t want me to know. This wasn’t done behind my mother’s back to conspire against her, but simply out of love, out of concern that something might happen to her sister/my mother if we didn’t manage to talk her out of driving, for instance, or out of the idea that she could still live alone.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even a very good believer. Sometimes I rage at God, and some days I swear to him or her that he or she cannot possibly exist when I see so much hurt and pain in the world. Some days, I really don’t believe in any kind of universal being. So, when I woke up and assessed my dream it was with neither the mind of a scientist nor the heart of a believer. It was just me, a very human daughter and niece intuiting the fears I’ve squashed into tiny compartments in my mind so that I can function on a daily basis. The problem is that the fears and emotions sometimes clothe themselves in dreams and emerge during the night, insisting I acknowledge them. And there they were.
Maybe my mother went into the water first because I felt her slipping away first. I stood on the bank saying, “I can’t swim,” because in the wake of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, I truly am powerless as far as stopping the disease. What can I do? I can’t cure her. I can’t stop the destruction of her brain cells. The only thing I can do is enjoy the parts of her that are still intact, laugh with her when she laughs, make sure that she is happy and comfortable and feeling no pain from any other ills. But it is difficult to not wallow in that sense of helplessness as my mother floats farther and farther away from me as the disease advances.
Maybe my aunt fell in the water second because lately I’ve seen more of her sadness about my mother’s disease. She sometimes laughs when my mother forgets her name, but other moments bring out the tears. Like when my mother insists on giving her sister a dollar when she fixes her a meal. My aunt’s advancing age also concerns me. She has a knee replacement and a leg she broke well into her senior years; both cause her pain still. I can’t do anything for her either, except love her and tell her I appreciate her. That one day I won’t have her either also hurts. Who will tell me their stories then?
I’m Mexican, so I was raised with the knowledge that death is but another part of life. We do not run from it, but face it head on, and when the end comes, we take the shovel and spadeful by spadeful, send our loved ones back into the Earth’s womb. Still, the loss cuts to the bone. The only thing to do is live through the pain, and appreciate even that as an integral part of life.