Returning as they once were
In contrast to the shells they are becoming, they have begun returning to me as they once were: the two women I call “Mom” and “mother-in-law.”
My mother was sent home from daycare last week because she was being disruptive and despite staff efforts at redirection, she remained very agitated. She wandered around in search of “her blouse,” and couldn’t be dissuaded from trying to kiss the man sitting at the table next to her.
But several nights ago while traveling through the depths of slumber I saw her, clear as day and as whole and unbroken as she used to be. She did not say a word while visiting; she was simply there, a wall of support and a symbol of love and comfort.
Earlier this week, I sat with my mother-in-law in the living room of Autumn Leaves of Grapevine. I fetched a cup of lemonade, encouraging her to lift her chin in order to drink, but she seemed to have lost the ability to sit up. Despite the strums of a visiting country music singer, she spent the better part of two hours nearly doubled over. I was unable to get her to look at me even once.
Yet, she, too, has dropped in on my thoughts recently, her hair freshly highlighted and her Clinique lipstick perfectly applied for these visits. She is prone to appear while I’m channel surfing or selecting bell peppers in the supermarket.
They are two women from different socioeconomic levels and from different cultures. One anchored me in this world by birthing me in unconditional love. The other anchored me in her family with unconditional acceptance when I married her son.
They have this in common: they are among the strongest people I’ve known. I’ve been privy to intimate struggles in both their lives – divorce, death, and hurtful gossip. Some struggles have been public, some private. But both managed to always hold their heads high despite the whispers and sidelong glances of friends and neighbors.
I do recall times when I saw each women falter, two of which made an impression on me. When I was very young, in elementary school, I remember my mother going through some kind of despair for what seemed like months. What was it about? I don’t know. But for a while I was frightened. Did I catch her crying alone, or hear her say something to my dad, something that hinted at her pain? I don’t know. I know only that I’d awaken in the middle of the night to hear her walk to the bathroom and I’d keep my eyes open in the dark, thinking if I didn’t keep watch, she might decide to leave, walk out the door — or worse. I’d wait for the rustle of her moving back to the bedroom and under the covers. Only then would I feel secure enough to drift back to sleep. She eventually came back to us as we knew her, strong in her faith, in her love of her family, but I was left forever to wonder about the dark period in her life.
The time I saw my mother-in-law stumble was when her husband died. What a rock she seemed to me then, making funeral arrangements, preparing the obituary, not allowing anyone to spend even that first night after his death with her in a house suddenly made larger and emptier in the face of his absence. Then, the day of the memorial, as we walked down the church aisle to step outside and greet those who’d come to bid him farewell, she suddenly gripped my arm with one hand and John’s with the other, and her face screwed up with pent up sobs. “I thought the tears were done,” she said. But there they were, tracking down her immaculate makeup. In the weeks to come, anger would replace the pain — anger at being widowed in her early 60s, but I won’t forget those tears, ever.
Once, I interviewed a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center who explained that to better cope, it’s important for caregivers to find meaning in the person with dementia at every step of the disease. And when that patient can no longer speak or walk or make eye contact, perhaps the meaning in her life at that point is to remind us – through memories of her – of who we are.
Did I summon these unexpected visits from my younger, healthier mom and mother-in-law? Not consciously, though I harbor that chronic, invisible ache of missing the women they used to be. Subconsciously, however, I am part of a wide web of ancestors who know what I need at any given time, and who are prone to sending aid in unexpected ways when I think I can’t hold on anymore.
Some days, I succumb to anger and frustration — about lots of things: the lack of empathy in society, the bigotry I see in the world, the sheer impotence in the face of my mother and mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s. Then my familia past and present rallies with the gift of memory. I ask – no, I beg – these two women whose faces are put before me: “How did you do it? How did you cope? Where did you get the strength to put one foot in front of the other?”
They don’t speak. But they don’t waver either. It’s as if they are letting me draw on the women they were, allowing me to reclaim in their strength the spine they bequeathed to me. They simply stay and let me lean on them until I’m ready to move on.
(c) 2011 Beatriz Terrazas