I know I am lucky to still have my mother. I am lucky to be able to spend Mother’s Day with her again this year. I plan to bring her some of her favorite foods—potato salad and strawberry shortcake, using her recipes to make them. It’s a warm day, so we’ll be able to sit outside for a while, watching spring arrive, listening for the songs of birds she loves and no longer gets to hear very often.
For her 85th birthday, I threw her a large family party in the community room of the senior housing complex where she used to live. We had a great buffet, played her favorite music, gave her gifts, and enjoyed being together as a family, a rare event lately. The day after the party, we took her to Ogunquit, Maine, a favorite place for both of my parents years ago. She enjoyed everything, and in late afternoon, she would take a glass of wine, sit in a lounge chair on the knoll at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and totally relax. I am so glad we had that time together before all memories began to leave her, like leaves falling from the trees in October.
Today at age 91, she no longer has memories of family or the life she had with my father in Florida. She confuses her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She doesn’t remember her nieces, one of whom she took in along with her small child to save her from an abusive husband. Her niece remembers her kindness, and many others do also. But now she is angry and at times mean-spirited due to her dementia. She can’t help it, but it is in strong contrast to the mother I used to have, the one who always thought of others, baking for them, helping them when they needed it, consoling and supporting her daughters during their fight against breast cancer. Today the mother I knew is gone. The love she had for others has been replaced by anger, fear, and delusions.
I’ve been thinking today about the three people who died in the hot air balloon when it caught fire in Virginia. I heard the stories from bystanders who told how they heard screams and cries of those who suddenly knew they were about to die. How awful it must be to know death is coming unexpectedly. Is that really different, I wonder, from the slow, agonizing, painful death from cancer, knowing it is coming but unable to hurry it up to end the suffering? Is it really different from the slow death from dementia, the loss of memory and function as the brain slowly dies. Is that different from another kind of death where hopes and dreams are gone, leaving one with a struggle each day for mere existence, a death where it’s not the brain that’s dying. It’s the heart.