Mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers.
For me the full meaning of that most basic relationship has been turned topsy-turvy during the past year. The mother whose caring and concern used to smooth the rough places in my life is now in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's disease or some related syndrome, and I find myself assuming the role of mother to my mother.
"Are you Ruth's mother?" asks an elderly lady in the nursing home. My mother, who surprisingly always seems to remember my name, introduces me. "This is my mother," she may proudly announce to staff, patients or guests.
Basic Need to Love
Still, when I visit the nursing home, I see that these patients, many of whom are in varying stages of incoherence, express that basic need to love, to nurture, to mother. My mother clutches a soft teddy bear. "This is my baby," she says. "You may hold him for a while."
Another woman cradles a huge stuffed rabbit in her arms. She kisses it on the mouth, her eyes full of love she might have long ago lavished on an infant.
"That's all right, honey, yes, yes," another patient says to me, stroking my arm tenderly as though I were her daughter from the past.
Greater Love, Responsibility
Perhaps for me the hurt is greater because I am an only child, and the relationship between me and my mother was more intense, less diluted than it might have been had there been brothers and sisters. Certainly, the responsibility is greater now that important decisions must be made.
Quality care for an Alzheimer's victim is expensive and requires careful management of all available funds. Fortunately, we, my husband and I, are lucky: My mother's lifelong frugality gives us funds with which to work, all the more important for us because we are in that sandwich generation, those people who have to care for elderly parents at the same time we are pinching the pocketbook to provide a college education for our children.
Facing the need to get my mother's house ready to rent, I have been sorting through 86 years of belongings. As I search drawers and rummage in closets, I feel like a ransacker. I find secret memories, for years locked away from prying eyes. A love note from my mother to my father, dead now for almost 35 years, is tucked away in his wallet, which she could never bear to discard. A stack of mash notes from World War I sweethearts is tied with a faded satin ribbon. And, to my surprise, I find a letter from one of these old beaus, now in his late 80s or early 90s, postmarked last July when he returned some letters he had received from her while he was a doughboy in France so many years ago. Does one keep these things, or do they go out in the trash? Uncertain, I place them in the pile that I will take home with me.
I ponder the fact that at least my son and daughter won't have to worry about saving my love letters. The boys of my youth didn't write such poignant messages, at least not to me.
Attendants at the nursing home tell me that my mother is one of their most tidy patients. They comment on her love for pretty things. Of course, I knew that. Her home was a showplace filled with antiques. It was her pride and joy. What would she think of it now, I wonder, as I gaze around the once elegant living room, now so totally disrupted and denuded.
Begged to Stay Home
When she first began to notice memory loss, she begged me to let her stay in her house until the end. As her condition worsened, I hired people to live in, a situation she hated, for she loathed the dependency and the intrusion on her privacy. She had lived alone since my father's death. Unfortunately, as the disease progressed, she became more agitated and confused. Finally, the live-ins quit, and for her care and safety we had to face the fact that a nursing home was the next move. At least, I console myself that I waited until she really didn't seem to know the difference.
Wanting to Share
We sit side by side in the nursing-home lounge. The home is operated by a caring religious order. One of the brothers has given my mother a purse containing some baubles and old jewelry. "Look at this," she says, pulling out a string of plastic beads. "Aren't they pretty?" she asks. "Here, honey, you take them," she says. This is one of her better days. "No, no," I protest. "They are yours. You keep them." For a moment she is again the loving mother who always wanted to share, to give.
Knowing that I should disengage myself to start on the road before the rush-hour traffic gets really bad, I say goodby. "I love you, love you, love you," she says. "Oh, you're not going to go." She begins to get agitated. Feeling cruel, I hurriedly leave. The patients wave at me as I lock the door that protects them from the outside world. I know that my mother will only remember my visit for a few moments once I am out of sight.
As I walk down the corridor to the parking lot, I ponder the paradox of life that brings otherwise successful, intelligent people to such an end. The thought comes to me that the roles we play, and the accomplishments we make may not be the most important attainments to our lives. They are transient and may be forgotten, but the ability to express caring and love can exist even when the awareness of self may be eroding away.