When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I told myself I would be fine, but after eight years of watching her slow slide into oblivion, my resolve turned into resentment. I put her in a nursing home when she stopped walking. I was aging, well past the midpoint of my life, and I didn’t want to give her more energy than I felt she deserved.
I visited once a week, did her laundry, spoke with staff, and waited. This ritual would have been unthinkable in my youth when I felt I could not survive without her. This was before we became frustrated with each other, before I finally admitted I had a mother who could be hard to love and even harder to please.
This change in our relationship began in 1985, when I was twenty-two and embarked on a series of failed romances, prompting her to tell me she doubted there was a man who hadn’t spent time on top of me. At thirty-two, after an earnest attempt at stability, I left my first husband and moved in with my parents. Outwardly, my mother was supportive, but privately, my looming divorce frustrated her. After just two years of marriage, her college-educated daughter was back home. My mom was a seamstress and the gossipy whispers with her mostly upper-crust clients started almost as soon as the door to her sewing room closed. I could hear enough bits and pieces to understand that I was, if not unwelcome, then certainly underfoot. I didn’t really want to be there, but I needed a place to pull together some money and sort through my options.
My parents were still married but had separate lives. On my mother’s end, their troubles started right after they married. His refusal to buy her a coffee cake from the A&P. The cheap, freezing apartment on East Bancroft Street where ice formed inside the windows during brutal Toledo winters. His insistence that she run the family business while he, struggling with health setbacks, took a long break abroad to gather himself. It piled on, and thirty years in, armed with a punishing grudge, she moved into a spare bedroom and separated the bank accounts. She made sure to tell me everything until her issues with him became mine, too. I wanted to be a loyal daughter but only to her.
Not long after I moved in, I noticed my mother leaving the house without saying anything. On these occasions, she was nicely dressed, a boxy leather purse swinging on her wrist. After a few months, she introduced me to a friend. I knew she felt forced into this decision. If I weren’t living with her, she would have said nothing. Walter was in his seventies. He was tall, nervous, but genial, and wore wire-rimmed glasses, khaki pants, and a plaid shirt. I knew he was a secret — he was married — and that bringing me into their circle meant she was either going to resent me for knowing or feel relieved to have someone to talk to. They continued to spend time together at the movies and lunch. I kept quiet and focused on rebuilding my life. I got married. Had children. My brother died of kidney cancer. I fixed things with my dad. I regretted mistreating him to curry favor with a woman who was often disappointed with her family. With me.
Within two years of my brother’s death, my father and I became even more invisible to my mother than we already had been. My father accepted losing a child. She allowed it to destroy her. Within three years, she became confused. She lost interest in her routine, quit sewing, showering, didn’t change her clothes, or do household chores. Her face was pale. Her hair thinned and turned white. Her daily routine consisted of lying on the sofa for hours.
More years passed. I continued helping both of my parents, traveling between their home and mine. I watched as other people got to the end of caring for a parent and wondered when it was going to be my turn. I wanted to have time alone with my father to fully repair our relationship, and I thought we would outlast her.
He died first. In his final hours, he told me I had a mother I didn’t deserve. It was his way of forgiving me, but it also seemed he wanted to be forgiven for not doing more to protect me. Around the same time, my mom began to need more help than I could give her. I also didn’t feel like doing it anymore.
On nice days, I took her for walks, pushing her wheelchair through a condo community near the nursing home. On rainy or cold days, I took her through different units in the care home. I could have taken her home with me for holidays, but I never did. It was during these years that I began to think of Walter. With minimal Googling, I found out he was dead. His wife was dead, too. His obituary told his story: a distinguished Navy career that took him around the world. When I knew him, he was an unassuming older man who liked my mom.
Over time, a chalky fog continued to engulf my mother. Still, she scrutinized me.
“You’re beautiful. Are you single?” she’d ask.
“Yes, for a long time.”
“Are you lucky?”
On good days, she seemed to know what happened to her and she thanked me. I would put my head in her lap, whisper “sorry Mom” and let her thin fingers rub my aching shoulders. She’d say, “What are you sorry about? Everyone makes mistakes.”
She went on, living long enough for me to begin feeling something between nostalgia and forgiveness. It was an understanding that she did the best she could. Her legacy would be showing me how to be and how not to be. She was hard on both of us, but she was still my mother, and her life was ending. She was so defeated by disease and time, that it became harder for me to point my finger at her. I couldn’t blame her for the years before when she wanted another life. Sometimes, I do, too, and I never feel like I am past another divorce or a life-changing tragedy.
She died in the middle of the night, eighteen years after her son died and seven years after my father’s death. I gave the funeral director, as I did when my father had died, some of my brother’s ashes to put in her coffin. And, not long after her death, a tightly-coiled string that was stored in my mind, unraveled.
I begin. I am a year old and just starting to walk. Perfect, in a white dress with matching socks and white leather shoes. It is the picture my father kept on his dresser throughout his life. I am nine and sick with mumps and chickenpox. She is kneeling by my bed, praying for the fever to break. I am twenty and heading back to college. She hands me twenty dollars and tells me that one day I will understand why money in my wallet can be like a good friend.
I am nearly forty and she has repaired the holes in my jeans — even though I bought them that way. She said I had too much class to wear ripped clothes. My father is riding in the car next to me. We are talking and laughing. My brother steps forward. He has something to tell me, but there isn’t enough time. She is planting jonquil bulbs I haven’t gotten to. She is sick with dementia, but she chooses a good, sunny spot. When I asked her why she picked it, she still knew enough to tell me they will have a better chance of surviving if they are planted in the sun. Perhaps it was her final gesture to me, to make sure I raise my girls with fewer clouds and more warmth. We both knew that was better.