Losing My Mother
The three of us were eating turkey sandwiches at my kitchen table. It was the summer of 1974, and I was 33. My mother had driven to my house in Charlotte, North Carolina, from hers in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Mollie, my mother-in-law, was visiting from Miami. Newly widowed, Mollie was talking about buying a condominium. She and her late husband had always lived in rental apartments, but now she wondered if she had been throwing her money away. Mother, the world’s best listener, began weighing the benefits of renting vs. owning. When she came to the word condominium, she stumbled.
“If you buy a condo-nim-i-um…” she said, not quite able to unroll the syllables. I took a big bite of my sandwich. The bread stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Mother was determined. “I mean, condo-nim-i-um…” She stopped and started again. “A condo…” she said. “Condo… Uh, a condo…” Then she was silent. She stared out the window at a bush in the backyard, as if she were mentally rummaging through its leaves to find the word.
I swallowed. “Condominium, Mother.”
She had always been an unusually bright and articulate woman: the only female enrolled in the CPA program at her university back in the 1920s; a diligent accountant who kept the books for my father’s clothing stores; an expert completer of crossword puzzles. Why was she having such difficulty connecting the vowels and the consonants of this ordinary noun?
Soon I noticed other troubling signs. When the two of us stopped by the grocery store, she managed to pay with the right number of dollar bills. But then she dumped all the change from her wallet into her hand—dimes, quarters, pennies loose as copper fish—and held out her palm for the checkout girl to take what she needed.
When I went to my father to share what I had observed, he told his own story. She couldn’t unlock the door that led from the garage into the house. The first time it happened, he said, she tried to fit the key into the hole. But she kept missing, poking it into the brass surround over and over again. It was as though her fingers didn’t belong to her.
I blamed all these alarming mishaps on what I considered her advanced age: She was 65. (Of course, our parents always seem old to us, even when they’re not.) The changes kept on coming, though; her personality began to alter dramatically. My normally buoyant mother had become pessimistic, withdrawn, depressed.
In November, my father; my husband, Henry; and I were at my sister Brenda’s home in Charlotte for dinner. Mother was away, visiting her own sisters. Before we got to the table, before we had even taken off our jackets—in the front hall, under that merciless overhead light—we compared notes. One story, then another. The words like matches striking.
In our family, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was the final word on health. My parents and my aunts and uncles had flown there together many times over the years just to get checked out. They got excited about these trips, as though they were heading to a spa or some other glamorous destination.
This time my parents flew to Mayo, in the middle of winter, alone. When they returned, Henry and I picked them up at the airport and drove them home. My parents talked about everything but the diagnosis. They told us about the underground tunnel from their hotel to the hospital; how they had never ventured outside, because the city was frozen. It wasn’t until after we had brought in the suitcases that my parents told us the real news.
That morning, the doctor had sat across from them in his office and delivered the results: Alzheimer’s disease.
Later that evening, I hunched on a low stool in Mother’s closet, my face tilted up toward her, as she unbuttoned and stepped out of her wool pants. When she twisted to pull off her long-sleeved slip-over sweater, I stood up to help. She raised both arms like a child. They hung in the air. I was the grown-up, removing her sweater and folding it away on the shelf. I held her upright as she slid her shoes to me, one at a time. She was tired, I could tell. She rolled down her panty hose and her panties and turned so that I could unhook her bra. In a gesture of respect, I glanced away at the corner.
When I looked back, she was holding her nylon nightgown. I accordioned it up and let it down over her shoulders and the length of her body. She lowered her chin, and I saw that she was crying quietly. No sound. Only the tears, which made her cheeks wet and pearly. I reached for a Kleenex from her dressing table. She dabbed at her eyes and told me, “The first thing I said to the doctor was ‘How in the world am I going to tell my daughters?’ ”
Which was reassuring and unsettling, both. Reassuring, because she understood the diagnosis. For now, at least, my mother was still very much herself. The person with whom I identified most in the world was still here. Her main concerns were as they had always been: How would she protect Brenda and me? How could she comfort us, guard us, keep us safe?
Unsettling, because she had always believed nothing was so tough you couldn’t discuss it. Talking about difficult things is what got you to the other side. But this news was different; it was uniquely awful, the kind of thing no mother ever wants to say to her children.
Over the next few years, everywhere I looked, people who wanted to live more than anything were dying. On TV and in the newspapers, they were having car wrecks and heart attacks; children were being killed in freak accidents, falling off slides, choking on bites of meat. I often looked at the creature in my mother’s bed in the nursing home and wondered why her death seemed so unattainable.
In 1981 I started writing a novel about a woman whose mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. The daughter can’t bear to see her suffer, can’t bear her mother’s humiliation, and decides to end her suffering and humiliation by killing her.
One Saturday morning, I was at my son’s basketball game, sitting high in the stands, next to a physician whose son was also on the team. I turned to him and asked, “How can you kill a person without anyone finding out? I mean, isn’t there a way to inject something in a person’s vein that would go undetected? Like in the ankle?” I neglected to mention I was asking this because of my novel. With eyes straight ahead, he said, “Doctors are trained to save lives, not end them.”
I abandoned the book. I accepted the fact that my mother might live with this illness for years. Other than having Alzheimer’s disease, she was healthy.
A few months later, I was about to lead a writing workshop in a condo clubhouse near my home. In the kitchen, a phone rang. Someone picked up. “Judy, it’s for you.” I moved toward the kitchen, the receiver was handed to me, and I heard my best friend’s voice. She had known where to find me.
“Jude, your mom died.”
That sentence still rings in my ears. I can replicate the exact tone: Juuude (drawn out like a question), your (goes up on the scale) mom (higher) died (lower).
Near the end of her life, I could not see beyond my mother’s childlike stare, the confused disorder in her eyes. I could not feel anything but the ache of having to be my mother’s mother. After she died and I had finally shaken off the last shiver of the disease, I was able to remember what she had been like before Alzheimer’s.
I could see her turn her wrist to adjust her watch. There she was, at her dressing table, leaning into the magnifying mirror, plucking her eyebrows. I could see her dipping the tiny wand in the brown Mercurochrome bottle, painting my bruised knee orange. She was the grown-up. And I, again, was the child.