Monday, July 15, 2013

Houses I Used to Live in, Baths in the Sink, and New Skills

About six months ago, I was driving my mother around.  (She is 93 and has dementia, and she likes to take drives and look at pretty neighborhoods and trees.)  On a lark, I drove her to the street where I knew she and my father had rented a house when they first moved to the Bay Area.  It was the house in which I was born 56 years ago.

We drove up the street.  My mother looked out the window intently, oohing and aahing at the beautiful trees shading each house.  “Lordy!” she whispered repeatedly, followed by “Vey iz mir!,” which is Yiddish for “Holy crap!”  But she didn’t recognize any of the houses as being the one she and my father had lived in.

We reached the end of the street and turned around.  She oohed and aahed some more, but I could tell that nothing looked familiar.  She often has a blank look these days. It’s common in those with dementia.  “I don’t remember,” she whispered over and over.

Then, at the corner, as we were about to turn onto the main boulevard through town, she gasped.  I looked over at her.  The blankness was gone.  She was pointing.  “That’s it!” she cried.  “That’s the house!”

The house on the corner was a ranch house, updated to resemble the others on the street, but I could see a small area of painted-over brick that looked older.  And the gate to the back of the house had a heart-shaped cut-out in it that also looked to be from another era.  I pulled over to the curb.

“That’s it!” my mother marveled.  “I remember!  I remember that window,” she said, pointing.  “It’s the kitchen.  I used to give you baths in the sink!”

I confess to feeling emotional when she said it.  As regular readers of my blog know, my mother has been angry with me for almost two years, since I took her car away.  She forgets everything these days—what month it is, what day of the week, my kids’ names—but she never forgets that.

So to know that some aspect of my babyhood was important enough, or meaningful enough, or pleasant enough to have escaped the fog of dementia that is eating away at her brain was inordinately gratifying to me.

We have talked about that day often over the last few months.  “Remember when we saw our old house?” she always asks. There is a hint of triumph in her voice.  She wants me to acknowledge this feat for what it is, even as she refuses to admit that there is anything physically wrong with her.

Look what I found last week:

There I am at age 14 1/2 months, about three weeks before my brother was born.  (I know
because the date—September 1, 1958—is carefully inscribed on the back, in my father’s meticulous hand.)   I recognize that little cup on the window sill: my mother still has it. 
I also like that I look happy, maybe even gleeful.  Sometimes, in old pictures, I am unsmiling.  I look worried (clearly attempting to perfect what would turn out to be a lifelong condition).  But not here.

I couldn’t wait to show the picture to my mother.  I drove up to see her, as I do most weeks.  When I got her in the car, I showed it to her.  “Look at this!” I said.

My mother took the photograph from me.  “Oh!” she said.  I could tell that it didn’t mean anything to her, that she was hoping by pretending to understand what I was trying to show her, she could fool me into believing that she knew what I was getting at.

“Mom, remember our old house that we drove by?  The one you remembered, the one where you gave me a bath in the sink!  Here I am!  In the sink!  Right here!”

But she had that blank look again.

“I remember that house,” she said.  Then she pointed at the photograph.  “But who is this?”

“It’s me.  When I was a baby!”

She looked confused.  “Is this…your daughter?”

I could feel my happiness draining away, replaced by the sense of now-familiar hopelessness, of time slipping away, of anger at the relentlessness of this horrible, horrible disease.

“No, Mom.  It’s me.”

“Oh.”  She looked at it briefly.  “It’s very nice.”  Then she said, “You don’t want me to keep it, do you?”

“If you want to have it, I’d love to give it to you.”

“No,” she said mildly, handing it back.  “No, I don’t think so.”

We had a lovely day.  I drove her through the town in which I went to high school.  It’s another place she lived, another old address of which she has no memory.  “Lordy,” she breathed, looking up at the stately homes.

One of the things I’m learning about myself as I try to escort my mother through this process is that I’m a big explainer.  I’m always trying to tell people things, and to make things clearer when I don’t feel I’ve been properly understood.

I kind of like this about myself.  I value being forthright, being (relatively) transparent, being able to describe and elucidate the world in such a way that it makes sense to myself and to others. 

It makes me a good writer.

But right now, it doesn’t make me a good daughter.

So I’m trying to adjust, trying to learn new skills.  Last week, as we drove through one of the many towns in which I lived with my mother, I practiced saying things like, “Look at that tree, Mom!” and “Look at that house!”  I smiled a lot.  And I tried not to look worried.


  1. This was very touching. My grandmother suffers from dementia as well. It's hard on everyone. We have to treat our loved ones with patience and dignity in spite of the disease wasting their mind. It's a truly terrible disease.
    I also wanted to tell you that I enjoy your writing style very much.

  2. Gabrielle, thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm so sorry about your grandmother. It is a wretched disease, particularly when it renders the victim angry and paranoid.
    It helps to know that writing about it makes an impression on others who are going through the same thing.
    All best to you and yours.