Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Conversation with My Mother

I drove up to see my mother today.  She was happy to see me, demonstrative, affectionate.  She hugged me at the door and then again after she put on her shoes.  Her feet are almost inhuman: misshapen, crooked, all knobs and wayward bones.  She will be 95 next month.

I held her hand in the elevator, and then on the short walk to the car.  She was tippy, as though she was log-rolling.  When she lowered herself into the car, she was out of breath.  

I spend so much time examining her failing cognition that I forget to account for her body's slow decline.  

In the car, my mother seemed less interested in looking at pretty houses than usual.  She wanted me to tell her stories about her life.  She was especially anxious to hear about her marriage.  "Did we love each other?" she asked.  "Were we happy?"

(I have to manage my habitual honesty.  Long ago, I realized I would rather be authentic and true to myself than happy [although the older I get, the more I question this, because what the hell is so bad about being happy?].  But people with dementia don't need or appreciate truthfulness.  So I am learning to talk less and gloss over the undeniable.  I feel it as a slowing down, a gentling.  And also a kind of editing.  I look for what is true and can be said, leaving out what is true and hurtful.)

"Yes," I said.  "You were good friends."

"Was he happy here?"

"Here" is Piedmont, a beautiful town east of San Francisco.  I realize I don't know the answer.  My father was preoccupied with his surgery practice and his life away from home.  He died when I was 19, before I had any interest in finding out whether he considered himself happy.

"I think so," I said.

"I can barely remember him," Mom said.  "It's the strangest thing."

"He died a long time ago, Mom.  And you are pretty damn old."

She laughed.  "It's something, isn't it?"

Sometimes, it is like we are just talking.  

Then she asked "Did we live together?" and I felt the familiar presence of her illness--another passenger in the car, sitting in the back seat, noisily demanding that I turn up the radio or open a window--encroaching.

"Who?  You and Dad?"

"No.  You and me."

"Did we live together?  You and me?"

She nodded yes.  

My brain--which still works, which works almost without my awareness--began to assemble my answer, slow my tongue.  The way you tell your four-year-old about sex: just the facts, deliberately stated in a pleasant tone of voice.  Mildly.  Nothing that will cause shame or outrage.

"I lived with you from the time I was born until I was 18.  I'm your daughter.  We lived together for 18 years."

"Oh!"  she said, and then a moment later, "Oh!  Of course!"  

Then she said, haltingly, "I thought you and I were the same, in position to him."

I took a second.  Then I said, "No.  I was Dad's daughter.  You were his wife."

She nodded as if she understood.  But I'm not sure she did.  I'm not sure she ever did.  I think her husband's uncomplicated, total love for his daughter was a source of hurt and anger for her for nearly all of my life.  I think it colored everything that happened in our family.  It was in the air we breathed. Unstated, but there.  Undeniable.

"I am your daughter," I said.

She smiled.  "Oh, yes.  And I love you.  And you are wonderful.  A wonderful girl, to come and see me."

And then I stopped talking, because that seemed to be a pretty good time to end the conversation.

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