My mother as a young girl with Sonny.
I like to think of September as my mother's month. She was born in September and died in September, and I still recall her singing the lyrics to "Try to Remember" (from The Fantasticks) when I'd play it on the piano in the living room of my girlhood home. Just as my mother did, I love the burst of creative energy this month brings; the way it feels more like the start of a season rather than the ending of one.
Today is the third anniversary of my mother's death. Through the lens of retrospect, I see that I've been grieving multiple losses: the emotional loss of the mother I knew before dementia changed her, the physical loss of my mother when she died, and the loss of my role as a daughter.
As the cliche goes, time heals all wounds -- yet I don't believe for a moment that we ever fully recover from our most painful family losses. We adapt to those losses, and maybe even grow stronger from them, but our lives are forever changed when the people we love are no longer with us.
In the last seven years of her life, my mother's personality and mental outlook were constantly challenged by chronic illness, severe hearing loss, and vascular dementia.
But no matter how much memory she lost, she never forgot that she wanted stay in her own home. In the early stages of her illness, I tried my best to make that possible. Because she was widowed and lived alone, I hired visiting nurses and part-time caregivers to help keep her safe in her own place. Living nearby, I cleaned her house, took her grocery shopping, supervised her daily medications, and drove her to her various medical appointments. And I worried about her every minute of the day.
A broken ankle eventually put her in a wheelchair for good, and by that time, it would have been impossible for her to remain at home without a full-time team of skilled nurses. Regardless, she insisted that she was capable of taking care of herself. She didn't believe that she couldn't walk, nor did she understand why she wasn't allowed to drive anymore. As her dementia progressed, we had to place her in a nursing home, where she told everyone I was "imprisoning" her -- and that I'd stolen her car.
The close relationship we'd once enjoyed was sorely tested then. She was bitter and frightened; I was tired and angry. Our quality time together was mostly spent in hospital emergency rooms and doctors' offices. For all that, there was no remedy for her heart disease or the dementia that warped her sense of reality.
In those days, I was fueled by stress and caffeine. Consumed by the management of my mother's ongoing medical crises, I lost sight of how much I missed my "real" mom -- the woman who had given so much to our family, hosted Sunday dinners and holidays, shopped with me, nursed me back to health after two hip surgeries, and listened with an open heart to all of my troubles and triumphs.
In her final months, she had no idea that I was struggling to keep her comfortable, or that my heart was breaking too. Every time I said good-bye to her in the nursing home, I backed away with regret. I felt helpless and ashamed in the face of her fear and unhappiness -- and I knew she still blamed me for the sad fact that she wasn't living in her own home.
I was depressed for more than a year after my mother died. Most people seem surprised when I admit that, although a handful of dear souls who know me best could see that I wasn't myself. During that time, I went about the lonely business of cleaning out my mother's home and sorting through her belongings, dutifully preparing for an estate sale. To cope, I simply numbed out.
As the months drifted by, I revisited memories of the mother I knew and loved before dementia changed everything. Emerging from the fog of grief, I began to find her in the keepsakes she'd given me over the years. The good times associated with those lovely things, including old photographs, came back into focus.
I remembered, too, that my mother had a history and dreams of her own -- long before she gave birth to me. In several of my favorite photos, she's posing with Sonny, her beloved collie dog, and I've often wished she could have met Coco, the sweet shepherd I adopted three years ago from a rescue shelter.
Finally, in my mind's eye, I was able to see my mother as so much more than the frightened, fading woman I left in a hospital bed in a nursing home.
Cleaning my bookshelves one afternoon, I found the last birthday card my mother remembered to send me before her illness took hold. Its Hallmark verse read: Daughter, Yours is a place on earth that no one else could fill.... yours is a love that no one else could give. Even more than the day you came into this world ... I love you.
Then, in her delicate handwriting, she signed off in her own words, "You have given me so much pleasure, and I am so very proud of you, Love, Mom."
That was the mother I want to remember, always, and I keep this card where I can see it every day. ~CL
(To read the eulogy I wrote for my mother's funeral three years ago, please click here.)