“Those braces on your sister’s mouth are my Cadillac,” my mother used to say when I was a child. As I grew older, our family’s shaky finances meant she had to put dreams of buying a fancy car on hold, but she never gave up hope. “Don’t worry, dear,” she’d say, “when all three of you are grown up you can buy me a Jaguar.”
My mother spoke longingly of her retirement, of the days in which she wouldn’t be responsible for much more than deciding whether to move to Boca or Soho.
But that was years before my mother got sick.
At 61, my mother stopped remembering little things. Did she boil water for her cup of tea? Which grandchild was having a birthday this month? Zack or Olivia? Did she lose her engagement ring or did someone take it?
At first, I wondered if this behavior was so different from her usual self – the woman who constantly misplaced her keys to the car, who walked around with a personal
planner packed with a disorganized mess of notes.
Then, when my mother was 64, I was driving her between my sister’s in Boston and my house in Providence. In the midst of our conversation, a panic crossed her face and she grabbed at the door, trying to get out. She turned to me and said with fear in her voice, “Who are you?”
A year later, she was diagnosed with something the doctors like to call “mild cognitive impairment” – a diagnosis which left me room for hope. Maybe it won’t get worse. Maybe she’s depressed. Maybe they’ll find the right meds.
Hope was ripped out of my heart this September when my mother received the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. As the words flowed from the neurologist’s mouth, I watched my mother listen. A tear ran down her face, a moment of recognition that something terrible was wrong, and then she began to smile. She no longer remembered what the kind doctor had just said; she was being polite.
In that same moment, I sat beside the doctor, whispering questions because I could not find my regular voice: “How much longer does she have to live?” As I searched the doctor’s face for the answer, I realized I knew it. My mother is already gone.
Everyday I miss my mother, the woman who struck up cheerful conversations with strangers at the grocery store; who turned heads when she walked into a room; who told me she’d buy me a business if I failed out of college because she thought I was brilliant. In my loss, I believe that to honor my beautiful mother, I must continue to love the woman she’s becoming. I must try to make peace with the madness of her world.
In the evening, when the Alzheimer’s symptoms worsen, my mother starts screaming that someone is stealing her $65,000 car, even though what she really owns is an old Nissan. Somewhere, trapped in my mother’s fractured mind, she finally has her Jaguar.
Sweet dreams, Mom.
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