Some days when I visit my mother she thinks I’m her brother or someone else. Most of the time she knows who I am, but not always. Going to visit can be saddening or it can bring me joy–I never know which until I’m there and engaged in conversation. Sometimes you can tell she is not quite sure who you are, so she acts as if she recognizes you so as not to give it away that she doesn’t know. It can make it difficult to tell where her mind is at any given moment.
Last night when I stopped in she seemed to realize it was me, but she didn’t call me by name or anything, so I thought maybe she couldn’t remember. I asked how she was doing and she said she hadn’t been well. She is normally not a complainer in any way, so that surprised me. When I asked what was wrong she couldn’t really define it. When I told my brother about it later he mentioned that about a week ago she said to him that she thought maybe she was dying.
Of course she is dying. She has for years now been on a slow, steady decline, but she has also shown incredible strength and resolve each time we thought she was near the end. She received Last Rites almost a year ago and was kicked off of hospice because she had been doing so well after it looked pretty bad there for a while. She is 90 now and has been bedridden for about a year and a half or more.
This weekend’s visit was mostly good. Mom has several stuffed animals as friends and she acts as if they are family. They lay in bed with her and keep her company and brighten her days for her. They can be there when the rest of us can’t. There are two bright yellow ducks with large orange bills and because this is Wisconsin they have a friend that is a Holstein. Today I took a picture of them watching over her and it drew her attention to them. She asked how they were related to me. I said, “I’m not sure. I think they might be cousins.”
“And him?” she asked, pointing at the Holstein next to them. I said I thought it was a friend.
She asked where they live and I said, “Here, with you.”
She wanted to know about the Holstein. She said, “And him?”
I answered that he was staying here with his two duck friends. She asked, “What about his parents? Are they sick?”
I could only say that I didn’t know and then I thought about how sick my parent has been for so long and how her mind has slowly abandoned her. Dementia can be so cruel. We sat there silently for several minutes. She just stared into space as if pondering some deep philosophical question, but eventually whatever thought it was gave way to her eyes closing and her body settling into sleep again. I sat watching her for a while until I moved a bit and accidentally startled her awake.
“What was that?” she asked. I let her know I had moved suddenly and that I was sorry I woke her. She started laughing, embarrassed that she would be so frightened by a little movement. Her laughter can brighten the darkest day.
I stood up and kissed her on the forehead and said, “I need to get back home and I don’t want to keep bothering you when you’re tired.”
She looked me in the eye and said, as seriously as I’ve ever heard her say anything, “My children are never a bother to me.” She took my hand and we held hands for a couple minutes. Her hands are so thin and frail I was afraid of hurting her.
I bent down and kissed her again. “I’m going to go now. I love you.”
She replied something along the lines of, “I love you as deep as love can be.” It took me by such surprise I wasn’t exactly sure how she had phrased it. I looked in her eyes and I knew she knew who I was at that moment.
It didn’t matter if my cousin might be a stuffed yellow duck, or that earlier she had asked if her own mother was still sleeping. It didn’t matter that on another day she thought I was her brother. All that mattered was that moment. I looked deeply into her eyes and said, “That is the best gift I could have gotten today.”
I kissed her again and left, somewhat reluctantly, but also wanting that to be my last memory for the day. I said I love you again and she repeated the same to me. As I turned around one last time at the door she lifted her hand in a weak wave. I never know if my visit might be the last one. If it proves to be this visit was certainly a gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If not, I hope the next one is as good.