I just found this story in my computer. It represents only a moment in time, the barest of moments. Emma wasn’t always like this. She was kind and sweet and did many thoughtful, selfless things for me and for my brother. I, on the other hand, could have been more patient, thoughtful and resilient here, I think. I wanted you to read this, though, because I believe this moment depicts a scene that most mothers and daughters face at some point. And, then, you’re sorry and the incident’s forgotten, hopefully. This one, although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, shows what Emma and I encountered in her early stages of dementia.
May 13, 2005 — “Mother!” I called. I was explaining to her what the doctor had just told me over the phone about her medication dosage. We were in the kitchen. She walked away. She hadn’t heard me. I walked over and stood beside her.
“Don’t yell at me,” she said.
She was wearing her red sweater, the color she favored and which made her look her most beautiful, even at 90, especially when contrasted to her dark hair, the color I had just retouched for her.
“I was speaking to you about your medications and you walked away.”
“I can’t hear,” she said.
“That’s why I said it loud, because when I said it the first time you didn’t hear.”
“You don’t know how to speak to someone who can’t hear,” she said.
“How do I?”
She stared at me.
“How do I?” I repeated. “How should I speak to someone who can’t hear?”
“You speak softly,” she said, “in a way in which the person can hear you.”
“But when I do that you walk away from me. You don’t tell me you haven’t heard me. It’s as if you think I have nothing worthwhile to think or say.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” she replied.
It was allergy season. Seeds had burst into pink and white blossoms, and new green leaves waved from the branches of old trees like so many handkerchiefs from the hands of young mothers waving their children off to school for the first time. My asthma made me weary, heavy. My chest tightened.
“When I speak to you it’s because I am trying to communicate with you. I am trying to tell you something you need to know.”
My throat was closing. I just wanted to sit down.
“I’m exhausted,” I said, squeezing the words out. “Now, because you walked away I have to start over. I have to repeat myself. I’m going in circles.” I took a labored breath. “That takes time away from my writing, which could be earning us the money we need.”
“You spread yourself too thin,” she said. “You’re not cut out for this.”
Sincerely and with deepest reverence, I try.
I recalled my conversation with my friend Frank the day before. We discussed that we creative ones are often told, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Frank invents solar-powered devices.
“Industrialists are always saying to me, ‘You can’t do that,’” he said. “And I say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
To my mother I wanted to say, “No, you’re not cut out for this.
Instead, I said, “You’ve been telling me that about everything I do all my life. Just once in your ninety years maybe you could find something I can do.”
A few weeks earlier she pointed out to me that I am inadequate.
“It’s amazing I’ve been able to achieve as much success as I have, most of which you don’t know about, given your assessment of my value,” I said to her. Fortunately you’re the only one who tells me that.”
I had followed her through the dining room into the living room, checking that the windows were closed insuring that I wasn’t broadcasting to the neighbors my efforts to get through to my mother. She was now sitting on the shallow cushion of her 18th-century-style, pastel tapestried, cherry-wood love seat designed for petite ladies.
I stood in front of her a few feet away, noticing how small she was and how pretty she looked in her red sweater and white slacks, the perfect attire for such a beautiful May day.
I thought about how lucky I’d been having supportive friends and associates all my adult life. I thought of how supportive I was of my daughter, now a mother, too, no matter what her choices. I have always been thankful to have had good parents, who were good people. I felt sad that my mother’s parents never told her how beautiful she was nor how good she was at things. An only child, poor little thing.
My friend R asked me recently, “What does selfless mean?”
Well, I thought today, it’s the opposite of selfish. My mother is selfish. She doesn’t know any better.
I didn’t want to argue. I just wanted to communicate, to help. “I don’t want to argue with you,” I said. “I don’t want to draw this into some melodramatic thing. I’m just trying to have a logical discussion. I’m just trying to communicate something of importance to you.”
“I can’t hear you,” she said.
“You don’t want to hear me,” I said.
She stared at me.
I never got anywhere. I never got through to her. I walked away. I got the big flower pot I had brought in from the shed, two quart bottles of water and the baby pear tomato plant I had raised from seed in the sunny Victorian dining room window and carried them out to the front porch. I placed the young plant in its new pot, watered it and left it outside in the sun and breeze for a few hours to get used to being outside. “Hardening it, it’s called,” R told me. I raised it from a tomato seed from a plant he had given me last year. I refer to the plant as his grandchild: “My seed,” he said.
I felt like a child, chasing after my mother as she walked away. I just wanted to be loved, for her to take an interest in me, her daughter. Maybe she no longer can; she’s 90, after all. She’s lived a long life. The scene playing across my mind brought to stage front the day when I was nine. She and my father had had a fight. She had her suitcase in her hand. She was standing by the front door, her hand on the knob, ready to open it. She was walking out on us.
“Don’t leave, don’t leave!” I begged. I held her sleeve, hot tears running wildly down my cheeks. My brother, six, stood at the foot of the staircase, in the near background, staring.
“Mother,” I cried, “Please, don’t leave.” But she did. She came back the next day.
In fact, Emma had been supportive of me in many ways – of my photography and my writing. Probably, if you asked my daughter if I’ve been 100 percent supportive of her, she’d say, “Ummm … well …,” and half smiling, let her voice trail off. Moreover, I’m pretty certain not every person I’ve encountered in my life has found me and my endeavors that fabulous – well, maybe one or two have not….
I place this story here purposefully, to juxtapose it with Chapter LXII, which follows and which shows the decline of Emma’s condition and how mentally and spiritually life changing the role of caregiver is.