It's been a week like no other!
I've learned that my mom is exhibiting signs of dementia and that her grasp of reality is quickly deteriorating. She's always been a little goofy, but her goofiness was endearing when I was a kid, except when it was embarrassing.
She was fearless in her convictions to be kind towards animals and strays no matter the species. I remember how she helped me free a water snake who had gotten stuck in my fish trap when other parents would have either run for their lives or killed the snake in fear.
Once, on our voyage from Florida to Alaska to serve our three-year station there with the US Air Force, we heard a commotion outside a truck stop diner off the ALCAN Highway. A young boy was crying because his dog, a husky mix, had been attacked by a defensive porcupine. More likely, the dog had attacked the porcupine and received a mouthful of pain for his troubles. The boy's mom, a waitress or maybe even the owner of the diner, seemed too flustered to deal with the dog until my mom, hearing the situation, left her place at the table and ordered the boy's mom to secure a rag and a pair of pliers. My mom, knowing no hesitation when recognizing the pain of one of God's creatures, calmly straddled the snarling and yelping dog's shoulders, and began the arduous task of removing quills from the slobber-wet whiskers of the beast whose pale blue eyes expressed all the fear and wildness of a wolf as this small woman from Texas began her operation.
"Lady, he'll bite you!" the other mom protested, but my mom shrugged her shoulders as if to say that she wouldn't take it personal if the dog did her harm, but the quills had to come out.
I often found myself sighing in exasperation over my mom's failure to appreciate the boundaries others put up in polite society. I remember reading the note my high school girlfriend wrote me in which she explained why her mom no longer approved of my dating her. My mom had somehow managed to share her whole life's story over coffee with my girlfriend's mom, including her marital woes being married to the man who had served as my dad, and the level of candor my mom exhibited was just too much for my girlfriend's mom, who operated under more conventional modes of social discourse. Years later, while attending a workshop about how to work with underprivileged children, I learned that it was common for people who have grown up in poverty to know no personal boundaries when meeting others in a social setting. According to Ruby Payne's materials, I had grown up with all the earmarks of someone lacking social privilege. We could never save money because if you have cash in hand, you need to enjoy it since tomorrow is really not guaranteed to anyone. Generosity came easy because we could empathize with those who did not have enough...
She was 17 when I was born. And over the years, I learned that I would never know my biological father. The man she married was often miserable and mom would share his misery, rejecting my youthful advice that she develop a hobby or join a club. "I have to take care of things at home...I have to take care of your father..." she would say. When we were stationed in Alaska, I remember rolling my eyes at my mom and our neighbors because they would meet at least once a week over coffee and gossip. I heard things that I should have forgotten, but I was glad that my mom and these other women could laugh together and support one another.
Last week, I took my mom to visit our local Mental Health Services office because I had noticed some alarming changes. She was forgetting things, and remembering things that had not really happened. She told me that my sister, who now lives in Colorado somewhere, had stolen her car keys and had been colluding with my step dad who had disappeared one day. He suffers from diabetes and blindness, and I had noticed that things seemed tense between them as my mom struggled to care for his needs while also struggling to take care of her house. Then, one day, he walked away, she said. "Mom? How could he just walk away?" She replied, "Oh he's got another woman and they hang out with people who are not so good. I think they're smoking that weed." Each time I quizzed her about him, I'd get different parts of the story. His daughter cursed my mom over the phone because my mom mentioned not being able to pay the bills and wondering what she was supposed to do with her husband just leaving like that. Another time, mom told me that she had spoken with a doctor about him, and that he was getting treatment at some hospital rehab center somewhere.
So when I took her to the Mental Health office, the intake counselor asked my mom a litany of questions. He sat on his side of the desk with sloped shoulders, and a small round head that balanced upon a pear shaped body, and his accent was definitely African or maybe from some Island where tropical fruits fall from trees. I googled his last name while he questioned my mom, hoping to find out what nationality he was. Each time he asked her a question, he would listen to her response and then type an answer on his keyboard, pecking away with only his two index fingers, their nails pail against his jet black skin. I wanted to ask about his life, because I was curious and I could tell, that despite the personal and embarrassing nature of the questions he asked, my mom was also curious to know more about him. His fingers hit that keyboard with such force, I wondered how many times his IT guys had to replace equipment for him.
"Do you attend church or religious services?" he asked, sounding like a character from a Chinua Achebe novel. My mom, smiling politely but answering like a child who's being questioned about the disappearance of the last cupcake in the cupboard, "well, not now, but Ive been meaning to ..."
"Do you spend time with any friends?"
"Do you have any friends with which to share your experiences...."
"Are you losing your mind because you've already lost everything else in your pathetic life?"
He of course did not ask all of those questions, but the meaning seemed implicit....as I watched my mom grow sad at the reflection that she had lost all of the people she cared about...her first husband who had suffered a headache almost every day for the 18 years they were married.......her daughter who took and took from her, and who abused her, and used her birthday calls to hurl insults...her second husband, whom she married twice despite knowing that people don't really change all that much....her son, who though he was here in this office, and was pledging to help sort things out, had taken every opportunity to distance himself from the stresses of being a part of this family...
And I began to think that how I deal with my mom now, makes all the difference in the way we spend the rest of our time on this planet. As I listened, I began to think about my own relationships with my sons, and my ex wife, and my girlfriend, and those people I think of as friends, even though I know that our connections are tenuous at best...because I'm a product of this woman and some man out there, some abusive beast of a man, and all I want to do is to help my mom find a joyful reason to move forward. I'm not ready to be the caretaker of an Alzheimer's patient, but I wasn't ready to be a dad when my boys were born, either.
Soon, I'll be visiting with my apartment manager to find out if I can break my lease. Soon, I'll be writing a check to cover my mom's mortgage payment, a traffic citation she earned by driving a car with expired tags, her water bill, and we will try to sort through the stack of creditors who mail her letters once a month asking for the impossible. Soon, summer vacation will be spent, and it'll be back to school, but I wonder what the impending changes are going to do for our relationship, and for my relationship with my boys. Soon, I hope we will find the cause of her dementia, and I hope that we can find a treatment that works for her.