I was Daddy’s little girl. We connected on all levels. I was Mom’s doppelgänger daughter. We related in a formal and predictable manner. She prefaced questions with “Now, I’m going to ask you something, and don’t say ‘Mom’ and roll your eyes.” I gave her answers I thought she wanted to hear, and I asked her no questions.
In my teens I thought Mom was pensive and guarded, as if she were scared of something that was never named. I knew she was smart and laughed with her sister and girlfriends, but I rarely saw that side of her. She suffered from depression, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. We were out of touch, something I attributed to the generation gap that was talked about so much in the ’70s. My twenties didn’t bring us any closer as I forged ahead in a business career away from my hometown, where my parents—older and never in great health—lived.
In my mid-thirties I decided it was time to give real answers, ask real questions, and try to have a real relationship. I was single and contemplating the chances that I would ever marry and become a mother myself. I wanted to talk to Mom about love, life, and loss of dreams. Brief but frequent visits home brought greater familiarity, but not closeness.
Then one visit made the difference. The night before I was to leave, Mom called to me as I chased Dad, who was suffering from dementia and heart disease, down the hall in their condo. Mom, in her nightcap and robe, stood pleading with her eyes for help.
“Mom,” I said, bringing her hands to my chest, “I know it’s difficult living with Dad, but you have to hold it together. You have to keep a grasp on reality.” She turned and went to bed saying, “My head hurts so much.”
The next morning I kissed Mom before I left for the airport. She was distant and quiet, still sitting in her nightcap at the breakfast table. The day I left for home the Mom I knew, and the one I was trying to get to know, left too. She had suffered a stroke during the night. A new Mom took her place. A Mom who did things so embarrassing that they were sad, or so silly that they were funny.
At first I tried to rehabilitate Mom. I worked on her speech, but she didn’t like matching words with pictures because she often made mistakes. Next I worked on occupational therapy, but she didn’t want to play with stickers or pull yarn through holes in a plastic tray. I explained the basics of her life to her. “I am Julie, the fourth of your five children. Your husband is Charles. Chew your food. Pick up your leg when you walk.”
I tried to talk to her, but her scrambled thoughts were unintelligible. She knew she wasn’t making sense. Our attempts at conversation left me feeling drained, defeated, and despondent. I can only imagine how Mom felt.
Mom and Dad moved into an assisted living facility near my brother’s home and I started bringing a young niece or nephew along on my visits. They enjoyed the toys we stocked in Mom’s closet and the ice cream parlor on the first floor of the facility. I watched as they naturally shared books, dolls, trucks, songs, and even stickers with their grandma. If she called them by some strange name, they lightly corrected her with an “Oh, Grandma.” Periodically they would ask if she was tired or wanted a drink or treat.
I watched how seemingly easy it was for these children to be with Mom. They didn’t try to make her do or learn anything, but they got her to sound out words and play. There was an openness to whatever might come next, no expectations or baggage from the past bracketing the present. My nieces and nephew taught me how to share and just be with Mom. I still mourned the lost years when Mom and I could have been closer, but I focused anew on the opportunity to be a companion for her in her new world, which was anything but normal for either of us.
There were plenty of times when Mom and I were on our own to navigate a visit. She was mobile but unsteady. Getting in and out of a car was an act of faith on both our parts. We often waltzed our way out of a potential disaster into a waiting seat.
“Would you like to dance?” I asked, turning our swaying into a dip.
“Oh, yes,” she said with a smile.
I shared my latest career and dating news, we watched The Sound of Music and other old movies, and took spins in her wheelchair to chase a squirrel or hunt down a new outfit in the mall. Sometimes we just hung out. Looking at old photographs together made me wonder what I had missed by not being more of an active part of her life when we were both younger. Then I would remind myself of the present. Remind myself that all I have is the present. And I would go back to being with her—not trying to be with her, just being.
Mom lived for nine years after her first stroke. “Hi Mom, it’s Julie,” is how I began each visit. “Julie, where have you been?” she would respond at first. Toward the end, all she could do was raise her hands and give a half smile of recognition. We spent most of our visits holding hands and just hanging out.