Spent Reading Week visiting my aging mother, now 96, blind, and victim of a failing memory. I found my visit depressing, as her health and quality of life go into decline. She had recently hurt her leg, making walking painful or impossible. Unable to continue working out on the condo’s treadmill, she is rapidly losing circulation in her feet and legs, crippling up completely; and her neck and shoulders are another source of constant pain as she attempts to compensate for her weak leg by holding herself up in her walker. She needs a hip replacement, but at 96, I’m doubtful she could survive the operation or that she would have long enough to benefit to make the recovery period worthwhile. But without it, I can see only further rapid deterioration in her condition.
Equally depressing is her loss of memory, and frequent disorientation. Being old and unable to sleep at night, she often falls asleep at the kitchen table. Being blind, the line between waking and dreaming is often blurred. Whereas the rest of us wake up, look around, and say, “oh yeah, I must have fallen asleep in the kitchen” or “Oh yeah, I’m at my Mom’s this week”, she has no visual cues to her whereabouts or time, and the best available references are in fact the dream images that thus persist into her initial waking state. Consequently, my brother has frequently found her wandering her apartment looking for her baby, a recurrent dream responsibility now 50 years out of date. Even when fully awake, her memory is so impaired that at times she cannot remember what was said only moments ago. I have to tell her that my wife Mary has gotten her job/promotion to assistant professor perhaps 16 times in three days: indeed, often by the time I had told mom something or answered a question, she would forget what she had asked and would ask the exact same question over again.
And she would repeat the same story about my Dad over and over – obviously their divorce much on her mind as she evaluates her life and weighs its meaning, but even with repeated opportunities to try different approaches in response, I find it an awkward subject to address. Each time she tells the incident, she expects me to be surprised by this ‘revelation’, but I’ve heard the same story now 20 or 30 times in the last year alone, and had first heard it maybe 25 years ago, so it feels inauthentic to feign surprise yet again.
I try to change the subject by asking her questions, but her answer to any query about family history is always “I’m sorry, I don’t remember anymore.” And indeed she doesn’t, telling me, for example, that it is too bad that she never met my brother’s wife, though of course she has hundreds of times. I’m frustrated by the impossibility of fetching my brother’s family portrait from the sideboard in the next room and pointing Joan out to her, but of course she there are no such easy referents for the blind. Somewhere in her closet lies a bin of family photos going back two generations, but none of them are labeled, and as Mom is the last surviving member of her family, there is no one left to identify the group of Englishmen in top hats and tails posing stiffly in front of the ancestral home in…wherever that is.
I regret now not taping her family stories while she still retained them. I can feel a huge chunk of my own past, my own formative years listening to family history and absorbing the implied life lessons and family identity, slipping away as I lose the source that could once have verified the details of my childhood recall – and ensured that I passed on the stories correctly to my own children. I see my children do something and I wonder if I did that or was like that when I was young, but there is no one left to ask.
Most of all, it saddens me that my Mom will never be able to see Kasia, or hold her, or know my second daughter as anything other than a passing wail. Tigana looks nothing like the toddler my Mom met before she went blind, and my daughters’ memories of my Mom will be of a shrunken arthritic shell, too fragile to hug, rather than the dynamic, inventive, principled woman who raised me.
Still, the visit was important to my Mom, even if it only existed in a brief, momentary ‘now’ that was forgotten soon after I left. I imagine her complaining to my brother that I haven’t been to visit for a long time, and that he’ll tell her again that I was just up last week, and that I’m coming again, this time with the family, at Easter. But that’s probably an exaggeration; she probably knows that I’ve been and that I love her. And that’s maybe enough.