On Sunday I visited my mom. She's moving into the later stages of Alzheimers; she lives in the locked dementia unit of an assisted living facility. I tried to bring a kid or two with me - while they can be hard to corral inside the ward, at least they give us something to focus on. And the old people, whether they know the kids or not, most always love to see them.
But the kids were more interested in the park and their cousins. I couldn't blame them. So I drove over on my own. Generally, I savor any minute I get to myself, especially in the car. Maybe because it feels so contained and I can fill it with whatever I want - NPR, decaf coffee, chocolate, all those vices of the aging liberal. But yesterday, I actually wished for company. Seeing my mom isn't easy. It's upsetting, actually. I always feel sad ("Where's my mommy?"), angry ("Where's my mommy?!?") and/or numb ("This is my mommy?").
I used the electronic key and entered the dementia ward. I could hear the wavering voices of the residents singing. As I walked down the hall, I passed a surprisingly beautiful and understandably furious elderly woman. She glared at me and said, "It's Grand Central Station in here today." I smiled uncertainly as I passed, pretending she was making a delightful joke.
As I entered the living room, they were singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean". I spotted my mom on a couch in the corner, reading obediently from a song sheet she held in quavering hands. I got the first hit of sad. When I was in preschool, I had a friend named Bonnie. The one time we convinced Bonnie, who was quite attached to her mother, to come home with us to play, my mom whimsically sang her that song. Bonnie reacted, rather inexplicably, with outrage and insisted on being taken home immediately. We didn't get her back to our house until middle school.
I fought the tears, the merged memory of my poised forty-something-year-old mother with the reality of her now, stooped, confused and childlike. I let them finish the song before I approached her, trying to compose myself. She was, as always, so delighted to see me. "Oh," she said, gazing at me as I gaze at my children after an absence, brimming with joy and satisfaction, "It's you."
We sat ourselves down at an empty table in the dining area. As is her practice, she spent the first ten minutes telling me how very much she loves me, how beautiful I am, how I've always been so kind, even when I was small. And though I know to expect it, though she speaks these praises in a repeating loop, though sometimes I'm not even certain it's me she's talking about, I am touched. I believe her.
Next I do my bit. I ask her, as I always do, how she's been. She says she's been well. I ask her if she likes where she lives. She says that it's very nice there. She gestures towards the draped curtains and says, "Isn't that nice, how they did that, with the swirls?" I agree that it's nice.
Then, per usual, the conversation lapses. We listened, for a while, to the singers, even joining in here or there, fudging the lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or "Daisy, Daisy" and giggling at our mistakes. Though it's a bit awkward, the Filipino caregivers eyeing me with suspicion as I sing, at least we're engaging with each other, something that doesn't happen at every visit. I find myself feeling grateful that I have yet to feel the rising anger, the frustration and disappointment that she just won't snap out of it, or maybe snap into it, and be the mother I miss.
When it's time for me to go, I walked her back to her spot on the couch. I told her that I had to pick up my kids at the park.
"They're at the park?" she asked, her hand resting on my arm as we walked.
"Yes," I said, "the park."
"By themselves?" she asked politely, but a bit concerned.
"No," I assured her. "They're with Ben."
She looked at me blankly.
Let it be said here, that my mother has adored Ben, revered him, thought him the funniest and most gracious man on the planet, next to my brother, anyway. I've been waiting for this day, but it was still surprising that she could forget him. Kind of like forgetting the sun.
"My husband," I said, casually. Again, I found myself impressed that my patience hadn't yet deserted me.
"Oh!" she said, delighted and perhaps relieved that I had managed to snare a man. "Your husband!"
She paused, stopping mid-stride and gazing intently into my face, not wanting to miss a bit of news. "What's your husband's name?"
"Ben," I said.
"Ben!", she cried, thrilled. She bent towards me as if wanting in on a secret. "What's his last name?"
"Capron," I said, by now feeling a little delighted myself. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
"Oh!" she said, "Capron!"
"That's my last name, too," I said, deciding to offer her more tidbits. "You know, because we're married."
"You're married?" she gasped and gripped my hand more firmly, almost like a handshake. "Congratulations!"
"Well," I said, seating her next to a dozing but rather dapper older gentleman, "Thanks. We've been married for ten years but I'll take all the encouragement I can get."
She threw her head back in laughter. I did, too. We were all but slapping our knees.
As I left, she was elbowing her napping neighbor and telling him that I was her daughter and that I was married and that I had children and that I was so kind. I could still hear her as I walked past the wary beauty queen in the hall.
"Well, was it or wasn't it?" she asked me gruffly.
"It was." I told her with a smile.