“You know, it’s going to be hard when mother dies,” my mom confided to my big brother Roger recently. In the late stages of dementia, sometimes my mom thinks that Roger is her youngest brother Dexter, who died more than 25 years ago. Now in her 80s she still mourns for her mom and her little brother.
Dementia makes it possible for my mom to travel happily through time with her long passed brother and sadly, to prepare anew for her mother’s death.
Her brother Dexter was a dreamer, a schemer, a man who lived by the seat of his pants and provided a very successful standard of living for his wife and six children. I remember his visits at my mom’s mother’s house. He talked to me as if I were an adult when I was just a little boy. He asked me questions and listened to me. He showed genuine interest in cartoons I drew in third grade, and for many years asked me to share my poetry with him.
Once when I was 15, I asked him how his son Justin was doing. He looked at me and spoke the revealing truth: “He’s not getting better. He won’t ever. He’s going to die.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” I stuttered.
“Don’t be. Drug addicts like him die young. I’ve been in therapy for years getting used to the idea.” Looking back, I believe that the therapy was needed not only for him to accept his son's fate, but because it was the first time in his life, possibly the only time, when his optimistic world view failed him.
His optimism and willingness to live with the uncertainty of income and the freedom that comes with relying on commission is, I believe, why my mom confuses Roger with Dexter. Roger has spent his adult life as a very successful salesman who, like Dexter, even in bad times, wakes up interested and hopeful about how each day will unfold. “Mom,” Roger said, “your mom died a long time ago. And it was hard.”
Grandma died while sleeping next to grandpa, after more than a decade of dementia. Justin, Dexter’s son, died that year too. Only family attended his funeral. He was buried across the street from grandma next to his father. Grandpa died a few years later at home, attended by my mom, her surviving brother and her sister. The official cause: lung cancer. My diagnosis: heartbreak.
My mom took her mother’s death hard. She would tear up whenever she talked about her. It was not uncommon for her to excuse herself and weep in private. Nary an anniversary could go past without her grieving profoundly. Not out of guilt, for she had talked to her mother and visited her nearly every day, but out of longing. She just loved her.
My mom got married when she was 17. She had the first of the 10 of us when she was 19. I was born last with my twin sister when she was 39. Her mom moved three houses away when I was three. My mom often walked up to “mother’s” to visit – to enjoy a Tab on the front or back porch, a quick catnap, and I suspect, the peaceful order of a well kept house and immaculate yard that is possible when children no longer live at home. Her mother's home was a haven. Reinvigorated from the visit, she would return home to the chaos, ready to work and care for us some more.
Now my mom lives in a “skilled nursing facility” where she marvels at all the "hard working caretakers," even as she tries to help her confused 101-year-old roommate, who reminds her an awful lot of her cranky mother-in-law – and not in a good way.
"You know, it’s going to be hard when mother dies,” my mom said to Roger.
Yes, yes it is.