Thursday, December 10, 2009

Retaining Memories


"Yes mom, I am in Utah with Robin and Steve, our friends from Philadelphia. We are visiting Alex, who is working at a mountain and will be starting graduate school in New York in the fall. We will be home Wednesday morning."

With that, I get off the phone and shake my head. This must be at least 500 times in the past 6 months that I have had the same conversation with my mom about her granddaughter. My mom is 90 years old and her short term memory is nothing but a distant memory for her.

It is hard watching a parent grow old. If we are lucky, we have a fixed image in our minds of our parents in the prime of their lives. My dad passed away almost 30 years ago. I try to remember all the things that made my dad who he was to me. Every once in a while this offending thought of how he looked the last time I saw him, ravaged by the effects of his cancer, creeps into my brain. I try to disgorge this thought from my cerebrum and replace it with the images of him that I treasure.

I grew up in the 'Leave it to Beaver' household. My mom adored my father, and made my sister and myself feel like we walked on water. My dad was the man who graduated first in his class from NYU law at 21 years of age, was an all- American fencer, a successful attorney and utterly devoted to our family. My sister, from the time she was little until this day, attempted to protect me and make sure my life was filled only with good thoughts.

I want to make my mom whole again. I want her to wake up this morning with a clarity of mind and purpose. I want her to be able to pick up the phone and discuss new matters of import and interest. I want her to be able to drive her car again, like she loved to do. I want her to be able to live independent and strong. I want the mom I remember and still see in my dreams.

But reality does not deal in sentiment. It can be a cruel and unforgiving foe. It does not let us rewind, or cherry pick those moments we get to retain. It takes us where it wants to take us. If we don't like it, that is tough on us.

My calls with my sister now always begin with, "I just spoke to Mom and she is ok , but". I never wanted to have a conversation like this with her. If one thinks that if we wish hard enough , we can make the effects of time disappear in our loved ones, I have learned that no matter the strength of your desires, it is no match for the ravages inflicted. Acceptance of what is, and not what should be, is not an easy task.

My son has a wonderful capacity of being able to look past the images he sees and hears of his grandmother and deal with her in a gentle effective manner. While he sometimes has to deal with 5 or more calls in an hour on the same topic, with my mom asking him virtually the same questions over and over, he never seems to lose his patience. We learn much about ourselves and others in times like this.

I know my mom struggles to cope with what is happening to her. She wants to say she is fine, and always asks what she can do for us, but she comprehends that her difficulties are our difficulties. She knows she can no longer remain 39, as she tried to do for almost 50 years. She knows that her role as matriarch of the family has been replaced by her taking on a new and unintended position. She can recall the glory days but she has a hard time remembering what she ate for lunch.

I start every morning by picking up the phone to tell her we are all doing well, and asking her how she is feeling. I know she will try to do the best she can to be positive, so that I can begin my day without having to call my sister and start the cycle of concern again. I know she wants us to retain the images of her as vibrant and independent, and carry that around with us each and every day.

It is now almost 9 AM in New Jersey. I am sitting in Utah, at the computer, knowing that when I finish my thoughts, I must pick up the phone. I hope it will be a good day for her. I hope she will be my mother again. I hope that there will be one day be a cure for dementia so that the next person sitting at the computer does not have to remember the good times past, but can live in the moment. I hope today is the day that the present comes back into focus for my mom. I hope.

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