A word of advice to everyone: if you can’t remember whether or not you called your mother, you didn’t. But what about when your mom doesn’t remember if you called? And it has only been five minutes.
My mom was of solid pioneer stock from families that settled in Utah during the first wave of Mormon settlers. I really cannot remember a day when she was sick. She was active, played golf until she was 90, even occasionally broke 100 from the red tees. When she was 90 she was about to play golf with my sister and her husband – both doctors – when she had an unexpected heart arrhythmia event, blood pressure dropped like a rock, and she fell like a pine tree onto a concrete walkway. Of course both doctors responded, but mom quickly returned to consciousness. Amid all the questions from the doctors she did not seem to be paying attention. She wasn’t; she was running her tongue over her front teeth, realizing she had done a “face plant.” The first words her two attending doctors heard were: “Damn, I just finished paying for that cap.” She did not break anything – except her front tooth. As I said, she was of tough pioneer stock.
Mom was already starting to be forgetful about some things, but things accelerated after her fall. Over time mom had more moments of forgetfulness, episodes of confusion and the slow erosion of easy access to memories. On a day off from the Tampa parish I was driving over to the Mt. Dora, FL area to visit. On the way, my sister, the nurse, called telling me to meet her in the ER at the local hospital. Routine blood work showed Mom to be severely anemic, her resting heart rate was quite elevated, and she was pointedly confused. Things were getting more severe.
Mom hadn’t lived with her siblings in more than 70 years, yet still it was disconcerting when she had moments when she asked, “Do I have sisters and brothers?” In time, her granddaughter Julie became “that girl who lives in Salt Lake and just got married.” That indeed was a good description of Julie. She remembered Julie had a sister, another granddaughter, and that she was married too, and she lived somewhere up north. Alexandria was “north.” For some reason her name seemed harder for her to recall which surprised us since one of Mom’s sisters and her best friend was nicknamed “Katie.” Of course Julie used that to affirm she was the favorite grandchild, or at least ahead of her older sister Katie. Mom had two other grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She’d remember them when we showed her a picture. We were never sure if she truly remembered or was just being polite.
Me? There’s good news and bad news. The bad news was sometimes she didn’t remember I was her son. She thought I was a cousin and would ask how my mother was. I just answered the question. Sometimes, I was not even a cousin. But there is good news. I was “that well-mannered, good-looking young man.”
But most times she knew who I was. Although the whole being a priest thing seemed to throw her off. My mom was Mormon. So she wondered why I hadn’t met someone to marry. I just told her I was busy. I was tempted to take someone with me and introduce her as my wife. Don’t worry I was only tempted!
The cognitive impairment worsened over time. Some recognition became more challenging and mixed. There were times when she knew I was her son and other times she thought I was my father – and occasionally I was Uncle Theron. At least I was always family. It was the “family moments” that proved to be the most interesting. In one “family moment,” mom leaned towards me and in a low, conspiratorial voice asked “her brother” if I remembered when the two of us “stole dad’s truck and went for a joy ride?” Of course, I responded “yes” and asked her to remind me of the details….and she had details!!
While she had trouble navigating the memories of the present, the whole process seemed to heighten her memories of growing up in Paradise, Utah, the Great Depression, moving to Washington DC to support the nation by working in the War Department, and more. I learned more details about mom’s childhood and her life into her early 20’s. However, I had to remind her she had traveled the world and had lived in Paris for three years. I once taped many pieces of paper together and drew a timeline of her life, filling in details from her stories and my memories, taping pictures from her many albums to illustrate the time. It was a project of a couple of visits. When it was finished we went over it like a story, adding more details as she recalled some person or place. At the end, she turned to me and said, “What a fascinating life…I wish I remembered it.”
We “kids” celebrated Mother’s Day. We’d gathered at mom’s house. Maybe I was the cousin, or the young man. I was pretty sure I was ever her favorite son (being the only son has its advantages). All the while, I was aware that in the moments when we were not recognized it didn’t mean we were forgotten. Holding a hand, a kiss, a story, a familiar voice, a laugh; it all made a connection. Amidst the frustrations, the anxiety, the concern, and the uncertainty, there was always an opportunity to love. Indeed that is the deepest calling of a parent, a child, or anyone who would take on the name Christian. In 2016, Mom passed into God’s bright glory.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!