I took a breath. “My dad’s doing okay,” I said, glancing over at her, “but my mom’s been sick.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” my mom said, softly. “What does she have?” She looked concerned.
“Well,” I said, feeling slightly absurd, “she has memory problems.”
Across the front seat, my mother reached out her hand and rested it on my upper arm, patting it to comfort me. She spoke slowly, with great empathy, trying to reassure me. “Oh, that’s so common,” she said. “That happens a lot.”
Don’t I know it.
My mother was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s dementia five years ago, at age 69. The early signs — her confusion with time and place, her inability to remember how to turn on the car engine — have evolved. She can no longer read or follow a television program. She needs help to zip her fleece jacket closed on chilly evenings.
As a small child, I adored my mother. She took nearly a decade off from full-time teaching to stay home with me and my two siblings, stretching the tight household budget by sewing all of our clothes, buying food at the downtown co-op, and taking us to the denim factories in Reading each summer for back-to-school shopping in the seconds bins. We baked cookies with carob, made our own yogurt, and plucked rhubarb and strawberries from the back yard in June for pie. She read to us constantly. Later, when we could read on our own, we curled up near her with piles of picture books while she worked her secondhand loom, weaving fabric.
But later, we clashed mightily. I was an impatient and angry teenager. Her career ascended rapidly after she returned to work, and she had a demanding administrative job on top of the stress of three teenagers at home. She was always rushing, her quick feet tracing arcs across the kitchen every evening as she swept counters and stacked papers. Her delight with her children in early childhood morphed into constant worrying about us as adolescents.
She worried for good reasons. We were not easy teenagers: self-absorbed and demanding, careless and dismissive of her opinions and advice, oblivious to her needs. We were impetuous and occasionally terribly irresponsible, hosting parties at our house when they went out, and accumulating more than a dozen car accidents. I was always irritated with her, frustrated with her protectiveness, her anxiety and her fear of What People Would Think.
I’ve learned that it is incredibly liberating to spend time with a mother who no longer cares what people think.
The high-strung, successful school superintendent who wrote a doctoral dissertation with three small children at home is now a woman who puts her shoes on the wrong feet, wanders down hotel hallways in her pajamas and marvels at the music piped into the grocery store. She is constantly delighted with all the new things she discovers. “What a nice service!” she says to the check-out clerk about the moving belt that takes our loaf of bread straight from the cashier to a grocery bagger. When I turn the radio on in the car as we drive home, she sits up with pleasure. “How do they do that?” she asks me.
Together with my father, she picks up my daughters at their elementary school once each week. My girls take her hand on the walk home, where they play Sorry or Parcheesi before dinner, helping Nana move her pieces and resetting the board each time she throws the dice, giggling with her as she deliberately scatters the pieces across the table and onto the floor, playing by a set of rules only she understands.
Watching my daughters seamlessly absorb their grandmother’s deterioration has been humbling. They are patient with her in a way that I had to learn. But even more than that, my mother’s decline has helped me become a better daughter, as if her fading away is what let me see her for the woman she is.
Don’t get me wrong. Watching my mother’s erasure has been vicious: a constant grief without real mourning, so painful I can probe only its tender margins for fear of not catching my breath.
But I have also come to realize that despite all I’ve lost, I’ve gained something, too.
My mother is never in a rush now. She doesn’t ask many questions. She may occasionally eat with her fingers at dinner and chat with random strangers in a slightly-too-familiar way, but she lives wholly in the present, enjoying the sight of the peonies in spring and the sounds of children on the playground. There is no resurrection of old hurts, no painful recollection of past failures. When we walk together, she puts her papery hand in mine with complete trust. We move slowly. We don’t care what people think.
As we drove back to the house that day, after we exited the highway, I told my mom I wanted to make one last stop, to pick up something for my daughter’s birthday.
“Oh, I remember,” she told me. “I raised three kids.”
I blinked back sudden tears. “They must have loved you,” I told my mother, catching her eye. She looked right back at me. “Oh,” she said smiling. “They were good kids.”
Even in her decline, she’s teaching me how to be one now.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is an associate professor of education and sociology at American University. She lives in the District with her husband and two daughters.