It felt like I was heading out with a preschooler. I had to remind her to put on her socks and coat. I carried tissues for her perpetually runny nose, and when she fidgeted during a long drive, I passed her the only thing I could reach: a bag of lozenges. She worked the individually wrapped discs like rosary beads, instantly soothed.
But she’s my mom, not my child.
They say that we revert to childhood as we age, and in many ways I see that with my mom. For a while it seemed like Parkinson’s was carrying her from capable adult to forgetful child to helpless baby. That is where we stand now: I don’t remind her of things anymore, I just do them for her. I slide her shoes onto her feet, push her wheelchair, load a fork with pasta and ease it into her mouth — all gestures so familiar from my son’s early childhood.
Except that Mom doesn’t only remind me of the sweetly helpless baby he used to be; she also evokes the moody, laconic teenager he is now.
It occurs to me first at the dinner table where I urge her to eat. This never works with my kids and it doesn’t work now, but she’s withering away so I can’t help myself. She doesn’t say anything if she doesn’t want the bite; she just closes her mouth and shoots me a look, the same one I get from my 15-year-old when I suggest he try the beans. His bugs me, but from Mom it’s a reassuring sign of her personality shining through.
I used to get that look from her when I was a teenager making dubious clothing choices; I kind of miss it. These days, she has to trust me to pick her wardrobe, and I channel what I’ve learned from my son: loose-fitting knits, with a minimum of buttons, snaps or zippers. Mom can’t dress herself, and we want to make life easier for her caregivers. Comfort matters more than fashion for her, just like my son. Neither one has ever much cared how they look.
They don’t really care what anyone thinks, either, especially if they’re expected to join a group by participating in organized activities. I always think this makes life easier, but this is not their style. Mom’s residence packs the calendar with flower arranging, bead making, chair yoga, sing-a-longs and scenic drives. When she moved in, she rejected them all with a frowning wave, preferring to read in her apartment and then, when reading became impossible, to just sit. When she moved to the memory care unit, we tried letting her dip in for an hour or so before retreating to her apartment, but that’s never the best way to enter the pool. I remembered how the preschool teacher would lead my reluctant son away gently by the hand, saying, “Wave goodbye, Mom!” Now I hear those words from the memory care director: “I’ll take Mom,” she says gaily. “Wave goodbye!” Now Mom hardly resists activities, and while this makes my life easier, I miss how feisty she used to be in dismissing the other residents as “just … hoi polloi.”
My son isn’t as scornful, but from the time he could crawl, he’s made it clear that group activities are not his thing. It frustrated me when he was little, but once he got to school and I saw him resisting the first-grade Pokémon craze, I admired how he didn’t sway to peer pressure. Still, I find myself worrying that he’s isolated and lonely, so I dig for details about his day: Who’d you eat lunch with? What cracked you up? He mostly shrugs or, if I’m lucky, mutters something unintelligible.
I try the same tactic, learned from a guidebook on parenting teens, with my mom. I avoid yes/no questions in favor of “What made you smile today?” or “What surprised you?” But the strategy is no more effective with her. I can’t tell whether she struggles more to summon the memory or to articulate the sentiment, but all I get is a shrug.
I’m alert for signs of depression, so common in both of their age groups, but have a hard time seeing through the murky filters between us. They are both in challenging, transitional stages of life. Some of this behavior goes with the territory, some is core personality and some is due to their relationship with me. I have to acknowledge that, as the one who wants and asks the most from them, I am likely to get the least. So I try to back off, but still I wonder, do they feel this gap — between the open and expressive people they once were and the more remote people they are now — as keenly as I do?
Every once in a while, Mom emerges. Once it’s at the doctor who asks, as she always does, if Mom has fallen, and I answer, as I always do, “No, thank goodness, no falls.” But this time Mom, somehow remembering that I fell recently, points an accusatory finger at me and smiles, “But SHE did!” Another time, I walk into the room and say breezily, “Howzit?” “Hazelnut?” she asks. I’m caught short for a moment, worried, before realizing she’s needling me for my lazy enunciation and we both giggle.
My son, too, resurfaces occasionally, unpredictably. It’s like I’ve touched a magic button and suddenly a story from science class pours out: “Yeah, the biosphere project was a disaster! We added a snail and a fish and the snail ate the fish! The meal worm crawled into the pool and drowned!” He’s breathless as a toddler for a moment, but then his self-consciousness reasserts itself. Still, I had a moment.
Mostly these days my son and my mom are ciphers, giving me blank looks and dismissive waves. I’m surrounded by photos reminding me of the people they used to be. I look up from my desk and there’s my son at 9, unguarded, laughing at a joke; Mom beaming at my wedding. These days when I ask them to smile for the camera, she sits a bit shrunken in her wheelchair, while he affects a stony stare.
It is an odd feeling, how the people in these pictures, in my memory, bump up against who they are now. Every relationship shifts as people age, of course, but the sharp pang of missing someone who is here and not here is never more poignant than now, as my mom disappears into dementia and my son into adolescence.
I’m confident he will circle back and reestablish contact with me, so until then I hang on to our small points of connection: Joe Biden memes, vegan baking, funny animal GIFs. Mom is on a different trajectory. We lurch awkwardly together toward each new plateau, hoping that it is wide enough for us to take a breath before resuming the journey.
Caroline M. Grant is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Find her online at carolinemgrant.com.
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