I have been gnawing at the big thoughts again, wondering how we decide what is of value. I grew up in a family that emphatically valued experiences over things. Money was tight. We drove cars until they died, we re-covered an old sofa so many times I can date family photos by slipcover era: “oh, there’s the green and blue abstract amoebas, it must be 1968 to 72.”
But we went to the movies every week, museums constantly, theater and live music regularly, and took a modest vacation every year. It is easy enough to say that was good.
Although the world we live in puts a premium on the material, no one would question that building memories is as important as building buildings. Memories may be ephemeral but count as real, and potentially more lasting than things themselves. The twin towers are gone, but who among us who have walked in their shadows cannot call them up at will?
But what happens when memory is gone? When the ability to lay down new memories erodes, and the mind sieves everything out every few hours so that all that remains is dust and ghosts, thin wisps of almost memory. This is the state my mother finds herself in, and it is breaking my heart.
Today, we were visiting with my friend Elizabeth in her lovely sun filled apartment. My mother comes to her building weekly to see her therapist, who helps her hold the burden of her nearly unbearable sadness. I shepherd my mother to all her appointments these days, she cannot negotiate the city on her own. Too many moves in too few years with a memory deficient brain means she is constantly unmoored, needs steering.
One time this summer, when Dad was still going out, their lovely and loving aide, Mina, had taken them both to his doctor’s appointment. Mom didn’t want to go into the exam room with Dad that day, and chose to sit in the waiting room. Bored and hungry there, she decided to go out to find a nearby blueberry muffin and cup of hot cocoa. An hour later, Mina, canvassing every coffee shop, finally found her blocks away, wandering, wondering where it was she was getting back to.
Can't you just see it: the irritated calls from the doctor’s office about my increasingly agitated father left alone in the waiting room; Mina panicked, searching; me frantically hunting a sitter so I could come join the fracas, deciding if it was time to get the police involved yet. Oh that was a fun day, let me tell you.
But back to today: after my mother’s appointment, we have a tradition of having a light bite together. Our regular haunt was the Hot & Crusty around the corner, common watering hole of old ladies and toddlers with nannies. This suits my mother just fine, as she loves little kids and she is an old lady. But lately we have been going to visit with my friend Elizabeth and take our tea in her apartment.
Elizabeth is fond of my parents and has known them the best of all my newer, Mommy friends. Her own family is far, far away in Australia, and she is happy for grandmotherly company. When I ring her to ask if we can come by this week, she says yes and adds with a laugh “And your mother can admire my apartment again and ask how many children I have and look at their pictures and tell me how lovely my family is again.”
I love Elizabeth because she takes lightly and in stride the fact that despite having met her dozens of times and spent hours in her company, my mother only vaguely remembers my friend, smiling politely at her on the street when they run into each other.
My mother’s ability to record new memories is now so deeply compromised. Trying to give people a snapshot of what that’s like, I resort to movie metaphors: ”It’s ‘Groundhog Day’” I’ll say. ”She lives a whole day and when she wakes up in the morning, it’s wiped clean, like it never happened.” And no, not completely, not 100 percent, but close enough.
Two days home after my father’s disastrous hospitalization that nearly consumed him and us, after spending countless hours with him in the intense and unhappy cardiac ICU, I make a reference to it and she asks: “What operation? Was Jim in the hospital?”
And I suppose, in some ways, that works for her. She doesn’t have to remember our holding my father’s arms down as he screams “Stop them, they’re hurting me, make them stop!” to keep him from clawing at the doctors and nurses who are saving his life by applying hard pressure to the pumping, spurting blood vessels in his groin that he had ruptured by standing up and trying to walk away from his bed with a tube still inserted. This is a precious memory I alone get to keep.
So my mother and I are at Elizabeth’s and although our visits usually coincide with nap-time, this time her two and a half year old daughter, Caroline, is awake. My mother finds nothing more delightful in the world than an engaged and engaging toddler, and so she is in Grandma heaven.
Since all Caroline’s actual grandparents live many oceans away, she, too, is delighted to have the complete attention of someone who is happy to play peek-a-boo games with her for a length of time that would make most people droop. My mother is completely in the moment, completely charmed by this adorable little girl, having the time of her life. When she gets home she will even tell Mina about her how much fun she had today.
I feel very contented that I have provided Mom some most excellent distraction from the deep and abiding sadness that fills her life with my father now. But I know that next week she will ask Elizabeth if she has any children again, and this takes bites out of my happiness.
This is yet my corollary to those old zen questions; besides that tree in the silent forest, and the one clapping hand: did it mean anything to give my mother this happy moment if it does not become a memory, if it dissipates into synaptic dust?
My father, now curled up inside his mind, will not know, will not remember what we have done, are doing for him. But we will know. Ethan, at 5, observing me getting ready to go out on another parent related mission commented: “And when you and Daddy get old I’ll take care of you like you take care of Grandma and Grandpa.” Yup, kid, you get it. And like the old saying goes, may we live long enough to become a burden to you.
My sister in law, Bern, went through all this a while ago, twice in rapid succession with both her parents. She recently wrote me a lovely note and shared this:
“One day, during the time my mother was sick, I was helping her put on her shoes, kneeling at her feet. She looked down at me and said, ‘One day you'll be glad you were here to help me.’ I said, ‘I'm glad now to be able to help you!’ But I understand now what she meant. Because while you're going through it, you're feeling more pain than satisfaction. But one day, I did indeed come to feel how much that caring meant to my mother and thus to me.“
So I guess that has to be the answer for me, that even though my mother will not remember it, I will remember that I gave her this bright, happy moment. And that will have to be enough.