My mother is losing memory. We don't often use that dreaded A word. She lived in fear of it much of her life having watched her mother descend into that abyss. We are not in denial, it's just that even in a somewhat diminished state, she is so much more than a label.
Now in her late 80s it is finally catching up with her. A once voracious reader, she can no longer retain a complex plot in her memory. I used to discuss books with her in our then weekly phone call. And we are not talking light reading. I went to the library with her recently to find a book of short stories that might suit her memory today when on the shelf I saw the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I recalled when my mother had read that 1000 page book and savored it. Now that would be far too complex a book and for just a moment I permitted myself to mourn that loss. For the most part though we deal with the new normal, grateful to have my mother in whatever form.
Her day still starts with her newspaper as she pursues a new pastime, cutting and pasting. We are not talking about the computer variety. Each day she goes through the paper and cuts out articles and images that speak to her. She glues them into a notebook for posterity. She is now on book five. She says to me that everyone needs something to do and what would she do if she didn't cut and paste. My mom used to teach first grade so I suspect this is a familiar activity. I was quite amused when I last visited her when I saw she had created a page of food pictures. Juxtaposed with these pictures of food was a Family Circus cartoon. The father is reading Snow White to his children and they get to the part where she eats the poisoned apple. Dolly, the little girl exclaims, "she did it again, didn't she hear when we read it last time".
I've heard that even when people lose memory they retain their temperament. My mother has always been a kind and loving person, grateful for the small joys in life. When we were young she would call us to the kitchen window to see a bird or a beautiful sunset. I still see that person. My father used to call her the original innocent because she saw the world through fresh eyes. It is why she was such a good teacher. She could see the world as children do. When I traveled with her, her delight was contagious. I find myself thinking that her temperament has eased this transition. She still lives her life with joy and gratitude.
Now as spring arrives she often delights in flowers. My cousin sent me a note about my mother's sister turning 92. Her memory is gone and she no longer speaks. I mentioned it to my mother and she told me that once she was very close to this sister and would love to speak to her. We discussed sending a card, but as I listened to my mother kvelling over her flowers, I suggested we send flowers instead. My mother loved the idea. If nothing else the flowers would bring my aunt pleasure. The next day my mother had forgotten we had this conversation and when I reminded her she loved the idea all over again. I made a mental note that if she ever gets to my aunt's stage, remember to surround her with flowers. And then another mental note, why wait, as I ordered some flowers for Mother's Day.
Years ago I gave my mother a homemade gift at a time when her memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. The act of doing it touched me. It was a litany of what I love in her. The jar sat on a shelf high on the bookcase until I noticed it on a recent visit. I took it down and together we drew out each memory and remembered it together. Some she recalled, others took some assisted remembering. My sister lives closer and goes in weekly. On one of her recent visits she heard a noise in the kitchen and poked her head in. There was my mother laughing at a memory from the memory jar. She then proceeded through each memory.
I sometimes wonder how I would make that transition to an uncooperative brain, hoping against hope that my brain will behave. I am much more driven, less prone to smell the roses. I think about the activities that engage me and realize most would not be sustainable in the face of declining memory. Then I remember De Kooning. As he descended into Alzheimer's he continued to paint. Someone set up his palette each day and turned him loose. I hope if necessary someone will do that for me.
I have always admired my mother. She was and still is my standard for kindness. She never fails to see the good in another person and speak to the best in them. Similarly she has always seen the good in the world around her and delighted in what it has to offer. Just being around her has always encouraged me to be my better self and I realize that she still has lessons to impart. And so as Mother's Day approaches, I honor my mother's ability to find joy in the everyday and to face each day with gratitude. I can only hope to learn to do the same.