Friday, January 18, 2013


Not all visits with Mom are pleasant.

I spent an hour with her on New Year's Day. After such a good visit before Christmas, I was looking forward to brightening her day and being cheered by seeing her. It's easy to write about the high points of our time together and focus my grief on what has been lost. The retrospective fondness is sweet. I've described it here (most recently during our sing-along, or last Mother's Day).

But the new reality, the current state of things, is hard to put into words.

As soon as I walked into the Special Care Unit, I heard a loud TV. In one of the activity rooms, several residents including Mom were watching Hook at full volume. An ironic viewing choice if you ask me: Robin Williams trying to remember how to be Peter Pan, elderly Granny Wendy, aging Tootles complaining he "lost his marbles." Mom's wheelchair was only a few feet away from the screen and her hands were clasped in front of her, making her look impatient.

As I walked into the room to greet her, a white-haired women sitting nearby grabbed my arm like a spring-loaded skeleton in a haunted house. I smiled at her but she didn't smile back.

Mom looked up at me with a forlorn expression. If she recognized me, I couldn't tell. She didn't say anything. The nurse on duty helped me wheel Mom into the room across the hall. I was glad to close the door behind us and muffle the sound of Captain Hook.

I gave Mom a hug and a kiss, told her it was good to see her, and asked how she was doing. I only understood 1% of her response. She started crying. She tried and tried to explain something. It was horrible to see her in such anguish and not understand what she was saying. She repeated sounds and stammered. Her facial expressions and body language were vivid. But I couldn't piece any of the verbal gibberish together. I didn't know if she had been having hallucinations again, afraid that someone was trying to hurt her. I didn't know if she was having a moment of clarity and was upset by her surroundings. Both perfectly good reasons to cry inconsolably.

It was a helpless feeling. It was the first time I couldn't distract her by singing, or being silly, or telling stories, or praying, or smiling. I just rubbed her back and stroked her hair. I wiped the tears that ran down her face and blotted her runny nose. I did the only things I knew how to do (things she taught me); comforting gestures for someone who is sad.

I told her I was sorry.

I told her no one deserved to live like this, especially her.

I told her she was the best mother in the world.

She looked at me scornfully.

On one hand, I held her emotions loosely, unattached from me, entirely apart from our 31 year history as mother and daughter. I reminded myself that her understanding and rationality and perspective are limited, at best. I pictured her in heaven, years from now, looking back on that very moment of miscommunication. She was laughing good-naturedly at herself for stumbling over her words, over the absurdity of how intensely I wanted to help and how powerless I was. In my mind's eye she chuckled at what a child-like state she had been in. She reassured me I had done my best, and thanked me for being there.

But on the other hand, I took it all personally and felt like the biggest failure on earth. I couldn't make it better for her. She was inches from me, trying to tell me what was so troubling, and I couldn't do a thing. I felt as if I was standing next to someone with their hand caught in a closed car door. Instead of opening the door and releasing the injured limb, I just cooed unhelpfully, "I love you. I'm here for you. I wish I could help." It's terrible to see someone you love suffer, especially if you can't do anything about it.

I started singing. "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know dear......" but she stopped me.

She said, "No" and shook her head and cried fresh tears.

I bowed my head and prayed out loud, "Please give Mom peace. Please surround her with angels." It sounded absurd. She kept crying so I stopped. It felt exactly like the prayer I couldn't finish when I was twelve years old, the night Mom tucked me in at bedtime and I confessed to her I didn't believe that God could hear me. It was the same words-ricocheting-off-the-ceiling feeling. And very lonely.

My heart has been heavy since that visit. I don't know how to reconcile this mentally. The woman I cherish so dearly, who I've aimed to please and make proud my whole life, is out of reach. I can't ease her pain, whether it's real or imagined (and what difference does it make? If it's real to her, I want to make it stop).

I want my Mom back.

I want to go to garage sales with her on Saturday morning.

I want to take her to a capella singing performances.

I want to watch Downtown Abbey with her (she would LOVE it).

I want a hug, not because I'm comforting her, but because she's comforting me.


  1. A very touching blog, I went through something similar with my Nan and my Mum must have felt just you. It's an awful situation to be in xx

  2. I'm so sorry you're having to deal with this but I'm so glad you're writing through it. As always, beautiful.

    I don't know if it offers any consolation, but in my experience, many days are different. You may have caught her on a bad day. Hopefully next time she'll be back to her cheerful, smiling self.

    I love you.

  3. Hugs to you, Emily. I love you so much!!

  4. Oh, Emily. Tears in my eyes. For you, for your mom. I don't have any good words but just wanted to let you know you write this so beautifully. I'm grateful you share it. Thanks.