Role Reversal Essay on Alzheimer’s from Just Between Us Magazine Summer 2012 Issue
“Hi there, honey. I think she’s still in her room.” The receptionist greets me as I walk through the heavy, dark wooden doors leading to the place my mother now calls home. The glow from the fireplace welcomes me in, warming my face and hands. “Thanks, Viv. Sure is getting cold out there,” I say taking my coat off and lingering by the fire to soak in the warmth.
It’s hard to believe this is now my mother’s home. Home…the word brings up so many memories. As a child, home was a place of comfort, filled with safety and warmth. All the things that make a house a home came from the natural outpouring of love from my mom. Can a home cease to exist? I wonder. Can something so real just fade away? The red brick bungalow is still standing. In fact, my father still lives there. The furniture is the same and my mom’s paintings still hang on the living room walls. The buzz of the furnace can be heard through the creaky wood floors. Without her presence, it doesn’t seem like home anymore.
My heart is sad and I fight back tears as I mentally prepare myself for my visit. Coming to terms with this new reality of mothering my own mother was proving to be a slow process. I should be used to this, I tell myself. As a mom of two young children, mothering isn’t new to me. But this is different. Maybe, I’ll never get used to it. Maybe, I’m not supposed to. It’s just not natural, so it’s a struggle, I decide.
I pull myself from the glow of the fire and turn away to head to her room. My stomach grumbles, punishing me for not eating breakfast before coming, as I savor the aroma of bacon and eggs coming from the dining room. I peek in to see the tables laid out family style. It reminds me of a country inn, like the one my husband and I stayed in on our recent lakeside getaway. I’m relieved this place is nothing like those I remember from childhood, when we’d visit elderly family friends. My stomach turns on me again, at the memory of the rancid smells that hung in the grey hallways. I fight back, breathing in deeply a sigh of relief, grateful this place is one of kindness. I hurry down the dimly lit hallway leading to the room at the end.
It’s been eight years since her diagnosis. Our role reversal began when I first stepped into the world of motherhood, two weeks after the birth of my son. “I’m sorry. It is Alzheimer’s,” the neurologist confirmed our fears. It wasn’t so much a surprise, but rather the undesired explanation for mom’s somewhat erratic behavior. I remember when I was just her daughter, but now I take on the necessary role of mothering the one who gave me life. Once a strong and vibrant woman, my mom now lives life with childlike naiveté.
I reach the end of the hallway. The door is closed and the room is quiet. I wonder if she’s taking a cat-nap. I gently push the door open. She’s sitting on the bed, her frame a shadow in a room alive with the sun’s rays. “Mom,” I say quietly. She doesn’t respond. “Mom…it’s me, Angie,” I say slightly louder. “Angie,” she says, leaping to her feet only to be slowed by muscles and joints worn from age. It warms my heart that she still recognizes me. I am her daughter. An adult woman, married with children of my own, I am still her daughter.
“Angie, it’s so good to see you, honey. I’ve missed you. It’s been so long.” She lifts her arms to hug me and we embrace. The look on her face reflects her sincerity and the simplicity of how she feels. “I’ve missed you, too, mom. It’s so good to see you.” Knowing she doesn’t have any recollection of it, I play along, saying nothing of my visit of two days before. Taking a step back from me, she struggles with an aching hip that threatens to topple her over. “Let’s sit down, mom, so we can talk.” “Oh, yes.” We make our way back to the bed slowly, careful to be sure she doesn’t fall from a misstep.
We settle in on the nubby scarlet throw that graces her bed. Falling naturally into our necessary, but familiar pattern of communicating, we begin. “How are you doing, mom?” “Oh, you know. I’m okay,” she says quickly, eager to hear how I am. “How are you, Angie? I worry about you, you know. And your…who is it, what is his name again? Oh, why can’t I remember his name?” she says with embarrassed desperation.
“You mean Jared, mom, right? Your grandson?” “Oh yes, Jared. How is he?” “He’s doing well, and so is Sofia, your granddaughter. They’re good. Growing quickly, though,” I say, wondering if she really remembers them. “Have you seen your father? Is he in New York?” she asks. “New York?” I say pausing. Her question strikes me as bizarre. My dad’s never been to New York and has worked and lived in Michigan their entire married lives. “I haven’t seen him, mom, but I spoke with him and he’s doing well. I’m pretty sure he came to see you yesterday.” “He did? I just don’t remember. I miss him.” My heart sinks knowing that this visit, like the others, will quickly fall from her memory, allowing loneliness to creep in.
“Mom, did you go out to lunch with the ladies yesterday?” I ask. “Lunch…oh no. I don’t think so.” She begins fidgeting with a frayed piece of yarn on one end of the blanket. “Have you seen your father?” she asks. “No, I haven’t seen him, mom. But I know he’s doing well,” I assure her again. “And Jared, how is he doing?” “Well, he’s great. He just turned eight and is in third grade.” “Third grade, my goodness.” She’s genuinely surprised. The same questions are repeated again and again. Each time, I gently provide the answers.
Her inability to answer my questions leads me further into our familiar way of communicating. I begin describing the goings on of my life, as simply as I can. I leave out the stresses and burdens that I know she’ll carry on in her mind, worrying about something that eludes her, but worrying nevertheless. I’m careful with what I say. The heaviness of my day before arriving here seeps out in small, controlled ways. I begin to tell her about my latest struggles with parenting an eight year-old with a generous spirit and a very strong will. “I just don’t how to get through to him sometimes,” I finish, knowing not to expect any words of wisdom anymore, but only her generous smile.
She looks up, directly into my eyes. “Angie, you’re a wonderful mother. He’ll change, you wait and see. He just needs some time to grow. Don’t worry, honey. He’ll change,” she says with absolute lucid clarity. I’m stunned. In this moment, I see my mother. The same woman, who spoke words of encouragement into me as a child, sits before me, affirming me with her words and a strong, maternal gaze.
The creases on her face disappear in my mind’s eye, giving way to a much younger woman sitting on a front porch stoop. No more wrinkles, just smooth olive skin and deep brown eyes revealing her Filipina Italian heritage. Her long paisley skirt and creamy blouse are set off by the single strand of pearls around her neck. “Angie, tell me what happened?” she asks me, a willowy ten year-old girl beside her.
Inside our house a moment ago, my words to her had been sharp. She knew there was something more behind them and was determined to uproot the truth. A particularly bad day at school; unfair, cutting words thrown my way had hit their mark, wounding my young heart. She listened quietly, wiped my tears and began to tell me of a similar little girl, one who grew up in the middle of a war that consumed home and country. It was her story; about a girl dealing with the same issues as me, but in the middle of a brutal wartime occupation. Careless words spoken by classmates stung, even in the chaos of war. Her stories were foreign to me. She’d never shared so much before. Her message was clear: you can walk through the fires of difficulty and survive. It can be done.
I was sorry before she even began talking and apologized while choking back tears. Despite my hurtful words to her, she loved me unconditionally. “I’m never going to stop loving you, Angie, even when you disappoint me. I’m your mother and I’ll always love you,” she’d finished, pulling me close.
Looking into her eyes now, I’m unable to say anything. I relish these words, spoken from a much older woman, the first of such profundity in many years. I delight one more time in who she is – my mother – the one who sees me, as me. I take it in and say nothing, but look at her and smile.
She shivers, breaking the silence. “Oh, it’s cold in here,” she says, hugging her arms to her sides. “Here mom, let me help you. How about this sweater?” I hand her an ivory cardigan softened from years of warming her. She struggles to stretch her arms into it. Gently, I guide her arms into the sleeves. She begins to fidget with the buttons, slowly, almost cautiously. “I just don’t…I don’t know how…” she says quietly, not sure how to meet the button with its opening. “Let me do it, mom. Those buttons are small, aren’t they,” I say. “Oh, thank you, Angie.” She looks up again, this time with the childlike gaze I’ve come to expect.
“Let’s take a walk, mom.” I button her into her sweater and carefully help her to her feet. Together we walk down the hallway toward the sun porch. The explosion of color on the sturdy oak trees outside the windows is in view. “Look at how beautiful the leaves are, mom.” She takes my hand trusting me to steady her. I know her love is real and it strengthens me. I can do this, I tell myself. I can mother my mother. I simply love her. “I wish your father was here. Have you seen him?” she asks and we continue our walk in the sun.
This is the original version of the essay, that appeared in the Summer issue of Just Between Us. The essay, as it appeared in JBU, can be found here.