My mother was born on September 26, 1940.
She ended up being the oldest of four, and like many children of that era, she learned at a young age how to help her mother take care of the others. (My grandfather was at war for a lot of my mom’s young years, not that he’d have helped much at home anyway.) She has memories, she tells me, of following her mother around the house, just chattering at her, talking about whatever came to mind.
I do that too. I did it to her. I do it to everyone. My freshman college roommate had to take me aside after three days and tell me to stop, because she just couldn’t have those sorts of conversations first thing in the morning.
I’m an introvert, but if I like you, I chatter.
The girls did better than the boys in my mom’s family. My mom and her sister were the only two to go to college; the boys, for various reasons, did not. My mom did brilliantly well in high school, and I have to wonder how much of that was loneliness. Her family moved around a lot, as military families did then. She spent at least one year of high school in France, when she did not speak French; she won an award at the end of the year, but she didn’t have much of a chance to make friends. She was at a new school for her senior year, and I can’t even imagine being the new kid when you’re seventeen and everyone else knows each other.
As long as I’ve known her, she’s been hard to get to know. Some of it’s shyness, I think; she doesn’t seem shy when you talk to her, but she’s learned how to act polite and forthcoming. My dad is wonderful cover for shy people: he’s gregarious and loud, and oblivious to most social cues. People love him. He can be a huge comfort. He can also swallow all the air in the room.
I think she’s still lonely.
Before Covid hit I’d take them out a few times a month. We’d do lunch, and then Barnes & Noble. B&N was always a bit of an exercise. My dad couldn’t be left to himself, because he’d become confused. He’d head straight for their movie/music section, but he didn’t know how to find anything. He’d want to ask if they had a particular title (usually Joan Baez; he loves to tell the story of how when he was in college he drove her home one night), and we’d have to find someone who worked there, or wait at the information desk, and I’d have to explain to him, over and over, that the waiting was normal, that they’d be able to check, that if they didn’t have the title we could order it.
My mom would look at books.
I have this clear memory of her in the B&N stacks. She has two or three titles in her arms–hardcovers, of course–and her eyes are skimming the shelves, looking for more. She’s got a smile on her face. She’s happy there.
She can’t read anymore. She buys books, but she can’t read them. It’s not that she can’t make out words; she does fine with that. But she loses her place and forgets what she’s read, and she starts over. It’s forever Page One.
Before Covid, I had this idea of somehow getting her out without my dad. Before Covid, I’d decided I’d take her to Barnes & Noble, and it’d be just the two of us, and she could browse as long as she wanted. And then we’d have coffee and sit and look at what we’d bought.
It wouldn’t matter that she wouldn’t read any of them. It wouldn’t matter that the next week she might buy the exact same titles. She’d be happy, for that short time, and maybe she wouldn’t be lonely.
Dementia is a horrible disease, but sometimes it’s quiet. My dad’s is always loud, always gregarious, always swallowing all the air in the room. In this, as in all things, he ends up with all the attention, because it’s so much more dangerous to leave him to his own devices.
My mother’s is quiet.
My mother is, in a lot of ways, unchanged by dementia. You wouldn’t notice when you talked to her, not right away. Except after two or three minutes you’d notice the same topics coming up, the same observations, the same questions. She’s not ignoring you. She doesn’t remember.
She’s still here. She’s alive, and she’s in quite good health, physically. She’s in a safe living situation, among people who look after her, who are frequently tested for Covid and who are kind and careful with her. I am grateful for all of that.
I miss her. I miss her so much I don’t even know how to process it.
I love you, Mom. Happy birthday.