My mother shuffled into the room, leaning on the arm of a young woman whose name I didn’t know; her name tag was facing the wrong way, thanks to hustle and bustle of the morning, no doubt. I like to thank the staff by name when they bring my mother, who has dementia, down for a visit, and I know quite a few of them by now. But there are so many I haven’t gotten to know because they are new or haven’t been assigned to her on the days I visit.
“Here you go, Mama. I’ll be back to get you after your visit. Have a nice time with your son.”
The Hispanic workers at the rest home often call my mother “Mama.” They say it like they are speaking to their own mother. I’m touched by their kindness and patience. So many of their charges can be difficult, even mean, my mother not least among them.
I took her by the arm and led her to a chair at one of the round tables in the room, turning her toward a copy of Monet’s Water Lilies. Someone has annoyingly glued a three-dimensional frog to the painting—to amuse the patrons, I imagine—but my mother always comments on how pretty the picture is, frog or no frog. Facing the wall keeps her from seeing the cars parked outside the windows and saves us an endless repetition of questions about which one is mine. It means we can talk about what’s happening in the family and reminisce about old times. Usually I’m the one telling the stories and updating her on the family, while she responds with disjointed stories of her own.
At first, my mother’s decline into incoherence was hard to bear. She always had a good memory, and she was a great storyteller. She loved reminiscing about growing up in Oklahoma and her life with my father and us kids as we grew up in New England. But, over time, I’ve found these conversations to be more and more comforting. Who cares if she mixes up names and repeatedly asks how my father, over two decades gone from this world, is doing and if he’s finally stopped drinking? The real gift is that we can still connect. We can still enjoy the warmth of just being together. Talking with her now is a bit like a dream, but I’m starting to believe that life, in many ways, is a dream best shared while drifting on the gentle currents that lead us toward that greater ocean.
On this particular day, though, something was different. She accepted my kiss happily and was delighted to see the coffee and the cut-up donut I had set out for her, but I could tell she wasn’t sure who I was.
I asked her, “Mama, do you know who I am?”
“No. But I know you come by to see me a lot,” she answered with a vague smile.
“I’m Johnny. I’m your son.”
She looked at me for a few seconds, confused but not disturbed. Then her expression changed, as if she’d woken up and realized where she was. She looked directly into my eyes, and a single tear rolled down her cheek.
“You’re mine?” she replied, reaching over and taking my hand. “Mine? You’re mine?”
“Yes, Mama, I’m yours. I’ve been yours for sixty-seven years now. I’ll always be yours, and you’ll always be mine,” I answered. There was a heaviness in my heart, the knowledge that the day had come, the first day of real forgetting.
But as I looked into her eyes, and she once again exclaimed, “You’re mine,” I saw the purity of absolute and unshakeable love. And at that moment, I realized that I had seen this before, on a June morning nearly seventy years ago, when my mother beheld, for the first time, the child she had been carrying for nine months in her own body. The timorous question of unbelief that such a thing could be, followed by the triumphant affirmation that it was so. “You’re mine!”
The heavy weight of knowing that the beginning of the end had arrived was replaced by the wonder of what is and always will be. That I am hers and she is mine and that nothing, not dementia nor death itself, can ever erase that. She will always be my mother, and I her son.
How strange and beautiful to be given such an unexpected gift, on the dread day I had long expected.
Fr. John Daly is a pastor at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts.
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