I want my mean, bitchy, drunk mother back. The mother who was depressed and melancholy, who said cruel things about my work and criticized my parenting, who undermined instructions to my kids by saying “You really don’t have to pay attention to her.” I want the mother back who invited herself to my first apartment and then pitched screaming fits in the streets of Boston. The woman who threatened to pull off my arm and beat me with its bloody stump. The mother who said that if I told her she wasn’t a good mother she would kill herself. I want the mother back who came to my college graduation and could barely stand for all the scotch she had had. The mother who took to her bed for weeks. The woman who stood eating supper in the kitchen because she couldn’t bear the meaninglessness of the family dinner table conversations.
I want her back.
I want her back in her old, her former, her horrific but real configuration. I want that woman back who couldn’t see me with a new pocketbook or pair of shoes without saying, “Lovely, but I could never afford such a thing.” The woman who asked for detailed instructions as to what my children wanted for Hanukkah and birthdays and then said those requests were too expensive and sent a $10 check instead. The woman who called me on my birthday (when she remembered at all) and said, “I can’t believe I am a woman old enough to have a daughter as old as you are,” who sent gifts (when she remembered at all) that were unwrapped and showed the mark-downed price she had garnered at Filene’s Basement. Who sent me her old clothes that still smelled of her body and Clinique Aromatics.
I want my mother back.
I want her back to see her grandchildren grown and beautiful and interesting, even if she may still find something wrong with them. I want her to meet my new lover, even if she will raise an eyebrow as if to say: Is this man better than the ones you left? I want the mother back who careened from man to man herself, always searching for that one true great big movie love, and who then complained about being alone. I want the mother back who always complained about the noise, the food, the temperature of a restaurant and then went to the bathroom when the check came.
I also want the mother back who taught me to love music and art and theatre and books. The woman who showed me how to arrange flowers. The woman who traveled the world and took breathtaking photographs. The woman who was not afraid to leave her husband and start a new life, even if that new life began in an institution after a breakdown. The mother who held my babies and wept. The woman who handed me a Valium as I walked down the aisle. The mother who was beautiful and smart, who did the New York Times crossword puzzle in an hour. In ink. Who, as an actress, was a better Martha than Elizabeth Taylor and a better Eleanor of Aquitaine than Katharine Hepburn.
I want the mother back who lived with her pain, even if she did not understand it. Who was born sad and could not climb out of her sadness, but who managed a spectacular life despite it. The woman who was born at the wrong time, married the wrong man and had the wrong children. The mother who, despite it all, gathered friends to her like an abundance of autumn leaves and had all my friends convinced she was the most glamorous mother in town. The woman who struggled and struggled to find meaning in her world and railed against injustice and marched and fought for the rights of the disenfranchised. The woman whose house was filled with gifts from admirers, whose portrait serves as the face of the fairy godmother in a children’s book. The mother who wanted to live forever, but bought long-term care insurance so her daughters would not have to pay for her care as she had paid for her mother’s.
I want my old mother back. The one I had finally made peace with. The one whose whims and vagaries I understood. Whose moods and methods were familiar.
The mother who said she never wished to be a burden but was far more a burden then than she could ever be now.
Eight years ago, before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, visits with my mother were still fraught with tension: How would she be this time? How long would any mood stand? How drunk would she get before she said something terrible? But at least I knew who she was. She was the mother I had had, for better or worse, for nearly 50 years.
Now, she curls up on her bed, recently incontinent. My beautiful and immaculate mother cannot hold in her waste: It flows into a diaper. She must be coerced into eating. She will stay in bed all morning if she is allowed. On a good day ,she insists her memory is fine, although she can answer no question about herself or the world. On a bad day, she gazes at her sister or my sister with confusion; she has already forgotten she has grandchildren. She can no longer write her name.
Soon after the diagnosis, when I first went to clean out her house in order to sell it and move her into assisted living, the out-of-date foodstuffs, the empty refrigerator, the dead flowers, told me what I had already known but hadn’t wanted to admit: that the incoherent late-night telephone calls were not the product of the end of a large bottle of wine, but of something far more sinister. I had not wished to recognize her disease because it would mean taking care of her, something I resisted deep in my soul: She had not taken care of me, after all. But once she moved and I visited her, I knew that taking care of her was all I could do, the most and least, the best and the worst, that I could do. And so I took her on outings, I sat with her while she held my hand and told me she loved me. I sat with her for hours and hours of silence filled only by my chatter. And each time, I felt a huge and deafening grief mixed with a profound guilt that I could no do more. But now, those feelings have changed once again. Because she is changing once again.
For the first several years of her illness, she held me and wept every time I left, followed me outside the door and stood waving until I drove away. Now, she lets me go with little regret or remembrance, her attention already turned to something else or nothing else. She listens to music that would have made her laugh just a few years ago. She cannot read, cannot think, cannot follow a conversation, can hardly speak. She forgets to put on her bra, goes around all day in her bedroom slippers. Not only is her brain shrinking inside her head, but her body is shrinking inside her clothes. Each time I see her she is smaller and smaller. Soon, she will be as tiny as Tiny Alice.
I did not know how to cope with the recent phone call which told me she woke in the night, wet the bed, screaming, and was taken to the hospital where they found nothing physically wrong with her. I called her multitude of doctors. Over and over. Finally, she was taken off some of her medications — especially the ones designed to slow the disease, as there is no possibility of that now — and put on others, specifically one to ease her pain, even if the cause of that pain remains unknown.
But nothing in my history with this woman who shaped me, who abused me and who loved me with her own mixture of crazy and brutal passion has prepared me for the way I weep now, the way I break down when I see her; the way I can’t help but imagine her as she was alone in a hospital room, screaming in pain.
The tears come unbidden. The last time I saw her, I began to weep and she watched, completely detached, as though I were something curious. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
Nothing in our long history as mother and daughter or the relatively short history of her disease seems to be able to prepare me for the way, from now on, she will only go downhill faster and faster, like a skier who has lost his poles. Nothing prepares me for the headlong crash into the tree which will be the end of her. Nothing prepares me for the myriad ways all of it makes me feel.
I know she won’t be back. But still, I want her so to be who she was, as awful as she could be, as wonderful as I know she wanted to be. Anything, even the mother who was so very very hard to love, would be better than who she is now. It may be much easier to love her, but it never gets easier watching her disappear, to see every vestige of the woman who once was — difficult, demanding, beautiful, cruel and exhilaratingly troubled — slide down and off her old self, like raindrops on a window.
(This originally appeared on The Broad Side and the Huffington Post)