Not Guilty!

I’m at the grocery store, navigating through the chaos of an afternoon before Mother’s Day: more floral arrangements than a funeral home, enough pink balloons to supply a dozen nine-year-olds’ birthday parties, greeting card racks laden with glittery sentiment, chocolate-covered strawberry display that engulfs half the produce aisle. Men and women surround me, their shopping carts loaded with sacrificial offerings to place upon the altars of the women who brought them into this world.

My own offering is modest. A small yellow orchid, beribboned in pink, to pin to her blouse. Two cookies, pink and blue icing stating “I Love you, Mom” and “Happy Mother’s Day.” A card for her collection, one of the few things she’s managed not to lose or throw out.

I will not feel guilty that I did not get her more. Last year, the rose bouquet was overturned not long after I presented it, glass shards to clean up, flowers forgotten moments later.

I will not feel guilty that I choose to take her to the special brunch in the dining room of her memory care community. Last year, the silverware at her favorite restaurant became frightening, napkins mistaken for toast.

I will not feel guilty that she lives in a memory care community. I took care of her with love and compassion for the three years I was her sole caregiver.

I will not feel guilty because I do not visit her every day. Every time I visit, our time together is special.

And I will not feel guilty because she’s already forgotten the memories from moments ago, last week, my childhood.

I am a mother to my mother and I love her unconditionally. For us, every day is Mother’s Day. 

Heaven Can Wait

“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”

We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.

She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.

Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.

I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.

I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.

And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.

Lost Rites

Childhood Christmas traditions were as quirky as my family: cans of soup in our stockings, regifting used candles, gift tags that rhymed.

Today, in lockstep with Alzheimers’ relentless march, my mother enjoys simple Christmas traditions. Gingerbread and eggnog. Cards and carols.

On the way to church this morning, we sang along to Rudolph and Silent Night. She knew all the words.

Yet, as I’ve learned in dementia caregiving, memories are excruciatingly arbitrary.

“We MUST get a Christmas tree!” she declared, over coffee and donuts after church. We’d already put one up weeks ago and although she didn’t recognize any of the ornaments from past family Christmases, it’s a comforting symbol of the season.

When we returned to her care home, she noticed the little tree, tinsel twinkling amidst tiny white lights. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” she said. “Is it Christmas already?”