My mother died on July 4 last year, so I am completing a year of firsts—the first Thanksgiving without her, the first Christmas, her birthday in early March, St. Patrick’s Day (a big holiday for her), Easter, Mother’s Day, and now the anniversary of her death.
In many ways, I lost her several years ago, because of the long, slow deterioration that Alzheimer’s causes. When I sent her cards and phoned her on holidays and other occasions after her diagnosis, we didn’t really communicate. She didn’t write back to me. She didn’t speak well on the phone, making our conversations very brief. So the firsts this past year often have not felt like firsts—just more of the same, but with less effort on my part.
For the past several years, the only times I felt we communicated were when I visited in person. Even then, she didn’t talk much. And once she moved into assisted living, we had only an hour or two a day together when my father and I went to her facility, usually over breakfast.
On one visit about a year before she died, I sat with her after breakfast in a lovely sun room in her facility overlooking a bay on Puget Sound. She stared at me.
I remembered my mother’s stares well from childhood, when she glared as she chastised me. That morning in the sun room, I was uncomfortable with her hawk-like gaze fixed on me, just as I had been when I was five.
“What are you looking at?” I asked her.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she said.
I laughed. “You won’t lose me,” I said. “I’m right here.”
She kept staring.
Later I wondered whether she knew she was losing her memories, one by one, and was trying to imprint my image on her brain so she would remember who I was. (I think she knew me all the way through my last visit to see her just a few weeks before she died.)
With her death, of course, we have lost each other, at least for the time being, even if the “firsts” have not always hit home with me.
But through this past year, I have found my mother as well. Her laughter has sounded in my head like I hadn’t heard it in years, and I have felt her contentment, her freedom from Alzheimer’s.
I’ve read what she wrote in my baby book and those of my siblings. What she wrote seemed silly to me—she filled out my baby book from the point of view of me as a baby:
“. . . my very special pleasure was to laugh and ‘talk’ to the bunny rabbits on my bedroom curtains. Mummy named them for me: the yellow bunnies were ‘Sunny Bunny’, the pink were “Honey Bunny”, and the blue were “Funny Bunny”—but I was the fourth bunny—“Boom Boom Bunny”.
But then, she was just 23 when I was born, and still 24 when she had her second child, so I suppose she was entitled to be silly.
My youngest brother told me our mother used to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” with him when he was a preschooler. I never knew that—or had forgotten, and I was glad to know she still had some silly left in her when he came along in her mid-thirties. My memories of her in those years were of the glaring disciplinarian, so I found her silliness again through my brother’s story.
I have also found her this past year in the travel journals she kept and in the paper she wrote on Eleanor of Aquitaine for her Questers group. I found her in notes she left in books. I found her in sympathy cards from her friends after her death, in which they wrote about how much they always loved getting her letters. I found her also in the stories my father told between her death and his, and in the many pictures of both my parents that I pulled together for first her funeral and then his.
So this year, a year of loss, has also been a year of recovery. As will be the next year and the next. I imagine I will feel both loss and recovery for many years to come. If some friends are correct, perhaps for the rest of my life.
How have you recovered from the losses in your life?