My mom is a hoot. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the South, or for some other reason don’t know what that means, it means she’s funny. She’s one of those people you just like immediately. Kind, sweet, and loving. I’m blessed that I get to be her daughter.
She grew up in San Antonio, Texas. She went to Baylor University, majored in Home Economics, got married and had 3 kids by the time she was 25. She was a stay-at-home mom, sewed clothes for me and my sister (much to our chagrin – rickrack was in fashion then), made lots of green bean casseroles, and made sure we were in church 3 times a week. That’s Baptists for you – Wednesday nights and twice on Sundays. She wasn’t June Cleaver (I don’t ever remember her wearing pearls when I got home from school), but she wasn’t Mommy Dearest either. Although on occasion I recall her eyebrows being a bit too Joan Crawford.
She was a fun mom, and taught us how to laugh by sitting us down to a “tea party” (we all had Coke) during I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Smart ploy so she could watch her favorite shows with 2 little girls in the house. She put sweet notes in our lunch boxes, and didn’t complain too much that time my sister and I used salt instead of sugar when we made brownies for her. She just made a horrible face, spit it out and laughed. We still laugh about that, even now.
She was the baby of her family, and was adored by her parents and 2 brothers (at least that’s her story)– who were 7 and 14 years older than her. She was given the name Mary Jean, but promptly dropped the “Mary” part when she went to college. Yeah, she was wild like that.
Her father was the first person I ever knew to have dementia. When I was in elementary school, my sister and I went on a walk with him around the block. He wanted to keep walking, and even though he was “senile,” my grandmother figured it’d be ok for him to go again by himself. He didn’t come home. Hours later, after putting out an all-points bulletin and making announcements on the radio (this was in the 60s, folks…no cell phones, Silver Alerts or GPS bracelets), some guy saw him walking down the freeway miles from our neighborhood. The police brought him back to our house later. We have no idea how he got that far, and he sure couldn’t tell us.
That was my initiation into what Alzheimer’s can do to a family. Terror, panic, guilt, frustration, anger and tears from a grandmother I had never seen cry before. Then my mom’s brother, the younger one, got dementia. He went from being a surgeon to being someone who couldn’t use a fork in a very short period of time. My mom was horrified, and made me promise I’d kill her if she ever got that way. She wasn’t kidding.
Then she got it. We saw it coming, although we understand it more in hindsight now than we did at the time. We figured the personality changes – that incredible anxiety and paranoia – were more signs of normal aging or of the times (9/11 and all). Then she forgot a really important 30 minutes conversation we had – heck, she forgot we talked at all. I was out of town on a crucial business trip, and Mom was all over me to call her the minute my big meeting was done so I could tell her what happened. I did as I was told. But the next day my sister said mom called and was really upset that I hadn’t called her.
That’s the moment all of the other incidents came into focus. That’s the moment I knew there’d be no more luxury of denial: mom had dementia.
One year and 1000 heartaches later, she was in a memory care unit. Today, she knows who we are and recognizes our voices on the phone. She’s quit watching I Love Lucy (inexplicably, she doesn’t like it anymore), but loves The Andy Griffith Show. Barney makes her laugh more than anything or anybody.
Two days ago I called her right before her bedtime – a time I never call because I know she’s worse that late in the day, but it’s the only time I could talk. She rambled on about things that didn’t make sense, about appointments that didn’t exist, and combined words into sentences that didn’t quite work. Then she apologized for being so “groggy” on the phone. I count those kinds of moments as cognitive miracles.
But she was still Mom. Still sweet, loving, and kind. She still ended the call by telling me “I love you, darling” (in a drawl that would’ve made John Wayne proud). And that’s all that matters, right? I’m still incredibly grateful to be her daughter, dementia and all.