Even in some outlandishly manipulated Florida outdoor environment – dig the lights strung around the palm trees – my mother is able to maintain a wry detachment. I am in this place, whatever this place is, but I am not of it.
My father died in early 1998, after suffering for several years from a cancer so rare there really haven't been enough studies to indicate what a useful treatment – beyond good old-fashioned surgical removal – might be. (At Bethesda Naval Hospital, they offered to make him a guinea pig for a chemotherapy they were developing. Have you tried this on his cancer?, I asked. Well, no, they admitted. Is there any reason you think it might work? Not really...) His death was drawn-out, painful. It was hard to be there.
What killed my mother – Alzheimer's – was rather more garden-variety, the sort of thing that will eventually touch everyone you know, at some remove or another: your parent may have it, your partner may have it, your best friend may have it, you may have it yourself – someone you know will have it. Susan's mother, around whom she's woven the haunting trails of her Dementia Blog, has just died from its effects.
The hardest part of the past three weeks has been the constant effort to remember my mother as she was before the disease took her away: not killed her, but sapped her short- and then long-term memory, stripped away the markers of her personality. In some ways, I've been mourning my mother for over a year now, as she rapidly slipped away into the final stages of her illness.
What I found most heartening at the funeral ceremony was not the religious trimmings, nor the canned a capella hymns, nor even the poems my daughters wrote for the occasion. It was when first my cousin T--- and then the minister read poems my mother had written: a poem she'd written in high school on the demise of the old family farm, the replacement of the icebox by a "new Frigidaire," the banjo and fiddle by a "newfangled radio"; a shout-out to the "angels of mercy" who worked at her assisted living facility; a poem about an army wife awaiting her husband's return from the First Gulf War. She loved to write poems, I remind myself. She loved language itself, sharp-edged phrases, slightly smutty verbalisms she'd only share with some of the friends in her Ladies' Bible Class.
My mother's closest sister, like her a lifelong school teacher, is also suffering from dementia. She sits there and does the multiplication tables aloud, my cousin tells me. She sings church songs – every single verse – and she corrects the nurses' grammar. Mom wouldn't correct anyone's grammar – to their face; but she wouldn't hesitate to tell me or my father if someone didn't know the difference between "lie" and "lay." Once a particularly gruff and opinionated in-law of mine volunteered to her, apropos of nothing much in the conversation, Well, I'm an atheist myself. She said nothing at the time. But later: So he thinks he's smarter than God?
That's how I'm trying to remember my mother.