I lie next to my 84 year old mother, my strong sun-browned body facing her frail white one. She takes up so little space now. When I am with her, I am usually the mother, holding and caressing her like a sick child. Mom and I became comfortable with physical intimacy after she was institutionalized with Alzheimer’s three years ago. For most of my life, she kept an emotional distance, but dementia, for all the suffering it inflicted, changed that.
After a month in intensive care with complications from a bleeding ulcer, Mom was released to this skilled nursing facility in Rochester, NY. She rarely speaks other than screaming “No.” She can’t stand up and doesn’t seem to know who I am. She is terrified of her caretakers and bites the aides. Somehow she still trusts me.
“Lie next to me,” she asks in a whisper of a voice, patting the bed with a slow hand. Surprised, I climb over the rails.
I am her child again, filled with odd anticipation. Our breath warms each other’s faces. My head shares her pillow and her limp arm drapes over my waist. Despite all reason, I feel protected by her, cradled by the raised metal bars and the thin white curtain drawn around us. We float together in the shifting, watery space where her mind dwells, somewhere close to dream. Ever so quietly and ever so slowly, she speaks.
“I’m glad you don’t have to spend more time with me than you do. You spend too much now. If I lie quietly, I feel all right.”
We’re somewhere I haven’t been with my mother in years. She speaks in lucid sentences, rather than her usual disconnected ramblings. Her voice comes again, like a distant oracle.
“What a nice girl you are, Lainie. I wish you could have heard what your dad said about you. You’re such a good girl. I think you’re going to be successful, and it will turn out well and be worth all the effort. I’m not young anymore, and I can’t live forever. I want you to have as much happiness as you can.”
She closes her eyes as I lightly stroke her bony hip. Her blessing softens my chest. I breathe deeply.
“Now you’re just like a feather on me,” she says, her voice a distant murmur. “It’s like a feather. I feel like a real mother to you and that’s because I am. I’ll always remember how lucky I am that everything worked out. It could have been the other way—that nothing worked out.”
She’s right. We are lucky. After manyyears of repeated attempts to build a strong connection, we rest together in that mysterious union reserved for mothers and daughters, a place where the boundary between us is thin and passable.
“I love you very much, honey,” she says tenderly, her ancient voice resonating in her belly. “I would give you my arms if it would help you.” My tears soak both of us as I kiss her soft mouth.
“I don’t need your arms, Mom, I have my own.”
“I’m a lucky woman,” she says, smiling up at me. “It’s important to have someone you trust and love. We’ll talk about how much we love each other.” She is silent for a few minutes and then whispers, “Please, I want to go to sleep now.”
I carefully climb over the bars, tuck the blankets around her, and turn out the light. Once again, I am her mother, and she is my child.
“I’m leaving now, Mom. I’m glad you’re happy.”
“I am happy, Lainie,” she murmurs. “I love you so much. I won’t ever forget this night.”
Have you had surprising interactions with an elderly parent? Has someone you loved had Alzheimer’s Disease? Dancing with My Mother’s Death tells the story of my mother’s death in 2007 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for twelve years. Death without Hospice, Life with Hospice gives more background about my mother and Alzheimer’s Disease. For excellent information and poignant stories about dealing with dementia, visit Ann Napoletan’s website The Long and Winding Row: An Alzheimer’s Journey and Beyond. (I’ve added more photos and made a few changes to this article that was first written in Feb. 2013.)