“I knew Alzheimer’s would make her forget, but I wasn’t prepared for this argument about who I am.”
2008, still / Year Six
A week later my mom asks me, “How do you know I’m your mother?” I show her another family picture, a different one than yesterday. Mom and Dad are in the center, eight children gathered around.
I say, “Do you know who these people are?”
She goes right for my brothers. “Joey and David are my sons. They were always good boys.”
“Who are the others?”
“Well,” she says, “I don’t have to name them.”
“These are all of your daughters.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I point at each one and say her name. “And this is me—Patti. You’re my mother.” I point at her in the picture.
“Are you sure?”
She asks, “How do you know?”
“Because you gave birth to me and raised me and you’ve always been my mother.” I’m so frustrated today that I can’t wait to make my exit. I knew Alzheimer’s would make her forget, but I wasn’t prepared for this argument about who I am.
She says, “I thought we were related, but I didn’t think I was your mother. I thought you belonged to Joey or someone.” I cringe. Why is it so important to me right now? Maybe I’m just miffed that I visit each day, but she still knows my brothers.
I hug her and tell her I have to go. “Do you wanna stay overnight?” she asks me. She may not know who I am, but she wants me near her. “Not tonight,” I say gently.
On my way out the door she calls to me, “Tomorrow you’ll have to convince me better than that.” Her tone is almost snide.
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
My dad’s watering his flowers on the patio. “Think about what?” he asks me.
“Better ways to convince her that she really is my mother.”
He shakes his head and keeps watering.
The next day my mom asks me, “Are your parents still alive?”
I laugh. “Yeah, you’re my mom.”
She looks at me for a long time. “Well, I could be,” she says finally. “Do you need one? Mark me down.”
I put on her Glenn Miller CD in the kitchen. She sings along. I realize that today she knows all of the words to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” but she can’t name any of her eight children.
“In the Mood” comes on, and she asks me the name of the song. I tell her. “You know all these songs?” she asks me. We’ve listened to this CD at least thirty times in the past few weeks. I nod.
“Boy,” she says, “you’re smart.”
Another day she says to me, “You’re such a nice girl, I should adopt you.”
“It’s your lucky day,” I say. “I am your daughter.”
“Sooo, I adopted you already?” I pause, consider all of the ways this conversation could go down. I choose the easiest. “Yes, you did adopt me already,” I say.
“Lucky me,” she says.
My mom is in the bathroom, and I’m standing in the livingroom within earshot, giving her some space to do her business. Soon I will reappear and ask, “Did you remember to wipe?”
My dad says, “I had to wrestle her pants off her last night.”
“Seriously?” I say. “You really wrestled them off?”
“I got her down on the bed and I got her pants off just to get her pajamas on.”
I’m more horrified than I let on.
“She can sleep in her clothes,” I say. “No problem. She doesn’t have to put her pajamas on. It really doesn’t matter.”
“She said she was going to divorce me.”
I nod. I can’t imagine how frightening this was for my mom, how frustrating for my dad. By morning she wouldn’t have remembered, but he is still troubled by it.
My mother splashes in the bath tub. She tells me, “We were always happy on the farm.” I know enough of her family history to wonder how she could have been. Both parents dead by the time she was ten, raised by her siblings in the middle of the Depression, never enough of anything. Now as she slips further and further away from us, back into her childhood, she may never call out for her mother, but perhaps for an older sister. Today she asks me, “Do you know when Helen’s coming home?” Her sister, Helen, was a few years older than my mom, a beauty in the black and white photos we have.
“Later tonight,” I lie. “After her date.”
Somehow I’ve learned to play along. I’m a writer after all.
“Oh Helen always had a lot of dates. But I had curly hair. I had a lot of boyfriends because of my curly hair.”
One night I visit after supper, and my mom says quietly, “Don’t tell that boy who cooked for me that the meat was tough.”
She nods toward the kitchen where my dad is doing their supper dishes.
“Don’t tell him. Don’t let him hear us.”
“Okay,” I say.
We’re sitting on the couch, side by side, our legs touching. I’ve got my arm around her shoulders, her family picture album between us. “Who is that again?” I ask. We do this nearly each day that I visit.
She knows all of these faces from seventy years ago, but she’s not sure about who I am anymore. Some days I quiz her, What’s my name?
Sometimes she says, “If you don’t know I’m not going to tell you.” Or, “Patti, I’m not crazy yet.” Tonight I don’t ask.
As I turn the photo album page she says, “You could stay here with me and make it fun.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how it is: you can’t visit someone’s house for a long time. It gets boring. There’s no one to play with at this house.”
I finally get to see my mother young—a child even, depending on the day. Later my dad will tell me that when she was getting dressed this morning she closed the door to their bedroom and said, “No boys allowed.”
I spent weeks trying to convince my mom that I’m her daughter. Maybe it was just exhaustion on my part, but finally I realize it really doesn’t matter if she knows who I am.
Today my mom says, “It’s a miracle.”
“That I found out you’re my daughter.”
I want to cheer, but I let her talk. She says, “How long have you known?”
“My whole life,” I say.
“And what a miracle that we met here, and you’re taking care of me.”
I never know where “here” is in my mother’s mind. Sometimes she thinks she’s in a hospital. Sometimes an apartment she rented with my dad when they first married. Here is never 617 Harding Street, the house she’s owned and lived in since 1955, the place we’re desperately trying to keep her. “Here” is never home.