One Year Ago

Mom died a year ago today.  It seems like a lifetime ago.

I guess there is one distinct advantage to watching someone succumb to the ravages of dementia - with that prolonged goodbye, you become accustomed to thinking of them as being gone long before they draw their last breath.  When the end finally comes, it's anticlimactic.  There is no sudden crushing sense of loss; you lost them years ago.  There is no overwhelming feeling of sadness and despair; there is only relief.

I have tried to remember my mother BEFORE, but there isn't much to draw upon; I can't seem to recall a single occasion where she was full of life - not one.  It's as if the bad years have eclipsed all the good years that preceded them.  I'm sure there must have been times when she was altogether there; maybe when I was a teenager - certainly when I was a little girl.  Perhaps as time passes, memories of the never-ending ending will fade and memories of  'the time before' will resurface. I hope so.  It hasn't happened yet.

Mom's disappearance occurred over a period of almost thirty years.  It started with her hearing loss and gradually, insidiously, progressed from there.  Dementia stole her away bit by bit and I didn't even know it was happening.  She had always been quirky, so nothing she said or did which seemed a little 'off ' was cause for alarm.  I saw her withdrawing from life and thought it was because she couldn't hear; then I thought it was because she preferred it that way, and then... I simply got used to it.

Vascular dementia is preventable.  If I'd known what was going on all those years - if I'd been more observant, I could have done something.  I should have done something.  How is it possible my mother suffered a series of small strokes over the course of three decades and I didn't notice?  The only defense I can offer is that her deafness, her quirkiness, and her reserved demeanor masked what was happening; which  I realize is just another way of saying I ignored her.  I didn't do it intentionally, of course - but that only makes it worse.  I wasn't even aware I was ignoring her.

I'm ashamed when I look back on it and see how easily it evolved.  When she was present, she wasn't all that present.  When she wasn't present, it wasn't all that different.  She became the figure in the other room:
   "Where's Mom?"
   "She's in the basement going through the old photos."
   "Where's Mom?"
   "She's in the kitchen reading the paper."
   "Where's Mom?"
   "She's upstairs somewhere."
   "Where's Mom?"
   "She's out in back."
I quickly (far too quickly, in hindsight) became accustomed to her absence.

I would seek her out to say hello, but our interaction was brief.  Our conversations weren't really conversations at all; they were one or two word exchanges.  I assumed she was preoccupied.  I assumed she was disinterested.  To be perfectly honest, I assumed she didn't like me all that much.  As the years and decades passed, there was a tremendous void - and I grew to accept it. We missed the mother/daughter bond every child yearns for, no matter how old the child.

Now that I know what she was up against, I understand  how hard it must have been for her to communicate.  The hearing barrier was only part of it; she had so much more to contend with... it was just too much.  I wonder why I was so self-absorbed and childish that I didn't try harder to talk to her.  I wonder if it would have made any difference if I had.  I wonder if, deep inside, her heart was aching for a connection.  I know mine was.

Ironically, the closest I ever felt to Mom came after she suffered a major stroke and I helped take care of her.  During the day, I was more of a nurse than a daughter, but at night when I finally got her to bed it was different.  She actually smiled at me. Never mind the fact that 30 minutes earlier she had been hitting and kicking me because she didn't want her diaper changed, and 30 minutes before that she had tried to bite my arm when I put her toothbrush away.  Her smile erased all that.  I tucked her in, turned off the lights, kissed her goodnight and stroked her hair - sometimes for an hour or more.  That's when it happened: she smiled and closed her eyes.  I waited for her to fall asleep so I could see the worry lines on her face disappear.  It was the only time all day she didn't look confused, distressed and angry.  It was worth waiting for.  

I was struck by how she must have struggled with her thoughts every waking moment.  She grew increasingly uncomfortable in her own home - the home she'd lived in for 44 years.  She knew something was wrong, but she didn't know what it was.  It's as though she thought she should be somewhere else - as though she was was trapped in a scary, unfamiliar place and couldn't escape.  She never understood it was her mind, not her surroundings, which had betrayed her and caused her torment.  As the weeks passed, her frustration and anxiety grew, but the normalcy she sought was unattainable.  She would never again know the luxury of feeling at peace.

When my sisters and I gathered around Mom's bed in the last hours of her life, I was thinking, "Go, go, go, go, go, go.  Be free.  GO!  GO!!"   Then, when she was gone, I expected to feel...  more.  More sadness or more relief...  more something.   Maybe I was numb.  Maybe I was just used up.  Maybe the death of her body was insignificant compared to the death of HER.  We'd already been grieving that loss for years.

I foolishly thought once Mom was finally at peace, I'd be at peace.  I was wrong. Whenever I think of my mother, I am filled with sorrow.  I'm sorry for her suffering.  I'm sorry she lost her beloved music.  I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention to her.  I'm sorry for her tormented and agonizingly slow death.  Most of all, I'm sorry I can't remember her joy.

Mom died a year ago today.  It seems like a lifetime ago.

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