As my mother emerged from her bedroom, she wore an expression I hadn’t seen on her before — panic. She has struggled with anxiety her whole life but right at this moment I could see that what was behind her eyes was raw, animal, adrenaline-fueled fear. She walked especially haltingly, her caregiver Nette by her side, supporting her extremely shaky, stiff gait. Sitting at the kitchen table trying to keep up a conversation with my father (he nods off so much I have to work very hard to keep his attention), I suddenly was worried about her falling, and moved quickly to her. But there was nothing to support, she was leaning against the side of the loveseat and Nette, as short as my rapidly shrinking mother, but young, wiry and strong, had her solidly on the other. I just looked into my mother’s eyes.
It wasn’t like a few visits ago, when she didn’t know me. It’s subtle but not so subtle, I know the difference between general disorientation or anxiety and not recognizing me. But she couldn’t find the words. To call it problems with word retrieval would be a big understatement. It was like her mouth didn’t work, like she had had a stroke.
“I don’t….I argghhh…….ah….”
Now I was the one who felt panic rise up, but I quickly quelled it, I had no choice.
“Mom, let’s sit down here.”
I motioned to the loveseat. All she needed to do was take a couple of steps toward me and then a couple to her right and lower herself onto the small couch in their kitchen. I motioned to show her what she should do, I kind of gently pulled her in the right direction, but she was frozen, and still so, so scared. I tried to relax and find humor, and faked a gentle teasing tone.
“Mom, you look like we just asked you to jump out of a plane, we just want you to take a couple of steps and sit down.”
The change in my voice seemed to help a tiny bit, her face softened very slightly, but she still couldn’t seem to understand. And still wore a look of terror.
“Ok, Mom, watch me.”
I took a few steps over, sat down on the couch in the spot next to where we wanted her to sit, and patted that spot.
“See, I am sitting here, come sit next to me. Let Nette help you.”
She moved her gaze from me to Nette, and when she looked at her it was with a slight surprise, as if she hadn’t expected to see her standing right next to her, supporting her on that side. But it passed.
Nette, ever so gently, cooed at her as she helped her move the last little shuffle.
“It’s ok, Jill, you are fine, you’re just going to sit here with Laurie.”
It seemed to help my mom to have me as a target so I stayed where I was, propping up a pillow for her and smiling a big, put on smile. Thirty seconds later, Nette and I helped lower her (so tiny now, it seems as if she has lost fifteen pounds just in the past couple of months) next to me. As soon as she “landed” I put my hand on hers. While still showing signs of nervousness, she relaxed, then took me in, looked over at my father, the kitchen, her surroundings. I looked up at Nette.
“Has this been happening….?”
“She seems to need more and more time to move from being asleep (she had been napping) to waking up, but when she heard your voice in the kitchen she started wanting to rush, it’s like her brain was going so fast but she couldn’t….”
“I’m fine now. Can we get a cup of tea?”
It was her usual, polite tone, and my mom looked, well, almost normal. I can’t say she ever looks normal to me anymore, she has aged so suddenly recently that I look at pictures taken of her only a year ago and she looks like another person. But her expression, it was like my mother was back. We sat quietly for a moment while Nette put on the kettle. I pulled the TV tray over that we keep nearby and placed it in front of us. We both relaxed, and she called out to my Dad, who was seven feet away at the table.
“How are you?”
He took a moment, but came out with, “I am fine.”
I reached over and patted her arm, her paper thin skin so loose and soft, her arms and legs horribly discolored and mottled with bruises and, and had a narcissistic thought. Wow, I sure hope my skin doesn’t ever get this bad. Need to ask my dermatologist about that.
“I’m glad you still like your cup of tea.”
My mom smiled at me, there was almost a small laugh in there, somewhere.
Too weak at this moment to hold her head up, she laid it back on the couch cushion and tilted it to me. I felt like she had something she wanted to say.
“How are you, Mom? Are you in pain?”
“No, I am just very tired….I think maybe…maybe I have reached the end of the road.”
I attempted to stay with her on this, to make her feel heard. I am beginning to put together that she did not get enough of that in her life.
“And how does that feel?”
“It feels okay. I am grateful for my wonderful children and… for their children. And for… Amy (Chris’ wife) and… Mitchell. I am happy you are…..”
There was such a long pause I started to wonder what on earth she was going to say.
I agreed. Yes, it’s nice that things worked out that I lived close enough to come by. And she mentioned she liked knowing she could have a caregiver place a call and she could phone Chris or me at any time (although this happens very rarely these days). My mom, much calmer now, watched Nette pour milk into her tea and I went into their living room, to check on a leak in the ceiling that had been an issue for a couple of weeks. While there I came across a framed picture of my mother, taken over forty years ago and unfortunately displayed in so many sunny places over time (my parents never seemed to understand the concept of keeping pictures and art out of direct sunlight) that it was quite faded.
I brought it over and put it on the table.
“I have an idea.”
So, I am not a visual, artsy kind of person, not a good photographer, could never draw or paint. But to my parents at this moment, I was going to pull off a magic act. I carefully removed the photo from the glass frame, and then, after a few tries, I scanned it with my phone. I had aroused their curiousity.
“What are you doing?”
Even my dad had been pulled in.
As my mom drank her tea and my dad “read” the paper, (he holds it up in front of himself for ten minutes at a time, it reminds me of my oldest daughter when she was two years old, propping up books, telling me she was “reading” them) I worked at improving the photograph, bringing it back to at least close to what it had been. As I sharpened it, or added contrast or darkness or color, the moment the picture was taken came right back at me in an almost spooky whoosh. My mother was 42, it was a lovely mid summer day, my high school boyfriend had come over with a new camera and we had spent time in our yard, him taking pictures mostly of me, both casual and posed. Camera shy (is that even a thing anymore?), I had felt awkward and strange until he started making me laugh and I had ended up enjoying myself. Since he still had some shots left on his roll, he suggested taking some pictures of the whole family, including Chris. It ended up being one of the last pictures taken where he is shorter than me. I think it was a weekend and we were all outside. A few years later, when a play of my dad’s got published in hardcover, he chose an image of himself for the book jacket from that day. My mom had initially declined, saying her hair was a mess (true) and she didn’t have on any makeup, but we convinced her. While I brought back this image of her on my phone screen, I remembered and really took her in. She was at an age when you could still see the girl in the woman’s face, and her expression showed an authentically relaxed and happy moment. I started to get excited.
“Mom, look at you!”
I brought it over and showed it to her. She stared at it a long time.
“Oh, my goodness….I’m pretty.”
She said this with a matter of fact candor that both surprised and delighted me. My mother was a lovely woman and could not have been unaware of this fact, she was an actress, she starred in plays and television shows, she undoubtedly was told she was attractive. But for various reasons I don’t think she ever enjoyed her looks, and it would have been unseemly of her to talk about such things.
“You are such a natural beauty. Do you remember who took the picture?”
“It was your boyfriend from school….right?”
I was shocked. I had NOT expected her to remember.
“I was very fond of him.”
I nodded. She kept looking at the photo on the screen.
“Can we, can you make a new picture?”
I promised that, yes, I would be able to get a print of the improved version.
“I would like to send it to Mom and Dad.”
“My mom and dad.”
My father often thinks his parents are alive but my mother had previously never made this mistake and it caught me up short. However, although it has taken me a while, I have learned.
“Sure, yes, that would be nice.”
My mom passed the phone back to me. I couldn’t stop staring at this image of her, I immediately sent it to Chris, his daughters, my daughters. We all saw family resemblances, but more than anything it was a reminder that there was a time when she was relaxed and happy, it wasn’t fake. For my kids and nieces I think it also perhaps told them a somewhat new story about their grandmother, that she had once been quite different, and the generosity and warmth that they had sensed when they were young was rooted in this happier past. The last quarter of her life has been so painful in so many ways for all of us but here there was proof that there had been a different time. I believe my mother saw it, too, and it made her feel better. If she was coming to, as she put it, the end of the road, it was reassuring to be able to look back at this summer weekend in 1972, an unremarkable but very sweet moment somewhere in the middle.