Mama’s memory is on the decline. Of course memory loss is gradual for all of us, but in old age it seems to drop, plateau, repeat. Over the past five years in close proximity with her, at first I noticed it occasionally and in tiny ways. Then more often. Then occasionally Rebecca or I would say, “Wow, she didn’t remember that?” Then there were more of those episodes.
I was frustrated with her over those small evidences. I knew that was unfair, and though it was frustrating to me it was probably terrifying to her. I wish she could have talked about how it felt to forget, but she was—and is—in denial. She blames the inconsistency on her daughters and caregivers.
While she has confused something in her long term memory with something related that just happened (e.g. confusing a recent hospitalization with a long ago one), or forgotten something I told her the day before, forgetting new information repeatedly over a short period of time is on the uptick.
“Did you bring my windbreaker?” she asked me on Sunday.
“No, I didn’t know you wanted me to,” I said.
“I asked you to and you said you couldn’t find it,” she said, sounding sure of her facts about a conversation we didn’t have.
“It’s in the closet and I will bring it next time I come,” I said.
Rebecca visited later in the day and Mama told her she didn’t know where her windbreaker was: “It might be in Gretchen’s car,” she said. When her caregiver arrived Monday morning, planning to bring her up to the house, Mama said, “I can’t find my windbreaker.” When they arrived, Michelle spotted the windbreaker by the door—where I had put it so I would remember to deliver it—and told Mama it was there. “Oh!” Mama said, “I thought it was lost!”
As it becomes more obviously the brain decline it always was, it becomes somewhat easier to deal with it. For so long it seemed like stubbornness, and I kept trying to fix it, sure that she wanted the “right” information. But she wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening.
It’s still hard, the accusation is hard, her inability to understand and trust others to help her get it right is hard. But I’m more able to see it as a fascinating window into how the brain works, or more to the point, how it stops working.
I’m reading a memoir called “Marrow,” by Elizabeth Lesser. It’s about two sisters, one of whom has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant. One of her sisters, the author, is a perfect donor match. The sick sister knows she is dying, and between now and then life in treatment will be hell. She doesn’t know what to hope for, or what hope even is. The author says this:
“Hope is trusting the mystery.”
Growing old is mystery embodied. We cannot possibly know how it’s going to go for us or those we love. When a fall will break a hip is mystery, or if these fragile bones be strong in spite of age. If the bowels will block, if infection will defy antibiotics, if cancer will invade is all mystery. When the brain will go is mystery, and how far gone it will go. When the heart will stop beating is mystery, and if a clot will attack it or if it will just stop.
What do we hope for? My mother hopes to keep her body healthy “as long as I have to be alive,” and to that end she has gone from doctor to doctor, seemingly looking for answers and miracle cures to all that ails her. Surely if she goes to this or that eye specialist one more time there will be something that will prevent the loss of vision that has been in her DNA for a lifetime. “You aren’t ever going to be blind,” her macular degeneration specialist told her, rather impatiently, I thought—before revealing that he was retiring because he had leukemia. He would have been right if part of her mystery hadn’t been that she would still be alive at 101. She also hopes she will die soon, but in her determination to be healthy she denies the intrusion of anything that might hasten death.
She’s big on hope—though I think she sees it as control, not hopefulness—and low on trust. Certainly low on trusting mystery. I’m not sure how one “learns” to trust mystery, or if it can be learned, but I’m going to try to be more mindful of the mystery of my own life. More mindful of mystery in my observation of my mother. As she dives deeper into loss of brain function, perhaps seeing it as mystery will help me be more patient with her.
Elizabeth Lesser also defines prayer as mystery. I have for some time been a prayer skeptic. What do we pray for? That a higher being will save my loved one from disease or natural disaster, even while taking another’s life? That rain will fall on my crops, even though my neighbor prays for sunshine? That my team will win, my candidate? And does God, or whomever, even control these things? No, I think not. So why do we pray, and for what?
Something else I heard recently—I forget where—said prayer is simply wishing. This is what I want; expecting I will get it, or that it is even grantable, is not part of the wishing any more than is blowing out birthday candles. But, like Elizabeth Lesser’s sister, we don’t always know what to wish for, what to hope for. Lesser says:
“Prayer is relaxing into the mystery.”
Yes. I can get my head around that. That is what I wish for, what I pray for: to be able to relax into what I cannot control, to trust it rather than fight it, to deal with what comes as it comes.
My mother is not able to relax into trust, but if I start being mindful of that now, perhaps deep down my soul will retain it when I am no longer able to direct my living.
And now I am off to take her to the doctor, to whom she will tell the age old stories of her ailments. Maybe this time…